Before Mom died in 2004, she and my dad lived in a beach house on the west end of Galveston Island. Afterward, Dad moved to Dallas, but the beach house stayed in the family, and a number of our collective belongings remain there—including Mom’s books.
Among them are many volumes I know she read: Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, Kathleen Norris’s Cloister Walk, and Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, to name a few. Others, I know she never cracked; they’re too pristine, lacking the warps and creases of beach-combed books.
Still others I know she only partly read. I know this because of the bookmarks she left in them.
Some of these bookmarks are of the Hallmark variety, with colored tassels and wacky sayings such as “Reading is Forever!” Others come from her travels with Dad (the Moby Dickens Bookshop in Taos) or her devotional life (“Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!”). Still others are faded dry-cleaning receipts or rumpled grocery lists.
The pounding rain was the least of our problems, though we didn’t know it at the time. My son and I were traveling home to Austin after a week on the coast. I gripped the wheel and squinted into the watery I-10 corridor as Gabe pretended to read. Some cars poked along with us. Others bullied their way by in a hair-raising blur.
As we approached Katy, just west of Houston, the rain let up. I could breathe again. Tentatively, I accelerated. Buildings emerged from the mist. Gabe began to read for real. I moved back into the fast lane. Everything would be fine!
If you secretly (or not so secretly) enjoy Ash Wednesday as much as I do, you’re probably very familiar with its central chorus: Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return. But have you ever given the logic of this line any thought? If so, you may have realized that it makes no sense at all—which is exactly what makes it so compelling.
For starters, check out the verb tenses: You are dust, and to dust you shall return. This admixture of present and future tense confounds our understanding of both time and identity. If we are something—dust, Girl Scouts, conspiracy theorists, vegetarians—how can we “return” to being that thing? We already are it. We don’t need to circle back to it in the future.
In an earlier blog post, I complained about the happy-ending, “fairy-tale” aspects of the parable of the prodigal son. Homecomings, I reflected, are rarely as rosy as all that.
But in the parable’s finale, when the resentful brother complains about the party, we feel right at home. Not only do we sympathize with him, we are him. “No fair!” we grumble over our laptops and spreadsheets while others watch TV. “No fair!” we grouse when another family member gets his favorite meal—again. “No fair!” we seethe in our cubicle as a new hire moves into the corner office. “No fair!” we whisper when a loved one dies and so many, many others do not.
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