- We dole out our lives in dinner parties and plane flights, and it’s over before we know it. We lose everyone we love, if they don’t lose us first, and every single thing we do is intended to distract from that reality. [Armistead Maupin, Mary Ann in Autumn (Harper, 2010), p. 192.]
- Like an organism that perishes due to its failure to adapt to a changing environment, we hurtle ourselves against the relentless reality of impermanence until we perish from sheer exhaustion. The appearances to our senses are not the source of our frustration, misery, and despair. Rather, it is our clinging and attachment to them that causes us ceaseless unrest and dissatisfaction. [David Hodge and Hi-Jin Hodge, Impermanence: Embracing Change (Snow Lion Publications, 2009), p. 16.]
- Everything put together sooner or later falls apart. [Paul Simon, “Everything Put Together Falls Apart”.]
Young lovers promise to stay together forever. It is a promise no one can keep. If they are extraordinarily fortunate, one will watch the other slip peacefully into death seventy years hence.
Life is impermanent. Children grow up and leave home. Friends move away and drift away, and other friends take their place. Fads come and go. Customs change. Social orders are transformed. Even mountains do not last forever. Awareness of this fact provides a useful perspective for the things we will do, and the persons, places and situations we will encounter throughout life.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- David Hodge and Hi-Jin Hodge, Impermanence: Embracing Change (Snow Lion Publications, 2009).
- Ajahn Chah, Everything Arises, Everything Falls Away: Teachings on Impermanence and the End of Suffering (Shambhala, 2005).
- Alan Burdick, Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation (Simon & Schuster, 2017): “ . . . Burdick gently intertwines a captivating account of his own personal struggle with time — the modification of the sense and the organization of time that he is forced to undergo when his two delightful twin children are born and begin to grow up — with an extensive learned overview of the wealth of the last century and a half of laboratory experiments exploring the complex relation of living beings with time.”
- C. Sharman, Empires of the Weak: The Real Story of European Expansion and the Creation of the New World Order (Princeton University Press, 2019): “In Sharman’s account, the dominance of the West (note Europe’s easy baton-pass to the United States), roughly from the Enlightenment to World War II, represents a historical blip in the last millennium.”
- Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (Farrar, Straus & Giroux): “Life Is Short. What Are You Going to Do About That?”
All at once, in the midst of this profound calm, a fresh sound arose; a sound as celestial, divine, ineffable, ravishing, as the other had been horrible. It was a hymn which issued from the gloom, a dazzling burst of prayer and harmony in the obscure and alarming silence of the night; women's voices, but voices composed at one and the same time of the pure accents of virgins and the innocent accents of children,--voices which are not of the earth, and which resemble those that the newborn infant still hears, and which the dying man hears already. This song proceeded from the gloomy edifice which towered above the garden. At the moment when the hubbub of demons retreated, one would have said that a choir of angels was approaching through the gloom. Cosette and Jean Valjean fell on their knees. They knew not what it was, they knew not where they were; but both of them, the man and the child, the penitent and the innocent, felt that they must kneel. These voices had this strange characteristic, that they did not prevent the building from seeming to be deserted. It was a supernatural chant in an uninhabited house. While these voices were singing, Jean Valjean thought of nothing. He no longer beheld the night; he beheld a blue sky. It seemed to him that he felt those wings which we all have within us, unfolding. The song died away. It may have lasted a long time. Jean Valjean could not have told. Hours of ecstasy are never more than a moment. All fell silent again. There was no longer anything in the street; there was nothing in the garden. That which had menaced, that which had reassured him,--all had vanished. The breeze swayed a few dry weeds on the crest of the wall, and they gave out a faint, sweet, melancholy sound. [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume II – Cosette; Book Fifth – For a Black Hunt, a Mute Pack, Chapter VI, The Beginning of an Enigma.]
- Armistead Maupin, Mary Ann in Autumn (Harper, 2010): "a tale of long-lost friends and unrealized dreams, of fear and regret, of penance and redemption - and of the unshakable sense that this world we love, this life we love, this drama in which we all play a part, does indeed go by much too fast." This novel follows on Maupin's previous Tales of the City novels, which trace the life and relationship of a journalist from her youth in San Francisco to New York and back.
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Paul Simon, "Slip Slidin’ Away"
- Five for Fighting, "100 Years"
- Cat Stevens, "Oh Very Young"
- Nawang Khechog, "Dagkar Taso Mila’s Cave"
- Paul Simon, "Everything Put Together Falls Apart"
- Face Vocal Band, "The Parting Glass"
- Jim Croce “Time In a Bottle”
- Franz Schubert (composer), Der Jungling am Bache (The Youth by the Brook), D. 192 (1815) (lyrics)
- Franz Schubert (composer), Auf den Tod einer Nachtigall (On the Death of a Nightingale), D. 399 (1816) (lyrics)
- Amy Beach, “Forgotten”, Op. 41, No. 3 (1898) (lyrics)
Film and Stage
- A Ghost Story: a man dies, becomes a ghost, observes his wife, creates havoc, travels through time, then in a moment of revelation ceases to exist.
- Everlasting Moments: a woman’s gift for photography, and her life
- Dust in the Wind is “a meditative film about one teenage Taiwanese couple's journey from their rural hometown to the city.”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Franz Schubert was among the great composers who died young. He never finished his Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759. Musicologists have speculated about the reasons; whatever they may be, the first two movements he composed are filled with charm and pathos, reminiscent of Schubert’s too-brief life. “‘The focus and the sweep of both finished movements far exceeded anything that Schubert had previously achieved…’ said one writer. This same writer also thought that the symphony should be considered the first Romantic symphony because of the emphasis on the lyricism of the work and because of its careful use of differing orchestral timbres, particularly at the beginning of the development section of the first movement.” Great performances are conducted by Karajan in 1965, Wand, Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra in 1970, Kleiber in 1978, Abbado in 1988, Mackerras in 2010, Norrington in 1990 (mvt 1; mvt 2), Harnoncourt in 1993, Dausgaard in 2010, Blomstedt in 2022, and Savall in 2022.
Gerald Finzi, Intimations of Immortality, Op. 29 (1950) (approx 39’45’) (lyrics): “Finzi’s music springs from his love of literature and the English countryside . . .” “The subject of passing time, loss and specifically the loss of innocence were central to Finzi’s creative processes. . . Finzi was drawn to Wordsworth’s Ode with its musings on the passing of childhood and the narrowing of the ‘visionary gleam’ as adult concerns intrude.”
Here are some great artists who died far too young.
- Michael Rabin, violinist (35)
- Jacqueline du Pré, cellist (Elgar, Schumann and Dvořák cello concerti) (42)
- Dinu Lipatti, pianist (43)
- Fritz Wunderlich, tenor (35)
- John Lennon, British pop singer and cultural icon (40)
- Jimi Hendrix, rock guitarist (27)
- Janis Joplin, rock singer (27)
- Otis Redding, soul and blues singer (25)
- Karen Carpenter, pop-ballad singer (32)
- Hank Williams, country singer (29)
- Patsy Cline, country singer (30)
- Robert Johnson, blues singer (26)
- Sam Cooke, rhythm & blues, and jazz singer (33)
- Jim Croce, pop/ballad singer (30)
- Jeff Buckley, rock and folk singer (30)
Here are some great composers who died far too young. But then, they all do.
- Franz Schubert (31)
- Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (35)
- Frédéric Chopin (39)
- Felix Mendelssohn (38)
- George Gershwin (38)
- Vincenzo Bellini (33)
- Guillaime Lekeu (24)
- Henry Purcell (35)
- Georges Bizet (36)
- Puccini, La Bohéme: complete performances conducted by Beecham, Karajan, de Billy, Karajan, Lopez-Cobos and Serafin
- Lambert, Summer’s Last Will and Testament
- Henryk Górecki, String Quartet No. 1, “Already It Is Dusk”, Op. 62 (1988)
- Koppel, Marimba Concerto No. 4, “In Memory of Things Transient”
- Finzi, Till Earth Outwears, Op. 19A
- Fennelly, Evanescences for Instruments & Electronic Tape (1969)
- Shchedrin, Dead Souls (1976), is an opera that is so dark that it could as well be classified as an ode to death. Yet the metaphors are so multi-faceted and so frequent that the opera is an homage to evanescence, as well.
- Bax, Into the Twilight (1908)
- Jeths, Symphony No. 1 for orchestra & mezzo soprano (2012): this symphony evokes the cycles of life but its ominous tone reminds us that life is impermanent.
- Jeths, Recorder Concerto (2014)
- Raga Yaman Kalyan, an evening raga (performances by Banerjee, Asad Ali Khan and Zia Mohiuddin Dagar): one scholar of Indian classical music likened this raga to “the beautiful face of a veiled woman that comes out of the veil occasionally but disappears behind it almost instantaneously”.
- Gloria Coates, String Quartet No. 6 (1999)
- Reale, Piano Sonata No. 12, “Stroke of Midnight” (2019): “. . . the elements of the Sonata are harsh reality and a confrontation with mortality” (composer Paul Reale)
- Dykstra, “The Arrow of Time”
- Primosch, “The Crossing” “opens with Journey, a solemn meditation in which the men of The Crossing chant text based on the work of 13th-century monk and mystic Meister Eckhart: 'There is a journey you must take. / It is a journey without destination. / There is no map. / Your soul will lead you. / And you can take nothing with you.' The title track, Carthage, draws on prose from Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping, a work that employs the devastated city of Carthage as a metaphor for desire and imagination: 'For to wish for a hand on one's hair is all but to feel it.'”
- Krzysztof Penderecki, Symphony No. 8, “Lieder der Vergänglichkeit” (Songs of Evanescence) (2005) (approx. 34-36’): this symphonic song cycle takes us through episodes in a person’s life. “Far from being uniformly grim, the texts . . . speak of the cycle of life, death, and renewal in a manner not too dissimilar from Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. . .”
- Ruo, “A Dust in Time”
- Fagerlund, “Transient Light”
- Charles Lloyd & The Marvels + Lucinda Williams, “Vanished Gardens”: This is a work of genius, its gray-toned themes accompanied by a simple drumbeat pushing forward ever so slowly but inexorably in time.
- Gianni Lenoci, “Earle Brown: Selected Works for Piano and/or Sound-Producing Media”: “. . . they float randomly, attaining intended evanescence, rarely returning to the same exact image.” [Bill Donaldson, Cadence magazine 2019 annual edition, p. 278.]
- Roger Eno, “Dust of Stars”
- Lucrecia Dalt, “No Era Sólida” (She/It Wasn’t Solid) (2020) (40’), is an eco-tronica album centered on the theme that nothing lasts or is certain; it explores “the way rhythms and melodies dissolve, merge and lose substance” – her work along these lines is fascinating.
- Geoff Eales, “Transience” (2016): “Written at a time of intense sadness for Eales, and recorded just seven months after his mother's passing the sense of loss in almost palpable at times, yet throughout there remains a sense of optimism and hope of better things and Eales exuberance and joy in music making still shine through in his writing and playing, and that of the quintet as a whole.”
- Ben Lahring, “Driftwood” (2022), is a poignant solo-guitar album by “a 35-year-old reflecting on life and aging”.
- Chen Mingchang, “Dust in the Wind” (1985) (64’): soundtrack from the Taiwanese film by that name
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
[Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”]
'The trouble with snowmen,' / Said my father one year / 'They are no sooner made / than they just disappear.
I'll build you a snowman / And I'll build it to last / Add sand and cement / And then have it cast.
And so every winter,' / He went on to explain / 'You shall have a snowman / Be it sunshine or rain.'
And that snowman still stands / Though my father is gone / Out there in the garden / Like an unmarked gravestone.
Staring up at the house / Gross and misshapen / As if waiting for something / Bad to happen.
For as the years pass / And I grow older / When summers seem short / And winters colder.
The snowmen I envy / As I watch children play / Are the ones that are made / And then fade away.
[Roger McGough, “The Trouble with Snowmen”]
Butterflies are white and blue
In this field we wander through.
Suffer me to take your hand.
Death comes in a day or two.
All the things we ever knew
Will be ashes in that hour:
Mark the transient butterfly,
How he hangs upon the flower.
Suffer me to take your hand.
Suffer me to cherish you
Till the dawn is in the sky.
Whether I be false or true,
Death comes in a day or two.
[Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Mariposa”]