As some of you know, I’m on the verge of completing my MFA at the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Last night was the highlight of my entire experience here: I was asked to introduce my literary idol, Pico Iyer, at a reading he gave for some 250 writers and students. I thought I would share it here, as a tribute to my long-time muse.
We have gathered here tonight for the pleasure of hearing Pico Iyer discuss his latest book, The Man Within My Head, about his lifelong fascination with the writer Graham Greene. The irony of giving this introduction is that, for the past 12 years, I have been fascinated with Pico Iyer. So, before he dazzles us with what it’s like having Mr. Greene inside his head, let me share what it’s like having Pico inside my own.
It started with an essay he wrote for Salon in 2000 called “Why We Travel.” Having spent years trying to justify my own wanderlust to my family, I was startled by the way Pico so eloquently and elegantly captured the drive inside me:
“Travel, for many of us, is a quest for not just the unknown, but the unknowing; I, at least, travel in search of an innocent eye that can return me to a more innocent self. I tend to believe more abroad than I do at home…. I tend to be more easily excited abroad, even kinder.”
This essay became my manifesto, and when I began to read his many books—Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, Falling Off the Map—I picked up other insights as well, such as:
“Everything is interesting if you look at it with the right eyes.”
And: “But it’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.”
Pico’s work gave me a set of guiding principles to abide by, and a whole host of questions to consider:
“What are the issues that we would die for? What are the passions that we would live for? Can we redeem ourselves through love?”
At some point in my travels, I began turning inward. One night, at a silent retreat in the desert of South Texas, I went prowling through the library, where I found a binder full of essays about solitude. Front and center was one by Pico that perfectly articulated what I was experiencing:
“In silence, we often say, we can hear ourselves think; but what is truer to say is that in silence we can hear ourselves not think, and so sink below our selves into a place far deeper than mere thought allows. In silence, we might better say, we can hear someone else think.”
Years later, after enduring a thigh-defying sesshin at a Zen monastery in California, I stole into their library to see if I could find a gentler form of Buddhism. There on a shelf stood the just-published biography of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama by… I’ll give you one guess.
As it turns out, His Holiness was an old friend of the Iyer family. Pico’s book about him, The Open Road, tackled yet another set of questions I hadn’t even realized I was struggling with until he laid them out for me:
“How can we act with conscience and clarity in the midst of the world’s confusions and see things as they really are and still have faith in them?
I could go on and on about such synchronicities. It seems that every time I reach a bewildering stage in life, an essay or book by Pico magically appears to challenge my thinking, to test my convictions, or at the very least, to make me laugh for trying.
But we’re here tonight to celebrate The Man Within My Head, a project to which Pico devoted 8 years and 3,000 meticulously fact-checked pages. And while its narrative moves from Bolivia to Mexico to Vietnam to Ethiopia to Cuba to Colombia to Sri Lanka to Bhutan and back to Bolivia with regular touchdowns in Southern California and a 15th century boarding school in England, it’s not exactly a travelogue, or a memoir, or even a biography of Graham Greene. To me, at least, it reads like a treatise for all of us who strive to live lives of conscience; for all of us who think through paper and ink.
“A writer’s job is to see what will happen to a stranger tomorrow. He has to plunge so deeply into his recesses that he touches off tremors that find an echo in a reader; and if he goes deep enough into the subconscious, he will find the future hidden there as much as the past. A writer is a palmist, reading the lines of the planet.”
Ladies and Gentleman, I present to you….
* A traveler who has flown more than anyone but commercial airline pilots and flocks of birds, but owns neither a cellphone nor a FB account;
* A thinker deemed by Utne Reader to be one of “100 Visionaries Worldwide Who Could Change Your Life”;
* An author who remembers to thank not only his travel agent in the Acknowledgments of his books, but the creators of his musical soundtracks: Leonard Cohen and the rock band U2;
* A man we should ALL invite inside our heads…