My Irrational Fear of Ash Wednesday
When I was a kid, my parents sent me to a Catholic school. I wore a uniform, and felt like a million bucks when my mom sewed pockets into my plaid skirt. I didn’t mind Mass every week, even though I found it boring.
What I didn’t like was Ash Wednesday. Once a year, we had to line up in the gym to get our ashes. A priest would put a thumbprint of ash on our foreheads, and murmur, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” A little bit existential for a five-year-old, don’t you think?
I was worried about dust falling into my eyes. I was self-conscious about walking around with a dirty thumbprint on my forehead all day, and constantly reminded of it when I looked at everyone else with their smudges. I wasn’t even consoled when someone told me that the ashes weren’t, y’know, dead people, but the leftover palms from last year’s Palm Sunday.
My solution to this fear was to pretend to be sick on Ash Wednesday, on years when I felt too anxious to deal with it. Which was … several years. I’m pretty sure I confessed my fears to my mom, but no one else seemed to catch on.
I was also paralyzed by the thought of going to confession. I was a nervous wreck at eight years old, when I was told we had to confess our sins to participate in our First Communion.
Now, I definitely wanted to go to the First Communion ceremony. There would be a party afterward. It was basically prom, but I didn’t need to worry about a date. My grandmother had sewed me a beautiful white gown for the occasion.
But I did not want to tell a priest everything I did I that was “sinful.” First of all, I was eight and had barely anything to confess. I was also embarrassed by the thought that someone would overhear. Naturally, I stayed out of school sick that day.
Not to be deterred, my teacher simply rescheduled the confession, and then I had to go. I was petrified. I couldn’t flag anyone down and say, “Hey, this is terrifying. Can we talk about this?” I didn’t have a vocabulary for that kind of fear.
When it came time to walk up to the confessional, I tried to tell the priest my fears that someone would eavesdrop on me, but he seemed totally unconcerned. I made up something like I had lied to my friends, and he let me go with a few prayers. I got it done, but barely.
But Ash Wednesday? It was too stressful, and had no reward. If I could, I skipped it.
As an adult, I’ve noticed my coping mechanism for a stressful situation is the same. Something makes me anxious? Well, I won’t do it.
I didn’t go to parties, because I was too anxious.
I skipped applying to programs or jobs. Too anxious.
Recently, I was having trouble with an assignment that was way out of my toolkit. I had to record a performance, which I never do. I don’t even like having photos taken of myself.
I worried myself sick over the project. I thought, “Well, I had a good run, and now I can quit the program.” I’ve done that in the past. In college, I once had a panic attack before a presentation, walked out of class, and sat down to cry. I couldn’t come back after that, and quit.
I finished my degree some time later, when I was less anxious. I had some counseling and a run on various medications to stop anxiety. But here it was, happening again.
This time, I was able to cope. I sat down and cried … at first. My fear was, what if I go through all that effort, look ridiculous, then fail?
Then I thought: if I turn something in, I would probably pass the assignment. Even if I did get a low score, I could still pass the class.
I called someone to help me with the performance, and I recorded it. This time, I didn’t worry what anyone thought of me. I just did it.
When I left my high school, I also left my religion behind, for reasons that had nothing to do with fear. But as the calendar swings to Mardi Gras (and then, as always, to Ash Wednesday), I think about all those times I backed away from something scary. I think about everything I missed because I was too afraid to take a step forward, and instead, took a step back.
Sometimes, on a Wednesday in February or March, I see someone walking around with ashes on their forehead. Then my memory flickers back to the little girl in the plaid skirt, the girl who was trembling with fear. And in the end, what was I worried about? Just a tiny smudge of dust.