Sunday Morning

Yes, and I think we all know that sensation. We have more and more time-saving devices but less and less time, it seems to us. When I was a boy, the sense of luxury had to do with a lot of space, maybe having a big house or a huge car. Now I think luxury has to do with having a lot of time. The ultimate luxury now might be just a blank space in the calendar. And interestingly enough, that’s what we crave, I think, so many of us.

When I moved from New York City to rural Japan — after my year in Kyoto, I essentially moved to a two-room apartment, which is where I still live with my wife and, formerly, our two kids. We don’t have a car or a bicycle or a T.V. I can understand. It’s very simple, but it feels very luxurious. One reason is that when I wake up, it seems as if the whole day stretches in front of me like an enormous meadow, which is never a sensation I had when I was in go-go New York City. I can spend five hours at my desk. And then I can take a walk. And then I can spend one hour reading a book where, as I read, I can feel myself getting deeper and more attentive and more nuanced. It’s like a wonderful conversation.

Then I have a chance to take another walk around the neighborhood and take care of my emails and keep my bosses at bay and then go and play ping pong and then spend the evening with my wife. It seems as if the day has a thousand hours, and that’s exactly what I tend not to experience or feel when I’m — for example, today in Los Angeles — moving from place to place. I suppose it’s a trade-off. I gave up financial security, and I gave up the excitements of the big city. But I thought it was worth it in order to have two things, freedom and time. The biggest luxury I enjoy when I’m in Japan is, as soon as I arrive there, I take off my watch, and I feel I never need to put it on again. I can soon begin to tell the time by how the light is slanting off our walls at sunrise and when the darkness falls — and I suppose back to a more essential human life.

~ Pico Iyer, The Urgency of Slowing Down. An Interview with Krista Tippett (Onbeing, November, 2018)

Sunday Morning


Upon arriving in the huge, landlocked country of Mongolia—more than seven times larger than Great Britain—you may be taken aback by the runaway developments in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Ever since some of the world’s largest gold and copper deposits were discovered, some within 70 miles of the city, Mongolia’s economy has taken off like a rocket…But then you hear that more than half of the 1.4 million people in the capital still live in settlements dominated by gers (a traditional style of yurt, like a domed felt tent), sometimes in shockingly simple conditions…

As soon as I ventured out of the city and began bumping across the level, otherworldly steppes of Mongolia, in fact, I realized that nothing I’d seen in 40 years of traveling across Asia could compare with its great, heart-clearing stillness. Within 30 minutes of the hyper-malls, herders will welcome you into their gers to share a feast of marmots, roasted sheep and freshly boiled goats’ heads, much as they might have done in the time of Genghis Khan, the warrior who masterminded the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. If the horsemen who rode all the way to Europe to extend that empire were to return to their ancestral spaces next week, they’d feel right at home.

Part of the special beauty of rural Mongolia is that it redefines everything you thought you knew. A road, I realized as soon as I was jouncing past Bronze Age burial mounds, is a red-dirt scratch across the void; a sight is a jeep the size of an ant, inching across the horizon. A town in the steppes could pass for a subway station almost anywhere else; once, after hours of nothingness, I stopped at a ger camp to find that it also served as a meditation space, a car-repair shop and a leather-tanning workshop. No wonder. Gazing out miles and miles in every direction, I could catch nothing but emptiness—vast enough for the mind to go anywhere (or nowhere at all)—and the sound of the wind, whipping in my ears…

Mongolia haunts a visitor as few other destinations can. After I’d returned home, the power of stepping out of my luxury ger in the Gobi to be met by a 74 million–year-old volcanic outcropping, the eeriness of knowing that dinosaur bones were all around, had gotten inside of me, like a shared dream I couldn’t shake.

In a world flooded with distractions, Mongolia returns one to something ancestral. The clock has little meaning here. Days turn into an ageless cycle of random moments, scanning of the heavens, simple meals, long journeys. Often I didn’t know whether I was traveling into the past or the future. I could simply tell that this was a place that everybody would recognize, if only because it’s somewhere lost inside most of us, lodged like the people we once were and might one day again become.

~ Pico Iyer, excerpts from The Heart-Clearing Stillness of the Mongolian Countryside (wsj.com, February 27, 2018)


Notes:

  • Inspired by Maggie O’Farrell in “I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death“: “When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was read to me and Alice sighs, “Oh, how I long to run away from normal days! I want to run wild with my imagination,” I remember rising up from my pillow and thinking, yes, yes, that’s it exactly. The school trip showed me that it was possible to ease this longing, to sate it. All I had to do was travel. After he had sailed around the Mediterranean in 1869, Mark Twain said that travel was “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Neuroscientists have been trying for years to pin down what it is about travel that alters us, how it effects mental change. Neural pathways become ingrained, automatic, if they operate only by habit. They are highly attuned to alterations, to novelty. New sights, sounds, languages, tastes, smells stimulate different synapses in the brain, different message routes, different webs of connection, increasing our neuroplasticity…I sensed this, at an instinctive level, at age seventeen. That unassailable flood of novelty, the stimulus of uncharted territory, the overload of the unfamiliar, with all synapses firing, connecting, signalling, burning new pathways. I have never forgotten that bus ride from the airport into the centre of Rome, my first sighting of the city. And I have never lost the thrill of travel. I still crave the mental and physical jolt of being somewhere new, of descending aeroplane steps into a different climate, different faces, different languages. It’s the only thing, besides writing, that can meet and relieve my ever-simmering, ever-present restlessness. If I have been too long at home, stuck in the routine of school-runs, packed lunches, swimming lessons, laundry, tidying, I begin to pace the house in the evenings. I might start to cook something complicated very late at night. I might rearrange my collections of Scandinavian glass. I will scan the bookshelves, sighing, searching for something I haven’t yet read. I will start sorting through my clothes, deciding on impulse to take armfuls to the charity shop. I am desperate for change, endlessly seeking novelty, wherever I can find it. My husband might return from an evening out to discover that I have moved all the furniture in the living room. I am not, at times like this, easy to live with. He will raise his eyebrows as I single-handedly shove the sofa towards the opposite wall, just to see how it might look. “Maybe,” he will say, as he unlaces his shoes, “we should book a holiday.”
  • Photo: Frederic LaGrange – “Still Waters.” A full moon rises over a pond near Buir Lake in eastern Mongolia, near the Chinese border.

Sunday Morning

chapel-church-silence-alone-solitude

Perhaps we wouldn’t need chapels if our lives were already clear and calm (a saint or a Jesus may never need to go into a church; he’s always carrying one inside himself). Chapels are emergency rooms for the soul. They are the one place we can reliably go to find who we are and what we should be doing with our own lives—usually by finding all we aren’t, and what is much greater than us, to which we can only give ourselves up.

“I like the silent church,” Emerson wrote, “before the service begins.”

~ Pico Iyer, Where Silence is Sacred


Image: Groteleur

 

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church. I keep it, staying at Home.

peace,rest,calm,still,quiet

Pico Iyer, Chapter 5: “A Secular Sabbath” from “The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere.”:

The need for an empty space, a pause, is something we have all felt in our bones; it’s the rest in a piece of music that gives it resonance and shape…the reason a certain kind of writer will include a lot of blank space on a page, so his sentences have room to breathe (and his readers, too). The one word for which the adjective “holy” is used in the Ten Commandments is Sabbath…

These days, in the age of movement and connection, space, as Marx had it in another context, has been annihilated by time; we feel as though we can make contact with almost anywhere at any moment. But as fast as geography is coming under our control, the clock is exerting more and more tyranny over us. And the more we can contact others, the more, it sometimes seems, we lose contact with ourselves…

This is what the principle of the Sabbath enshrines…the one day a week we take off becomes a vast empty space through which we can wander, without agenda, as through the light-filled passageways of Notre Dame. Of course, for a religious person, it’s also very much about community and ritual and refreshing one’s relationship with God and ages past. But even for the rest of us, it’s like a retreat house that ensures we’ll have something bright and purposeful to carry back into the other six days…

The Sabbath recalls to us that, in the end, all our journeys have to bring us home. And we do not have to travel far to get away from our less considered habits. The places that move us most deeply, as I found in the monastery, are often the ones we recognize like long-lost friends; we come to them with a piercing sense of familiarity, as if returning to some source we already know. “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—” Emily Dickinson wrote. “I keep it, staying at Home.”


Notes:

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