Archives for posts with tag: impermanence of life

I’ve been doing a lot of snow shoveling lately.  We had two big snow storms last week (the first major storms of the year) that left about a foot of snow on the ground.  In lieu of lifting weights or running (my usual fitness regimen), I’ve been following the snow-shoveling workout.  Perhaps I should develop the concept for a DVD or maybe it’s a franchising opportunity.  But first I have to figure out how to make it work in warm climates.

And that may prove important because it seems that many biomes which were once reliably cold throughout the winter are now mutating into climates that would be found much farther south.  Here in the Northeast, for example, last week’s snow was followed by warm days with temperatures in the 60s.  With the accompanying warm breezes, it felt like December in Florida, if not Hawaii.

The balmy days melted most of the snow, the remainder of which was washed away by an almost-tropical rainstorm that followed.  Today, it is as if the snowstorms of last week never happened.  It makes me wonder, why did I bother shoveling that snow in the first place?  Is there a deeper motivation than simply getting from my front door to where the car is parked?

The cycle—snow, shovel, melt, repeat—reminds me of the mandala sand paintings of Buddhist monks.  (Last year, the wrapping of Christmas presents put me in mind of the same thing; see December 22, 2012).  A snowfall creates a blank canvas on which we carefully create an intricate design (although because this is a process of removal, it is more akin to etching or carving a woodblock).  We plow roads, clear pathways, and dust off our cars, taking away only what is necessary to reestablish the transportation routes that are the otherwise invisible patterns of our daily lives.

And then the weather changes and our creations vanish, melting away into oblivion.  Here, the analogy to the sand paintings is more literal, as the carved snow transforms into water and is absorbed into the earth or trickles into storm drains or streams and thence, eventually, into the ocean.  We realize the impermanence of life, recognize the relative unimportance of material things and are healed in the process.

If only it healed my aching back as much as my psyche.

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Warning:  Insect photo below.

Fall returned this week, like an old friend who had been away visiting others for a few months (family in the southern hemisphere, I believe).  It is good to see the autumn come around again and bittersweet to watch as our houseguest, summer, packs up and leaves.  We had some good times these past three months but we’ll have more fun with a different crowd in the months ahead.

The changing season gives me a warm feeling, even while the weather is turning decidedly cooler.  On the one hand, a swim in the pool has almost suddenly lost its appeal (time to close it soon) and I can actually wear long trousers, having faced up to the possibility a week ago.  In the morning, I need a sweatshirt when I go out for a run.

On the other hand, sleeping is much more comfortable.  The air is crisper—although not yet as dry as it will be in winter—and warms up by late morning.  It can be almost as hot as in summer, in an absolute sense, but the heat is usually moderated by cool breezes.  The sun is lower and shade is more plentiful; it provides a handy respite from the still-intense rays of light.  All things considered, this a good time to be outdoors.

Unless you are a vegetable.  Many of the plants have withered away, leaving only bare spots behind.  I’ve already mentioned the shortening day and increasing solar screening by adjacent trees (see August 25, 2013).  Now, with overnight temperatures dropping into the 50s and 60s, the vegetables’ growth rate has slowed to a crawl.  The tomatoes, green beans and squash are still producing but not as much and not as often.

The vegetables are starting to miss their summer companion and will soon be joining its exodus from the garden.

This afternoon, while sitting by the pool and garden and reading the Sunday paper, we stopped to listen and heard…nothing.  As of today, the 17-year cicadas have gone silent.

The wooing is done, the females have chosen their mates and have flown, clumsily, off to nearby tree branches to lay their eggs.  Their simple task complete, the males have promptly dropped dead.  When I poke around the ornamental gardens or in the weeds at the edge of the woods, I find their bodies scattered about randomly.  Their eyes are still open (I don’t think they can be closed) but the life—and the buzzing—is gone.

After they lay their eggs, the females will also die.  Then, by summer’s end, the eggs will hatch and the next generation of Brood II nymphs will drop to the ground.  They will slowly burrow into the ground where they will spend the next 17 years feeding and—ever so slowly—growing.

The cicadas will be out of sight (a mere six to 18 inches beneath the surface) and, for most of us, out of mind until some time in early 2030.  I’ll place a reminder in my calendar, easily the first, and for about 16 years, the only, entry for that year.

Easily the hardest part of the potting up operation was deciding how many and which seedlings to pot up.

I’m happy to say that our germination rate was very high and that most of our seedlings are healthy and viable.  But we were not very optimistic back in late March and early April and sowed eight or 12 seeds of each vegetable variety and an entire tray—that’s 72 seeds—of basil.  Consequently, we have many more seedlings than we can fit in the garden.

For the squashes, we sowed eight seeds of each variety and all of them germinated.  We picked the four largest (of each) to pot up and that left us with eight seedlings still in the seed tray.  They seem particularly robust and yet we do not have room for them.  On the other hand, I cannot bear the idea of tossing them out.  After all, we raised them from tiny seeds.

So I made an executive decision…and deferred until later.  Back into the house they went with their transplanted siblings.

We had an even higher factor of safety against germination failure with the cucumbers having planted 12 seeds of each, almost all of which germinated.  We filled an entire drainage tray with transplants, seven of each variety, but it is still more than we can use.  Perhaps we will find family or friends who will take some.

And it still left us with eight seedlings in the seed tray.  There is not really room for them inside the house so this time, we tried to be less sentimental about it.  We walked the tray over to the refuse pile behind the house, said some words of thanks to the seedlings for giving us their best, and, in acknowledgement of the cycle of life (and death), tossed them onto the pile.

I know this is the way of gardening but I did not feel satisfied.

And when we got to the tomatoes, it became clear that we needed another plan (or at least more time to think about it).  We sowed 12 seeds of each variety and only have room in the garden for two.  We potted up three of each (to protect against seedling failure) but when we were done, the tray of seedlings looked almost untouched.  Fifty healthy tomato plants are too many to throw away.

So, we will try to find homes for the seedlings we can’t use.  Failing that (and it is unlikely that we will find homes for all of them), I will practice letting go and toss the unwanted seedlings onto the heap.  Maybe this will motivate me to start that compost pile I’m always talking about.

While engaged in elf duty these last few days, I realized that wrapping gifts is a good example of when accepting a less-than-perfect level of “good enough” can be a good thing.  Regardless of the choice of paper and ribbon, the crispness of the folds and the precision of the taping and bow-tying, the wrappings will be torn off and discarded by the gift’s recipient.  Often, in the case of an excited child for example, the opening will be done in a frenzy with little notice paid to anything except, maybe, the gift tag.

This is especially true of stocking stuffers, which in my house are numerous.  If I tried to precisely wrap and ribbon all of the candy, toys, novelties and other tchotchkes that go into our oversized socks, I’d be up all night for a week.  I know because for many years this is exactly what I did and exactly how long it took.  A few Christmases ago, however, I discovered the efficacy of tissue paper.  It is easy to cut and fit around small and often oddly-shaped items and with its soft and crinkly appearance can hide a multitude of taping sins.  Since then, I’ve been getting to bed a bit earlier this time of year.

In some ways, the wrapping and subsequent unwrapping of holiday gifts is similar to the mandala sand paintings created by Buddhist monks.  Packages are assembled (starting with the Black Friday ritual), decorated (albeit with varying levels of care and precision) and arranged under a tree, within stockings or on a table (or some other centralized location) to create an elaborate tableau, a detailed picture of generosity and love.  Then, on Christmas morning (or whatever holiday is being celebrated), the scene is ritually deconstructed as paper and ribbons are torn away and discarded (and aren’t we all excited children in this context?).

But there the similarity ends.  In the Buddhist tradition, the sand would be returned to nature (usually a river or other body of water) to symbolize the impermanence of life.  In our more materialistic culture, the wrappings are discarded (without ceremony) but the goodies remain.