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“To bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of joy instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit
of despair.” — Isaiah 61:3
Seven years ago, a mountain in southern Iceland called Eyjafjallajökull erupted. This caused an enormous emission of smoke and ash that covered large areas of northern Europe. Consequently, the majority of European flights from April 14 to 20, 2010 were cancelled, creating the highest level of air travel disruption since the Second World War. Twenty countries closed their airspace to commercial jet traffic and it affected about 10 million travelers. By April 21, the eruption had ended. Since no further lava or ash was being produced, the crisis was declared over and flights returned to normal.
But life would never be normal again for the many homes and farms in the countryside around Eyjafjallajökull. The toxic ash had killed their livestock and crops and rendered their soil useless. Many families moved away, others sold all their holdings and changed their livelihoods. But a small, enterprising number of Icelanders stayed. Rather than curse the ashes that had obliterated their former lives, they took them and turned them into new sources of income. One of the most successful was soap.
Soap made from volcanic ash is actually an ancient practice. It is rich in minerals and antibacterial sulfur which helps slow down the aging process. The ash in the soap remains active and provides a mild, natural exfoliation while absorbing toxins. I find that intriguingly ironic – the substance that was so toxic to a land can turn and help alleviate the toxins in our bodies.
I was able to visit one of these farms-turned-soap-centers last year during a January trip to Iceland. Even in the midst of a frigid winter, business was good. I bought about a dozen bars for friends and family and I can attest to the cleansing properties. I was especially intrigued by the fact that this region named their soap after the deadly volcano; they even put a picture of the eruption on the label. The woman behind the counter gave her explanation: “It has become part of our lives. Once it was bad, but now it is good.”
Once it was bad, but now it is good. Seven years later, this lesson from Iceland still resonates with me. And I continue to wonder: what do we do with the ashes in our lives? May we find a way to find the hidden beauty in the ashes – and to redeem them only for good.