A Meditation on Dying — Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells by Pico Iyer

“They say, ninety-one years old, it can’t be helped. Almost they don’t care, he’s so old.”

These words appear on the first page of Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells. They are the words of Hiroko, Pico Iyer’s wife, who calls him from Japan to tell him her father is dying. When we think of someone in their nineties dying we tend not to think it is a tragedy. We say he or she had a long life and move on. We can see this playing out all around the country as the elderly from nursing homes die, and it hardly makes the news as more than a statistic, and not even a compelling statistic.

If we think of it as just one old person dying, I suppose it might not make a great impression on us. But, if understood in a slightly less singular way, we can appreciate the impact enough to remember that death, as well as life, is sacred. A very old man died, and it is not about telling his story, but rather recognizing that this ninety year old man is connected to a family, and to a place, and history, and thus through his passing we see the effects of time on all of which he was a part. We see, then, loss as larger and more profound than a number, one person died today. Hiroko does not just lose a father; she loses an orienting point in her life and in a very tangible way begins to see her own passing. The death of an elderly family member loosens the ties we have to the immediate past. Hiroko’s father was from Hiroshima. He was in Siberia during WWII as a POW. His death erodes living memory. His death reminds us we are all dying. His death reminds us all things turn to dust.

Does our acknowledgment of death go beyond knowing we do not live forever? Do we understand and recognize all the little deaths we experience in our lives? Do we realize that the world is constantly changing, dying, and renewing itself? It seems to me, we tend to isolate death as either something that happens to other people or something that ocurrs when we get very old and therefore does not matter much. Certainly, the pandemic has made death more present in our lives, but at the same time we have worked hard at belittling this reality and turning it into thousands of insignificant acts.

Pico Ayer, I’m certain, did not write this book to admonish us about facing death. It is his personal meditation on how life changes, and things die. And, while it is a personal meditation it is also a good book. Good books make us think, and that is exactly what Pico Iyer’s book does. Before you walk away thinking you do not want to talk, think or even listen to a story about death, I want to tell you this book is not going to scare you. In fact, Pico Iyer is so gentle and careful when writing about his family and Japan that reality, even with difficulties and sorrow, is a delight. Yes, everything is changing, getting older, getting replaced, getting neglected, getting tired, getting better, getting sicker, getting deeper, etc…, but rather than resist change he lives the moment fully, delighting in stretching it out by sitting on his tiny balcony with a cup of tea or taking a walk. Life can only be life through constant change. Iyer does not lament the changes, although, I think if he could stay in the season of autumn he might.

Let’s go to the next page.

We turn the page and find out that Hiroko’s father dies two days later, and Hiroko has spent the night he died with her father, holding his hand. We feel Hiroko’s sorrow as well as her joy to be able to hold her father’s hand as he passed on to an eternal reality.

It is a beautiful beginning to a book. Death, right at the bottom of page one — almost like a footnote, but not quite. It is not a footnote. It cannot be ignored. It is right there at the end of the page. It shows up immediately; literally opens the door to Pico Iyer’s latest book.

Autumn is when things begin to change, when cooler breezes blow, when there are still warm days, but there is a the wisp of a chill within them. Autumn is when somehow within the decay there is a freshness that arises. Autumn seems like renewal in a way. It is when we cut down all the flowers and prepare the ground to rest. It smells crisp and clean. Autumn can be quite difficult for those who are keenly aware of the passing of time; for those who know what the next season promises.

“Autumn poses the question we all have to live with: How to hold on to the things we love even though we know that we and they are dying. How to see the world as it is, yet find light within that truth.”

page 14

Pico Iyer writes that Autumn is his favorite time of year in Japan: “it’s the reddening of the maple leaves under a blaze of ceramic-blue skies that is the place’s secret heart” (page 14). Counter-intuitive for those who associate Japan with cherry blossoms and springtime, he writes. Such rivals, spring and fall; yet we know that each possesses a birth within them, and many of us love them both.

There is a constant tension in Iyer’s book. The tension of change and resistance to it. The reader can feel the tug back and forth. And what I think Iyer is trying to say is that the surface play of life is not a trifling illusion, but rather the outer manifestation of richness and depth. He describes streets and shops of Kyoto that seem so superficial, and yet he does not look in order to criticize; he looks for the chance to look beyond what his eyes see so that he may find life, not as a dichotomy of simplicity and complexity, monotony and constant change, mystery and mundane, but rather as a dance or a dialectic that ultimately leads to the truth.

We begin to see as we open ourselves to Pico Iyer’s way of seeing, that it is not all that simple, but it is somewhat simple, and that it is not very complex, but very complex indeed. We see two things at once, and perhaps that is why he loves Autumn because we are presented with two things at once in autumn. While everything is busy dying we are still harvesting apples, and getting prepared to begin school, and and looking forward to the monotony of another season and the joys it brings to our lives. Autumn, after all, contains the seeds of change.

I am not familiar with all of Pico Iyer’s books, and I have not read The Lady and the Monk, an earlier book about falling in love with Japan and his wife, Hiroko. Therefore, I cannot say if he is always very intimate, but in this book I felt him to be genuine, and as intimate as he could be without disrespecting his family. If one thought of Iyer as a man with no attachments, even though he has said and written about his love for Japan (and ping pong too!), this book will deepen your understanding of the man who claims he has no real home. Well, no real country, which he does not have, and which is not a bad thing. He does have a home and it is clearly in Japan with his family. While it seems Hiroko, his wife, is the center of the book, it is actually his father-in-law, who we meet in the beginning, as he dies, and at the end, when celebrating his last birthday. The old gentleman fills the pages as ghost and historical figure, and as memory. His father-in-law is everywhere and no where as the center becomes the periphery, and then goes beyond any edge that we might be able to see.

This displacement of the center is what we all know and experience directly as we grow older and watch our parents grow older. If we have children we begin to get a clearer picture of a pattern from which we cannot escape. And rather than try to escape, Pico Iyer is integrating it all into his being as he winds his way through life in Japan, bringing us into temples to meet monks, or the Dali Lama, and up hills to play ping pong or on crowded streets to meet his daughter or even into the coldness of a nursing home. While Pico Iyer does not consider himself Buddhist, nevertheless, his wife who is Buddhist, and his friendship with the Dali Lama have shaped his world so that his meditation is a fierce practice of saying yes to everything: that too, and that, and that, and that… .

The equinox is not many days behind us, but already we can feel a pinch in the air, a draft of something chill. It will go and come back again over the refulgent days of October, but it’s like a premonition of sorts, the first knock on the door from a visitor who will pull us closer and closer to the cold and dark.

page 55

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