Impermanence: reflections on a difficult day

In Buddhism there is the concept of impermanence.  It’s the idea that everything is always changing, and that our attachment to things as they are can be a source of suffering.  We cannot keep people, situations . . . . life itself, from changing.  When we cannot flow with that, with non-attachment to the ways things were, then it can hurt.  Badly.

Impermanence, however, can be a blessing and a comfort to those of us who are in a bad space, whether in suffering or indecision or waiting for something, anything, sometimes, to happen.  Last week I had a busy day taking my son to see the Hamlet at the local university.  At first glance, the day looked like it could almost be a holiday.  No lessons that day, just a short drive to see excellent performers in a version of one of Western civilization’s great plays.  A classic! Then we had lunch with dear friends, and after a short rest at home my son went on to a cherished activity at the library, leaving me home for a (rare) solitary evening of relaxation and reading.  See?  It really did seem like a good idea at the time.

I hadn’t sufficiently taken into account quite a bit, it turned out.  I had to leave the house fairly early in the morning.  It’s really hard to get the old stiff protesting body consort to move without my usual slow walking, stretching, resting, then stretching some more that makes leaving the house more pleasure than pain.  Once at the university, there’s the parking, walking back to get the parking validation, putting it in the car, and walking farther than I usually walk in three days to get to the theatre (remember, wherever you go, you’ve got to have enough strength for the return!).  At the theatre is the line-up to pay for the reserved tickets, then the line-up to enter the theatre in the midst of 398 other high school students and teachers.  We were told we had to be there 45 minutes before the starting time.  I hadn’t known that I would have to stand for most of that time.  The play was wonderful — except that it was 3 hours and 40 minutes long rather than the two hours  I’d originally expected.  Fortunately, I had with me a protein bar to eat surreptitiously while Shakespeare played on over my usual lunch time.  With insulin-dependent diabetes one needs to take these things into account.

Lunch was another 1/2 mile away in the student cafe area, but our friends’ packed lunches were in their car that was 3/4 of a mile away — in the other direction.  Some of the kids and I waited reasonably patiently.  The lunch chatter was fun, but in the back of my mind I was remembering that the car that might bring me home to my comfy chairs was 3 days’ walk plus 1/2 mile away, and I with a son who is not quite old enough to drive (and that’s if he were interested in driving anyway).  Sigh.  At least in airports they have those golf carts to get around in!

It took a long time to get to the car, and I blessed whoever it was who hadn’t given me a ticket for overstaying my time by 3 hours.  But there was still the drive home and the getting through a simple supper before collapse on the couch became available.

Now, one of the ways that I usually live through difficult sessions of pain is by reading.  I have semi-completed books on the go for every sort of attention level possible in the moment.  In some situations only short sections and wide margins will do.  I love the books that have chapters of only a few pages, but where each chapter is a gem, such as Rachel Naomi Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings.  Stay with me here, I haven’t totally strayed off topic:

There are some evenings, though, when my muscles won’t let me rest in one position and my brain won’t let me attend to even a sentence or two.  When reading is impossible I move to aural comfort —- cd’s or internet podcasts while I move around finding a spot that might hold me for a few minutes.  Most nights it’s Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ The Power of the Crone series; that night it was Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being.  TV or DVDs are too stimulating with the shifting of images along with a soundtrack.  I need distraction and nourishment, but not too much of it, if you know what I mean.

That evening while I tossed and turned in the well-padded chairs I was reminded by Tippett’s guest, singer and composer Meredith Monk, of impermanence.  Monk was speaking of her partner’s recent death and how all we leave behind, in the end, is love.  I thought about how things change. I was reminded, then, that impermanence meant that my job in that moment was to witness my pain with compassion and to wait for the inevitable change.  And it came.  It took a few hours, but the pain subsided just as tempests do.

What was left?  Tempests usually leave a legacy of damaged living spaces, but this tempest left my living space, my dear body, a home of kindness and peace.  And my legacy?  I so hope that others will be able to say it is love, just love.



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