Ash Wednesday was the last of Ethan Hawke’s four published books that I’d not yet read. In it, Hawke intimately detailed many fears and uncertainties that a man and woman face in the short period before marriage and parenthood; spiritual anecdotes sowed heavily throughout. There are imperfect, God-like father figures, a little girl representative of reincarnation, a blind man representative of grace, and apostrophes in regards to existentialism.
Hawke has a habit of writing impressively intricate characters. He builds philosophies into them that are so well-developed, I always find myself wondering which are Hawke’s own. It amuses me to find tidbits of his characters that I recognize from some of his other works. “The definition of grace is the ability to accept change,” “never be so arrogant as to think you have nothing left to learn”, “above all, cherish honesty-“… these I found scattered throughout Ash Wednesday, as well as listed and detailed in his Rules for a Knight.
The most notable scene, for me, I found in a long chapter entitled, “The Sad Lament of James and Christy Heartsock on the Eve of their Rebirth”. I felt this chapter could stand alone, in short story form. The novel takes place over a car trip from Albany to Houston, alternating between the perspectives of main characters Jimmy and Christy. Days before their wedding, Jimmy reads the traditional Catholic wedding vows to Christy. He reveals to her how the words inspire him, phrases like, “pour out the abundance of your blessing upon this man and woman,” and, “in your mercy bring them to that table where your saints feast in your heavenly home.” By reading them, Jimmy unlocks his version of what marriage is supposed to mean. The idea of organized religion, in general, is a comfort to him. By reading the vows, he feels he’s returning to some structure he had as a child. A structure he feels he’s needed, but hasn’t been able to access since.
Both characters agree that they believe in God, but Christy lets Jimmy down in her response to the vows. Organized religion, and the language used in Catholic wedding vows, have the opposite effect on Christy. She thinks they’re futile, even sickening.
… ‘It’s just beautiful, don’t you think?’ [Jimmy asked her]
‘I think it’s—I don’t know, it scares me,’ she said gently… I [Jimmy] felt like she’d sucker-punched me. ‘It’s kind of pretty though, don’t you think?’ I asked weakly.
She shrugged her shoulders… ‘It’s like drilling a well right by a river, you know? The water’s already there; you don’t have to dig for it. Whatever is good or valuable about religion is always around us. You don’t have to go to church for it.’
This segued into perhaps the most existentialist apostrophe in the novel, told from Jimmy’s point of view—the sinking reality that, even the person you marry- the person you hope and wait for, the person you hope will complete you- will not fully understand or appreciate the purest parts of you.
… There is this place deep inside where I feel I am connected to everything, not just trees and grass and dogs but buildings and stairways, rocks and sidewalks. It’s a deathly quiet place that I guess I’ve never shared with anyone and probably couldn’t, a place that is cold sober when my body is stumbling drunk, another consciousness that sits still like an antenna in tune with some other part of the galaxy. It was this part of me that I wanted to bring to our wedding, a centered space from which I could send out my oaths. I imagined that this secret antenna was my connection to whatever eternity might be and was the part of me that Christy alone perceived and loved. It was that same magic timeless part of her that I wanted to marry. But in the dark of the motel room, I realized that whether I was married or not, no one would ever know all of me; my truest self would always be estranged and alone.
Christy’s spiritual episode occurs on a bus; not in the presence of Jimmy. She sits down, distressed.
You are nothing, I chanted to myself, and that made me feel better… Nothing you do will ever matter. Your life, and that of everyone on this bus, doesn’t matter any more than the trees outside. Earthworms matter the same as you. All our lives are passing. My child’s life will come and go, as will my grandmother’s. This bus will someday rest among a heap of other buses, and no one will know I sat here. Upon my death, my story will float out into such a mass of stories that my voice will be absorbed unheard. You are nothing. Nothing is important.
I said this over and over to myself. No awareness of identity existed inside me. For that instant I was dead. The pisser is, I’ve died before.
Her mantra struck me as essentially Buddhist; nestled within this novel that seemed essentially Christian. Jimmy is religious, Christy is spiritual.
A few weeks ago I made note of a thought that occurred to me, and coincidentally I found it again in Ash Wednesday, expressed in words so fitting that they could have been my own.
‘Where do we go when we die?’ Christy asked, forcing me [Jimmy] to look back at her… “Or, more to the point, where did I go? The first time I came to New York City I was with my father on a business trip. I was probably only ten. That girl isn’t alive anymore. You can’t go talk to her… I look at you and think of the evening I first met you, and you’re not that person anymore. I mean, the elements are the same, but you’re different. Look at me right now. I will never be this person again. When we walk out of here today—when tomorrow morning comes—I will be somebody else, not exactly the same as I am right now. Maybe that’s all that dying is.’
When I made note of that thought, I jotted down, “We ‘lose’ people all the time.” I got to thinking about death and the discontinuation of a person. I reminded myself to be thankful for the time I had with people who died, and I realized it was similar to the way I remind myself to be thankful for time spent with people who are living. I had a semi-sinking realization that death is not the only thing that can make a person inaccessible.
I’m afraid to lose people, I’m afraid for people to die. But I know that as people grow and naturally change, I might lose them in that way, too. Every new day is not a promise that circumstances will remain the same as they were. As people constantly change, they will gravitate toward and away from my life. Even the people I cherish and connect with most, someday will not be there. Even though they might not be dead, it will feel as though they are. The person who was my best friend or confidant will be nothing more than a memory—someone inaccessible to me. Someone who will never return to my life, and will only exist in the time I was thankful to have had with them.
Hawke, Ethan. Ash Wednesday. New York: Knopf, 2002. N. pag. Print.