Time freezes. Like a bell cutting through the forest, reminding us of the wisdom. That feeling when you're out in the woods and you sense a great being in your midst. You hear his passing footsteps. And because of this, we must stop. I pull up a stool at the kitchen table, slowly sink down and hold my face to the speakers.
And the orbitury plays out.
Peter Matthiessen was many things. He was one of the founders of The Paris Review. He was a pioneering naturalist who traveled the world's most far-flung lands. He was a hippie and he worked for the CIA. He won the National Book Award numerous times. But perhaps most essential to his being, he was a Zen Buddhist.
I first met Matthiessen when I travelled to Maine at the age of 19, when I was deliriously in love with my drumming boyfriend and had left my student digs in Leeds, UK, to come here.
We spent the summer painting an apartment building in downtown Augusta. We had picked up a pack of Matthiessen's audio tapes, Zen and the Writing Life at Borders one afternoon. Tim had picked it up and gestured to me that I should get it as a present for my mother. Being the kind soul that he is. And being the terrible daughter that I was at the time, I proceeded to give it to my mother and then quietly reclaim it for myself. I listened to those tapes endlessly - probably 30 or so times over the coming decade - until a monk appeared one day in a Buddhist Center in Hong Kong and I was able to transition to direct teachings in a Buddhist community.
The tapes were from teachings Matthiessen gave at the San Francisco Zen Center and what I loved about him the most was how he spoke about the Buddhist life and the writer's life, and where these two can intersect and collide. How they can, in fact, be the same thing.
My favorite book of all time may be The Snow Leopard, his astonishing non-fiction work where he goes on a pilgrimage to the sacred mountains of the Himalayas in search of one of the most revered animals of all time--and in search of answers to his own broken life. It is some of the finest travel writing you will ever come across. It is as much as inscription of those peaks as it is the landscape of his inner being. He captures his moments of insight so vividly, that the insight awakens in us too. He was one of my earliest teachers, one of the great Bodhisattvas who has appeared in my life and pointed out the way to the path.
When I moved to the US in 2009, eventually marrying that drummer, I decided that I would go and find Mr. Matthiessen; I would seek him out and ask him to teach me to write. I figured out that he lived somewhere on the East Coast so I could probably find a way to hunt him down.
As I sit in my kitchen this evening and listen to Terry Gross speak with him in an intimate interview, hear his laughter resound around these walls, it strikes me that the opportunity has now passed. The impermanence of life is being revealed, like enlightened hands peeling back the illusion: showing me the truth directly. "Remember death!" He used to cry in those tapes. He would speak of the skull lying just beneath the vibrancy of the skin on our faces. "How close death is," he would say, encouraging us to make the best possible use of this life while we have it. "Wake up! Pay attention!"