Pico Iyer–journalist, essayist, unintentional (?) philosopher–quotes several thinkers in his book Autumn Light, an exploration of losses and other turning points in his life. Referring to Thomas Merton’s ‘Fire Sermon’ in response to death or estrangement among family and friends, he says life itself is a burning house. To what then can we cling? Merton’s answer: “Only the certainty that nothing will go according to design; our hopes are newly built wooden houses, sturdy until someone drops a cigarette or match.” An appropriate reference in the context of his return trip to his alternate home in Nara, Japan, where fires still menace older structures. We all are temporary phenomena like the reddening five-pointed leaves of Japanese maples, which elicit poetic responses from Iyer throughout the book.
A time may come, if we live long enough, when we no longer recognize our younger self and his/her drives in a context becoming both foreign and familiar. Iyer journeys between autumns he has known across his lifetime as he seeks to understand who he is now. He says, “Autumn is the season of subtractions, the Japanese art of taking more and more away to charge the few things that remain…nothing can be taken for granted; people are on alert, wide awake, ready to seize each day as a blessing because the next one can’t be counted on.” [pp.95-96]
Iyer’s musings on the heels of those words underscore the idea of giving oneself entirely to moments of connection. His implicit overarching question is, if all is ephemera, then where lies the value of life? He responds: in relationships–their ghosts, their presence, and their possibility. In his neighborhood, he goes on one of his many walks “across to the ginkgoes and the old women standing under their light, marveling, and realize that I’m never in tune with anything unless I’m not in my solitary head at all.” [p.179; I added bold to text]
In The Autumn (I refuse to consider it The Winter) of my life, Iyer’s quiet contemplations move me deeply. They resonate in ways I never would have imagined in my Spring. We have our attachments; be they to things or people or both, none of them is more than transitory, so living with people, purposely and deeply in the moment appears to be the best way to accept that condition.