All in Flux, From Every Scale, From Every Vantage
Transience can be a good thing: we’re glad when a headache or a bout of the flu is transient. It means the ailment doesn’t last and we feel better. We experience a kind of quotidian transience. (I have a cold as I write this piece, and I will be glad when it’s over).
For physicists and philosophers, everything is transient. Stars die, albeit over enormously long periods of time. Heraclitus’ observation that “no (hu)man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and s/he is not the same (hu)man” is so well-known that, despite its truth and fame, it’s undeservedly nearly clichéd.
In science, nature, and in the grand scheme of human ideas about both, transience is essentially ineluctable and inevitable, outside our realm of control.
In these times, we also see an involuntary and terrible transience caused not by natural phenomena but by human hands, with consequences both intentional and ignored.
Under the current Administration in Washington, families are split up at the border. The practice continues despite court orders meant to stop it: a New York Times headline ominously reads: “Migrant Children Moved Under Cover of Darkness to a Texas Tent City.” (9.30.18)
In earlier times, the homeless were called transients, and so—in reality—they still are. Euphemisms don’t change circumstances. On the 26th of September, Anna Scott reported on KCRW’s “Press Play” that one downtown LA shelter housed 270 minor children on just one average night; one hundred of them were less than five years old.
In other parts of the globe, the transience of place is far worse. We are becoming a world of unwilling nomads, slipping back in time.
Outside the human realm, National Geographic magazine reports that climate change has already brought “widespread and consequential” impacts, and lists seven species in imminent danger of extinction: the orange-spotted filefish; the quiver tree; the polar bear; the Adelie penguin; North Atlantic cod; all coral worldwide; and the golden toad, which they believe may already be extinct. These plants and animals seem about to experience the transience of no return.
Thus far, what I describe are depictions of transience as public phenomena. Though we should care deeply about these issues out of a sense of basic morality and out of concern for our children’s children, if we are fortunate, these are examples of someone else’s transience, something we experience from a distance.
The kinds of transience we feel directly are most often in our private lives—moving from one city to another, the loss of a relationship—homesick and heartsick, that sort of thing. I’ve been lucky that way: I’ve lived, by choice, in the same house for many years, and my marriage is both long-term and solid.
The changes that have come to me, however, have arrived with mixed emotions. And transiency is ultimately change.
Generally, I write late at night, and most often the house is quiet as the midnight hour passes on its way towards dawn.
Somehow however, crickets—multiple crickets—have invaded the wall between our kitchen and my office. I believe they are right beneath the loosened drywall.
At first, their chirping disturbs me. I get up from my desk again and again. I don’t know what to do. I don’t think crickets are going extinct. I want to punch the wall. I want to kill the goddamn loud fucking crickets. Then I don’t. I begin to find their rhythm soothing. I begin to write.
I think about when my kids were little and I become sentimental, nostalgic. My three daughters are grown now—childhood is indeed transient. I miss being the father of small children—amusement parks, trips to the coast and collecting seashells, themed little kid birthday parties—but I respect and appreciate their adulthood. I am now learning from them, developing two-way streets between and among smart and thoughtful independent adults. It’s hard sometimes, but volitional, not forced. It’s me that needs to change, and it’s a good thing.
Transience is both good and bad, it’s neutral, an instrumentality, like a violin—soothing and moving when played well, an affront to the ears when badly stroked.
Transience acts as such a strange phenomenon—frustratingly neutral, devastatingly awful and transcendently beautiful, sometimes all at once—depending on angle and perspective.
My parents have both died—within 15 months of one another, not surprising given their 50 years of marriage. (Research says that’s what often happens.) They were not easy years for them, neither economically nor emotionally. It’s been a few years now, but I often still feel the presence of their absence and the absence of their presence. The Earth is four-and-a-half billion years old; our species, just 200,000. Perhaps we are all quite transient.
In life there are moments of transience and moments of permanence; it’s often hard to discern the difference.
I think about the words “transient” and “ephemeral,” similar in many ways, so different in others. Transience is about space and place, geography, while the ephemeral refers to time. In the end, both imply our inevitable impermanence, in other words, both for good and bad, that which makes us human.
Coda: The Shroud
The shroud, the grail—always a search; Flight 370, dense prose, impenetrable brush, the allergies of Che Guevara—stop and frisk; the long walk home from the local pub, sea lions barking, Central Coast, I can’t see well enough to drive—one more for the road, sirens speak in syllables, blue lights flashing, I seldom remember sunscreen, I want you, but I cannot—for the life of me (cliché intended )—recall why; the weight of colonies of kelp impress my sense of heaven, an afterlife unintended by God or man, nature unimpressed with our human parade, all-too-often sullied by our common obsession with circus animals, nothing wild; the bartender eyes me warily. She invokes the 2nd Law, rightly so, X-Ray results in limbo, who gives a shit?, Yeats and then Achebe—things fall apart, like I said, the second law, and all the other laws, stipulated, my thoughts form more slowly now, I’m not looking for anything anymore: cop cars cruise, I no longer believe that they’re looking for me either, or really looking at all, introspective with their radios and tablets, checking their Instagram accounts just like the rest of us, Snapchat that street corner collar: You Go, Girl; a thin transparency now marks my very existence—you know how it is; I need another drink, but the bars are all closed.
Illustrated by Anna Bu Kliewer