Ash Wednesday

I first wrote this for Ash Wednesday 2012 as a poem. Sharing it in slightly revised format this Ash Wednesday.

My winter hands are eternally cracked and dry; white sheaves of skin scraped thin by water, soap, towels, air. Paper cuts slice through the inners of my fingers; one slit bends into the crease of flesh and bone when I curl it. A mark of fading red splashes just below the loosened skin between right thumb and forefinger; the other night, I slid the pie out of the oven and knocked against the glass dish shot through with heat.

Winter or not, my hands always manage to find ways to crack open. Along with the rest of me.

Each morning, I slip a ring with the sign of the cross on my right forefinger. It is thick and silvery, and makes a sound if I tap it with my nail. The smallest of reminders, that hollow click, how metal might knock against wood, and a human being between the two. For over ten years now, my nails have etched and scratched its surface. Hands have clasped its strong silver shape as they've shaken mine, from England and Africa to home. I've certainly nicked it against many a kitchen counter, steering wheel, doorknob, who knows what else, more times than I can remember.

What is each scratch from? I'm so curious. What moment of my life etched itself into the sliver of silver carved with a cross?

It was an out-of-nowhere gift, the special kind that doesn't often come along. She gave it to me in the school newspaper classroom, two days before we graduated. We had classes together, but didn't run in the same crowd; friendly acquaintances, really. And she pulled out a box as we chatted, lives about to change, and said:

"They gave these to all the seniors at my church. I thought it might mean more to you than me."

How did I respond back then? Honored that someone I thought so cool would even think of me at all. Struck that when she thought of me, she saw a flicker of faith. There was another element too - or is it only now? - some unconscious wish that she had found a reason to slip it on her own finger.

I thanked her, and hugged her, and I've worn it ever since. We haven't seen each other in years, but I always carry gratitude for her. Did she know that day that she'd given me more than a thoughtful gift, but a daily habit, another sliver of self?

My favorite thing about the ring is the inward part that clasps my finger. After ten years, it is still smooth as water; no nail-knocks or scrapes from the world, from what my hands touch, no cracks from a cold wind or a hard heart. Free from scars. Free.