Ever Dirty, Ever Clean

by Connor Zimmerman on March 5, 2020

Creative Non-Fiction

by Erin Venuti ’20

“You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I close my eyes, gently, as the priest slowly marks a cross in the center of my forehead, in the same spot where my index and middle finger touch when I reach for the Father. I feel a few specks of the ashes sprinkle on my nose.

During my journey back to the pew, I become overly aware of the mark on my forehead. Does it look more like a cross or a smudge? Is it deep and dark or dry and light? Then I laugh at the irony, of the vanity in the desire for a perfect cross. Does such a thing exist? A perfect blemish.

Each year, on Ash Wednesday, I wonder what it would feel like to wake up early and go to the first mass of the day. To be marked with the ashes almost as soon as I wake up and go about my daily life with the cross on my forehead. What it would be like to meet someone who isn’t like me and be asked why in the world a grown woman would have literal dirt painted on her face. To be asked why I wanted the dirt so badly. Why I willingly approach the altar to get my dirt each and every year. After all, it’s only dirt…right?

In the end, I never do go to that first mass. I sleep in and go to class and, as the sun is waning, I get my ashes. No one has ever asked me why I have dirt on my face because they almost always have dirt on their face too.

Before bed, I examine the cross in my bathroom mirror. It’s lighter now, but present, nonetheless. By now, it looks more like a bruise, a wound on its way to healing. I wonder if I should wash it off, but, ultimately, I resolve to leave it be. After all, I am who I am, even in sleep.

When the sun rises the next morning and flows plentifully through my window, the mark has faded to the faintest of shadows. Few would know its presence upon first glance. Even still, I can feel it, the finality of the priest’s thumb as the cross is retraced year after year. One day, one week, one month, one year later, I can feel it.

Even now, I have dirt on my face. I paint on a little bit more each time I sit down for a meal or step into a church. Every day, I wake up and go about my daily life with the cross on my forehead. Only this cross is perfect. It will always be perfect.

A woman with her eyes closed with ashes on her forehead to celebrate Ash Wednesday
Photo courtesy of unsplash.com