There’s a saying that goes “This too shall pass”.
There’s another saying, a Buddhist one, that likens a person to a flame; always in motion, always consuming the wood on which it burns, composed at every moment of totally different atoms – and yet the same flame.
The picture to the left is from a comunity art project called Mitcham’s Models, which installed reworked mannequins around an unlovely junction in town to coincide with the city’s annual Open Studios event. Open Studios is a month in which Cambridge’s surprisingly many artists throw open their studio doors to the middle-class average Joe; the eerie figure in this picture was found on my way home from a gig at one of Cambridge’s few remaining live music pubs.
I’m getting old enough now that the changes in my home town are starting to be noticeable. The only venue where I ever witnessed a fight at a goth gig (between two teenage girls, at that) is now a wine bar. The sweaty, packed alternative venue with the vertiginous stairs and exposed medieval woodwork is a champagne bar, if you please. Things are being demolished, and new things built. Places I’ve worked at are scheduled for demolition.
The people I knew back then have moved away, changed, settled down, had children. Sectionable mental health cases have made gender transitions and found sanity, or found sanity and then marriage, respectively.
And my rats have died. It’s strange what brings things home to you. Magnus, ever aloof and dignfied, didn’t take long to get sick and tired of the constant attention and syringe-fed medication that came with pneumonia. He gave up and was put to sleep not long before I moved, in April. Rigel, his cagemate and presumed brother, lasted until a couple of weeks ago – despite scaring us in early summer with a respiratory infection that sent me steaming down to his foster home to see him. He was always my baby, and despite the fact he was skin and bones when I saw him, I’ve never heard a rat brux so loud. Rats can die overnight from respiratory illness, but my visit seemed to be enough to help Rigel rally round. It was touching how delighted he was to see me.
Like Magnus, and my first ratty soulmate Pepper before him, Rigel made the journey up to a garden near Newmarket where two friends of mine were kind enough to let me cremate him in their firepit. The last I remember of him is a glimpse of white fur and a tuft of whiskers, peeping out through a gap in his shroud of kitchen towel. Blessedly it was a blazing hot day, and his fire caught beautifully and burned hard; poor Pepper was cremated on a cold and blustery afternoon, and had to be left to smoulder down to nothing for hours. I had help building Magnus’s fire, and it roared up into the night as if he’d been a Viking lord; but to me, all three fires were still the same flame.
I hated having to rehome the rats when I moved; I’m glad they went to such good homes. The two breeder boys are still alive and kicking, but they’ve slotted back in so well to their former family that I hardly feel they’re mine any more. Change has come to them as well; the last time I saw my alpha rat Adso, he’d exchanged sleek muscle tone for scruffy-coated comfort and was content, for the first time ever, to sit in my arms and be stroked. Someone else gets to be in charge these days. Retirement suits him; he never did seem to like being boss.
But it was that moment outside the gig that really moved me, standing there looking at this strange, hammer-headed female figure. I leaned over my bike to read the plaque that accompanied it; looked at its frothy wedding dress, that most symbolic and most fleeting of moments in a life. I contemplated how it would be gone soon, perhaps even the next day. Remembered how once, before change came to me, I’d had my own wedding dress picked out.
This too shall pass.
I’d been at the gig with a friend who lost his life partner to a terminal illness; part way through one of the acts we’d shared a peculiar little moment of connection. We both caught each other’s eye without meaning to, as the band sang The times when I’m happiest are when I’m on my own. Like the impermanent flame, it was a paradox both elegant and appropriate to the time.
He vanished within moments of the gig’s end, long before any awkward goodbyes could be said. It’s painful for someone as driven to help as me to watch grief progressing from the outside; but I learnt a long time ago that sometimes the best way to help is to get the hell out of the road that needs to be travelled.
Human life and loss isn’t so neat and easy as it is with rats; death comes on its own terms, and no kindly vet can help you put your loved one out of their pain. It’s much harder to be sure of what you mean to a creature as complex and subtle as a human, despite our impressive ability with words. Rigel, in his way, made himself clearer than a person ever could. I can’t look back on him and second-guess myself now. He was happy to see me; I did right.
But I knew that what I’d been watching that night, what I was seeing in front of me in a plastic mannequin too, was the beautiful footprint of impermanence in human terms; the new beginnings and the healing that come with change. The Mitcham’s Models were made by the residents, as an outcry against the overlooked ugliness of their local roads; a call to expand this rarefied city’s notion of where beauty belongs. They were bizarre figures, yet they seemed to me to be an attempt to make beauty present in more than merely the bell-jar studios of the refined, admitting but few to their inner sancta. The models’ creators wanted to draw it out onto the plain and workaday street. Beauty is wherever it’s found, the recycled, reimagined figures said. And they burned on very different fuels to the glitzy high fashion of a shop window dummy now. Perfection had been broken and remade – but they were still the same flames.
Some day my friend will start seeing the Mitcham’s Models in the world again, and wondering as I did at their quirky intrusiveness. And until then, though he may burn different wood and embody different things, I can always remind myself: he’ll still be the same flame.
This too shall pass.