The Beauty of Transience: Our Collective Wisdom

Surrounded Islands

The artists Christo and his late wife Jeanne-Claude created some of the most extraordinary pieces of art in the world.  Running Fence, Surrounded Islands, Wrapped Trees, and The Gates are some of the best known.  They are enormous environmental projects that take up to 25 years to plan and create.  None of their exhibits are permanent. 

Running Fence


The Gates, photo by B. Lyons

The Gates was in Central Park in 2005, and I wanted to see it so badly, but I didn’t get the chance to go.  My friend Beth did, though, and at the time she shared some amazing pictures: 

The Gates, photo by B. Lyons

Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s website describes their work in this way: 

“Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s works are entire environments, whether they are urban or rural. The artists temporarily use one part of the environment. In doing so, we see and perceive the whole environment with new eyes and a new consciousness. 

The Gates, photo by B. Lyons

The effect is astounding. To be in the presence of one of these artworks is to have your reality rocked. You see things you have never seen before. You also get to see the fabric manifest things that cannot usually be seen, like the wind blowing, or the sun reflecting in ways it had not before. 

The effect lasts longer than the actual work of art. Years after every physical trace has been removed and the materials recycled, original visitors can still see and feel them in their minds when they return to the sites of the artworks. 

There is no other way to describe that the feeling of that effect other than to say it is magical.” 

The artists have often been asked if some part of the exhibits could be made permanent and they always say no.  I’ve never forgotten the reason Christo gave for this.  He said that we feel the most tenderness for things that do not last.  If things did last, our valuing of them would be lessened, perhaps, even deadened. 

Thank you to everyone who wrote in with comments about Eternal Truth #5: “Nothing Lasts.”  What amazed me about these comments was how many of you saw this “truth” as a positive one, or at least as having a positive aspect.  Several comments quoted “This too shall pass,” and remarked that saying “nothing lasts” is as comforting as it is depressing.  I myself couldn’t really get past the depressing part, so I learned a lot from what you wrote in. 

I have a story to share with you that inadvertently became relevant to this topic (I had seen it going in an entirely different direction but, well, you’ll see what happened.)  

Our house is surrounded by many trees, and in the house there are many large windows.  So we can see a fair amount of tree life from the kitchen and the living room.  

Our Mama Bird

About six weeks ago, a robin made a nest in the Burning Bush about three feet from one of our kitchen windows.  It was extraordinary.  She was so close to us that we could see everything–every fibrous weave of the nest, the way her whole body swayed with the branches of the bush when she sat there, hour after hour after hour.  

Then one day we saw the blue eggs–that exquisite robin’s egg blue (you have to look closely to see them in the picture below because they are under the leaves).    

Gabe's bird on her nest

Gabe loved it.  He got out his beanie baby robin and put her in a brown bowl on top of some cotton balls.  She and her live counterpart became our Mama Birds, and we visited them every morning to check how they and their eggs were doing.  One afternoon when there was a thunderstorm, we watched the real Mama Bird puff out her wings and get bigger so she could cover the whole nest from the rain. 

Three perfect eggs

We were really excited the day the eggs hatched.  Gabe got to see the babies.  I couldn’t wait for him to see Mama Bird feeding them, then watching them get bigger and flying on their own.  But the next morning, the nest was empty, turned over on its side, hanging from the branches.  Martin said it was probably a squirrel since the nest was turned over.  “Something got them,’ he said.  “Nature.” 

I tried not to cry.  We told Gabe that since the babies had been born, they all needed to move to a new nest.  This seemed like an okay explanation to him, and honestly, it’s not really a good idea to anthropomorphize nature for kids anyway.  But still.  It was really sad.

I also tried to get myself to take a picture of the overturned nest but I couldn’t.  We did take the nest down and put it on the porch so Gabe could look at it.  It was beautiful and intricate and sturdy.  All that work.  All that time.  All those hours, sitting and swaying in the branches.  And then nothing. 

So, my friends, as we already knew, nothing lasts.  Not our beloved family members, not the things we loved and worked hard for but were taken from us, not even the company of friends we don’t think we can live without.  But I couldn’t tell my 4 year old son this.  His best friend is moving next month so he’ll find out anyway, but for now, I made up a silly story to protect him from something that he may not need to be protected from.  I may have done him a disservice.  Because wasn’t she beautiful?  Didn’t we love her?  Didn’t we learn things that we didn’t know before just because she was there, outside our window? 

And aren’t we strong enough to take it all in?  Can’t we give ourselves that much credit–that we have what it takes to be alive in this world even when it means letting go, over and over and over?  I think we can.  I think it’s worth it, and I know you think so too. 

A poem today by Emily Dickinson, #587, for our Mama Bird, and for all of us, because this poem is about being grateful for things to care for, for the bliss of ministering, even when it hurts. 

She’s happy-with a new Content-
That feels to her-like Sacrament-
She’s busy-with an altered Care-
As just apprenticed to the Air- 

She’s tearful-if she weep at all-
For blissful Causes-Most of all
The Heaven permit so meek as her-
To such a Fate-to minister 

Emily Dickinson #587 

6 thoughts on “The Beauty of Transience: Our Collective Wisdom

Add yours

  1. So glad my photos could contribute to this post… I had not looked at them in years! It was soooo cold that day, when I saw The Gates. You really made great work out of this truth. I love the directions you eventually found for it– nicely done! The story of the robin outside your window is so heartbreaking, but so full of truth and of life. I continue to admire the small acts of Gabe. 🙂
    xo, Beth


    1. You’re so right, Beth! The winter of The Gates was downright bone-chilling! And to look back on that on a hot, muggy day in NY is such a relief. Thanks for that memory.


  2. Nature can seem bizzare and increadibly harsh sometimes, so much effort by so many and only a small proportion get to survive and pass it on, and yet…. Nature left entirely to it’s own devices appears to keep the balance very well indeed.
    Creatures at all levels feed and get fed, win and loose, everything is in balance and no creature is exempt.
    Maybe we are meant to be more like that but Human Beings have forced and bent the rules nature in many respects and we expect to always be winners, to never suffer, never experience the losses that other spheres of Nature deal with as part of their balance every day.
    Maybe our expectations are off, it’s We who are the lucky ones, it’s also us out of balance and maybe we should be count ourselves lucky that we are not subject to the peditor/prey percentages that Nature deems fit for all othe tiers of Life.
    Life were easy then maybe we wouldn’t appreciate it enough. Sweet things are sweeter because we know what bitter tastes like.
    Maybe these little birds are a lesson for us to be happy: there but for the Grace of God go we… and we are to celebrate what we have, as we are.
    Maybe you could build a squirrel-proof pole in the garden and attach a birdhouse on top of it… then next year Mama bird could try again and who knows, you might increase the odds for her success. (Can she use the old nest again too maybe?)
    As for telling Gabe… that’s a tough one, I have a son of similar age and the concept of death is too big a jump for him at this point of time, it’s too abstract.
    My cowards way out would personally be: tell the truth simply and gently if he asks directly where the babies went and let it slide if he doesn’t.
    Maybe Nature is also reminding us: you might not have success this time, but there will be a next time…and there might be if you try again.


  3. This is such an amazing story, Leslie. I find tears in my eyes. I was at the high school graduation party of my mother’s youngest grandchild yesterday. I was thinking about how everything passes so quickly, and listening to Virginia Woolf”s to the Light House earlier in the day, and transience was very much on my mind. Every Sunday my son or daughter-in-law text me a picture of my own grandson. He is 3,000 miles away and I find myself feeling it is easier to love him that way-but is it easier and is this love? They are so absorbed in him and he is growing fast. I want to warn them, “Do not hold him so close, do not put so such faith in him.” But I do not for if we lost him tomorrow, like the robin’s baby birds, would we have enjoyed him any less in the knowing of what was coming, what would be? I do not think that I could tell Gabe what most likely happened to the Robin eggs nor do I know if he can grasp it at such a tender age any more than my children can fathom the feeling that comes with the ever so gradual passing of their childhood from my life, and their child’s childhood from their own. It is as Woolf said, “Like the waves …”.


  4. The timing of this beautiful post is exquisite. Just like your writing. During college, when we studied Christo, I was in love with this art that transformed, and remember thinking how profound it was this art that was there and then gone never seemed to disappear. I guess it’s a great reminder of love. Thank you for this. As I grieve so many losses, I am grateful to remember.


  5. What a beautiful post. I think Gabe is such a creative and sensitive fellow, judging from the nest he made. He’ll come to appreciate all of this in his own time, in his own way. All you could do is exactly what you did.

    My favorite artist is the naturalist Andy Goldsworthy. If you don’t know him, I highly recommend doing an image search so you can soak in his stunning interpretations of impermanence in the wild. Enjoy!



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