The Blessed Impermanence of Things

They say the only constant is change, and they would be right (whomever they may be.)

The image above is magic, or near enough. It is time travel, through a camera. Though not in the normal way. A camera, like starlight shows us what was. What was in the moment when the shutter opened and silver halide (once, now a microchip) was exposed to light for a brief moment. But sometimes photographers get brave, and we take our time machines for a more exotic drive. That photo was many, many tries in the making. It is a four second exposure, four seconds of my life out of a whole evening where I crouched before our hearth, a match in one hand and the remote shutter for my camera in the other.

Over and over the ritual went, strike the match (on the hearth, the only way to light it one handed), open the shutter, draw patterns with fire, close the shutter, repeat.

Four seconds, captured forever in a single image. Magic, or time travel, you choose.

But of course it isn’t forever. That image that your browser just downloaded is a JPEG, what we call a lossy image format. Every time it is changed, saved again it loses data. Every time it degrades a little. The edges blur, the pixels jump into the wrong places and eventually, someday, those four seconds will be gone.

Dead stars shining

Like starlight, that is the past of a star, playing on our retinas. Like the star (perhaps), those four seconds, are already gone, we just can’t see it yet.

Humans, mere blinks that we are ourselves, can pretend for a while that some things are permanent. Mountains for instance, seem solid enough, until they are not (usually dramatically).

On the windy, wild shores of the great inland seas that raised me there was (keyword) an arch of stone under which the waves pounded and through which the wind howled of a winter storm. It had always been that way for as long as humans could remember, until, one day this winter is simply wasn’t anymore.

Long exposure image of chaotic surf

What was, won’t be

I grew up watching my father’s ritual at the record player. Watching his calloused hands slide that black disk out of its sleeve with a shoosh, spinning it on its edge between his palms with practiced ease. The smooth, quiet motions of his hands with the brushes under which the record turned, cleaning the delicate grooves.

The first gentle hiss of the needle touching vinyl and then the room filled up, right to the rafters, with sound. I sat in my child’s body on the floor and drowned happily in the music. Someone said to me recently, as I repeated my father’s ritual and suffused our living room with thick, sweet music that every time I played that antique vinyl it came closer to not existing anymore.

And I nodded down at the platter spinning, and realized this truth was both the reason records are sacred for me, and the vast crevasse across which we are divided. On one side stand those who have seen the luminous impermanence of things and been awed to silence by their holiness, and on the other those for whom this same impermanence is terrifying.

Take a deep breathe and let go of the need for things to stay the same, they already aren’t.

The molecules of your body were stars, and earth, and tectonic plates, dinosaurs, and ancient ferns and now: you.

Someday they will be wild horses, roses, a bonsai in a mossy garden, someday when you are gone (or parts of you.)

The gift of now, the burden of forever

I looked down at that record spinning on the platter, at the needle riding the undulating grooves, felt the music playing through my pores and nodded. “Yes, someday it will no longer be a record. Its purpose, its telos (an ultimate object or aim) is to give us beautiful music. If it expires doing what it was meant to do, that is something to celebrate. If it never expires because it was never allowed to be what it was meant to be? That would be terrible, truly.”

Every-time my horse takes a leap in joy, a buck of happiness. Every time he breaks into a full and free run I know, because I am human, that this might be his last moment. I know a thousand ways in which that moment of jubilant horseness could be the end. And yet. If he were never to run, to buck, to squeal with glee as he out raced the wind; would he really be a horse at all?

This is what I have learned in the eyes of creatures who live in the moment: that this is what matters. Being in the fullness of all that means. Irregardless of what comes next.

The star after all burned out a hundred thousand years ago, but still we see its past glimmering in the night sky and will perhaps for unknown lifetimes to come. When it goes, well it will have already been gone.

Nothing is forever

Nothing is forever might sound like a threat, a curse from on high but really, what makes our moments precious is that they are numbered. They will eventually run out and there will be no more. We do not carry the whole of time on our shoulders, we do not stride across galaxies, and this should come as some relief. The arches that our grandmothers stood in the surf and stared up at will be twin fingers of rock our children play around, and someday will be smooth empty stand. And this makes them precious, luminous, holy.

The unbearable beauty of our perishing world is that the record cannot give us the gift of her music without giving up a bit of herself. She must be slowly destroyed to share what is hers alone to share. But you might think, I could save it, never play it and keep it forever. The universe, I am afraid, would tell you no. Even in its protective sleeve the vinyl record slowly but surely is worked upon by the rules that govern atoms and molecules and grows slowly more brittle and finally would turn to dust, untouched, unplayed.

And this I think might be the greatest tragedy of all: that too many of us turn to dust without ever having been played.

Drop of water hangs suspended over ripples in bowl

The gift of imperminence

I was raised (theologically) by scowling old white men on the permanence of God. That he (of course) was unchanging and eternal. But I have learned to listen to the earth beneath our feet, the stars in their burning multitudes, and they all laugh at such a notion. If all things are, as we say, from the Divine then surely the Divine did not make all that is utterly different than Herself.

Surely She too is change, not the same today as when the universe exploded into bright being. I think, perhaps, that something in those countless eons, even (dare we say) ourselves, has made an impression. And yet we humans, who thinks mountains are forever how could we ever grasp the slow change of the Divine as They give layer upon layer of Themself for the blessing of all that is? In one staggering moment for all (as my tradition would claim) or uncountable millennium of giving Self in blessing bit by infinitesimal.

A Divine LP drowning us in beautiful music, wearing out at a rate that makes stars look hasty? And playing Herself for us, for everything, knowing the cost? Always changing, and unafraid of that change. Is that not truly power, blessing, and gift? Is that not something to catch our breath in wonder?

Play the record, beloveds. Play the record of your souls, give the gift of blessing you have been given to share.

Lest we turn to dust, having never been played.

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