On Ash Wednesday at PRS chapel I got ashed and was told "from the earth you came, to the earth you shall return." It was a small change of words ("earth" and "dust" don't have that much difference in meaning) but hit me square on. I like it.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust" may be a time-honored tradition, especially at funerals, but it is not Biblical. The closest is Genesis 3:19 "from dust you came and to the dust you shall return," and the "dust" word means any kind of dry soil.
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer funeral service actually includes the word earth: "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust;" but we often forget this.
By choosing to remember the words "ashes" and "dust" we focus on the ruin, the destruction, the undoing of our bodies.
By choosing instead to remember the word "earth" we focus on the cycle of life, the nourishment and beauty provided by God's creation, and the organic way that the earth swallows up and re-incorporates us after our death.
Yesterday morning I rose and stretched and went outside barefoot... I laughed out loud and told myself "I'm giving up shoes for Lent."
I then spent a thoroughly ridiculous day in bare feet, thrilling at the bitter touch of cold earth beneath my feet, mincing around stones, wondering what people's strange stares meant, and answering questions about the whereabouts of my shoes just about every five minutes throughout the day. Some people were genuinely concerned for my well-being, and others just incredulous.
So, no, I'm not giving up shoes for Lent. That is ridiculous.
But there was something real there. Something more than a funny joke, more than a way to disorient all my friends and neighbors and force us all into wondering.
It's something aesthetic, sensual, about enjoying the feel of the earth beneath me.
A piece of it is also about pace. You must slow down when you walk barefoot. No powering through like I see so often from the Serious Runners who share my lake trails, for whom the wilderness is a thing to pass through fast.
But the biggest piece, I think, is a yearning for connection. A yoga teacher told us to "plant our feet in the earth" but there was a floor, and beams under that, and a cellar and a foundation, and a BART train running underneath that, so my feet could not really plant. I want to plant them in the soft ground when I can. My ethics teacher says "as we work to heal the earth, the earth works to heal us." I can feel (or at least imagine) that healing happening, as my body connects to what is around me.