Friday, June 18, 2010

Celebrate Impermanence

My yoga teacher, Beryl Bender Birch, has coined the term, "celebrate impermanence". She has been using this term now for several years and basically it means: be here now, stay present, nothing lasts forever so don't long for the past or yearn for the future. Get your head in the here and the now. A few years ago she had a bunch of t-shirts printed up that stated simply and in relatively small print: Celebrate Impermanence. These are beloved t-shirts for those of us lucky enough to have one. And as you might expect, when they ran out, they ran out; celebrate impermanence. No this is not going to be an entry about how much I miss my old t-shirt; I still have mine. It is a term that has been on my mind lately, though. We always need to remember it and Beryl makes a habit of reminding us. Usually, when things are going well in our lives, it is very easy to understand "celebrate impermanence", at least intellectually. We think, "cool, yeah, I get it". By it is a much harder concept to put into practice.
My yearly 7-day retreat with Beryl is coming up, and I am grateful for another 7 days of truly doing the work of celebrating impermanence. This spring I lost my childhood friend to cancer; four bantam chicks, seven quail and one duck to predators; I nearly sheared off my thumb in the garden; and yesterday I had to give away my sole surviving duck, Gary, to a farmer who had more ducks for him to hang out with.
These are the kinds of things that make us think, "how on earth am I supposed to celebrate this?? This is when the real work begins. I celebrated my friend's passing with photos, a visit to her family and a FaceBook memorial page. I also planted a small rose bush in her memory. And of course, I cried. Crying sometimes feels like such a luxury! Our lives get busy and we feel we need to "keep ourselves together". Looking through old photos, visiting with her grieving family and planting something alive into the earth in her memory left me with a feeling of celebrating her life. How then to celebrate the impermanence of life? Being present with these little rituals I set for myself allowed me to cry and grieve, a very important part of letting go. The grieving was the celebration. What happens to us if we don't grieve? We get angry, we may enter a state of denial, we might even put something out of our mind, banish it altogether. This is a recipe for disaster: psychological and physical ailments will surely follow. Grieving allows us to recognize our own impermanence as well as that of other loved ones. It can actually help us stay present in the moment of our loss and with what we cherish.
Well, losing a few birds after that was no big deal. I mean, they're birds! We raised them from day-old chicks and we were sad to have lost them, but we did know that predators are definitely a risk when raising a backyard flock. We could celebrate having raised them, but how to celebrate their impermanence? This is when you really need to start thinking about the cycle of life, about how every living thing on earth is basically food for some other living thing! Most of the time we don't like to think about it, because then we start wondering who's is going to eat us! I did lose some sweet little birds, but now I have some well fed and healthy raccoons and fishers in my backyard! Dammit. Our sadness and grief are all part of that cycle, though. We can mourn a death one instant and rejoice at a birth the next. Staying present allows us to do both fully. We can't truly rejoice if we never allow ourselves to mourn. Mourning is a celebration of what we have lost; rejoicing is a celebration of what we have gained. Life involves both.
We can get good at this, with practice. Mourning, rejoicing, staying present. And then life throws you a curve ball.
How delighted I was to finally have a raised-bed for my vegetable patch this year- no more grass creeping in, much better soil, a few cute stepping-stones I put in around the perimeter. All it needed was a good sturdy fence, you know, to keep the predators out. How proud and relieved my husband was going to be to find I had done the fencing all by myself! I had a heavy mallet, a tape-measure and all my metal stakes. I was ready. The first stake went in beautifully. I measured carefully for the next one and drove it into the ground, only to find it clanking up against a rock. I moved it slightly and pounded again; more rock. I moved it once more, checking my measurements, and started to pound. And pound. I choked up on that mallet to give it one more bang and..... pain and blood, lots of it! Oh, my gosh, even more! The top of my thumb had been torn of, just above the cuticle! I ran up the steep hill toward the house and I could feel blood splashing down on my legs. And splashing. And splashing. All from such a tiny little digit! This was definitely an Emergency Room moment! After washing it, nearly fainting, and then drinking some water, it was off to the ER for me (so much for impressing my husband - he drove).
A few hours, a few stitches, and one tetanus shot later, I found myself at home wondering, how the heck did that happen? I realized I had not actually hammered my thumb but rather tore it from the top of the metal stake! Not exactly a moment of aware presence! It was only then that I noticed I was still wearing my grungy gardening clothes, now quite blood-stained. I looked down to notice just exactly which t-shirt I was wearing that day: Celebrate Impermanence.