The Practice of Poignancy

The Practice of Poignancy

The last film I saw in a theater with friends, before gathering in public places was banned by the local health department in mid-March 2020 to “flatten the curve” in the spread of the coronavirus, was #Anne Frank: Parallel Stories.

A poignant exploration of Anne’s family hiding in a friend’s flat in Amsterdam for two years before being transported to the camps; juxtaposed with interviews of five women survivors sent to the Nazi concentration camps when they were the same age as Anne, interviewed now in their 90’s.

Poignant always, learning again of the devastation of the Holocaust. Poignant especially as that evening we had no way of knowing we were going into sheltering, too, certainly not knowing, still not knowing, for how long.

Poignancy is the deeply touching, sometimes painful realization that something precious is no longer.  We ache at the beauty of a sunset in part because we know how fleeting it will be.  We have a meaningful encounter with a stranger, enjoyable, yet with a whiff that we may never encounter this person again.

Different than nostalgia, the wistful remembrance of something past that was meaningful or joyful, wishing it could be again. Different that a daydream for the future, with the possibility that it may yet be.

Poignancy leans into the visceral realization of impermanence. That everything precious, that everything at all, will not last. Certainly not forever, but in the human time frame maybe not for a year, or a month. With this pandemic, maybe not for a day.

Practicing poignancy is a pillar of practice in the Buddhist wisdom tradition.

“Praise and blame,
gain and loss,
pleasure and pain,
fame and disrepute
are the eight worldly winds.
They ceaselessly change.

As a mountain is
unshaken by the wind,
so the heart of a person
is unmoved
by all the changes on this earth.”

  – Buddha

To be unmoved is not to become indifferent or resigned.  As Zen teacher Norman Fisher notes in this exquisite article, Impermanence is Buddha Nature, to feel the pain of impermanence and loss can be a profoundly beautiful reminder of what it means to exist, and to celebrate that existence.

A powerful practice of celebrating what it means to exist, even as what exists might suddenly disappear from our lives, comes from Stephen Levine, author of A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Las. (Because in truth, we don’t know.) Especially relevant in the face of a pandemic:

If you knew you were going to die in a month:

Who would you want to call?

What would you want to tell them?

Call them and tell them now.

And another poignant reminder:  from Jane Kenyon, written when she knew she was terminally ill with cancer:


I got out of bed

on two strong legs.

It might have been

otherwise. I ate

cereal, sweet

milk, ripe, flawless

peach. It might

have been otherwise.

I took the dog uphill

to the birch wood.

All morning I did

the work I love.

At noon I lay down

with my mate. It might

have been otherwise.

We ate dinner together

at a table with silver

candlesticks. It might

have been otherwise.

I slept in a bed

in a room with paintings

on the walls, and

planned another day

just like this day.

But one day, I know,

it will be otherwise.

Celebrate and honor everything and everyone living, practicing poignancy, knowing some day it will be otherwise.

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