Pearls of wisdom and wanderlust from Pico Iyer

Last month the wonderfully thoughtful and eloquent author Pico Iyer published his 11th book, The Man Within My Head, an intriguing hybrid of autobiography and literary criticism that insightfully illuminates the life and work of Graham Greene – and of Pico Iyer. On his book tour, I’ve had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Pico on stage twice, the first time on Jan. 26 in an event sponsored by Geographic Expeditions in San Francisco and the second in Washington DC on Feb. 10 as part of the National Geographic Traveler Conversations series that I host. Happily, as it turned out, these conversations traveled in quite different directions — but really, every conversation with Pico is an edifying journey, wherever it goes. Here I want to single out four pearls of wisdom I took away from our San Francisco odyssey.

1. Spring and summer, East and West

I began by asking Pico about the differences between the author of his first book, Video Night in Kathmandu, published in 1988, and the man who wrote The Man Within My Head. This prompted him to reflect on how the older you grow, the less you know: “The sentences in my first book are delivered with a really bratty confidence. You know, ‘I know everything in the world because I’m 28 years old.’ And my new book is haunted by a sense of not knowing a thing, and that being the beauty of life but also the confoundingness of it.”

A little later he took these thoughts to new soaring levels:

“Partly I think it’s the difference between spring and autumn…. Graham Greene at the very end of his life said that there’s wisdom in age and it’s all about wishing you weren’t so wise. Yet autumn can see spring a lot better than spring can see autumn.

“I’ve always been fascinated by autumn. It’s my favorite season in the country that we both share as our secret home, Japan, because it can take in the whole cycle, because it knows everything is impermanent, and because it knows that the impermanence itself is rather permanent. All the leaves are falling, the cold is approaching, it’s getting darker, and the days are shortening, and that is all necessary to get back to spring. Whereas spring has a much more linear sense; it believes everything is moving in a forward direction. When I was a kid, I thought/expected I would know much more at 50 than I do at 20. Now I can see the progress moves cyclically rather than in a linear way, and follows the seasons rather than a manmade assembly line.”It’s a bit of the difference between the New World and the Old World. And as we talk about this, I’m thinking that the dance between spring and autumn is probably the dance between East and West. When I’m in Japan, I’m very conscious of California being a land of eternal summer, which is why our Japanese wives and so many of our Japanese friends long to be here. But it’s also the reason that people like you and I love to go to Japan, for that much larger picture, the roundedness. There are seasons in California, but there is the hope that you’re always pushing forward, whereas in Japan there’s a certain sanity for knowing that you’re ultimately going to come back to your grandparents’ place. For all the external changes in the world, for all the ways in which you’re shifting fashions with each passing month in Japan, ultimately you come back to the ancient verities. The new is only as important and valuable as the old that underwrites it.”

2. The travel writer: From information-saturation reporter to sage of silence and space

Pico has been a traveler from a very young age. As a student, he commuted regularly between a boarding school in England and his parents’ home in California. I asked him how travel has changed for him over the course of his lifetime, and he began his answer by returning to his first book and describing what he felt his role was as a traveler-writer when he wrote it.

“When I wrote that first book, I felt that what the world desperately needed was more information about our global neighbors. When I went to places like Burma and Tibet and even China in 1985, I thought most of my friends, neighbors, and such readers as I might have in California can never expect to see those places and barely know what they look and smell like, and feel like. So my job was to be an information-gathering machine, kind of an emissary, but certainly a representative to go and take in as many sights, sounds, facts, and sensations as possible, and just saturate the page with that almost like verbal television.”

That image led him to describe the very different role of the writer today:

“Now I feel like we all have much too much information and what the writer can offer is freedom from information, a way of stepping out of the rush and commotion and acceleration of the day, a way to try to put it in a much larger perspective and make sense of it. In my new book I deliberately made the sentences as long as possible, almost literally to extend the attention span of the reader and take her to those places that no multimedia mechanism or invention can do better. Writing can’t hope to compete with the internet or TV or any of our latest inventions, so it has to stake its claim in those places of silence and nuance, the spaces between the words and intimacy that those other mechanisms can’t claim or colonize so powerfully.”

3. The challenges and rewards of travel today: Surrendering the illusion of control

That image of the contemporary’s writer’s role and goal took Pico to the evolution of travel itself and the challenges facing contemporary travelers.

“In that sense I think travel has changed. If anyone in this audience were to go to Peru tomorrow she would be able to access it online. She would be able to get all the information she could possibly want. The challenge would be forgetting that, and going with a clear mind so that she’s seeing Peru as if for the first time.”

Which led us – via a detour through Don DeLillo’s new book and Pico’s own epiphanies in Jerusalem – to a subject about which we both feel passionately: the importance of vulnerability and surrender in travel.

“Travel is an act of humility,” Pico said, “and it’s a leap of faith-literally-because you’re trusting in the world. One reason I travel is that when I’m at home, I’m completely straight-jacketed in my assumptions. Again, I’m like this kid in my first book. I think I know it all. I think I’m on top of the world, that I can plan my life for the next ten years in ten minutes. The minute you’re in a bus in India, forget it. Nothing is in your control. You’re reminded of all the much higher forces, whether you ascribe religious names to them or just call them nature or fate or time or providence; there they are, and you are a speck on the horizon that they’re going to bat about randomly. It’s a very tough kind of shock therapy, but it’s good.”

4. How to see the world as it is and how to bring kindness to it

And then Pico took this thought to an even more poignant place:

“One of the things I have most appreciated in travel and do still is that it confronts you with moral and emotional tangles that it’s easy to sleepwalk past, to sidestep in one’s everyday life. You arrive on the streets of Havana and a stranger comes up to you, a Cuban, and shows you everything for a week, and couldn’t be kinder and more understanding and sympathetic, never asks for anything, opens all the doors of his country to you, and really gives you Cuba. Then, just as you’re about to board the plane, he says, ‘Please will you get me a green card?’

“What do you do with that? I don’t think there’s a right answer, but it’s a really important question to think about. When you’re in the same situation at home, somehow it’s easier to slide away from it, but there, when you return to your home, all you’re thinking about is this Cuban person waiting at the airport for a letter from his new friend that’s either going to open a new door or is going to, not close the door, but allow him some way to keep the hope alive in a situation with very little hope. It’s one of the things I love about Graham Greene; more than any other traveler, that’s what he was interested in, how to see the world as it is and how to bring kindness to it. Travel asks you that question at every second.”

How to see the world as it is and how to bring kindness to it. Yes, I think, the world thrusts innumerable challenges and incongruities at us constantly. Should we help our new Cuban friend try to get a green card – should we even suggest that there’s a glimmer of a possibility that we might be able to help him? Is that kinder or crueler? Should we give $5 to the woman in the weaving collective whom we just met, knowing that could transform her day, or her week, or her month? Should we give $5 to 5 of the women in the collective? Can you help me get a loom? A bicycle? A visa? A job?As we travel we weave a web of interlacing connections. What is the kindest thing to do?

Pico’s words moved me on stage and move me still, reverberating as a pebble dropped in a pool, restlessly rippling – probing me out of the comfortable corners, irresolveable, illuminating the nuances in my ever-expanding ignorance, all I don’t know, can’t know, the jostling confoundingness of the day-to-day journey, life-enriching – within my head.