How Quickly Everything We Have Treasured Disappears

How Quickly Everything We Have Treasured Disappears

Ephemera: something of no lasting significance; paper items that were meant to be discarded after use; lasting one day only. – Webster’s College Dictionary

The word ephemera was used by the ancient Greeks, and somehow lexicographers have managed to keep the meaning of the word alive for millennia.

The word came to me as I was de-cluttering two decade’s worth of workshop notes, handouts from conferences, brochures from my favorite teaching venues. Letting go of reams and reams of memories, of identity. And even though the papers themselves could be considered ephemeral, the people, the relationships, the ideas that shaped me and my offerings of wisdom and insight, -could all of us, all that we created and shared, also be ephemeral?  Deep poignancy as I reflected on which people were still in my life today, or not, which people were still alive on the planet today, or not. Which insights and practices of psychology or spiritual practice are still considered de rigueur, which no longer.

(And, of course, it occurred to me that, in the very longest view, eventually everything in existence is ephemeral, no thing or phenomena will ever last forever; that’s the existential nature of reality. Whoa!)

Simultaneously, I’ve been reading the wonderful The Dictionary of Lost Wordsby Pip Williams, a fictionalized history of the first edition of Oxford English Dictionary. The facts of the 40 years it took to complete the dictionary are true and documented enough. The author has added tracing the fictional life of Esme Nicoll, the daughter of one of the real-life editors, to comment on the ephemera of women’s roles in the dictionary, or the mention of women’s roles in anything else that ever happens in history. 

(I read in a recent Guardian Weekly that while women have accounted for 50% of the population throughout human history, they are accounted for in only .5% of recorded history. Another whoa!) 

Also simultaneously, while waiting at the car repair shop, I began reading articles in the September-October 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine, about the recovery of musical compositions written by prisoners in the Terezin concentration camp in World War II; haunting music written by brilliant European composers, some of whom survived the camp, most of whom were killed in Auschwitz. Mark Ludwig, a violinist himself with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, spent decades researching obscure archives and interviewing survivors or their families, eventually having the music played at the Boston Symphony Hall by pianist and camp survivor George Horner and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.  The music, the composers, rescued from ephemerality. 

Another article about “the gift” in 1847 from members of the Choctaw people imprisoned on a reservation in Oklahoma to peasants in Ireland suffering from the Great [Potato] Famine. One colonized people responding to the needs of another, then lost in history until Dan Mullen, director of the Great Famine project in Ireland, read one sentence in a book and another sentence in an Arkansas newspaper describing the donation of money from the Choctaw to the Irish during the famine. He publicized the gift on the Irish national broadcasting service. Since then, 175 years later, there have been cultural and educational exchanges, and during the pandemic, a gift of $2 million dollars to the Native American Relief Fund from the Irish people. “Repaying an Irish debt for kindness shown to Ireland.” 

Realizing, reflecting on, experiencing the reality of ephemerality is a skillful and essential practice for navigating the poignancy of life. At any age – the loss of a best friend in elementary school, the loss of a championship in high school, the loss of a promotion in our mid-20’s, the loss of a sense of direction in our 30’s or 40’s, the loss of vision for saving the world from catastrophe in our 50’s or beyond.

I’ve been sorting and recycling the ephemera of my professional life mostly at the picnic table in my garden. More and more deeply recognizing, practicing – the glorious “Mediterranean” weather, the butterflies, the flowers, the clouds companioning the honoring and steady letting go of so much of a lifetime, all “perfect” now, in the luxury of the present moment; all exquisitely ephemeral – treasured even as they disappear.