The Flux of All Things

“Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. ... Nothing is whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still.”
Alan Lightman

I learned recently that ants never sleep. Never mind sleep, have you ever watched an ant? They never stop moving!

Of course, if they were to sleep, their bodies would be reviving and regenerating, much like ours. The body never rests, never sits still, even when it is sitting still.

Ants and humans. And so many other things. Unstill all of us.

Clare Millen's "The Quiet", acrylic on canvas.
“The Quiet” by Clare Millen a Cambridge-based painter. Millen’s work is primarily based on the light and movement of nature but captures the thingness – memory, longing, uncertainty – that humans so often impose on landscapes. Learn more.

I’ve written about the question of stillness, how to seek it, grab it, hold it. I never thought to question whether stillness was desirable.

This “never sitting still” is called flux. The flux of all things is the movement, the unsettling and undoing and redoing of all things.

To and from chaos and pattern, we turn in the ever-widening gyre.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

From William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”

Yeats’s gyre, turned over itself in metaphor by Joan Didion in her essays on the undoing of America, smoothed over by Pema Chödrön in her advice on holding together, is something to be escaped and turned from, no? Stillness – and its henchmen: absolutes, control, pattern – is to be desired.

Or is it?

American poet Mary Oliver sought the stream, to be in the stream, specifically upstream. “May I stay forever in the stream” she wrote in her last published collection of essays.

Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream.

A connection to the eternal, not in the stream, but in the flux of the stream. For there we find the flux of all things.

Oliver continues:

Occasionally I lean forward and gaze into the water. The water of a pond is a mirror of roughness and honesty—it gives back not only my own gaze, but the nimbus of the world trailing into the pictures on all sides. The swallows, singing a little as they fly back and forth across the pond, are flying therefore over my shoulders and through my hair. A turtle passes slowly across the muddy bottom, touching my cheekbone. If at this moment I heard a clock ticking, would I remember what it was, what it signified?

From Mary Oliver’s Upstream

“The descent of an eighth of an inch in a mile is sufficient enough to produce a flow” Thoreau informs us in his contemplation of rivers and human life. “As things flow they circulate, and the ebb always balances the flow.”

A river is a natural metaphor for flux, for it is constantly moving, constantly flowing.

“Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things-” echoed Thoreau’s compatriot and Transcendental kin, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson continues:

Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence. Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature

Emerson, a time-removed mentor to Oliver (and so many more), believed wading into such flux was to step into the deepest recesses of meaning in the universe.

Is there a connection to the eternal in the flux of all things?

Clare Millen's "Open Sky", acrylic on canvas.
“Open Space” by Clare Millen. Using a process of repeated application and scraping, Millen forms structures on the canvas. “I work in layers -” Millen articulates, “Building, scraping and scoring surfaces to expose the history of colour and surface I have laid down. I am led by what is revealed and work intuitively until I feel the piece is complete.” Learn more.
There is a reason I’m circling on themes of nature. Nature is the root of all flux. Nature is flux itself. We can shut the door to the ants and the rivers, but they continue and will continue to change, and so do we.

Grace Paley’s perfect sentiment on flux is entitled “Fear.”

I am afraid of nature
because of nature I am mortal

my children and my grandchildren
are also mortal

I lived in the city for forty years
in this way I escaped fear.

From Grace Paley’s Begin Again: Collected Poems

Nature bellows out overwhelming, incapable flux that blows aside our pretense of control and whisks away our attempt at pattern.

Clare Millen's "Open Sky", acrylic on canvas.
“Big Sky” by Clare Millen. “I’m often defeated and have to walk away. However when a painting does work it is a deeply satisfying feeling – one that compels me to repeat the process again and again.”

I’ll never forget Oliver Sacks’ warm, generous memoir of treating patients with neuro-deficiencies in which he writes about a particular patient who could not form memory. When confronted with anything, rather than drawing from memory like we might, this patient constructed elaborate fantasies every few seconds.1

Sacks writes:

He remembered nothing for more than a few seconds. He was continually disoriented. Abysses of amnesia continually opened beneath him, but he would bridge them, nimbly, by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds. For him they were not fictions, but how he suddenly saw, or interpreted, the world. Its radical flux and incoherence could not be tolerated or acknowledged, for an instant – there was, instead, his strange, delirious, quasi-coherence, as Mr. Thompson, with his ceaseless, unconscious, quick-fire inventions continually improvised a world around him – an Arabian Nights world, a phantasmagoria, a dream, of ever-changing people, figures, situations – continual kaleidoscopic mutations and transformations.

For Mr Thompson, however, it was not a tissue of ever-changing, evanescent fancies and illusion, but a wholly normal, stable and factual world. So far as he was concerned, there was nothing the matter.

From Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat

What happens when we root our self in a reality that erodes a moment later? We form new realities. Again and again until the mental machine that erects those realities becomes worn and threadbare.

There is great uncertainty in flux. There is discombobulating uncertainty in the flux of all things. An uncertainty that splits us apart in its own way, cleaves us down the middle and begs us reshape!

“Nothing is a whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still…”

Everything is in flux, and everything, as imagined by physicist Alan Lightman, means our space, time, composition, morality and everything else we can imagine. “If the physical world were a novel, with the business of examining evil and good, it would not have the clear lines of Dickens but the shadowy ambiguities of Dostoevsky.”2 Therefore, the only absolute is infinity itself, is the eternal. To some it is that unknowable divine.

Is that what Oliver sought in the stream?

On his back on a boat in one of the many dark, secretive and quiet Maine coastal inlets, Lightman – his name never more fitting – finds some inkling of this eternal:

I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time – extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the far distant future long after I will die — seemed compressed to a dot. I felt connected not only to the stars but to all of nature, and to the entire cosmos. I felt a merging with something far larger than myself, a grand and eternal unity, a hint of something absolute.

From Alan Lightman’s Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine

Clare Millen's "Shore Line", acrylic on canvas. © Clare Millen
“Shore Line” by Clare Millen. The flux involved in making the paintings is reflected in the final canvas. The layers and depths flow before our gaze reflecting Millen’s artistic process and nature itself. Learn more.
Maybe the idea of flux appeals to these individuals because they approach it from stillness. Oliver steps into the stream from the bank, Thoreau looks upon a river in a meditative hour. Lightman looks at the stars from a boat. They all eventually turn away and return home to a more controlled environment, to stillness.

The lightness we feel if we gaze upon flux – in the stars, a river, or whatever – is short-lived if we do not simultaneously open our hearts that we are not only in a state of flux, but we are the flux.

The infinite expanse of sky is in us as well.

I have changed from the beginning of this post. Cells have died, regrown, thoughts formed, held then vanished. I am someone who has written this post as you are now someone who has read it.

I want to return to Yeats because his grasp of human triumph and frailty is unique. He imagines his future self, regretful yet triumphant, sorrowful but content.

A celebration of the complexity of being human;
Although I shelter from the rain
Under a broken tree
My chair was nearest to the fire
In every company
That talked of love or politics,
Ere Time transfigured me.

Though lads are making pikes again
For some conspiracy,
And crazy rascals rage their fill
At human tyranny,
My contemplations are of Time
That has transfigured me.

There’s not a woman turns her face
Upon a broken tree,
And yet the beauties that I loved
Are in my memory;
I spit into the face of Time
That has transfigured me.

From William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming”

Throw yourself into the stream, into the world, into a line of ants, into the universe. It will be held in flux.