In the bank yesterday the teller offered me a cup of coffee and I heard myself say, "I don't really drink coffee anymore, but thank you."
And then for a moment I thought about that.
I mostly gave up coffee. Not because I think coffee is bad for you, but because I find tea to be a less harsh choice in the morning.
I cut off a whole bunch of my hair earlier this week.
I stopped drinking booze almost six years ago.
I no longer use a cell phone.
After years of joking about the gluten-free movement, I actually found that my body was having trouble processing wheat products, and so I had to adopt a gluten-free diet this winter.
I guess I never thought that as I grew older I would be subtracting rather than adding. Lightening the load, maybe.
Yesterday I went to church with my mother at noon, then I walked around all day with a dark smudge on my forehead. I loved it. For the first time in my life I understood the meaning of the ashes. I mean, I really understood it.
It felt so good to be alive and so good to make a very public declaration that I am going to die.
Am I slowly subtracting things from my life in preparation for death? Naturally, I don't think my dying time is imminent, but it could be. It will come — death does not depend on my willingness to be accepting of it. I am surrounded by death: I live in a house bounded on two sides by graveyards; I make visits to people in hospice care, sometimes four days a week. Right now I'm reading George Saunders' new book, Lincoln in the Bardo. It takes place over the course of one night, and almost all of the characters are dead.
To say I am intrigued by death would be be partly true. I would put it like this: I am looking forward to what I believe will be beautiful, expansive and light-filled, this thing we call death. My only regret is that I won't be able to write about it.
One of the very best children's books I know is called Cry Heart But Never Break. It is the story of four children and their dying grandmother. The children love her and so naturally they don't want her to die. When death comes, Death appears as a grandfatherly figure and is said to have "a heart as red as the most beautiful sunset [that] beats with a great love of life."
Even as we honor Ash Wednesday, a reminder that we will one day become dust, again, the sap is running wildly through the trees here in Vermont. The syrup makers are collecting it as fast as they can; everywhere you go there are sap houses with steam rising from the top. Life is flowing beneath our feet, up through the trees and being made into food to feed our hungry bodies.
I stopped at the Larson Farm to inquire about riding lessons on my way home yesterday. Coco and I are both hoping to get back on a horse this spring; she started riding when she was three and I learned when I was 15 and living in Kentucky. The farm was humming with life: a new barn is under construction and there were several pregnant ponies. A young woman was having trouble moving a large generator into the garage, so I helped her. It had quite a bit of grease on it and something broke on her end while we were moving it, but we got it where it was going.
"Do you need to wash your hands?" she asked.
"No, that's fine," I said, and wiped them on the grass.
"There's some still...on your forehead," she said, as I turned to leave.
It made me laugh. "It's Ash Wednesday, " I told her, "and I went to church."
And then I left, with some fresh Larson Farm butter and yogurt, with greasy hands and an ashy forehead, and a deep and great love of this magnificent life. Amen.