Today was a gray, rainy day, a harbinger of summer. I stood in the rain in my shirtsleeves watching our house. After months of winter there was the wet and cold of spring. The snow, too, was spring. It was mushy and granulated, sinking in on itself. Fall’s residuum surfaced. In the emergent dark spots on the snow lay last fall’s crumbled evergreen needles shed in preparation for winter. It was the day our stairs arrived.
Our stairs are made from half log, fully scribed onto the stringers. They arrived as individual parts and became stairs. Round cradles were carved into the stringer for each half-log tread. Before they arrived, the logs were hand pealed using draw knives in the very northwest corner of Montana. Family members built our stairs. The young ones, just learning, get the chance to participate in removing the bark from the logs that will be our stairs. The older sons were on site working and learning the family’s craft.
The day of the arrival of the truck with our logs has been uncertain as we live by the weather. I woke early this morning to move a cabinet I had built and painted last night from the middle of the work area. I brought the cabinet into our apartment and was going to hang it but felt edgy and sick. My spouse returned me to bed and closed the door telling me I should rest. I did not think I had fallen asleep but he woke announcing that the stairs had arrived.
As I listened I could hear far more feet above us than belong to the regular people on our contractor’s crew. The sounds were different too. There was a hollow thudding sound I had not heard before. The log stairs were being brought in and leaned against the wall. The stair treads were heavy, being a four foot section of half of a 10 inch in diameter log. After carrying one from the truck in through the garage and up the basement stairs, workers with aching arms lowered their tread, propped against the wall, with a quiet thud.
I heard but did not see the bringing in of the stair treads and the two long, log stringers that span from the main floor to the loft where our library and bedroom are. When I came up from our basement apartment there was one board nailed to the wall where the stairs were to be. The board was the first for the landing that leads to the log stairs. In the blink of an eye the landing was done and the whole log stringers were laid.
My spouse and I agreed that today was special. It has been a long-awaited day. Stairs are different than other house parts. It is difficult to articulate how they are different but they are. I suppose it is their capacity for assent and decent. They are literal and spiritual openings to other places.
The loft floor of our house where our bedroom resides has existed since late fall. For the weeks of late fall, access was granted only to workers by ascending perched on plywood on the forks of the Gradeall. Once the loft subfloor was in place, access was by a 15 foot extension ladder. People went up and down the ladder carrying materials and ideas. I stood at the bottom of the ladder most days because of my poor balance. I was able to visit the office/library and our bedroom with help but there were times when days or even two weeks passed between my visits to what will become the area of the house we most use. I made design decisions about the upstairs standing at the bottom of the ladder.
Today we have stairs.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Christian season of Lent, a 40 day preparation for Christ’s resurrection at Easter. The forty days are symbolic of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness following his baptism. At his baptism in the river Jordon by John the Baptist the spirit of God descends in the form of a dove and speaks, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.”
The teaching is that Jesus spent 40 days on his own fasting and praying to try to understand how to be God’s son in the world. He enters the wilderness a man and emerges knowing he is God’s son. Following his time in the wilderness, the Christian tradition records Jesus teaching, enrapturing some and enraging others. He is arrested and nailed to a tree and crucified and after three days dead he arises and ascends to heaven.
As I became aware of the import of the morning I was struck nearly to my knees that today, the day our stairs arrive linking the floors of our house as surely as the parts of our life these 20 months, was Ash Wednesday. Christians observe Ash Wednesday by the placement of an ash cross on their forehead with the prayer, “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The ashes for Ash Wednesday are prepared from the burned palms from the previous year’s Lent.
The wildfire that burned our house in 2012 schooled me in ash. Ash is desolation. It is aching bleakness from profound loss. Ash does not settle, it is vivified for you by the very wake of your passing. Ash follows you riding on the currents of the air you create.
Today was Ash Wednesday. Today was the true promise of the return of our home from ashes. Today the disparate parts of the past 20 months were linked by stairs. Today we can see ourselves in a new life in a way we could not before.
Our house will be nearly finished in the 40 days of Lent. As we walk these final steps toward reestablishment of our household, we will be walking toward resurrection from the fire. Like Ash Wednesday there will be reminders of the dust from which we came and to which we must return. In between our arising from the dust and our departing to the dust was ash.