How many times have I heard that one? Callie mulled over the phrase her yoga teacher used in class: Everything is impermanent.
“The past is behind us. The future is ahead of us. Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present,” she said, then smiled to see if her students got the little pun.
Beth, her teacher, lithe and beautiful, wise and happy-go-lucky, seemed to have it all figured out, while Callie just kept grinding away at things and hoping for something to give. She felt powerless to carve out her own path in life, letting things merely happen to her and sorting them out one by one.
As she rested in Savasana – corpse pose – at the end of class, Callie fell into a deep abyss, as always. It was her favorite part, a space where she could leave the worries and monkey-mind behind for a brief time. When Beth rang her Tingsha cymbals together three times to summon her students to regain awareness of their surroundings, roll over to their right side and rise slowly, Callie was always the last to resurface.
Methodically rolling up her mat after class on that particular Tuesday in September, Beth approached her and asked if she would like to have a tea together across the street from the yoga studio.
“My partner Haruki is there now waiting for me. Join us?” Beth said, sharing her easy smile with Callie.
“Oh, sure, that sounds great,” Callie replied, though she was a bit socially awkward most of the time, easily intimidated by those she felt had more control of their lives. She was always comparing herself to other women. Everyone else was more secure, had more money, better careers, prettier looks, better relationships. They were more grounded, more content, more interesting. Whatever she chose to notice, it was always just better for someone else.
Callie waited in the lobby for Beth to finish chatting with a few remaining students as they gathered their things, then caught Beth’s glance over to her with a nod, “Ready?” she asked cheerfully, and the two walked out the door and crossed the street to Perry’s Coffee and Tea. Haruki stood and waved from his table in the rear of the coffee house to let them know where he was as Beth gestured with her hands that they would be there after they got their teas.
“I’ve got this,” Beth announced as they were being rung up, for which Callie profusely expressed her gratitude.
As they waited off to the side of the counter for their aromatic concoctions to be made, Callie was momentarily distracted by two guys behind her and their conversation about a rapidly moving fire. She didn’t hear the part about where or when or any details as Beth suddenly steered her attention back with a comment about a painting hanging on the wall near them. Before Callie could respond, the barista called out to them that their order was ready. She never gave the fire another thought as the two grabbed their mugs and pastries and sauntered back to Haruki, Callie behind Beth, dutifully stepping in her hallowed footprints like the devotee and admirer that she was.
“Hi, my love,” Beth said as she leaned in for a kiss, her hands full with a Matcha Chai and blueberry muffin.
Setting her things down on the table, she turned aside to reveal Callie to her partner for a quick introduction. As the two settled in at the table, Callie noticed how Haruki watched Beth’s every graceful movement with deep attention.
“How was class today, beautiful ladies?” he asked, revealing his origins were of another place than America.
Beth turned to Callie, waiting for her response, suggesting with her eyebrows that she was the one who should answer the question.
“Oh!” Callie said, turning her gaze to Haruki, “Wonderful. Beth’s class is always wonderful. She’s the best.”
Beth just smiled and turned to Haruki and said, “I have the best students, it makes it easy. Callie here has been one of my most dedicated students for three years now,” she said. “She’s really come a long way with her practice.”
Callie didn’t feel like she had. On the outside she was flexible enough, strong enough, desirable qualities for yoga, sure. But on the inside, something else was brewing. A tension, a tightness, an inner lack of ease with life. A feeling of powerlessness and an inability to direct her own life down the path she wished for. She was a rudderless boat on a choppy sea. She knew it had a lot to do with her upbringing, her parent’s divorce at a young age, moving around a lot as her mom, a perpetual seeker, pieced together a new life as a single mother. Nothing felt concrete, solid or reliable in her life, having grown up with a constant flux and utterly unpredictable trajectory.
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Callie said, blushing a bit and as usual, unable to receive a compliment. “I have a LONG way to go still.”
“We all do, Callie, there’s no end point to growing, to learning. To becoming,” Beth said.
She always has the right answer, Callie thought, even if it feels trite or too easy, it sounded so…enlightened. Like the wood plaques her mom carried from home to home to hang on the next new walls, quotes on pages clipped out of Reader’s Digest then burned scalloped around the edges and covered with shellac. “Go placidly amid the noise and haste…” Callie suddenly flashed on her mom, ripping a page out of People Magazine at the dentist’s office on one visit as she winked at Callie in silent complicity.
Her mom still had those plaques in the one and only house she finally settled into two counties over from Callie, down a dirt road on the edge of pretty woodlands. Why did she wait until I left for college to do that, Callie often wondered. She rarely went to visit her mom these days, trying desperately to carve out her own life, their relationship carrying the heavy baggage of repeated upheavals and redesign she had no say in during a chaotic upbringing. Haruki cleared his throat to catch her attention, reeling her back into the present moment.
“Lifelong Learning,” he said in a gentle and accented voice, smiling at Callie. Callie just nodded.
Beth launched into a translation of sorts, clearly comfortable in her role. She rambled on a bit about how we never stop learning, how our teachers are everyone and everything we experience in life if we are awake enough to seize the opportunities. The discussion began to branch off into all kinds of realms broaching concepts Callie could grasp, then alternately barely find purchase with at all, at times feeling lost and dizzy in the swirling discussion above her head. Beth did most of the talking, while Haruki perched contentedly like a Buddha, smiling and nodding, occasionally interjecting some cryptic phrase before volleying it back to Beth to explain.
“I just feel like I don’t have much control of my life. I just wait for stuff to happen. I feel powerless to make decisions, I just freeze in fear of making the wrong choice, so I make none. I just move away from it instead of confronting it,” Callie blurted out when there was a break in Beth’s soliloquy.
“Sometimes we just have to let go a little bit, relinquish the yearning, the ‘control freak’ in us, to allow space for something purely natural yet vitally important to occur,” Beth said. “You don’t need to control anything to feel empowered, Callie. That action goes against the grain and defies the impermanent nature of all things. We are here to experience the ever-changing qualities of being human in a world we mostly don’t understand. We have to make choices, decisions, sure, but that requires being awake, not controlling.”
Just then Haruki seemed to come alive in the moment, like Beth’s Tingsha cymbals had just been lightly struck together to reawaken his consciousness. His eyes lit up and his face beamed with light.
“Hai! Hai! Yes! So desu ne,” he said joyfully.
“In Japan, we call it Mono no aware,” which he pronounced as MO-NO NO AH-WAH-DAY.
“It is the wistful pathos accompanied by the awareness of impermanence of all things in natural life. All is fleeting and dissolving into the next moment. There is nothing we can do about it. No choice. We are so sad because of this truth, but we must accept. Or else we suffer,” he explained.
Beth nodded to Haruki, and as though they had recited this litany together many times before to other audiences, Beth stated directly to Callie quite succinctly and perfectly, “That’s exactly right.”
“We cling to the good times and rue their quick departure. But the flip side is, when bad stuff starts happening, we forget that the saving grace is that it, too, has an end, it too is impermanent. That can provide such relief and reassurance in the worst of times. But usually, we just try to usher it out quickly thinking it’s going to last forever. Or pretend it’s not happening. And we certainly deny it has any value in our ever-changing life, we just want to get it over with and be happy again,” she said.
Callie blinked and nodded, knowing all too well about avoidance and denial and wishing for things to be good, to find the good life. She felt her phone vibrate and saw that it was her mom calling again, the third call since yesterday. She ignored this one, too.
“We experience that in class, right Callie? You are fully present in your pose – there is nowhere else to go in that moment but to be right in it. And even if it’s super challenging, we know it’s only for five breaths, or ten breaths, and then we will move on to the next challenge. It allows us to be fully engaged in that moment and aware of every little thing we are feeling. It’s so awakening and beautiful that way. We just need to learn to apply that practice to life.”
When she says we, she really means me, Callie thought to herself. She felt assured that Beth and Haruki both already had that all figured out in a perfected balance.
Haruki chimed back in, “John Lennon. He said, ‘Life is what happens to us while we are busy making other plans.’ You get? We miss the actions in the moment and then they are gone. We are not present, always planning, worrying, exercising power over something, trying to control future outcomes. We miss much life because we always want something else, to be somewhere else. What happened to Ram Das hippie idea, ‘Be Here Now’?”
Beth laughed and added, “The San Francisco painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti says that technology changed that, Haruki. He said that with cell phones and the Internet, everyone can be somewhere else now, never in their present place and time. He admonishes us for walking along staring at our phones instead of looking around at the trees and hearing the birds. He loathes seeing people in public places completely disengaged with each other while texting a conversation with someone who is somewhere else entirely!”
The two laughed together in an all-knowing way, leaving Callie to slip into her insecurity again as she pondered the sweet and elevated understanding the two shared, something she did not have with anyone but craved constantly. Well, maybe I have it with my cat, she thought to herself staring off into space.
Callie suddenly became aware of Haruki and Beth looking intently at her as if trying to gauge if she was surfing on their wavelength. They were awaiting her response, her engagement. She felt put on the hot seat to contribute something meaningful but came up empty and simply said, “I get it intellectually. But it’s hard to do.”
They smiled at her and nodded.
“Well, speaking of impermanence, guys. I have to take my leave of your delightful company and conversation and prepare for my class this afternoon,” Beth said, standing and quickly gathering up her things.
Haruki remained seated so Callie wasn’t sure what to do, as usual, challenged with even the slightest decision thrust upon her.
The lovers kissed across the table again and Beth turned to Callie with her easy smile and a wave and was gone. Haruki was again gently gazing at Callie in his unwavering calm serenity.
“Do you have to go or want to stay and talk some more?” he asked.
The two sat for a good hour more as Callie felt comfortable in Haruki’s presence. They walked a few blocks to a nearby park to sit in the sun as the afternoon light of late September felt warm and comforting while a cool breeze reminded them that the seasonal change was looming.
“How do you spell your name?” he asked as he passed her a bag of cashews he pulled from his day pack.
“C-A-L-L-I-E. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I thought maybe you are named after Kali, the Hindu goddess?” he said as a question, not assuming she knew of the deity just because she did yoga.
He knew well that people in the West thought only of yoga as a movement practice to work their bodies out and didn’t explore the esoteric practices or ancient teachings much. His assumption was correct as he read her blank expression as she shook her head.
“My parents are from Kansas, so….no,” Callie said.
“I’ll explain then. Kali governs the passage of time, change and the natural ending of life. She is not pretty like you but has fangs and a big tongue. Messy hair. She wears a garland of skulls and drips blood,” and with that description he tipped his head back and released a hearty laugh. “Because of the way she looks, she is often misunderstood. Kali is powerful, very powerful. In a good way. She exists to remind us that nothing escapes the all-consuming, inexorable march of time. Like what we talked about earlier, we have nothing but the present moment. Do not miss it,” he said, snapping his fingers and winking at Callie.
Callie rested on her bed at the end of that day, listening to Miles Davis and petting her cat, Blanco, as he purred in utter contentment across her chest. This cat possesses the moment, Callie thought. She reviewed the conversations she had with Beth and separately with Haruki. There was an ease with him that she hadn’t experienced with anyone and she felt it was because he was so at ease with himself. He was a gentle spirit and generous in nature, encouraging her to share her story. He contained a powerful essence, she felt, as they talked at the coffee house, under the sun in the park and on the walk back to their cars where they hugged goodbye. When she had asked him why he seemed so happy, how did he become that way, was he always so joyful, he smiled before speaking.
“You don’t get happiness. You give it.”
Callie tossed that one over and over. Could the key to her own empowerment be so simple? Her phone rang and reaching for it, Blanco was shaken from his reverie, the blissful moment gone. He jumped from the bed and scurried off to find his next episode of curious joy. Looking at the number on her screen, she answered the call.
“Hey, Mom. What’s up?”
On the other end of the line, her mother was sobbing, “Callie. Oh, Callie. I’ve been trying to reach you…”
“What is it, Mom?” sitting bolt upright now on the bed, concerned with her mother’s tone.
“It’s the house, Callie. It’s gone. There was a brush fire across the way…the lightning last night, the strong winds. It, it, it just went out of control so fast, everything. In an instant, my lord, just everything is gone.” She let out a mournful sob.
“Mom! Where are you? Let me come get you, are you ok, Mom?!” Callie said.
“I’m fine, honey. I’m ok. But, yes, honey. Please come get me. I’m at the Rec Center where we all went, the neighbors and I, for safety. Over here on Sycamore. Can you come now?” her mom asked, composing herself a bit.
“Of course, mom. I’ll leave right now. You can come stay with me. For as long as you need. I’m here for you. Everything will be fine.”
It was an automatic response from the depths of her heart, putting aside the years of heavy baggage to unpack at a later time.
“Mother Nature has all the say, there was nothing we could do, any of us. One minute everything was fine, the next it wasn’t. Just gone. Forever. Oh, Callie. What am I going to do, now, Callie, where will I live?”
Callie thought it an interesting question from a woman who had lived her whole life embracing impermanence when it came to matters of home.
“Mom. It’s all fine. Nothing lasts forever. Let’s just take care of right now. Together. I’ve got your back,” Callie reassured her mom.
Hanging up the phone and grabbing her keys, Callie paused and looked around her apartment for a moment, wondering just what it would be like to have her mom here for who knows how long, how it would all fit together. Blanco ran into the room and sat at the door, looking directly at Callie, sensing change.
“Blanco. I’m leaving and I’ll be back with mom. Don’t worry about the future, we will all be here together.”
Shutting the door behind her, Callie skipped out to the curb to her car, feeling powerful and free.
© 2020, Mary Corbin
Impermanent Nature is from the “Ephemerata” collection. Featured artwork: “Grace Arrives When Least Expected” – painting by Mary Corbin. No reprints without permission.