Enduring Impermanence

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

I do not like this state of affairs one bit.

My teacher’s husband was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It has already metastasized to his liver. My dear friend just lost one cousin to stroke as she helped his brother with his chemotherapy appointment. A long-time friend, five years younger than me, is near the end of her fight with the stage four pancreatic cancer diagnosed six months ago.

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

Everything in the outer world that fills my heart with joy hangs by the slimmest of threads, ready to end in nothingness. The people I love, and the people who create the places and things I love to do are so fragile compared to entropy’s onward march to oblivion. How does one tender heart hold both love and loss in equal measure?

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

When it gets this ugly inside my head, I head to the ocean, head to the solace of the sea. Sitting on sand beside blue-green water, breathing to the rhythm of wave in, wave out, impermanence does not frighten me. Each wave breaks on shore in its own fashion, unique and separate for one brief moment, and then dissolves back to ocean’s depths. Light dances, each sparkle on the water existing for barely a second, yet the air shimmers like diamonds.

With only an eye-blink the scene changes. The water darkens from blue-green to turquoise. A cloud scuds across the sun and the ocean is cobalt. A line of pelicans glides overhead, wings motionless, and disappears into gray dots on the eastern horizon. The retreating tide exposes sand that moments ago was sea floor. Here, impermanence creates beauty that quiets my thoughts and soothes my soul.

Back home, it’s the impermanence of chlorophyl that creates the world of color in which I walk each morning.  Trees glow with garnet, topaz, and carnelian in morning light. With each night more green disappears; with each morning fewer jeweled leaves adorn the trees. I walk on carpets of color that crunch and crackle under my feet. Impermanence brings beauty once again.

My friend is not yet so close to death that time has lost its meaning. Her hours are long. Her days drag on even longer, the monotony broken by visits from friends and hospice nurses, and from the nodding off that the narcotics deliver in place of real sleep. She bears the pain better than the boredom. An active life that six months ago was filled with career, travel, and a vivacious social life is pared down to a narrow path between recliner, bathroom and hospital bed.

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

I brought my harp to her house and played for her today.

I’ve not played for one specific person at their bedside before. My hospital harping is in the hallway – I don’t have direct patient contact. I play there with the intention and hope that Music will bring ease to whoever might be troubled, be it their body, heart, or soul, but without knowing if or how patients are affected.

My friend was tucked up in her recliner, staring at the muted television when I arrived. As I set up my harp and bench, I told her that she did not have to do anything – no applause or conversation – but drift with the music as much as she was able. I played my favorite Celtic tunes, the ones I know by heart – tunes that echo joy and heartbreak, tunes that remember journeys and leave-takings and lands and people lost or left far behind: Aran Boat Song, Skye Boat Song, Loch Broom, Glentain Glas, Inisheer, and more.

What my friend Kristin calls the “harp magic” did its work. Despite my own uncertainties and fumbled notes, her breathing deepened and she slept, deep restful sleep. When she awoke an hour later, she whispered one word: “soothing.” I told her I would come and play again if she liked. “Yes,” she said. “Please play again.”

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be. Impermanence marks every wave, every turning leaf, every breath, every life. My friend is dying. But today Music, the mystery wave that exists without form or substance, lives and works her magic. Today Music allows us both to endure impermanence. My friend finds moments of comfort and ease, and I find joy in and gratitude for sharing these moments with her.

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14 thoughts on “Enduring Impermanence

  1. I missed this post somehow and just now read it. Your statement “Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be,” Is just so very true for me too this year. I lost a dear friend and mentor from a sudden unexpected death and it rocked me. Still find it hard to believe he’s not here anymore. I think too as I age the impermanence is even more noticeable. I don’t like it because it’s out of my control but how to embrace it?
    I know your friend appreciates you helping her through this in your own way. I’m sorry for the losses by which you are being tossed off balance. Beautifully written. Peace be yours

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    1. I am sorry that you too are facing a large empty place where your friend should be. I haven’t found a way to embrace the impermanence – inviting it in for tea and sitting with it is the best I can do right now. I suspect that we will both be figuring out how to live with its ever-presence in our lives the longer we are still here. I guess it’s a good trade-off….Thanks for your kind thoughts and supportive words, Nanci.

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  2. Beautifully written. The people around you are so lucky to know such a caring soul. Your music and your compassion are surely easing their pain.

    The last year or so has been one of change for me as well. It seems everything is transitioning and I don’t know how to process it. When did life start moving so fast and force so many changes? Just when things settle down into a new normal, a new upheaval begins.

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    1. I am sorry that you are having to endure the life-ride on the tilt-a-whirl as well. I think this is the new normal. I try to keep in mind this bit of wisdom told to me when I was (unsuccessfully) trying to learn to water ski: keep your knees bent!

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  3. Thank you. I truly needed this grounding much more than I knew as the impermanence continues and I struggle to be at peace with it.

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  4. One day and suddenly the world is upside down – I know that feeling too. Two days, in fact. When I was told, and when she finally left me. But my dear, it is indeed the days between that matters most. Your music, and your presence – will make those days important and valuable. Stay strong, for your friend and yourself!

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  5. Lovely to read; I know just what you mean. My younger sister was diagnosed with leukaemia, in June this year. One day and your whole life changes. It has been hectic, like a roller coaster – very hard to adapt to everything. Keep strong and keep playing harp, to yourself, to your friend, or to other people. Stay positive! 🙂

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    1. Oh, Eliza, I am so sorry to hear that you and your family are going through such an upheaval. Wishing you everything you wished for me: strength and staying positive in the face of such a scary time.

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