The Nature of Impermanence

(or, “Impermanence Sucks”)

February 25, 2011
Nearly Six Months After the Fire

Hello Dear Friends,

Tonight at dinner I saw my friend Sandy, who asked, “Hey, do you still want us to give you candles for your birthday?” I stared at her for a second and then burst out laughing. She smiled and said, “I’ve been waiting until you looked like you could laugh again to make that joke.”

I explained to the other people at the table that in my previous, pre-fire life, I used to light dozens of candles in the dark months of deep winter, to cheer me through the snowy evenings. By spring I would have burned my whole stash, and so for my birthday in July I would ask people to just give me candles, so I could stock up again for winter.  When the house burned down, my beautiful collection of candles melted away, as they were intended to do, but of course, before their time. Such is the nature of impermanence.  We are all candles, waiting to melt and burn away, but each day we say, “Not now, it’s too soon. Let’s wait until Winter, okay?”

I remember the moment when I decided not to become a Buddhist.  I was in my early twenties, and (as many Twenty-Somethings do) searching for the Meaning of Life. One day I was reading about one of the classic Buddhist exercises on the nature of impermanence, “The Pot is Already Broken.” In this exercise, you pick one of your favorite things, and hold it in your mind. It might be a cup, a precious jewel, an heirloom…You imagine it first cracked, then broken, then turned to dust. The point is to realize that every precious thing in your life is already gone, that dissolution is just the nature of things, and that this is the true essence of life – impermanence.  When I read this I tossed aside the book and thought, “God, that is the most depressing thing I’ve ever read!” And then, did not become a Buddhist.

Like most great truths, Impermanence is a pretty hard pill to swallow.

I did pursue a spiritual path, though, and at one point wanted to be a monk.  I lived in an ashram for a year – put everything in storage and lived in a tiny room, and all my possessions for a year fit under the bed.  It was incredibly liberating, living so simply.  The days and nights were spacious and long, and filled with rich discussions about life, service, renunciation, and great spiritual texts.  At the end of a year, I decided that monastic life wasn’t really for me, and when I returned home, I was overwhelmed with how huge my house seemed, and by what felt like mountains of “stuff.” I looked around my kitchen and thought, “Who on earth needs all these sets of dishes?  Why do I have so damn many  mugs? What is all this stuff FOR?”  As I re-acclimated to life “in the world,” I realized that you need stuff to make a life. You need all those dishes for when you have a big dinner party, and you need all those mugs to serve coffee afterwards, and you need three big boxes of candles to light up your house during the long, dark, Colorado winter.

So when we started talking about the beauty of renunciation and other Great Truths at dinner tonight, at one point I said, “Sandy. I’ve lived in an ashram. I practice detachment all the time. I’ve been contemplating my own death as a spiritual practice for twenty years. But what I’d really like right now is just a BREAK FROM ALL THIS!” We all laughed, and Sandy said, “Well, my twenty-year old daughter turned to me a while back and said, ‘You know Mom, impermanence sucks.’”  And then we all laughed again. Impermanence sucks – I think we’ve hit on another Great Truth here.

As I was driving home from dinner I thought about a story I heard on “This American Life” on NPR, where a guy thinks he only has a year to live, and so he gives away all his money and spends the year bicycling across the country with his brother. When he realizes he’s not going to die, he also realizes that in spite of the popular philosophy to “live every day as if it were your last,” human beings are just not built that way.  We actually can’t live every day as if we were going to die tomorrow. Our brains are wired to hope for the future, to plan, to dream.  Even though the pot is already broken, we love our stuff, we love our attachments, we love the things that keep us tethered to this earthly existence.

And yes, we all know we’re going to die some day, but some part of us has to pretend each day that we will just go on and on and on, doing our best at work, having long dinners with friends, driving home to our beloved dog on a snowy Colorado evening. And that is the best we can do.

Each day I remember something that I have lost, and have to let it go in my mind.  The bowls that I hand-carried from Hong Kong. The teapots collected from around the world. My mother’s silver baby cup.  Those things are broken, melted, gone. But I am not.  I am learning to laugh again, at my friend’s odd jokes, at my dog, running around my cottage squeaking a toy while I write, at the thousand things a day that present themselves to me. The pot may already be broken, but I want to enjoy life and all its treasures in the here and now, to embrace, to let go; to embrace, to let go; and flow on in this strange and lovely Dance of Life.

May we all enjoy the Here and Now and all that surrounds us, today and every day.

Sending You Much Love, and Wishes for Sweet Dreams,

Andi

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17 Responses to The Nature of Impermanence

  1. Hilary says:

    This post was insightful, IMHO. We are all candles. So true. Impermanence. So true. Live now. Like Nellie does. But we can still hope for the future, whether it be ours or the world’s… glad you’re writing this blog, Andi!

  2. Andrea Meyer says:

    Hilarious, heartwarming, thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing the joke, being ready to laugh again, and helping us stop, think and appreciate what we have. Your writing is always a joy to read!

  3. Jody Berman says:

    Andi: Your writing grips me every time. Your insights, tenderness, and the lyrical rhythm of your words are to savor.

  4. Priscilla says:

    I am a potter, doing that strange dance with earth and fire on a daily basis. When you play with dirt and flame, you learn real fast that you can’t get attached to your marvelous artistic results, for the earth and fire may have other plans. Wet pots may collapse, dry ones get busted by a touch, and then the fire–oh, my. It can destroy a piece, or it can harden it and make it stronger. The fire, as you so well know, is brutal. Pieces that survive it come to seem miraculous.

    Impermanence truly sucks. And it’s what gives us wonder. Thanks for celebrating this awful, awe-full dance.

  5. You know, I ran into someone recently who had recovered from cancer who was going on about how he had felt deeply served by his experience. And I thought, well of course, what choice do you have? But overall? Better if you’re lucky enough to be shallow. :D

  6. Lorienne says:

    I think what I have learned in life is that the pot breaks, but doesn’t stop being. All these things, all this suffering happens to us in our lives and we break and we break and we break. The choice is ours to pick up the pieces, perhaps glue them, perhaps melt them down, but make the next “pot.” Thank you for your writing and thank you for sharing your journey.

    • Andi says:

      Thanks for stopping by Laurienne. It’s interesting to note that in all the debris of the house, what “survived” (in bits and pieces) were the broken dishes. I remember holding up a fragment of one of my plates and saying, “This is why archeologists find pottery shards that are thousands of years old – they’ve already been through fire once.”

  7. Mark Gerwing says:

    Thanks so much for your writing, I have really enjoyed reading it. I am designing a house for a couple who also lost their house in the fire and your insights and thoughts have really helped form a perspective for me. Please continue through the whole process, I would love to hear more.

    • Andi says:

      Hi Mark,

      I’ve been enjoying your website and blog for a while now. It’s been great to read your thoughts about architecture and design. We’re having a gathering of Four Mile homeowners this spring, to talk about design, share plans, look at energy systems, and discuss the homes we dream of rebuilding. Hope to meet you sometime soon.

      Many thanks for reading and commenting.

  8. Andi, I don’t know if you are cracked, but you are definitely not broken! You’ve written another Great Truth and I’m ready for your book.

    Congrats on the New York Times article! It’s a story that needs to be told.

    Blessings to you on your journey.

  9. Danni Hart says:

    Where do I begin? I came across the link to your blog on the NY Times site and was touched by Ms. Dworin’s article about you because, at 59, I am on the cusp of losing everything for a different reason [and for the 2nd time in 12 years]. Two hours ago I began reading, starting with this post. I sobbed, I sometimes smiled, and in some ways I understood. I lived in Golden for two years while working at that “site” in the mid-90′s. Yes, I survived Highway 93. Having come from Albuquerque, I was amazed by the size and grandeur of everything. I am sorry I ever left Colorado, but Ohio pulled me to find relatives I had never known, and still do not know. Lesson learned: unless you grow up with someone, you have nothing in common with them. I cannot fathom what this has been like for you, but I am grateful to read about the friends who do so much, the strangers who help, and Nellie. I do understand about Nellie and how important she is. My lifetime has been one of moving for one reason or another and so I’ve lost touch with most friends and have no roots. What a feeling it must be to have lived in one place for so many years. And now, what a loss. By our 50′s we’re supposed to be settled aren’t we? I have 12 weeks of unemployment left and no prospects. Will I go back to Abq again with everything I can put in my car as I did 9 years ago? Or maybe Colorado Springs to see my foster sister. Or maybe I will find a job and get to keep my “stuff” and, even more important, my pets. I have two more than I brought with me when I came back to Ohio 3 years ago [again]. The difference is I can choose, to an extent, what happens whereas you had no choice. Talk about looking down to see nothing beneath your feet. Whatever happens, I will think about “Impermanence”, and that I can dress again in any style. Thank you for sharing.

    • Andi says:

      Hi Danni,

      You write beautifully and your comment touched me deeply. I had a three-year sojourn in Ohio (Athens, as a professor at Ohio University) and although it was lovely, I was deeply homesick for the West. Since I’ve returned, I’ve found the expansive landscape deeply healing and rejuvenating.

      Thank you so much for writing. I wish you the very best, and hope that you can soon find a New Earth beneath your feet, and a new life that includes good work, contentment, and your furry friends. May you all live together in a wonderful place.

      Take good care, and thanks again for reading and commenting.

      Andi

      • Danni Hart says:

        I came across this while going through some email history; I also get your updates and am happy things are so much better for you. As it turns out, I came back to NM a year ago and am glad I did. Yes, I left it all in Ohio again and only brought what fit in my car, plus my pets. I made a good decision this time and am grateful to be back; I was able to spend time with a friend I had known for 38 years before she passed in April. I’ve reconnected with old friends and, unlike before, am making new ones. Plus, after over 4 years of temping, I once again have a job. 60 has been a good year I must say. I am grateful you and Nellie have reached the point where you are back in a beautiful home and together. Enjoy those beautiful stars and skies, and the peacefulness you will have. I know your land is glad to have you back. What joy.

  10. Sibylle says:

    I live trying to combine the two — impermanence, and planning for tomorrow. As a life-long mountaineer and rock climber, I’ve lost many friends to avalanches and falls. Whenever I return from an expedition to the Himalaya, and hear of a new friend who died on their summer trip, I feel that impermanence. However, when I take care of my son, I plan for tomorrow. that’s all we can do.

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