Nowhere Man

Last week I finished three of Pico Iyer’s recent books: Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells (an anatomy of a single season, over the years, in Japan); A Beginner’s Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations; and The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. All are nonfiction, and excellent.

For a self-proclaimed non-adherent to any particular belief system, Iyer puts a lot of Buddhist-like expression into his books. But then he has been based for nearly 30 years in Nara, Japan, and is married to a Japanese woman who upholds her family’s rituals. Call Iyer an agnostic Zen Unitarian, minus the Sutras and Protestantism.

All I mean is that he has a soul-deep interest in being present, and he brings in wisdom of various traditions, from Simone Weil (“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer”) to Oscar Wilde (“To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual”) to sayings from nearby Kyoto (“Don’t just do something. Sit there”).

His Art of Stillness is published by TED Books, the TED Talks’ publishing arm that began in 2014. (You can watch the accompanying TED talk here.)

“In an age of speed, I began to think,” Iyer writes in that book, “nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.”

Iyer ties paying attention to the freshness of impressions while traveling, which he has done plenty of in his career, and to being a Westerner in Japan, where silence is a virtue. (“A perfect date in Japan involves accompanying a loved one to a movie, watching the film together in silence and then, on the way home, taking pains not to talk about it,” he says in Beginner’s Guide.)

Having finished the last of the three books, I lay on my sofa and looked out at the pines. I had dropped my son at school and already finished a long essay for work. I owned some time. The time compounded in my memory bank as I tallied how much of my life has been unintentionally slow and free of distraction. I am grateful for the sum, though back then I was often impatient for bigger things:

I had a slow childhood, the best kind.

The old saying about the military—hurry up and wait—is true. Often on bivouac or guard duty or in a motor-pool toolroom or during long, broke weekends in the barracks, I found myself fit, fed, relaxed, and interested only in my comrades and surroundings.

Those summer jobs—at a visitor’s center, a park district, a forest preserve, even a gas station, where I was the only cashier not yet held up in an armed robbery.

In libraries, museums, and dull corporate cubicles.

Walking to work every day for 12 years.

Road trips across country and up-and-down continent. (My kids are bemused I can sit in the car, like the character Puddy, from Seinfeld, for 14 hours, doing nothing. Why would I want the radio on? Sitting there is too enjoyable.)

Of course my life has probably more often been distractedness, worry, plotting, plodding, labor, angers, and hurt. But the slow moments are like being with someone you love, neither of you with an agenda. They are like coming to and finding yourself as an individual life connected to the world, and no reason to be anything else.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.