A meditation on the un-lasting.
So when I fix on this tiny image of resin
or sweep together with the heel of my hand a
pile of my son’s sunburn peels like
insect wings, where I peeled his back the night before camp,
I am doing something I learned early to do, I am
paying attention to small beauties,
whatever I have –
as if it were our duty to
find things to love, to bind ourselves to this world.
– Sharon Olds, “Little Things”
Our culture has a thing for permanence.
Just listen to the average pick-up truck ad. It’s all about durability, strength, and long-lasting quality.
We’re all about fixed interest rate loans. Lifetime memberships. Monuments. Hair color that won’t fade.
But the reality is we aren’t really made to last, are we?
Sure, a lot of people live into their 70s and 80s now. Some into their 90s. But I remember watching the movie Doctor Doolittle—the old one with Rex Harrison—as a child, and having my mind blown by the fact that his parrot was 118 years old. That, in fact, a pet existed that you could never hope to have for their whole lifetime. That you might have to put said pet into your will!
I’ve also always been fascinated by redwoods, trees older than the European presence on this continent, who have shaded animals and people groups that don’t even exist anymore.
In comparison to parrots and redwoods, we’re just a blip in time.
There’s something about ephemera that is innate to the human condition.
In fact, we create a certain amount of impermanence just by existing. We as a species hunted the passenger pigeon into extinction. We build in a way that encourages erosion on riverbanks and sea shores. We strip the dirt of its nutrients by over-farming, and it blows away.
But not all impermanence is negative.
I recently watched a stunning documentary called Leaning Into the Wind. It’s about Andy Goldsworthy, an artist who creates installations and performance art using materials from his environment.
He wets poppy petals and adheres them to his hands, just to slowly dip his fingers in a stream and watch the rich red covering wash down the stream in languid droplets.
He makes chains of reeds and uses them to suggest the skeletal remains of a fallen elm tree with sawed off limbs.
He lies on a sidewalk as an afternoon shower starts, leaving a dry print of his body behind on the wet pavement, to be filled in by raindrops.
I feel an immense kinship with this man. The only permanent thing about the majority of his artwork is that he keeps doing it. As one piece is blown or washed away, he sees an opportunity for another.
There is one moment in the film where he consciously chooses not to make art. His plan had been to cut a bed-like hole into a rocky hillside as part of a series of similar installations. The others had been made out of quarried rock, but this was to be a part of the landscape itself. He stands on the Spanish hillside at the grey beginnings of dawn, after getting up when it was still dark and hauling his heavy stone-cutting saw up to his chosen location. He stares down at the rocks beneath his feet.
“I don’t think I can do it,” he says.
He doesn’t feel right invading the permanence of rock still in the ground. He would be disrupting its centuries-long journey from the furnace below the earth’s crust through erosion and eventually breaking free of the hillside as a boulder or being rubbed smooth by wind and rain. To interfere would be to impose his own impermanence upon something much greater than himself.
Japanese architecture is another example of embracing the ephemeral. The Japanese agree with Western architectural principles insofar as they believe people generally want a space to come in out of the rain. In other ways, however, our ideas diverge.
Traditionally, Japanese homes were not “built to last.” They were built in such a way as to be taken apart and rearranged. Beams were fitted and balanced without nails. Screened inner and outer walls meant that any space could be made public or private as convenient. Rooms could be opened to the outside to take in a nice breeze or closed to keep out the cold. Every few years, homes would be taken down and rebuilt entirely, for practical or aesthetic reasons.
It is still the case that many Japanese apartment buildings have leased the land on which they stand for a certain number of years. At the end of that term, the unit owners will decide if they wish to renew. If not—and this is often the case—the building will be torn down. This means much Japanese residential real estate (of course, modern earthquake-resistant commercial buildings are an exception) is not the same kind of investment as it is in the US.
If you think about the number of earthquakes experienced so regularly there, it only makes sense that they would be less attached to physical structures. That it would be more important what you do with them while they exist than that they remain standing forever.
This embrace of impermanence is also expressed in the Japanese celebration of individual seasons. There are festivals for something as brief as fall color or cherry blossoms. Special meals and dishes are consumed only during their particular holiday or season.
I didn’t realize this until someone told me, but ephemera is a favorite theme of mine in my poetry. There’s something meaningful in capturing an image that exists in a single moment. The sunburn peelings and syrup droplets in Sharon Olds’ poem. The taste of a dish that reminds you of home. The smell in the air before a storm.
That they only exist so briefly makes them all the more real to us, as humans, who exist so briefly ourselves.
I’ll leave you with a poem that I wrote in response to the Olds poem above. I encourage you to pause and find the meaning in the ephemera that cross your path every day.
Skin curls away from your burnt shoulders
like lemon zest.
You’ve been hiding a sunset beneath your peel.
In the pink furrows,
your freckles peek out like ant-lions
beneath oaks in Fall.
Almost high tide, you say,
face buried in a beach towel.
You know its lazy rush, claim you feel
the tug of the moon.
Raking down the castles we built in the morning
before the sun-drunk waves devour them
bit by bit, you tell me
you once saw a shark with no eyes.
He smelled of seaweed and rotten sand
and wore a beard of torn flesh.
In dark pits,
where his eyes once were,
milky clots festered and dried.
The boardwalk warms our sand-caked feet
as we turn our backs on the orange sky.
You say your father’s boot
crushed his cartilage neck.
You felt a sucking sadness
inside your chest
like oysters in mud at low tide.
Fins pulled off to bait a crab trap
looked like angel skin sloughed off in flakes.