My old bowl was just a bowl
Until it broke
And then it became a priceless lesson in impermanence
I have carried this poem with me since I first read it in a magazine when I was a teen. I don’t know who wrote it and I have never been able to find the attribution. Yesterday I was reminded of it.
My grandmother died last year, and I brought some of her glasses home to use in my own kitchen. As careful as I was trying to be, I managed to tap one of them just wrong in the washing process and ruin it – when you break a glass, it’s gone. In the moment of mourning, I thought, “Why do I bother with nice things?” Antique glasses are only waiting to break, and there is always the option to leave them gathering dust on the top shelf where I can’t do them any harm.
But I brought these home to use. The art of my life is in the aesthetic experience of living it; as many of my daily items as possible are objects I admire for their own sake. When I have a drink, whether it is water or wine, I want to be as present as I can to the act itself; each vessel is a chalice which contains the sacred moment. So, while there are times that the moment calls for a pint glass from the dollar store or an old jelly jar, there are others when I want to breathe the memory of something irretrievable.
And yet, I still suffer every time something gets broken, gets chipped, gets torn or etched or stained. Even as a child I remember feeling devastating loss when things would break. Entropy is universal, and uni-directional.
I think “Entropy” would be a good name for a cat.
So I stood there at the sink holding this priceless lesson in impermanence, and felt myself drawn and quartered on the compass; the love of lovely things and the pain of losing them, the banality of disposable consumer goods but the ease with which I can part with them.
How do I live fully, completely, here, present. How do I love in this body, with its whirring, ticking gears shot through with the intangible frequency of life, when it can suffer terrible torment and be put to ill use? How can I send my heart out into the twining with others, knowing they can be wrenched away or subjected to unspeakable cruelty that I am powerless to prevent?
It is not histrionics to look at the events in our world today and fear potential horrors. We’d have to be fools and worse to think ourselves inherently superior to those who have perpetuated such in the past. As Solzhenitsyn points out,
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”
I looked out and saw the world around me crumbling. I saw communities, family, friends, possessed by collective monomania, willing to rend apart hearts and hearths in the pursuit of illusory safety in some crowd, any crowd, bewitched by ice-glinting light in a frozen port that offered some sanctuary when the sea of ambiguity felt shifting and hostile.
We are social animals. Who among us readily chooses to be derided, exiled, shamed? Who among us can confront betrayal and not rail at the skies? Who among us does not feel that desire to belong inside, and a terror of being cast out?
The price of membership cannot, however, be my soul. I learned long ago, and at great cost, that to compromise my integrity in a bid for belonging would leave me with neither. To remain steadfast in adherence to what I perceive to be true, and to eschew what I perceive to be false, however, requires that I learn the devices of the Stoics. I must become unafraid of privation, of pain, of material loss.
And yet, this, my material body, is my vessel in the world. It is all well enough to stay alert and aware of the hijacking power of anger, of fear, of grief. But should we not sometimes allow ourselves to be hijacked by joy, to be overcome and at its mercy? Should we never take the risk to be shattered by love and the loss that it necessarily contains, as the yang contains the yin?
How do I wade hip deep in the silken, silted mud of life and still continue to breathe when half my heart takes the keys and drives alone on icy roads, leaving me behind? How can I pulse with lust when the only assurance I can demand is dust?
“Because a sycamore’s primitive bark is not elastic but frangible, it sheds continuously as it grows; seen from a distance, a sycamore seems to grow in pallor and vulnerability as it grows in height; the bare uppermost branches are white against the sky.” – Annie Dillard
That is how. To feel the fullness of life stretching my skin taught, to feel the shock and stagger of the rending membrane, to rub against the bark and stone and soil as the vellum sloughs away, to stand naked and raw and white against the sky; that is how.
I will raise a single glass to life, even as I cut my lips on priceless lessons in impermanence.
The flower essence Rock Water can support the process of softening rigid discipline and asceticism, and returning to a more embodied state.
(At the end of some posts, I will offer relevant insights and suggestions about tools I use, myself or with clients, to support the transformative process that is healing.)