Are There Any Constants in Life, or Is Everything Impermanent?

Lily WangSeptember 11, 2023Now and ThenThe Big Question
Are There Any Constants in Life, or Is Everything Impermanent?

Artwork by Arina Stetsiuk, age 14, Ukraine

It was morning and raining in this corner of the world. Beneath the ashen sky, the little shop stood between two streets.

It was easily dismissed by the cars racing past or the early risers hurrying, umbrellas in hand, to some important place. Inside, I turned on the radio so that Billy Joel's “Uptown Girl” resounded around the cluttered shelves. I tidied the bric-a-brac to the music, the soft pattering of rain, and the heater's whirl. It was only when I flipped the sign from “closed” to “welcome” that I noticed her waiting outside.

A few customers always arrive early, eager to thrift the unexpected treasures of the op shop. But between eagerness and lousy weather, the latter mostly prevails. Besides, she was not one of them. She was someone new. I bid her good morning, and she smiled like someone familiar. Rather than browsing the shop, she rummaged through her pockets and retrieved a small velvet box. Inside was a ring.

“I'd like to donate this. We were cleaning out my mother's place and found her wedding ring. She stopped wearing it toward the end. She feared losing it.”

The blue stone gazed up. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in its eye and wondered if the deep hues still held the forms of its owner.

“She loved shopping here; maybe you know her.”

Maybe. The daughter scrolled through her phone to a picture of her mother.

Yes. She was an eager customer, an early awaiter. Our exchanges held few words. She would meet my “good morning” with an angelic smile. Her purchases, like all customers’, varied from thimbles to cookbooks. But she had her idiosyncrasies. She never bought anything above two dollars and always paid with a gold coin. Every week, she would place the coin in my palm and wave away my change, prompting me to drop it in the donation box.

In that instant, I felt the impermanence of life. A few weeks ago, she was here as I turned the sign from “closed” to “welcome.” Next week and beyond, the sign would be turned without her. No more gold coins. In her absence, I realized that we live our lives bound by the passage of time. Everything has its time: a time to grow, a time to flourish, a time to cease. Each laugh, each tear, each triumph and defeat hangs for a single moment before dissipating into space, forever gone.

But it can't be. From this ring, I somehow sensed the memories of its late owner. The delicate stones held her soft reflection. In the gold band was the shape of her ring finger. It bore the love, the heartache, the joy of a lifetime. To a passer-by, it was just gold and stone, just jewelry, but to those who shared the memory, it was moments in time. It was four words met with a single affirmation. It was a wedding day and all the days to come.

Fleeting moments can be preserved in tangible things. Tied to the constants. As I looked around the shop, I saw the vibrant objects that anchored the wild, trivial, cherished memories of people. I imagined the stories they held. Over there, the chipped teapot captured the clumsiness of two children playing tag in the house. That One Direction poster revealed the story of a teen in their phase of daydreaming out of classroom windows. This crime novel, frayed on the edges, was held in one hand during a late-night read under duvets, a flashlight firmly grasped in the other.

Every day, customers part with their magical objects through the donation system. It is a practice of beauty and humanity. They walk in, each hand carrying bags of books, toys, ceramics, clothes. As each object crosses some invisible line from possession to donation, the donor is transported, in a second, to that moment the object captured long ago. I would see them smile, unknowingly, at that distant memory. “Oh, how the time passes.” “How young she was when she used this.” “I remember it so vividly.” I would listen, wide-eyed, to their incredible stories. In an existence that changes every season, every day, and every second, the donation of tangible things helps us remember who we once were. Customers do not abandon their past through their contributions. Instead, they embrace the impermanence of life by waking dormant memories. They can hold on to these constants, but they consciously choose to let go to grow into someone present.

The objects are soon priced and placed on shelves, hangers, and cabinets. They are not new. They still bear the signs of their previous owners. The sapphire ring will forever reflect a sparkle of an angelic smile. Its band will forever fit a hand more perfectly than others. Yet they are ready to hold another moment, another memory. That is the beauty of the op shop. Every object has a history and a potentiality. The shop's existence is a clash of impermanence and constancy. It is a celebration of life.

A week later, I turned the sign from “closed” to ”welcome” and saw a man waiting on the front steps. His eyes were hopeful as he held the ring up to the light. I was later told he visited the shop repeatedly throughout the week for this exact object. I wondered if he saw the same incongruous past and future in the precious stones. If he felt, perhaps, how ephemeral, how everlasting it was. Upon purchase, he was so nervous he fumbled and dropped his card. I asked if the ring was for someone special, and his “yes” was charged with a force unknown to everyone except that someone. And there, that ring will soon hold another moment, and another. It will capture a thousand memories of love, all different, all temporary, all beautiful. In all this discourse, all this impermanence, the man took the velvet box. He held on to his constant.

Lily Wang is a 16-year-old living in Melbourne, Australia. Her passions lie in literature, politics, and philosophy. She can often be found in the realms of a novel, immersed in an article, or in deep discussion with friends on a topic that knows no bounds. Lily is also guilty of watching and re-watching sitcoms while working on her latest knitting project.