I observe two special days this week: My Health Anniversary and Ash Wednesday.
Both are arbitrary dates; Ash Wednesday is based on the moon's activity, and I mark my health anniversary on the day I got sick, because I can’t tell you when I got better. Just today I felt some residual weakness in my hands—one of my few lasting symptoms of nerve damage—and I accidentally dropped a glass bottle of dark purple soda all over the check-out aisle of the grocery store. At that moment, I very very much wanted to return to dust.
I now consider myself fully well, despite the occasional soda spillage fiasco, but I suppose we’re always somewhere in between health and sickness, as we are between death and birth.
One day this week orients me toward life and the other day orients me toward death, but both are reminders of the fragile between-ness. These days wrinkle my otherwise-smooth life. They hold a candle to what's been, what's here, and what will be...so that I have no choice but to look closer.
In addition to being arbitrary days on a calendar, both days are about arbitrariness itself: I don't understand why some people die early and others don’t; I can’t ever know why I got better and others didn’t. It makes no sense why I get to sit here on my yellow sofa and watch my cat lap water out of a colorful clay mug that was made by a friend I met in Chile, while others are watching their city attacked from out of a hospital window.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return” is a hot take in a world that says otherwise. While it’s fun to remind each that we are stardust when we're giving a pep talk to our friend who's asking for a promotion or a date, it's a lot less fun to be reminded and you’ll be dust again, any day now. In fact, we have dozens of industries designed precisely to distract us from this fact.
So, as the glorious Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote in a piece about Ash Wednesday, it’s actually very refreshing to hear someone tell you the truth for once. She says:
There’s no shame in the truth that our lives on earth will all end…It’s not depressing. What’s depressing is the desperation of trying to pretend otherwise. What’s depressing is to insist that I can free myself I just haven’t managed to pull it off yet.
Yes, tell me the truth already! We can't avoid sickness and pain and death, and trying to do so just makes us feel like we're not living correctly.
But then I read hopeless statements like “The world is a dumpster fire” and that doesn’t read true either. The world has always been an extremely painful place to live, and yet somehow it’s the same place that brings us Van Gogh's poppy fields and newborns and uprisings and unbelievable empathy.
I’m not giving up on the world so fast.
Avoiding sadness at all costs doesn’t feel truthful, and plunging into despair from a coffee shop doesn’t feel truthful either. Both actually feel like avoidance: The “Everything will be okay” messages completely obliterate 99% of the human experience, while “The world sucks” declarations ring equally as false when we put down our phones and see the eyes of someone we love across the table from us. Both of these statements ignore most of what happens in life: the in-between, the undefined, the fragile.
“Manifest a new job” dismisses the ache of disappointment, and “We’re living in a hell scape” ignores the gentleness of joy. Both extremes disconnect me from my fragile human body, which is freshly susceptible to horrors and sunbeams with every new day. I ache for someone to tell me the truth: to tell me how I feel so I can reflexively nod: That’s it.
I believe that artists and writers have been hired by the universe to tell the truth, so I look to them when I wonder what's going on, as I have since childhood.
As a kid, I constantly felt frustrated by the lack of truth-telling to children. I complained to my mom that I was sick of movies with happy endings, so she’d suggest sad ones and they still weren’t sad enough for me. Ultimately, it wasn't about having a sad ending. It was about showing the world as it is, something that very few stories for children (and adults) do well. I’d have to seek it out on my own.
I occasionally found the truth in gorgeous children’s books that explored grief, loneliness, and the scariness of the world and I found it in beautiful children’s movies that treated kids like people with minds.
The Land Before Time was one of these movies. The plot follows a baby dinosaur named Littlefoot on his journey to a safe land, intermingled with the journey of grief after his mom dies. It’s unbelievably sad, but examines loss exactly as it is: as something that never goes away and constantly reshapes who we are.
In one scene, Littlefoot mistakes a shadow for his mother, and his brief elation is devastating. When his excitement passes and grief sets in, the narrator concludes, “Littlefoot knew for certain he was alone.”
While Littlefoot is not alone for long, it’s refreshing to hear someone say what was happening without tying a bow of hope around it (a Disney movie surely would have added "but he would quickly make friends").
One of the many challenges of being a highly-sensitive child is that I knew I felt alone, I knew I felt sad, I knew I felt anxious, but people around me would insist otherwise: “We’re having fun!” or refer to the bullies around me as my “friends.” Sunday School teachers would tell me that my prayers for others would be answered, but I knew that children around me continued to suffer even as adults shielded the news from me.
It's as though I couldn't trust my own experience because adults (the alleged truth-keepers) kept insisting we were all friends having a good time, and God worked like Santa Claus.
(This is how I still feel whenever I walk into a gift shop filled with "It's a great day to have a great day!" signs.)
The animator behind The Land Before Time is named Don Bluth, and he’s known for his dark surreal landscapes and moody color schemes, but also for his films which would boldly name the harsh and inevitable realities of a world that didn’t always behave like a Disney story. He is known for taking his viewers from anguish to relief and back again, as life tends to work.
I found this lovely reflection on Don Bluth films and I appreciated in particular this description of his trademark emotion:
Melancholy isn’t just a narrative device for Bluth, it’s a natural part of navigating life, of searching for wholeness, and becoming a better person. Bluth acknowledges sadness in a way that never diminishes or minimizes its existence; he invites melancholy in, confesses its power, and lets it rest. Sadness is, for Bluth, an essential characteristic of the world and living in it. That is a wholly edifying message for kids, delivered in a vessel that is both palatable and unpatronizing.
This line: “He invites melancholy in, confesses its power, and lets it rest” is such an excellent description of how truth-telling works on Ash Wednesday, health anniversaries, and all other days of the year when we most certainly will not find our soothing on the internet.
I observe these two days this week because feeling grounded in real sadness and in chaos makes me feel closer to the Truth than doom-scrolling or trying to manifest away the pain.
My health anniversary isn't a celebration as much as a reminder that frailty, like Bluth's melancholy, is a natural part of navigating life. And Ash Wednesday is an opportunity to name fragility as an essential characteristic of the world we live in, as well as an opportunity to build stamina around mystery and loss.
When I was sick, a lot of people (without medical training, interestingly enough) were quick to tell me, "You'll be fine, and stronger for having gone through this!" But, of course, they didn't know. Nobody knew. And, if the purple-soda-spilling incident is any indication, nobody will ever know.
Ash Wednesday and my health anniversary are days when I ritualize this great confusing not-knowing that floods our existence, and the pain that punctuates it throughout. My weary heart is with people across the world right now, with my two friends who are seriously sick in the hospital, and with the cat who's still lapping up water: and all this is true.
This week I'm continuing to search for the truth: in art, in stories, in the reality I won't turn away from. I will hold up that candle, look closer, and confess the power of what I see.