To recap. My feeling about Ash Wednesday was a visceral rejection of the words said at the imposition of ashes: "Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return." It's from the Bible of course, what God said to Adam when everything went wrong and he had to leave the garden. It's meant to recall us to humility and penitence, and give us a due sense of our insignificance in the flow of time and in the face of eternity, and all that. And so it does. But my objection was that — going to the same book of Genesis — the beginning of life is the admixture of divine spirit with stardust. So the thing that makes a living being is the fusion of spirit and dust, and to say someone is dust is only half the story. I think God's point was that if Spirit is withdrawn, all that's left is dust. But then, the mercy and grace of God is such that life continues, otherwise we'd all be dead, wouldn't we? So that's the problem I had with Ash Wednesday.
But an unlikely epiphany has come slanting sideways into my life through the most embarrassingly frivolous gateway. And now I am entirely comfortable with returning to dust. I'm pleased about this, because I have been thinking a lot about the process of growing old and how to get from here into death with the most grace and the least terror, and coming to terms with being dust feels promising.
But this is what happened (by 'this' I mean what I'm about to tell you).
Have you ever 'had your colours done'? It's known as different things, but here in the UK Colour Me Beautiful is one of the outfits offering the opportunity to figure out which 'season' suits you and what colour palette you consequently need in order to look marvellous the whole of the time.
Going back a long way, as a youngish woman my prayer partner was Margery, a stained glass artist with a commitment to Holy Spirit healing. I loved her very much and we were good friends. She had an excellent eye for colour, and pronounced that my season was Autumn. Because it was Margery, I accepted her evaluation without question, and labelled myself 'Autumn' ever since.
A few years ago another dear friend trained to be a Colour Me Beautiful consultant, and offered me a freebie session while she was learning, which I delightedly accepted — but said firmly I knew I was an Autumn because Margery (now dead but we both knew her) had said so. Unsurprisingly I turned out to be an Autumn, and tried hard to make the colours work.
My problem with it was the Autumn colours — rich and strong — tired me. As a person I am insubstantial, easily exhausted, somewhat faint, easy to overlook and forget, semi-invisible. I am like smoke, like a net curtain drying on a laundry line on a grey day. I am cool and detached, tired most of the time. I have trouble standing up for any length of time and I find relationship and human interaction very difficult. The Autumn colours, bursting with spicy life and energy, just . . . didn't . . . feel . . . like . . . me.
Then I got a new view on it. My skin doesn't erupt but it's soft and damages easily, so I often get sores and scratches I want to cover up. I was looking for a concealer/foundation. After a certain amount of experimentation with samples from eBay, I found one that vanished into my skin. It's called Cool Bone. I've linked that, not to advertise it (because I don't like advertising) but to acknowledge it.
That got me thinking. Autumn is essentially WARM writ large; and this colour that vanishes into my skin is cool.
So I did a bit of investigating and looked at colour palettes online, and for the first time came across the Soft/Dark/Deep modification of seasonal palettes. I examined all the ones I could find. There was one that stood out from all the others — it had all the colours I absolutely know suit me best.
Soft, dark, deep summer. I felt childishly excited about this because I was born in summer and I love the summer.
It also made sense of my eye and hair colour. My eyes are the colour of the North Sea on a rainy day. My hair is the colour of drying hay.
I love those colours. No. I LOVE those colours. I feel comfortable in them, I feel like me in them, and my very favourite clothes fit right in.
The important thing is that every single colour has a hefty ladling of grey added in. The red of the very last embers amid the charcoal and ashes of a dying fire. The brown of dead tree bark. The yellow of sand churned up in the waves of a rough sea. The purple of brooding storm clouds. The green of the English Channel. The most inhospitable shade of pink you can possibly imagine. Lavender leaves and oak moss, sage and cloud and fog. The colours of veins and clover petals. Damsons and sloes and overripe plums starting to go mouldy. Seakale and squid ink and driftwood. Olives and bruises and mustard and rocks. Twilight and sea-clay and the fallen petals from dying Ena Harkness roses, and the bricks they make in Cambridgeshire.
Everything with a lavish slew of dust kicked over it. Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.
This kind of make-up.
This shade of blue.
Dark blue greens.
Ash grey and darkest crimson.
Charcoal and ink (ooh — look — my fringe has grown).
Smoked crimson lake.
And I've bought a top on eBay in a charnel house white, the colour of very old bones.
This makes sense of my choices of shoe colours, too.
If I choke or die of a heart attack, nobody will suspect a thing. They'll think I merely overdid my make-up.
Here I am, lying in bed in the morning, thinking about returning to dust and feeling very happy.
I realise Ash Wednesday is meant to be all about repenting of sin and interior reflection and Jesus in the wilderness and whatnot — so I apologise for making it about colour and me and I hope you are not offended. I thought it worth noting, by what surprising and unlikely avenues our accommodation, to who we are and what is happening to us, arrives. This — oddly — makes me feel more peaceful about growing old, about the church always insisting we are bad and lost and in the wrong, about my insignificance and chronic failure and inability to make myself heard. I don't mind now — I can see it all there in my colours. Smoky, dusty, soft dark deep. Yes, that feels comfortable.
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I went into our Hebe's bedroom where some of her clothes were draped over her chair, and look — the same colours!