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  • Writer's picturecherylmurfin

Beautiful impermanence

Updated: May 23

Our next stroll carried us from Morebattle to Kirk Yethom. Don't even try to pronounce that last name if you aren't Scottish. It's somewhere between Yet-um and Yell-um but not quite either. It's also a sweet little village where the central pub is the center of life.

The walk took us over a low ridge before dropping us into the Kale Water Valley and then up to Wideopen Hill, aptly named because it is, indeed, wide open to the most beautiful view of the Cheviots. And, it is, indeed, a hill—the highest point on the walk and the mid-point of our route.  

The downhill was steep enough that my mind started thinking about knee replacement. Sidestepping got me down. But slow and steady won this race, and a cold drink at the end rewarded it. 

I did not suggest a word for this walk, although it could have been challenge. How does challenge advance your writing? Your body? How does challenge impact and move your character, story, and memory forward? Doe it soften views or harden them?

I didn't need to give a work, however. The prompt we carried on this walk was from Curt, and it was a powerful one for me. And listening to the words that found the pages of the other walkers, I have to assume it was just as powerful for them.

Before we headed out, we looked at images in the Wabi-sabi and Kintsugi Japanese aesthetic and the concept of beauty found in brokenness or decay or mending brokenness with beauty. The bowl above, once broken, is made beautiful with gold-laced glue. We were asked to look for wabi-sabi as we walked and to consider the idea of beautyl flowing from impermanence. 

Within the first hour of walking, I stepped off the path for a bit and explored an old abandoned stone farmhouse. Time and weather were reclaiming this space, and I got to thinking of what the house represented, both to the people who lived there in the past and to the future it now moves toward as it is deconstructed stone-by-stone.

For the rest of the walk, I felt as if I were in a moving meditation on the nature of being and non-being and the beauty inherent in ruin.

Then, at dinner, Tiffany gave us an excellent prompt that helped us see and feel the color of sound. She had us listen to four pieces of music: cello, jazz, drumming, and flute. She asked questions like: What color does your mind's eye see? What form does it take? We took out our colors and let our hands freely cover the page with what we felt, using colors that felt like the music. That feeling was our prompt.

Each time I experience the gift of a writing prompt from a fellow writer, I am dazzled. This one, for me, dazzled and danced. As I listened, I saw reds, oranges, and colors I was not sure were colors. I felt joy, sorrow, and a cranky kind of pain. It will take me some time and re-doing this exercise to mine it for all it's worth.

The next walk is the longest of the pilgrimage at 13 miles. Last year, a few of us took a wrong turn and ended up with 18 miles in our logbooks—something I wanted to avoid repeating. But we made a fantastic discovery: The Alltrails app works outside the U.S. And where the waymakers may fail, blown down in the wind or blocked by tall grass, the app does not!




Beautiful Ruin

By Cheryl Murfin

Birth is the first sign of beautiful impermanence. And death is the beginning of its fulfillment.

When was this old stone farmhouse born? One hundred years ago, perhaps more. It has three rooms and a fireplace. On the back, under the same roof, there's a stable for the animals— I imagine many of them – that moved through the families that lived here. The windows were once covered in paper. Then came the glass and the curtains. 

At one time, there was a rug on the floor, fires in the hearth, and a bed in the corner of each room.  I don't have to imagine the countless stories told within these now-crumbling walls—if there was life here, there were stories, and not just the long or harrowing ones of lore. There were stories of a day, any given day. The rising from bed, the starting a fire, cooking, cleaning, the plowing and sewing of a farm. The story of clearing the snow and preserving food for a hard winter.

Somebody told bedtime stories here, and books were read aloud as someone sat knitting and darning, planning, and falling asleep. I imagine there was heartbreak and longing in this house, as well as intense joy and celebration. 

All these moments were born into a house that was impermanent from the first stone laid down. 

All the inhabitants in it equally beautifully running toward ruin from their first breath. 

We are indeed born toward the death of the body. All things sentient or still. Even the rock disintegrates to sand and returns to the cosmos. 

We could ask why. Why this pilgrimage to an inevitable, impassable end? Beyond the survival of species, beyond progeneration? But I have found that this existential road goes nowhere, and there is freedom in the great mystery—a comfort in not knowing.

There is a saying, or perhaps I am saying it for the first time here, "We walk on the bones of all ancestors." underneath our feet, at all times, are the things that lived before us, not just the people whose line we come. Bone-to-bone element elements connect and cross and weave. They support us.

One of my teachers once invited me to close my eyes and picture all of my ancestors, human and nonhuman, in a wide circle in front of me, all of the lives that led to me going back and back and back until the very beginning of me—back before the fish came out of the water, back before the big boom, back and back and back. 

With my eyes closed, he suggested that I ask all the ancestors who had not yet completed their work to become whole and free to step back, to move back as far as they needed, even to the far mountains that were in the distance, even over those mountains where I could no longer see them. "Now," he said, "ask all those who have completed their work to come forward. The ones who are ready to support you as you move through this phase of your being."

I was skeptical, a bit eye-rolly, at the suggestion.

But, after several minutes, a crowd appeared in my mind's eye. People, animals, and presences couldn't identify. And there was a wave of jostling among them as some moved further away and others made their way to the front. 

Finally, after a long time, the mass movement stopped, although I could see little strings of people in the back, inching forward at the base of the mountains. Others were clear and present, standing directly in front of me. At the center was my grandmother. When she crossed over the threshold, she was at peace. And there were others that I recognized. An old friend, not related to me by blood, but a chosen ancestor. And people I didn't recognize at all. A Small boy, an elderly man, an old dog. 

In their presence, I felt held, encouraged, and safe. 

My teacher told me that all the others would eventually come forward. They would move up and back, and the front line would change. "The ancestor you need will find you," he said. "You are always with this circle of strength. You are never alone, even in your aloneness."

Standing in this old farmhouse as it returns to the elements, looking at the spots where stones have fallen away, and the wood has worn down to sticks, I close my eyes and call on the ancestors — the ashes of my history.

I imagine each of them standing at the door of a house. Each of their homes—their work—is crumbling as they finish their work. Some slower, some, the closer ones, my grandmother's home, completely undone. Her work is complete. The door is all that's left of the beautiful ruins.

Humans, and perhaps all sentient beings, are like this old house. 

We all carry a world of stories, hurts, and all the emotions of the wheel. We all need to disintegrate, either slowly over time, in this experience of living on this planet or in the next iteration of being, whatever that may be. The work must be done, all of the letting go, until only the door is left, the final letting go of our need to exist. The work is the why.

My mother is not at the front line where my ancestors encircle me.

When I close my eyes, I can't pick her out, but she's out there somewhere. I imagine at this point, she is sitting in a chair by the stone hearth, quietly all around the ivy and roots are starting to reclaim her rooms and as weather works down the wooden frame. 

I trust she'll get to the door, make her way through that crowd, and not too long from now, she will be standing next to my grandmother, the boy, and the dog. Or, perhaps, standing there instead of them, the right strength coming forward at the right time.

And then, when I close my eyes, I'll see her complete, her work done, the beautiful impermanence of her that will help the beautiful impermanence of me continue.

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