I never questioned the ashes growing up. For some reason, Fr. Malik's explanation always made sense to me, and I liked how they felt on my forehead. I think it would do a lot of people a lot of good to remember they are dust, and to dust they will return. That's still a solid part of Ash Wednesday for me--remembering we're just breathing dirt. Takes the pressure off.
Recently, I've wondered how I felt about leaving the ashes on, especially when returning to the non-Lenten-focused world. Is it better to leave them on and declare to the world that you are a) Catholic, b) breathing dirt, and/or c) unconcerned about how ridiculous you look, or should you wipe them off so as to not call attention to yourself, ie, look at me, I'm such a great churchy person? The ash cross can be pretty humbling, but then again, the message on Ash Wednesday always includes the part about praying alone, giving alms in private, and not blowing a trumpet anytime you do something holy.
We got back in our vans and drove straight back to our apartments after the service tonight, so I didn't really have to think about that this year. My community has seen me look/act far more ridiculous than any ashy smudge, and when we all had one, it suddenly didn't look so strange. It was more like a symbol we all decided to wear, like how politicians all wear those flag pins. And maybe that was the best part of this year's Ash Wednesday--having a group of people to be ashy with.