It’s amazing how many lives one is allowed to live if one only pays attention. When I have a depressive episode, which can last anywhere from weeks to over a year, it’s like my life has pressed pause. I remember very little and no new core memories are made. I cease to live and simply exist. As a writer that is pretty terrifying because my passion is about stringing together events and emotions to create something worthwhile. When my life frequency hums so low it is hard to remember what it’s like to vibrate in unison with the planet, the universe and all other life. At those time I am extra grateful for all the hard work of other writers who help me remember who I am, and that we are all so very much alike.
I was raised on, among other things, audiobooks. My aunt worked, and still works, at the local small town library and has a passion for books. For years throughout my formative years she would keep us in a steady supply of at least two audiobooks at the time. For something close to a decade I would fall asleep to voices and stories and I still have the hardest time falling asleep to only my own voice in my head. Eventually I grew up to be a sullen teenager and the audiobooks stopped for about a decade, but lately thanks to Audible and phone apps, they seem to have made something of a renaissance.
I just finished The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen and that’s what sparked this post. It’s a remarkable recording, mainly because it’s an older Matthiessen reading aloud the adventures of a younger Matthiessen to a group of his closest friends towards the end of his life. This book topped several best-of travel memoirs lists and it’s one of my favorite genres. It’s pure accident I happened to find the audio version before a print copy but I’m glad I did. The recording is a little hard to get into. He speaks slowly, he is an old man, after all. But he speaks with passion and compassion, and some of his insight is startlingly perfect, even to a younger woman.
Matthiessen, a writer, sets out on a journey to climb the Himalayas with his friend in the 1970s. He is in his 40s and has just lost his wife to cancer. He has young children. He has traveled extensively, but an inner search for peace brought him to undertake this difficult journey at this time while his companion hopes to catch a glimpse of the elusive snow leopard, only spotted a handful of times by westerners at the time. The book burns slowly. He takes notes every day, through September to November. Most of he notes are about the trek and the local Sherpas that are hired to help carry their bags. He also meditates on his life back home and the journey that brought him here. He has excellent insight into universal truths of humanity, be they male or female, westerners or easterners, religious or non-religious. When traveling in these parts of the world, you can’t help but be fascinated with Buddhism and the simple, unfathomable life the villagers lead. Maybe you have to have experienced it yourself as an outsider to really grasp how hard that emotion is to convey because the last thing you want to do is to belittle them, or make them seem strange and exotic. Matthiessen manages this difficult task brilliantly, and I think that’s why the book has had such lasting effect.
It is, perhaps, one of our greatest struggles as educated westerners, this constant search for peace and balance. I’ve struggled with it a lot lately, and as usual, the book I need appears before me at just the right time. When Matthiessen sees a crippled child, no older than four, drag herself by her elbows along a stony path high up in a small mountain village, his natural instinct is to get her help, somehow, someway. But when the child reaches him, she offer an incandescent smile in a grimy little face. And he moves on, which was his only option to begin with, because what does he know of this child’s life if she is able to greet a stranger in such a way.
Whatever peace he finds is fleeting, and he does not shy away from his less flattering actions and emotions, as well. Fleeting peace, fleeting insanity. It can all be found in the solitude of the mountain. I don’t want to give away whether they saw the snow leopard or not, because it’s the driving mystery of the story. Eventually he comes to terms with the fact that if he does not see the snow leopard, it’s because he is not ready for it. And he accepts that, like a westerner, he is “forever getting ready for life instead of living it each day.” Which is a sentence I have written myself, time and time again. Not sure if it is a western problem, or just a writer problem.
The book brought back vivid, vivid memories of my own travels, which have been on hold for the past five years while standing still in beautiful Hawaii. Eventually, everything becomes ordinary and I stopped seeing Hawaii with my traveler’s mind. I stopped seeing the rain forest on volcanic mountain peeks, covered in mist, looming in front of me, mysterious and ancient, as I step off the bus. I simply saw my commute, stressing across the street trying to beat the oppressive humidity. But today I saw them, overlapped with the tales of the Himalayas in my earbud, and even further in my mind’s eyes, all the places I have been so lucky to visit.
Some memory imprints are purposeful; you make a conscious snapshot that you can always return to and feel exactly as you felt then. Some of mine are watching the sunset and then the endless starry night over the rolling hills of Uganda. Visiting an empty monastery deep in a silent Mongolian valley. I felt so out of time, I honestly expected dinosaurs to come trampling down. The first shower after a four day train journey spanning the entire Russian tundra. Ordering my first meal in Beijing. Getting lost on the islands of southern Laos while trying to spot a rare dolphin that will soon be extinct. Holding a koala in Australia. London at night with a beautiful blonde, 2 AM after-parties with characters out of Alice in Wonderland. Spending my 22ed birthday alone in Beverly Hills, learning that location means nothing without the right company. Some imprints are accidental, ordinary occasions that become momentous, like meeting my would-be husband in a dive bar at 3 in the morning where neither of us wanted to be but still, somehow, were.
As a writer I flick back and fourth through those moments, recalling how I felt, now removed, still having sympathy for that girl. At 30, feeling old and spent, with no clear path to how to finance the rest of my life while holding on to some shred of sanity, I became someone else. I dedicated myself to learning the absolute truth about the kind of world we live in because knowledge is free, yet I’ve also learned, comes with a price. “God offers to every mind a choice between repose and truth. Take which you please – you can never have both”, said Ralph Waldo Emerson. Truth or repose, said Matthiessen, in my ear today, quoting Emerson. I want both, of course, but for now I’ll settle for becoming a traveler again.
Scientifically speaking, past, present and future are all the same. Who you are at the end of your life is who you had the potential to be all along. And in that sense, everything is alright, always.