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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ashes, Not Dust

When I was a girl, away from home at college for the first time, finding out who I really was, and not just who everyone had always told me I was or ought to be, I came across a passage written or stated by author Jack London. Previously I had known London only as that miserable guy who, for the very life of him, could not start a fire with frozen fingers. Oh, the wasted matches! He ate a baby bird whole to keep from dying.
I wasn’t a fan. To Build a Fire stuck with me, yes, but not in any sense was it in a good way. I can say I never read White Fang.
But then I found this, his credo, and it resonated with me in a way that until very, very recently, no other secular work or statement has. I memorized it right away. It still hasn't left me.

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark
should burn out in a brilliant blaze
than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor
every atom of me in magnificent glow
than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The proper function of man is to live
not to exist.
I shall not waste my days
in trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

                              —Jack London

I hand-wrote his credo on a piece of plain white paper. I stuck it to my dorm room wall. It stayed there for two years. It went with me to at least three different college-years apartments. At some point, it landed in my mother’s hands, and she, seeing so much of me in it, mounted it on a board, by that time the paper was yellow and curling, and hung it in the room that had been my bedroom as a younger girl—the same room for which I painted the walls yellow, and she let me, though it had never occurred to her to paint a room such a bold and garish color. (It is, once again, respectably blue-gray now.)

I have quoted this credo to many young friends. To my daughters. I mention it sometimes when we girls are singing Katy Perry’s “Firework” song at the top of our lungs in Bella, the Damselfly Beetle, with the sunroof open. I alter it a bit from time to time. “The proper function of man is to live not to exist” may sometimes come from me as “thrive, not just survive.” I want it for them. Life abundant, you might call it.

When I first became a believer, the weapon of the enemy I feared the most was complacency. I did not want the new fervor to fade away. I did not want to be one who “got all that salvation stuff over with, and then got back to normal life.” I wanted that spark to burn in a brilliant blaze, and it’s how I felt: renewed, with every atom of me in magnificent glow.

Today, I spoke directly with an artist. His work is breathtakingly crisp and pure. It isn’t overly dressed, but understated. He said he wanted to paint my daughter. I said I wasn’t opposed. Understated, and yet, it was clear because he was using his gifts, he was certainly not stifled by dry rot. His spark is burning. I could see it most when he talked about how happy his work made him. Nothing sleepy there. But superb, yes. He found his means of using his time.

I also spoke with a pastor and his wife, visiting my area here from their area farther south, which I once called home. Though the conversation stayed firmly in the realm of dignity and politeness, we were all bubbling beneath the surface with the same longing, the same idealism, the same hunger for the already in the not yet. The goal is in sight. No complacency there.

Last week, someone said to me, “Get ready, and let’s take this wild ride together.” He was talking about a very difficult ride that lies ahead. And I wasn’t thrilled. I was frightened. Isn’t fear the fuel of dry-rot, really? Fear paralyzes, and yes, that’s where I was. I was also thinking in terms of me. What I want. How I want to use my time.

But it’s not really my time to use. Yes, in God’s sovereignty he does ordain to allow me freedom of responsibility and creativity and response. But it’s all him. “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them,” London said. What futility there would be in that! Many days of pointlessness? Purposelessness? Personal peace and prosperity?

All my days are written in the book, and have been before even one of them came to be. If every hair of my head is numbered, then I can be sure every atom of me is numbered as well, and all the elements that make up those atoms, held together by that mysterious God-particle, without which the entire universe would unravel in nuclear fury. Who am I to say I don’t want the wild ride, simply because it has turned out to be more of a blaze than I expected at times, at others, ash long before it seemed due for the glow to be subdued? What if this is the meteoric existence I looked ahead to so long ago? Why should today's fear so woo me with the permanent lull of sleepy comfort I once found more fear-inducing than the wild ride of faith in action?

I won't be dust. No. I won't be. Ash, maybe, but not dust.

I think I'd better buckle up.

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