On Transience


Out­side my office win­dow the wind comes up in a tree that yes­ter­day had been a sin­gle big red bon­fire. Now, half the branch­es are bare, the leaves tossed around and away like bright embers. I’ve missed the pho­to­graph I had want­ed to take of the full red tree.

Mean­while the lake across the street and the sky above it have turned the famil­iar autumn shade of Seat­tle gray. 

Lines from a well-known Mary Oliv­er poem come back to me: “Does­n’t every­thing die at last, and too soon?”

Oh, yes they do. And then I remem­ber that she, too, is gone.

Some days it feels like try­ing to hold onto any­thing per­ma­nent­ly — the state of a rela­tion­ship, some per­son­al pride, some good idea — is a futile effort. 

In a big­ger way, I see how we may try hang­ing on to some­thing of val­ue — a job maybe, a mar­riage, all the places phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal we’ve learned to set­tle into. But then we wake one day and sense the abyss, sense how some­thing is rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent, and it’s no longer right to stay there. It can be so hard for that red leaf to let go of a branch that has held and nur­tured it. The wind knocks it around vio­lent­ly for awhile and the leaf feels like it’s going to be torn in two before the moment comes of will­ing­ness to let go.

I don’t think our par­tic­u­lar soci­ety and its deep­er belief struc­tures help us all that much with the tran­sience of things. Anx­i­ety and numb­ness are promi­nent norms for man­ag­ing losses. 

I remem­ber when my own moth­er died some years ago. She was quite old and her death was not unex­pect­ed. I car­ried the grief pre­tend­ing it was­n’t there. Then, Bill, one of the butch­ers at a local super­mar­ket saw me. I did­n’t know him as any­body except a guy with whom I liked to banter. 

Hey, you okay?” he called out from the oth­er side of his counter. 

Oh, you know, Bill, my moth­er died a few days ago,” I said. “It must show.” 

Bill imme­di­ate­ly came out from behind the counter, a big guy even big­ger than me. He put his arm around my shoul­der. “That’s real­ly tough,” he said to me qui­et­ly. “That’s real­ly, real­ly tough.” I had­n’t actu­al­ly felt the grief until that moment — when the guy at the meat counter remind­ed me to feel.

Tran­sience isn’t just an “artis­tic” emo­tion, a del­i­cate phi­los­o­phy of wabi-sabi. The leaf gets banged around, some­times quite a lot. And some­times it hurts like hell, and espe­cial­ly for all the ener­gy we put into pre­tend­ing it isn’t so.

Out­side my win­dow, the wind has come up again and leaves twist into the sky like a star­tled flock of red birds. 

None of this is to say we ought to give up when things that are of val­ue are at stake. Some­times, of course, it is right to resist and to fight back. But can you fight the chang­ing of sea­sons? We can go into our hous­es and light a fire because at the core, we do feel cycles at their end­ing — we know this in our hearts and feel the chill on our skin. The wheel keeps turn­ing and we are turn­ing with it, though in a pri­vate hour we might dear­ly hope otherwise.

We go into our hous­es and light fires against the dark­ness, remind­ed (by anoth­er poet who has passed on) that the dark­ness around us is deep. 


  • Byron Murray wrote:

    Dan. How to write what you feel, know or observe? You inspire that with each post. I tell peo­ple in my AA group to be aware of those taps on the shoul­der. You can call it God, Des­tiny or even the uni­verse try­ing to get your atten­tion. I look back on those many taps that I ignored. Instead of telling myself that I should have I look at the taps that I lis­tened to. It is those taps that have helped me on my paths, take the road less trav­elled. Some are very dra­mat­ic like the pass­ing of a par­ent or a good friend. And these past 5 years for me has been the pass­ing of rel­a­tives and close friends. Out of my grief comes some under­stand­ing about myself and my role in life around me. It is hard work to take that road less trav­elled when it is eas­i­er to fall back into the safe­ty of what you know and where you are most com­fort­able. It is not so easy to get out of your com­fort­able chair and actu­al­ly begin a dif­fer­ent path. But there is that tap on the shoul­der. If you try to ignore it, it can become insis­tent. As I con­tin­ue I always go back to Jack­son Hole with that provo­ca­teur who was one who taped me hard on the shoul­der those many years ago. Thanks

  • Byron –Thank you, Byron. Wise words about those taps on the shoul­der. Some­times hard to attend to, but we ignore them at our per­il. One after anoth­er they bless us with chal­lenge and some­times with loss. With­out them we’d hard­ly know the uni­verse was there!

    Much appre­ci­a­tion to you!

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