UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Going nowhere

Pico Iyer is an inveterate traveler and travel-culture writer who once lived for a month in LAX to observe and write about “Global Souls,” his term for a new generation of people on the move. Thus, some might suspect he’d be the last person to write authoritatively about the idea of “Going Nowhere.” However, he has actually spent an equal amount of time sitting still, spending a year in 1997 on a sort of self-imposed meditation retreat in Kyoto, Japan, fleeing the fast paced modern world in search of solitude. He recounted his experience in the book The Lady & the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto. In 2020, during that first pandemic summer when we were all staying put and going nowhere, I thought a lot about Pico Iyer.

In seeking out the writings of Pico Iyer, I was researching his article on LAX for a unit I was developing about place and identity. As we sat at home, and students and teachers alike adapted to the strange idea of remote learning, I thought of how geography defines us and how sometimes we never move beyond that. So much of education seems about other people, places, and times, as opposed to our own experience of the here and now. The idea of  “Staying Put” is familiar to my students through the writing of Scott Russell Sanders, whose excerpt on that subject appeared on the 2007 AP English Language exam. Sanders writes eloquently of staying home, countering claims by Salman Rushdie about the value of migration, which he argued created “a new race of man” who lives beyond borders. Certainly, we live in a flattened world with a global consciousness. But when nature intervened, limiting our movement even within our small communities, the idea of sitting still hearkened us back to when hunter-gatherers first stayed put. Settling down and going nowhere can teach us much by becoming someone who looks inward instead of outward.

My quest for Pico Iyer’s airport article led me to his book The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. I listened to the entire audiobook in a single setting, an experience Iyer aligns with the book’s brevity and his intention for readers. The wisdom of staying home from a writer who has made a career of going places proved invaluable to the experience of containment and social distancing. Literature and art can save us and give us solace, providing refuge as it allows escape. In The Art of Stillness, Iyer explored the practice of stillness with people who have it down to an art. He starts with another somewhat surprisingly solitary figure, the poet and renowned musician Leonard Cohen. Cohen, the acclaimed “poet laureate” for people who live on the road, withdrew from society in 1994 and spent years in retreat and seclusion at the Mount Baldy Zen Center. Like many who wander as part of their career and their lives, Leonard Cohen seemed to understand, as Iyer observes, “It’s only when you stop moving that you can be moved” in deeper, more significant ways.

In introducing his visit with Leonard Cohen at a monastery, Iyer notes how the art of stillness in the practice of solitude seems to be embedded in our DNA, even as we acknowledge man’s nature as a social animal. Literature and the humanities are filled with reflections from poets of East Asia and philosophers of Ancient Rome who “regularly made sitting still the center of their lives.” In fact, the poems which form the foundation of Taoist thought are a handbook for seclusion, focused on retreat rather than pursuit. Lao Tzu and his Tao Te Ching seem intent on pursuing inner peace by escaping civilization and “social distancing” himself in the misty mountains of China. 

For as long as mankind has been progressing through migration, commerce, innovation, and collaboration, a dedicated group of people have cultivated stasis. Despite Iyer’s book being written in 2014 and focused on reprieve from the busy-ness of the contemporary age, he begins the book with a timely and poignant observation that resonated with me and many others during that eerily quiet and still spring of 2020. It’s an observation that still holds true for me today: “[Has] the need for being in one place ever been as vital as it is right now?” It’s a good question, and one worth sitting still and thinking about.

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. Ytou can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com