Thoughts on Self

Impermanence, Storms, and “Her Lips”

La Tempête (The Storm) by Pierre Auguste Cot, 1880 (Source: Wikipedia)

Echoing throughout the cement walls, the patter of rain on corrugated steel alters my mood, an emotional prosody from the clouds above. This is the rainy season on tropical islands. Gray days highlighted by brief reprises of melodic silence defined by solitary rays of sunlight or the careful brushstrokes of a rainbow between coastlines. Although the sound of rain fades away into the whiteness of daily motions, the rhythmic frequency change can be felt in every room and every conversation. Slower, quieter, more pensive. Plothering down, tropical paradise turns into something more distinct as I peer out at the dark masses that hide the horizon and promise more of the same. Before long, my boots are tied, my bag is packed, and I trudge out into the jungle to document the changes caused by the latest deluge.

Driving slowly down the washed out roads, the pother of distant friends and family is characterized by the reverberation on the roof of the truck. Memories of traveling along cloudburst highways to visit companions on the other side of town or racking up miles between all the places I call ‘home’ despite the torrents from the sky. The sensorial experience of rain (the sound of puddles, the scent once it ends, the feeling of cold rain on hot days) acts as a mnemonic device, calling forth countless gray days, both good and bad, from first kisses with lovers to last breaths of friends. It’s no surprise that the literary ‘Storm’ acts to both set a dramatic mood and to function as metaphors for change, madness, turmoil, and death, just to name a few. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow! / You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout / Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!”

On small tropical islands, the Storm is less metaphor and more reality; with typhoons changing the shape of the island, resulting in madness and turmoil and death for everyone involved. Look no further than the impact of the recent Atlantic hurricanes on the islands of Barbuda and Puerto Rico. Beyond the physical damage, Storms create cultural upheaval, leaving the identity of Self in question. Who are we without our island? With homes destroyed, businesses knocked down, and all that was familiar now foreign, the only way to move forward is through the Buddhist lens of impermanence. From the Pali word anicca, a compound word consisting of “a” meaning non-, and “nicca” meaning “constant, continuous, permanent”, impermanence is an essential doctrine that is perfectly captured in this quote by Frida Kahlo:

“Nothing is absolute. Everything changes, everything moves, everything revolves, everything flies and goes away.”

My personal relationship with impermanence has been disparate and convoluted, evolving with every loss I’ve suffered over the years, both large and small. As a concept, I digested it, reflected on it, repeated it, and allowed it to be part of my experience. However, when a friend or family member passes away, try telling yourself ‘nothing lasts forever.’ Yeah, forget it. The same could be said of storms, particularly ones that destroy entire communities. Loss, sorrow, sadness. These are the feelings that make sense in the moment, even years after the last piece of rubble has been cleared away. Rooms remain empty, family pictures are never quite the same, afternoon walks are slower, quieter, and more pensive. Not even the most devoted, holding out hope that there is some divine plan, can ever make sense of the Storm. Rage!

Finding cover beneath the nearest rocky overhang, the rain continues to relentlessly fall. I pull out my notebook to describe what I see around me, noting foliage and erosion and areas that give me pause. I’ve been here before, when the season was dry, before petrichor wafted through the air, and everything was different. When did that embankment collapse? A moment of reprieve offers mental clarity, light within the madness, a creative spark based on the sadness of loss and the love we must feel for impermanence. Scratching down my ideas without hesitation, I look up only to see the torrent has begun once again. I pack up my bag and step forth into the refreshing sorrowful beautiful life-changing rains.

What cruel twist of fate this must be
Drifting in the cold darkness between the stars
Alone alone
I cry out to You as if my words could pierce through the vastness of my solemn soul
But alas, Destiny is a cruel mistress indeed
And I was given Paradise only for it to be crushed by Her hands
Offered up on the backs of ancient turtles cresting with coconut palms and towering mangifera
An island far away
Distant from Your warmth and kindness and everlasting love
All of which I took for granted
As I do
Now the last rays of light in the Universe are flickering out
My hope being just one
The only one that matters in the end
Yet, I find myself dreaming of that moment You laughed uncontrollably
Until we both cried with joy
And I felt at peace
Before the carapace cracked and the savage rhino beetle raged
Sinking Sinking Sinking
The bamboo sanctuary collapsed beneath the weight of sadness
Torrential winds from Her lips tearing through everything I know
A disastrous nothingness is left behind
No friends, no family, no home
Drifting in a sea of sorrow, I await Her next move
Oh, how I love Her so