Celebrating 10 years and 500 episodes
In this episode we connect with author, Pico Iyer, live at the 1888 Center in Orange, California. Pico shares his aversion for academia, his love of travel, and his passion for truly connecting with people of all types. Growing up in the rotation between California and London, Pico never had an opportunity to claim a home or an identity.
He shares how he sees society as a whole moving away from the identifiers that lock us in place and create a sense of the other, "People are defined more by their passions than their passports." We discuss how technology affects this shift, and how Pico has never owned a cell phone. We also cover the importance of stillness and isolation from the noise as a toll for rebooting our brain, recharging our heart, and realigning our soul.
Our public podcast service, paired with millions of discounted books curated into topic-themed collections, provides guidance and tools to support lifelong learning.
Pico Iyer is the author of two novels and ten works of non-fiction, on subjects ranging from the Cuban Revolution to Islamic mysticism, from stillness to travel, and from forgotten nations of the world to the 21st century global order. An essayist for Time since 1986, he is a constant contributor to The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, Harper’s and more than 200 other newspapers and magazines worldwide, and he has published introductions to almost 60 other works.
His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and both his 2008 meditation on the XIVth Dalai Lama, The Open Road, and his TED Book, The Art of Stillness, were national best-sellers. They have also made him a Guggenheim Fellow, a Pulitzer Prize nominee and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.Between 2012 and 2016, Pico Iyer delivered three talks for ted.com, and between them they have received more than 6 million views. He has been a Fellow of the World Economic Forum, twice, and has lectured everywhere from West Point to Stanford, Shanghai to Bogota. In the past two years he has been featured in program-length interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, Krista Tippett, NHK World and others, to add to the dozen television programs he’s done with longtime Chapman President Jim Doti.
Born in Oxford, England, in 1957, to parents from India, he was educated at Eton, Oxford and Harvard. Since 2012 he’s been a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman.This event is co-hosted by Tabula Poetica and the Office of the President of Chapman University; see more at www.chapman.edu/poetry.
"I think whether you're living now or 3,000 years ago, whether you're in China or you're in California, people have always known that those who are wise are seldom too busy, and those who are busy are seldom too wise, or too happy or too kind. We have to make the time not just to travel, but to do justice to the gift of the day and the moments all around me."
Producers: Jon-Barrett Ingels
Manager: Sarah Becker
Host: Jon-Barrett Ingels
Guest: Pico Iyer
Audio: Brew Sessions Live
Podcast music composed and performed by Dan Reckard
[00:00:02] Trevor Allred: I'm Trevor Allred and this is the 1888 Center Podcast. We're a nonprofit organization dedicated to storytelling. Through creative collaboration, our programs are designed to provide tools for community innovation. This episode was produced at 1888 Center, located in the historic district of Old Towne Orange, California.
[00:00:38] Jon-Barrett Ingels: Good evening. How's everybody doing tonight? Thank you so much for coming out. This is The Purpose of Past Tense, and we are live at the 1888 Center. My name is Jon-Barrett Ingels. Today, it's my pleasure and all of our pleasure, I'm sure it's a great audience here, to be connected with Pico, world traveler, writer, travel writer. You've written for Time, you've written for The New York Times. You've written numerous books, including the most recent-- Where did it go? It's behind me. The Art of Stillness.Phenomenal read. Pico Iyer, everybody. Thank you so much.
[00:01:25] Pico Iyer: Thank you. From my point of view, this evening is already a fantastic success because I never knew about 1888 till right now. Now I never want to leave. This is really a treasure.
I've been coming to Chapman. I was working out as I was walking over here, every one of the last 16 years, and this is what I've been missing. Thank everyone here for bringing it into the community.
[00:01:44] Jon-Barrett: Absolutely. We chatted a little bit before. I would love to start taking you back to young Pico, and I'd love to talk a little bit about--
[00:01:55] Pico: That was last year.
[00:01:56] Jon-Barrett: Right.
[00:01:59] Pico: Sorry.
"I went to graduate school, and my big success there was dropping out. Not a delight to my parents, but a small victory for me."
[00:01:56] Jon-Barrett: I would love to talk about your relationship to your parents, and what it was like to grow up with academics as parents, and what pressure that put on you, how that influenced you, and how that led you to the path that you followed.
[00:02:20] Pico: Yes. I'm almost embarrassed to say this right down the street from beloved Chapman, but I think the main effect it had on me was making me determined never to be an academic, even if that was my strength, which it probably is because I carry my parents' blood in me. They had a wonderful time in the academy, but a kid thinks that he defines himself by being the opposite of his parents and running in the opposite direction. I'm still doing that [chuckles] after many, many decades.
I went to graduate school, and my big success there was dropping out. Not a delight to my parents, but a small victory for me. Ever since, I suppose I felt that my parents were very generous. They gave me the gift to rebel against them, and they sent me to school far away from them, knowing that that would really encourage me to go my own way, even away from them.
I think at an early age, I grew up on planes going back and forth, and I decided, how can I forsake experiencing this real complicated world every minute of the day for anything settled? Apart from not being in the academy, to this day, I've never owned property. I don't have a home really, and I'm still roaming the globe looking around the next corner for something I haven't met before.
[00:03:41] Jon-Barrett: You spent a little time teaching at some point, was that something that held you down and took away from the nomadic lifestyle?
[00:03:54] Pico: It's a two-part answer. The only time I really was teaching was in graduate school, where it was part of the requirement. Then, Chapman wonderfully encouraged me or invited me to come every year for a week to sit in on classes. That's a kind of teaching. I made a mistake that, and if there are any undergraduates in this room, I hope they won't follow in my footsteps, which is, I went to graduate school because I couldn't think of anything else to do, and I didn't have the courage to pitch myself into the unknown or to pursue my real passion.
England has a very strange educational system where you only study one subject. In college, I just did three years of literature, not a single hour of history or languages or science or anything else. Then the more I did that, the more unemployable I was. When I graduated, I thought, "What can I do now? Oh, study more literature. Just read the same Shakespeare plays again." My wish already was to be a writer, but I didn't know how to parlay a training in literature into trying to make it.
It took me four interesting, fun years in graduate school to find the courage to take off. I was telling some students yesterday, finally, after my fourth year in graduate school, I summoned up the heart to go to my professors and say, "I'm leaving." Because I thought, I was still in my mid-20s, I didn't have any dependents, and I thought, "If I really want to be a writer, this is the time to give it a chance."
Out of nowhere, the following week, somebody came from Time magazine. He was visiting various campuses, talking to various students. Out of the blue, he gave me a job. It was a complete fluke at one level, but another, I think it makes an emotional sense that as soon as I really made the commitment, suddenly, the world gave me a safety net. As soon as I decided to pitch myself off the rooftop, suddenly, I landed in a kind of treasure house. If I dilly dallied and, for example, never proposed to my wife, I'd still be in limbo right now. That was how I was with writing.
[00:05:53] Jon-Barrett: Was the same thing true about travel writing, and taking the leap of faith away from Time and moving to being more of an independent?
[00:06:06] Pico: Yes, it's hard to believe now, but some of you who are my age may remember that 35 years ago, Time magazine was a huge institution. It felt like it ruled the world. One aspect of that was they were insanely generous. My very first year at Time magazine, I was 25, I went and I said, "Please, can I take a three-week vacation?" Time magazine being Time magazine said, "Would you mind taking four weeks and would you mind if we pay for it?"
That was my first touch and taste of Southeast Asia. I was instantly, I fell under its spell. All I wanted to do was be with it every hour of the day. As soon as I came back, I took another two-week vacation. As soon as I came from that, I took another three-week vacation. [chuckles] Even my bosses probably saw what was on the way. Then, after those three vacations, I thought, "Why don't I just live there?"
The way to make that dream true, possible was I started writing up the trips I'd taken. I drafted a proposal. I had not a clue, so I just put it in manila envelopes, and I wrote, "Nonfiction editor, Random House. Nonfiction editor, Simon & Schuster." Just sent it off to 10 publishing houses. A couple of them responded, and they gave me the lowest possible advance. That allowed me to take a six-month leave of absence from Time, although, I'd only been there two and a half years. As soon as I came back, I left for good. Time, again, like my parents was generous and accommodating enough to let me fly away from it.
"My notion of home, even when I was a little boy, was really about movement and about process, and not being in one fixed place, but the passages between places, and the conspiracies and the collusions between places."
[00:07:33] Jon-Barrett: You were talking about, you don't own property there, there's really nothing that holds you down. Do you think that that came from being a young person and traveling to school, and not really having a sense of home, or place that you belong to?
[00:07:52] Pico: That's really a good question. Yes, you're absolutely right. I'm an only child, so I'm a lost cause and a semi-human to begin with. Then, I was going to school 6,000 miles from the nearest relative because my parents were in California and the rest of my family was in India and I was in England. Really, I was forming myself on those constant flights, back and forth. Yes, exactly so. That gave me a sense of possibility and self-sufficiency, and it gave me all kinds of bad habits that I'm wrestling with to this day. If my wife were here, she would probably be quite vocal on that not-so-good aspects of being ruthless.
My notion of home, even when I was a little boy, was really about movement and about process, and not being in one fixed place, but the passages between places, and the conspiracies and the collusions between places. I remember to this day, I would get onto the plane at LAX, just down the road, and I would fly to Heathrow to go to school. In the course of those 12 hours, my accent, my attitudes, everything about me would change. As soon as I would arrive in England, this was 1960s California, I would speak as if I'd just been hanging out with the Grateful Dead in Golden Gate Park and all my friends' eyes would get huge with envy because that was the dream for little English boy in 1967 to be in '60s California, summer of love and land of license and possibility.
Then, when I came back to California, I would go to a drive-in movie, and they were usually showing horror movies. As the vampire would advance on the unsuspecting maiden, she would repel the vampire by reciting the Lord's Prayer backwards in Latin. I would astonish my friends in Santa Barbara by being able to do that. That was pretty much the only thing we learned in English school, was how to recite the Lord's Prayer in Latin, backwards and forwards.
I also saw the virtue and the glamor of being a foreigner. There's a certain fascination in being an English person when you were in California and a Californian when you're in England, and at least not having too fixed a sense of who you are, and also not having too fixed a sense of where you belong. I think it was a good training.
I think our last president was a perfect example of somebody who by virtue of growing up in many places, could put himself into the soul and skin of almost anybody, which brought its challenges because not everybody knew where he was coming from. Maybe he didn't always know where he's coming from. It did mean that he was able to imagine himself into a Kenyan, or an Indonesian, or Hawaiian, or somebody from Kansas. These days, as the world gets more global, maybe that was a useful thing.
[00:10:34] Jon-Barrett: Yes, it's interesting. It feels like at this time, we have the duality of not wanting identifiers and being more of a global citizen, but at the same time, wanting so much that identifies us to make us that, “I am this, I'm from here, I believe this, this is me. These are all the things that make me me.” Having the freedom and not having that place of origin or that anchor, that it seems like that was easier to be able to invent yourself or create the you that you wanted to be.
[00:11:11] Pico: I think that's a really good point, and I think that's one of the problems right now. I've heard that if you take a group of ants and you put them down in the desert, the first thing they do is build a community, the second thing they do is build a cemetery, so we need walls. Humans can't function in the desert, we need to define ourselves. When we define ourselves, we're defining us versus them, unfortunately. You're right, if we don't have definitions given to us, for example, I can't really say I'm Indian or English or American or Japanese, then we create our own definitions, and those aren't necessarily better. They may be just as exclusionary and just as delusionary too.
We're in a strange state now where what used-- In my grandparents generation, identity was a given. They had no choice how they define themselves in terms of race, and religion, and who their friends were, who their enemies are. Now, we have to start from scratch, which is a great opportunity, but it's a challenge too because if you don't consciously determine exactly where you belong, and whom you're committed to, who you're accountable to, you end up in limbo. Neither here nor there.
" I think that means in a country like US, but certainly, Los Angeles now, it doesn't make sense, really, to ask somebody, 'Where do you come from?' Because so many people have lots of answers to that. Maybe more sensible to ask, 'Where are you going? What are your goals? What are your passions.' People are defined more by their passions than their passports."
[00:12:16] Jon-Barrett: You talked in one of your talks about the hypothetical half Korean, half German who was living in New York, who fell in love with a half Thai and half Irishman who was living in Edinburgh or in Scotland. Then they ended up falling in love and having a child. The diversity at that child of all the different culture that that child came from, yet nothing that physically would identify them as one thing or another. Do you see that that's, not globally, but where we are headed maybe as, I don't know, Western or in America, or is that something that maybe we should strive towards?
[00:13:06] Pico: We're moving, as you said, really quickly in that direction. I think that's a very good thing. That's one reason I'm positive about the world because even as people on both sides of the world leaders try and create these Black and Whites divisions, somebody like the person you were describing, can't think in Black and White terms because they're Black and White, or neither. The number of people in that category will soon be 450 million. There'll be many more people who belong to myriad places than there are Americans. Mr. Obama is just the first of many.
Sometimes, I think, who's the most popular writer of nonfiction today? It's maybe Malcolm Gladwell. Who's one of the great writers of fiction? Zadie Smith. Both of them are half English, half Jamaican. Again, you can't say they're Black or White, which means they see, for example, our racialism much more nuanced in Cuman ways than traditionally was possible. I do see this as a move forward.
I think one of the most positive statistics I've seen in The New York Times was that in 1957, I think 4% of Americans were in favor of mixed-race marriages. Now the figure is 87%. That's a huge transformation. What was taboo and looked down upon not so long ago is common knowledge now. I think that means in a country like US, but certainly, Los Angeles now, it doesn't make sense, really, to ask somebody, "Where do you come from?" Because so many people have lots of answers to that. Maybe more sensible to ask, "Where are you going? What are your goals? What are your passions." People are defined more by their passions than their passports. If we’re freed from that, I think that's a great thing.
It's one reason I really love literature because at the time when you hear about walls and travel bans and border disputes, beauty of the imagination is, it doesn't respect borders. It doesn't think in terms of divisions. The reason that Ray Bradbury wrote 451 is so that he can get in somebody else's head and we can get into his and those characters' heads, and history becomes ours, and so every border falls away, in some ways. I think that's partly why literature is more important now than ever before, as a countervailing force to the simpler binary Black us versus them forces.
"Sometimes, it's an interesting thing that in the age of information, I think it's easier than ever before to be ignorant about the rest of the world. In the age of globalism, it's sometimes easier to be provincial."
[00:15:24] Jon-Barrett: In your travel, and sticking with where we are now in this world, how is the rest of the world perceiving and evolving, when it feels like some things may be moving backwards here?
[00:15:44] Pico: Yes, I'm almost embarrassed to answer that. Partly because I was talking to my wife, who's Japanese, this morning on the phone. She was saying, "It's not so easy for most of us around the world to take the US as seriously as we used to." I think for me, the bigger discrepancy is that most of the rest of the world knows much more about us than we know about them.
That's why I've always encouraged people to travel because wherever I go, if I'm in Haiti or Yemen or Cambodia, all the people I meet, they have one wish, they long to see the world. They would do anything to come and visit Orange and to meet us, but they will never have the resources or the opportunity. We, most of us in a room like this, do have the chance.
I think it's up to us to take the initiative because in any neighborhood, global or local, the really scary person is the one who locks the door, and draws the curtains, and cowers behind the couch. When I look at Canada, for example, which is deeply global, it welcomes the world and it travels around the world. I think that's a wonderful example that many of us can benefit from. For example, I was in North Korea not so long ago, returning after many years. Although North Koreans aren't really in a position where they can say very much, I could tell that they were envious that we could visit their country and they couldn't visit us.
Just before that, I was in Iran. Exactly the same thing, except the Iranians that I met speak very good English. They were all reading Walter Isaacson's book about Steve Jobs. They were very savvy about what's happening here. Sometimes we don't know enough about what's happening.
[00:17:15] Jon-Barrett: Absolutely, yes.
[00:17:16] Pico: Sometimes, it's an interesting thing that in the age of information, I think it's easier than ever before to be ignorant about the rest of the world. In the age of globalism, it's sometimes easier to be provincial.
[00:17:25] Jon-Barrett: Yes. How do you see this age of information and technology affecting and growing, and either enhancing or hindering the world in your travels?
[00:17:38] Pico: I'm not sure if it enhances or hinders because I think humans remain the same and our instruments keep changing. Whether we're using typewriters or smartphones, I think we're bringing the same mixture of kindness and insensitivity to that. I'm not worried about our devices corrupting or undoing the world. I think we are sometimes not worthy of our devices. We don't make very discriminating use of them. That's not technology's problem, it's our problem. They are somewhat addictive. They're more dangerous in some ways than addictive drugs because we need technology to some extent and because it does some good too. In that sense, they're more tempting than heroin and more dangerous than heroin. Again, it's up to each individual to come to her own balance with that.
In a privileged place like California, where we have so much information and distraction, maybe we don't need our devices so much. Certainly, when I go to my parents homeland, India or to Africa or the Middle East, there I see how devices made their lives incomparably better. I'm not a fan of technology, but there's no question that technology is helping billions of people live longer, healthier, happier life. That's all to the good.
[00:18:58] Jon-Barrett: Do you find yourself getting sucked into anything like social media or a game on a phone, or are you very strict and keep yourself away from all of that?
[00:19:14] Pico: You're really embarrassing me now. I think there may be some people in this room who are the victims of this, but I'm probably the rare person, I've never in my life owned a cellphone. [chuckles] I don't even know what apps are.
[00:19:25] Jon-Barrett: What anything is, sure.
[00:19:26] Pico: What anything is, yes. I was living this very fast-paced life in New York City when I was in my late 20s. I left to go to a single room in the back streets of Kyoto with no telephone or toilet or not even really a bed. Even at that point, I felt I wanted a day that lasted a thousand hours. I didn't want a day that was cut up and fractured and where I was all over the place. I felt I was happiest in moments of attention and intimacy. If I'm, say, exchanging five words with everybody in this room, versus talking to you for five hours, I would much rather the five-hour talk, because I think we'll enrich each other much more and be able to go much deeper.
In the same way, with what is coming in on me, I'd rather have a sustained conversation with a book or a movie or the streets of Orange than be looking in many directions at once. I made that decision at a young age. It's not so easy to survive without a cellphone these days, of course.
[00:20:26] Jon-Barrett: Yes, I don't know how you do. How do you get around? How do you--?
[00:20:30] Pico: I don't have kids, which makes it easier.
[00:20:32] Jon-Barrett: Sure.
[00:20:32] Pico: Of course, if I did, I would need one. It's hard arriving in airports now because there aren't many public phones. Even, I was in Estonia four or five years ago, there's not a single public phone in the whole country. I went to a hotel desk and asked for a phone. He looked at me as if I was from the Stone Age, which I probably am. I don't want to preserve my purity at the expense of my friends, and so I'm hoping I'm not inconveniencing my colleagues and bosses too much. I think the main victim of my policy is my wife who's a normal human being and does have a cellphone. I asked her a couple of years ago, because here I am in Orange, I can call her easily, but it's not so easy for her to find me.
I said, If you would like, I will get a cellphone." She said in a wonderful, generous Japanese way, "If you had a cellphone, you wouldn't be the guy I married." [chuckles] If she did ask me to, of course, I'd get one instantly. For the time being, I don't think I've missed out on very much.
[00:21:31] Jon: I want to talk a little bit about, you were talking about Haiti and other places where they don't have the luxury to travel. Travel is definitely a luxury. Here, it's not just about money, it's about… we put time. I don't have the time, which is a resource that is plentiful, but we find ways to not use it. What is the best way for somebody to just break free and find the time, and the money, and the resources to get out and see the world?
[00:22:17] Pico: Actually, I think the most-- I loved what you said just now about time being our great resource. To me, the most important question is, how do we find time? Just to think about our loved ones, to remember what we care about, to see the larger picture. I think everybody in this room probably does something that allows her to find the time. Goes for run every day, swims, meditates, does yoga. That's the reason that I moved from New York City to Kyoto. I was really trading money for time. I thought I would have 10 times more time every day in Kyoto than I ever had in New York City, even though I didn't have the financial security.
I think the notion of time as the most important currency has always been important to me. I think whenever you hear somebody say, "I don't have enough time," that's really a bad sign. If they're saying, "I don't have enough time to hang out with my kids or to answer my friend's request or to read a book," the problem is usually not in their circumstances but in them, because I think whether you're living now or 3,000 years ago, whether you're in China or you're in California, people have always known that those who are wise are seldom too busy, and those who are busy are seldom too wise, or too happy or too kind. We have to make the time not just to travel, but to do justice to the gift of the day and the moments all around me.
I think in this context, one of the people I've really learned a lot about is the Dalai Lama because I travel with him every year. I can't imagine many people who are more busy than he. He's the ruler of a country, he's the head of a religion. Everybody in the world is coming to him with requests and pleas. He has all the time ever required for every single person. A six-year-old little boy will approach him in a crowded hotel lobby, he'll look at that boy as if that boy is his teacher, and give himself 100% to him. It's humbling. I think, "If the Dalai Lama has time to do that kind of thing, probably I do too."
[00:24:22] Jon-Barrett: You said in, I can't remember what it was in, but you were talking about, he was so busy that he had to meditate for three hours or something.
[00:24:30] Pico: Yes. [laughs] That was Gandhi-
[00:24:32] Jon-Barrett: Oh, right. Yes.
[00:24:32] Pico: -who used to say he meditated for a day, and he told his friends one day, "Oh, I have a really, really busy day. I'm not going to be able to meditate for an hour." They were shocked. He said, "No, I'm going to have to meditate for two."
[00:24:42] Jon-Barrett: [laughs]
[00:24:43] Pico: Yes, and that's real wisdom because it's about building a savings account, essentially. You're saving everybody around you, as well as yourself. To go back to your question about travel. I think, when I was a small boy, if I wanted to see Haiti or Syria or Somalia, I had to save up for years in order to make a trip there. The beauty now is anybody who's living in Orange County, you can sample all those cultures driving down the 405. If you're interested in Vietnam, you can visit Hanoi, 20 minutes away. If you want to see Thailand, it's just down there on Melrose Avenue. If you want to see Guatemala, it's there.
I think the beauty of our cities is that the whole globe has come to our doorstep. For people who don't have the time and resources to go across the world, which is very difficult and sometimes costly, go down the street. It's all happening around you.
[00:25:34] Jon-Barrett: What you're saying is so important and kind of sad that we are where we are, because that is what makes us such a great place. It's a privilege to be able to go and experience, whether it's just having dinner somewhere, or a conversation with someone.
[00:25:52] Pico: Exactly.
[00:25:54] Jon-Barrett: I always think that it's funny that you never go anywhere else and there's the little America.
Here's our little slice of the United States here and wherever. Going back to the conversation of time, this is what this book is about.
[00:26:12] Pico: That's right, it is.
"I think it used to be a luxury to be able to step out of our life, take a deep breath, and think about where we're going. Now, it's a necessity because the world is coming in the palm of your hands. Yes, you've got the Library of Alexandria times a thousand."
[00:26:12] Jon-Barrett: About finding that sense of space. You talk about some people have their summer house or the house that they go on vacation, but not everybody has it. Finding that summer house in your week, in your own time. Finding that in time. I'd love for you to talk a little bit about and what encouraged the writing of this book?
[00:26:37] Pico: Yes, thank you for remembering that book so well and exactly so that the notion of the Sabbath is more important than ever it was. Even if it's just an internet Sabbath. Probably one of the big surprises of my travel is that I spend a lot of time in Silicon Valley. When I'm there, the people who have given us these technologies are also the ones who are wisest about putting limits around that technology. They go on seven-day fasts, internet fast, and actual fasts. They maintain internet Sabbath where they don't go online for 48 or 72 hours, so that they'll have much more that's fresh and creative to offer when they're online again at the beginning of the next week.
Yes, I think it used to be a luxury to be able to step out of our life, take a deep breath, and think about where we're going. Now, it's a necessity because the world is coming in the palm of your hands. Yes, you've got the Library of Alexandria times a thousand. All your friends and so many strangers are sending you messages, so how do you remove yourself enough from it to see what's important? I think, as I say, everybody has found her or his own way of doing it. Without it, we get lost in the traffic jam, as it were, of congestion and distraction. I was so happy just as we were about to come up here, you and I started talking about Big Sur. We both lit up and felt 20 pounds lighter soon as we did. I was realizing, one of the beauties of Big Sur is you don't really have cellphone reception there.
[00:28:07] Jon-Barrett: Absolutely.
"We're in a vicious cycle now because so many of us are in such a hurry, we can't see what a hurry we're in. We have to do something radical to shake ourselves out of it."
[00:28:08] Pico: One of the beautiful effects, you will know, is that you step out of time. You're in this landscape of allegory really. It's rock and ocean and tree and light. We feel liberated from a lot of the clutter that fills us up and back to some clearer, purer self. I think Big Sur, in some ways, speaks to me for something lost inside of us that all of us wants to recover and can recover. We probably do recover by going to the gym or taking a two-hour hike this weekend, taking a walk along the beach, whatever it may be. If we don't do that, I think it's we can't-- We're in a vicious cycle now because so many of us are in such a hurry, we can't see what a hurry we're in. We have to do something radical to shake ourselves out of it.
I've been going for many years to this monastery in Big Sur, Catholic monastery, though I'm not Catholic. Every time I go, there are 3,000 reasons not to go. I feel guilty about leaving my 86-year-old mother behind, and I feel bad about missing a friend's birthday party, and I worry that all my bosses are going to be upset that they can't reach me. The minute I arrived there, I realize, I had to be there. If only to bring something fresh and clear back to my mother and my friends and my bosses.
It always takes courage to make that initial move, as it does to do anything difficult, and to actually turn away from the world and some of your responsibilities for 48 hours. I think people you care about reap the benefits when you come back. Again, it's a new challenge that we have to face. I think when I was this kid, often, we felt we had too much time on our hands and not enough to do, and now we have too much to do and not enough time to do it.
[00:29:54] Jon-Barrett: Yes, it's not going to make sense to you because you don't use technology that much, but it is, it's a reboot. It's taking your device, this device and restarting it. You end up with all of the information that you had before, but you are just fresh, you're operating faster and cleaner. That's how I feel every time I leave this--
[00:30:15] Pico: That's such a good image, I'm going to steal it.
[00:30:17] Jon-Barrett: [laughs]
[00:30:17] Pico: That's really good. I often notice in our airports now, we have recharging stations for everything, except what really needs recharging is ourselves.
[00:30:24] Jon-Barrett: Exactly.
[00:30:25] Pico: What I used to think of it was a bit like an oil change. I have to take my car in every three months so it'll run smoothly. That's what I have to do to myself. I noticed at some point, if I went on retreat to this place for three days every season, it's only 3% of my days, but it completely transforms the other 97%. I will feel the absence in the other 97% if I don't have that chance to just recollect and reflect or reboot, as you said.
[00:30:54] Jon-Barrett: I would love to talk a little bit, there are two authors that you've-- You referenced multiple authors throughout a lot of your writings, but there are two that keep popping up in my head and when I read, Thomas Merton and Graham Greene.
[00:31:10] Pico: Yes.
"The Dalai Lama always when he comes here says, 'Please don't become a Buddhist. Stay within your own traditions, your lack of traditions. Really, that's the least important thing in your life. Just try to be human and try to remember what your human responsibilities are,' which is a very similar thing."
[00:31:11] Jon-Barrett: I'd also like to bring up Leonard Cohen in this book. I'd love for you to talk about how they've influenced you, how they inspire you, and what their importance is to you, all three of those gentlemen, if you don't mind.
[00:31:23] Pico: Yes, there’ a lifetime's worth of answer, I think, there. I'll start with, a few years ago, I drove up to the top of Mount Baldy. I pulled into this parking lot, and there was this anonymous figure in a bobble cap, and glasses, and very unprepossessing in a tattered robe who came to greet me. He took my things into a little cabin where I was to stay. He started heating up some water for tea and making me dinner, and really looking after me as if his only need in the world was to tend to other people. It took me a long time to realize, this was actually my hero of 40 years, Leonard Cohen, who as most of you know, went and lived for five and a half years as an ordained Zen monk.
It sounds easy when I say something like that, but to see a man in his 60s spend his entire life shoveling snow and scrubbing dishes and looking after the 88-year-old Japanese man who's the head of that center, it's very humbling. There was a man who really could do anything and be anywhere, and he decided, this was the most fulfilling thing he could do. I think he was among the most gracious, and wise, and deepest people I've met. The fact that he had the courage to make himself invisible and to turn away from all the ways in which the world rewarded him was startling. I never have seen anything quite like that.
It's interesting because Graham Greene is quite similar to Leonard Cohen. What I love about Graham Greene is I wrote one book about Graham Greene and one book about the Dalai Lama. I think they're almost the same person from opposite angles. Graham Greene is like the person coming in the back door. Some of you may have read his novels like The Power and the Glory. They're always about really flawed characters. The main character in that book is a whisky priest in Mexico in the 1930s. He spends all his time drunk, his father, the child, he does everything that a priest is not supposed to do. In the moment of crisis, he rises to an act of compassion and self-sacrifice that would make any cardinal envious. He is really living the message of Jesus better than all the people who are preaching that message.
The fact that Graham Greene takes us in all our complication and deceit and self-contradiction, and still finds light there, and seems to suggest that ultimately, kindness is more important than belief because we can all get tangled up in our heads with whether we believe in this or that or not. Kindness, just the act towards a fellow human being, which is part of what literature is about, sympathizing with a stranger, it's very moving to me. The Dalai Lama, as many of you know, when he comes to Orange County, which has been a very important place for him. He was here in Newport Beach when he won the Nobel Prize, and he chose of all the places in the world to celebrate his 80th birthday in Irvine, just down the road.
The Dalai Lama always when he comes here says, "Please don't become a Buddhist. Stay within your own traditions, your lack of traditions. Really, that's the least important thing in your life. Just try to be human and try to remember what your human responsibilities are," which is a very similar thing. I don't really have a religious commitment, but I've learned a lot from people like that who thought a lot about the human predicament and how to do justice to the people around us.
Thomas Merton, as you all know, is wonderful as the angry, restless monk. He was the travel writer who ended up in a cloister and wished he were traveling to Haiti and Yemen. Again, he gave us the flip side. I used to think that Leonard Cohen, what was so impressive to me, is he's an absolute man of the world who chose to be a monk. What's impressive to me about the Dalai Lama is he's a monk who's really had to conduct his entire life in the world, in Washington and the European Parliament, in Times Square, really, which is not the job he signed up for.
Thomas Merton is, again, going back and forth. I think all the writers you mentioned have an unsparing honesty. They're very kind towards others, but they're very tough on themselves. They won't give themselves the benefit of the doubt. I'm always moved and inspired by that. Leonard Cohen was happy to talk about anything, except himself. The only time you would see him get a little agitated was if you complimented him or you said you were moved by a song of his, because he thought that was probably the least important of his contributions.
[00:35:50] Jon-Barrett: As a traveler, as somebody who spends most of your time on planes. I'm going to come back to the same setup again. Do you see yourself as an observer, or are you a participant, or are you a combination of both and you wear both hats at different times?
[00:36:10] Pico: Again, that's such a good question. I think I'm much too much an observer, as many of my answers have portrayed already. My childhood schooled me in seeing England through the eyes of a Californian, and California through the eyes of an English person, being maybe able to see the deficiencies of both or what each didn't have. It didn't train me very well in being a full full-fledged member of a community. That's probably an issue that I have to address, especially when it comes to being responsible, because it's easy to-- I live in Japan on a tourist visa, for example. I've been living there for 31 years on a tourist visa, so it's easy to be a tourist everywhere. Then, who do you answer to and who are you really giving your energies to? I should be more of a participant, I think.
"The stillness is where you take experience and turn it into meaning. Where you take the sights you've gathered, you turn them into insights. If you don't have that stillness in your life, your being is like Times Square, just a thousand things moving in a hundred directions, but without clarity."
[00:36:59] Jon-Barrett: Then also, as somebody who spends most of your time in airports and traveling, how do you deal with the solitude? How do you deal with this? Which, I'm sure you know people everywhere and there are always friendly faces, but a lot of time is spent alone, I would imagine.
[00:37:18] Pico: I thought you're going to say how do I deal with jet lag?
[00:37:21] Jon-Barrett: No.
[00:37:21] Pico: I was going to solicit the wisdom of this crowd, because you can tell already from what I've been saying, I'm the kind of crazy person who loves being alone too much. As an only child, as a writer, that's really a commitment to isolation for hours every day, for every year of one's life. Being alone comes naturally to me. It's being in company that's quite difficult. Of course, you see, I once lived for two weeks around Los Angeles airport. Again, I was an observer. To some extent, I was treating it as a foreign country. I did see a lot of loneliness and displacement there. It's a very psychically-draining place to be because people are confused and lost and scared.
Loneliness is never something I've had to worry about, except when I'm in society. Two weeks ago, I was in my little apartment that I share with my wife in Japan. We don't have a car and a bicycle or anything. Really, for months on end, I just been in that little place, playing ping-pong with my elderly neighbors every night, but otherwise, pretty much just reading and writing. That felt rich and companionable. Right now, when I am traveling a lot, because I was in Vancouver on Saturday, and I was in San Francisco on Sunday, and I was in Santa Barbara yesterday, and heading off again, that's when it's easy to lose touch with yourself, I think.
Not exactly loneliness but you feel as if-- I've always felt, you can only be moved when you're really sitting still. When you're running around, again, you can't bring yourself fully to everything that's around you. I think that's never a healthy place to be. You asked earlier, and I didn't answer how this book came about. Actually, it was a book written for TED, the TED Talks, people who interestingly, decided to go into publishing, just as a time when most of us thought publishing was over and had been displaced by TED Talks. They chose an editor from The New York Times, and I'd worked with her a lot in The New York Times Op-Ed pages.
She commissioned this book, and she really said to me, "You're a traveler, you spent a lot of time going many places, how about going nowhere?" It was a good challenge, as it were, to think about the virtues of not moving. Because I think, in some ways, I think of travel and movement and activity as almost-- I was meeting somebody today who organizes farmers' markets. It's almost like gathering these wonderful ingredients from the farmers' market. Stillness is where you produce the meal. You bring all the-- Without the stillness, it's just scattered ingredients across your kitchen counter.
The stillness is where you take experience and turn it into meaning. Where you take the sights you've gathered, you turn them into insights. If you don't have that stillness in your life, your being is like Times Square, just a thousand things moving in a hundred directions, but without clarity.
"I would say that choosing to be a writer is the one decision I've never regretted. It makes you immeasurably rich. I think it's deepened my relationships, it's helped me to read the world, it's helped me to feel full in a way that I can't imagine I would be if I didn't have writing, but paying the bills is still a challenge."
[00:40:11] Jon-Barrett: In your foreseeable future, is there a point where you do slow down and spend more time? We talked a little bit about, in Nara, where you live, where your wife lives, you spend maybe three and a half months throughout the year. Do you see a time where that just becomes more and more time spent or can you not even--?
[00:40:37] Pico: In my dreams. That's my greatest longing. I'm embarrassed, you pronounced that name Nara better than I do.
[00:40:43] Jon-Barrett: Thank you. I've been practicing.
[00:40:46] Pico: Really, all I want to do is be there. There's nothing that I miss when I'm there. I have my neighborhood, I have my ping-pong paddle, I have my books, and I have my paper. That's it, nothing else required, but the state of-- It's difficult times for writers nowadays. For a long time, I could spend seven months, a year there, and I would send books and articles out from there and be able to support my family. Now, that model doesn't work anymore, and so I have to be much more out in the world doing public events. It's not the job I was trained for, and it's not the job I would necessarily choose.
I wish I had the opportunity to be more in Nara, but I think the world is moving very much in the opposite direction. Writers are mostly being paid these days not to write. To support my aging mother and my wife, I probably will have to continue not writing, even though I would love to write. That's a sobering thing to say because I know there's some young writers in the room. I would say that choosing to be a writer is the one decision I've never regretted. It makes you immeasurably rich. I think it's deepened my relationships, it's helped me to read the world, it's helped me to feel full in a way that I can't imagine I would be if I didn't have writing, but paying the bills is still a challenge.
[00:42:08] Jon-Barrett: With that being said, do you see, or is there any more fiction spinning around?
[00:42:16] Pico: Again, I would love-- I've been working on a novel for many, many years. I feel embarrassed to say that because there are some distinguished novelists in this room, but that would be my indulgence. It's interesting again, before you and I came up here, I think JB and I shared the experience of having lost our house in fire. I lost family and I lost our house and every last thing we owned in the world in a big forest fire in Santa Barbara several years ago. At that time, I really, I lost my future, as well as my past because those were pre-computer days, and all my notes were handwritten. I lost the next, probably, three books I was going to write in the next seven or eight years that I had planned to give to my writing.
You were also saying, you, in particular, were saying how when you go through a loss like that, it often can be a liberation. This circles back to your question because I had been going constantly to Cuba in the late 1980s at a time when they saw very, very few people from this country. My first day in Cuba, I was staring at one of these futuristic buildings in Havana and a passerby realized I must be the rare thing, a tourist in 1987, so he befriended me. He was very quick-witted, and sharp, and engaging. His great dream, as with many intelligent Cubans, was to come to the United States.
In fact, one hour after meeting him, we were standing in a long line around three curves, waiting to get into a restaurant. He said, "Look, I've got a deal for you. You give me your passport, I fly to America. You go to your intersection, get a new passport, everybody's happy."
I didn't think it'd be quite as simple as that, but I respected his longing. Each time I went back to Cuba, I would meet my friend Carlos and pick up the conversation. Slowly over many trips, I helped him, but other people helped him more to arrive in the country of his dreams, and first in New York City and then Miami. My first book had been about the exchange of dreams, about people in this side of the world dreaming of finding enlightenment and Tibetan, Tibetans dreaming of the freedom of California.
My second book had been about meeting my wife, who when I met her had never been outside her hometown of Kyoto. She met me and she met other foreigners, and she thought, "Why don't I remake my life and become an international citizen." The third book would be about Carlos, which is the next step. Somebody who's always dreamed of America, what happens when finally, he experiences the American reality? That was the book I was writing. That was the book I lost in the fire.
I rang up my long-suffering editor in London, and I said, "By the way, I'm so sorry, that book we've been discussing and that I'm about to write, I can't write anymore because I've lost all my notes." He's a very kind man, so he commiserated with me, but he's also a very wise man, and so he said, "Actually, losing all your notes is probably the best possible thing for you." Because he knew I was the kind of writer who works too much from notes and not enough from heart and memory and imagination. We're all one kind of person if we're like this making plans, and another if our eyes are closed and writing from a deeper place.
I took that as an invitation since I was still possessed by Cuba to write a book about Cuba, but in fact, to do it as fiction. To dispense with Carlos' story and romance and approach Cuba in an entirely different way, so I did write a novel there. The novel might never have happened. I wouldn't have been brave enough to try it had it not been for the forest fire. In so many other ways, the forest fire enabled me to do things I might have been shy to do otherwise. Now having written a novel, the first thing I learned was, I'm not a novelist and I don't have a clue how to do it, but I'd love to keep trying it. I wrote one other that I think felt a little more comfortable and I'd like to continue, but I don't know if life will give me a chance.
[00:46:04] Jon-Barrett: Pico, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. This was so informative and fun and moving, and I really appreciate you taking the time, and thank you all as well.
[00:46:17] Pico: Thank you. You asked really good questions. I know you did an incredible amount of research.
[00:46:22] Jon: Thank you. Appreciate that.
[00:46:22] Pico: Thank you for knowing exactly how to steer things. I really appreciate it.
[00:46:26] Jon: Thank you, everybody.
[00:46:38] Trevor: Thank you for listening to the 1888 Center Podcast. Support our mission by subscribing, reviewing, or donating today. The show is produced by Kevin Staniec and Trevor Allred. Our music is composed and performed by Dan Record. Visit us in Old Towne Orange, California or online at 1888.center.
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