Childhood’s Impermanence

April 29, 2017

I was doing some spring cleaning in the yard last week, when I found a small plastic T. Rex. He was somewhat muddied, but otherwise showed no signs of significant wear from his decade long exile from the toy box, and even retained his fearsome posture.

Finding him immediately swept me back to the days when dinosaurs regularly roamed the backyard, and a little knot of pain grew in my chest.

Every year in April, the Japanese mark the blossoming of the cherry trees. Many American cities now host cherry blossom festivals of their own. The blossoms peak for a brief few days before falling to the ground in a rain of petals. The ephemeral nature of the cherry blossom’s beauty is symbolic of the Japanese concept of mono no aware, which roughly means an awareness of life’s impermanence.

If you are a parent, you don’t need cherry blossoms to remind you of life’s impermanence.

There are many fairy tales that capture the gentle sadness we feel as we watch our children’s fleeting childhoods speed past. The European tale “Snowflake” tells the story of a childless couple who craft for themselves a child out of snow. To their surprise, she comes to life. She grows quickly until she looks to be about 12 or 13, and of course she is extraordinarily beautiful. As the days lengthen and summer comes, Snowflake grows sad and wistful. On Mid Summer’s Eve, a group of girls from the village ask Snowflake to join them in their revels. They take turns leaping over a bonfire. When Snowflake’s turn comes, she disappears with a slight hiss just at the moment she leaps over the fire.

Buddhism teaches that impermanence is an essential feature of existence. Everything about our lives is in a constant state of coming into being, growing, and then declining, decaying, and dying. If we have been able to avoid direct knowledge of this before becoming parents, motherhood will certainly show us this truth.

Like the muddy T. Rex, material objects can take on significance as if they embody the essence of the moments with which they are associated. I remember sorting through my baby daughter’s clothes every few months, removing the tiny outfits that no longer fit to make room for larger things. Little baby outfits outgrown, like so many cherry blossom petals falling. It was always wrenching.

Sitting with the melancholy of impermanence can be hard. Most of us have an impulse to hold onto those sweet, transient moments. A Japanese fairy tale called “Princess Moonbeam” is another that features a child magically given to a barren couple. As her name implies, Princess Moonbeam is really the daughter of the moon mother, and must return there one day. Moonbeam’s parents beg her to stay, and the emperor threatens to shoot the moon’s messengers who have come to take her home.

When they loose their arrows, they are turned to stone. We can’t hold on forever. Trying only results in life feeling deadened and stultified.

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