A Knack for Embracing Impermanence: On Pico Iyer’s “Autumn Light”

A new memoir about coming to terms with aging and death.

A Knack for Embracing Impermanence: On Pico Iyer’s “Autumn Light”

Autumn Light by Pico Iyer. Knopf. 256 pages.

IN MATSUO BASHŌ’S travel-sketch The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, the 17th-century Japanese poet wanders west from Edo (Tokyo) toward Kyoto, returning to his hometown in Ueno, where he hasn’t set foot in ages. “Nothing remained the same in my native village,” he writes. “Even the faces of my brothers had changed with wrinkles and white hair, and we simply rejoiced to see each other alive.” Bashō’s eldest brother takes out a small amulet bag, opens it, and says, “See your mother’s frosty hairs.” After weeping for a few moments, Bashō composes a poem:

Should I hold them in my hand
they will disappear
in the warmth of my tears,
Icy strings of frost.

In a few poignant lines, Bashō captures what Pico Iyer’s new book, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells, is all about: facing the aging and death of loved ones.

A mix of prose and haiku, The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton is slippery to classify (the Japanese call it haibun, but we have no such genre), and Autumn Light is similarly ambiguous. Meandering like a river, it flows along with a steady pace of rumination, only to abruptly plunge off a profound waterfall. At other times, it stagnates in an eddy of banality, treading water, barely flowing at all — as in the many sections when Iyer plays ping-pong with elderly acquaintances at the local health club. It is a mysteriously affecting book, but some readers might be frustrated by its swirling structure. Even Iyer’s Japanese wife Hiroko feels perplexed by it. “Your book, nothing happening?” she asks, and she’s kind of right.

Rather than a story, Iyer has written an ode to autumn — not for its blazing maples, but because it is the inward-looking season “when everything falls away.” Instead of his usual travel writing, he’s aiming for a “seasonal exploration of mood and dissolving families,” in the style of a Yasujirō Ozu film — a “little no-action movie,” as Hiroko suggests. And while Iyer does refer to several Ozu films — especially Tokyo Story (1953) — the book brings to mind the solemn work of Ingmar Bergman, who also frames his narratives within seasons: Summer with Monika (1953), Winter Light (1963), Autumn Sonata (1978). “The season,” Iyer writes, “is a kind of religion, I think, to which we offer poems and petitions, but it’s not one you believe in so much as simply inhabit.” Autumn Light is like that — you get inside of it. Like the films of Ozu and Bergman, Iyer’s book is something you feel from within — a mood that is being conveyed.

In a 2003 essay entitled “Grandmothers,” Iyer writes that “autumn makes the least of us philosophical,” and Autumn Light certainly induces contemplation. A strange emotional fragility arises after sinking into the book, a heightened sense of awareness of what is usually neglected. As I was reading, I often found myself staring out the window in reverie; catching sight of a falling leaf would inexplicably cause me to cry. Leaves shoot only to fall, flowers bloom only to fade, we are born only to age and die, and while those are platitudes, the experience of watching your parents and loved ones decay is always poignant. The process of aging itself is perpetually intriguing — to stare into the mirror at one’s graying hair and wrinkling face and think, Is this me? How did I become like this?

It’s also upsetting. Even the Buddha, the most equanimous and wisest of sages, once said:

I spit on you, wretched old age —
old age that makes for ugliness.
The bodily image, so charming,
is trampled by old age.
Even those who live to be a hundred
are headed — all — to an end in death,
which spares no one,
which tramples all.

Despite this rare lamentation, Buddhist cultures have a knack for embracing impermanence, and Japan in particular is focused on accepting the ephemeral. In one section of Autumn Light, Iyer hears school children sing the Japanese version of the Pledge of Allegiance: “Bright though they are in color, blossoms fall. Which of us escapes the world of change? We cross the farthest limits of our destiny, and let foolish dreams and illusions all be gone.” You would think that growing up with an anthem like that would lessen the sting of loss. But it doesn’t work that way. Japanese culture might know that we cherish things precisely because they cannot last, but inherited wisdom doesn’t help us escape the pain and sense of helplessness we have when our relatives become elderly, sick, weak. And that’s what autumn is about. Back during grad school at Harvard, Iyer believed autumn was the season that teaches us how to die. But, no, that’s winter. Rather, autumn is “dispensing the much harder challenge of learning how to watch everyone you care for die.”

Born to Indian parents in Oxford but raised in California, Iyer has lived in Japan since 1992, after marrying a Japanese woman with two children. Author of The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto (1991) and The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere (2014), Iyer has written over a dozen books. Autumn Light opens when his 91-year-old father-in-law abruptly gets pneumonia and dies. (Iyer’s own father died of pneumonia at 65; his mother is in her 80s and living among fire-prone hills in Santa Barbara.) Some of the book’s most intriguing sections address customs the Japanese have regarding death. They place a beaker of salt outside the door of their home, to purify everyone who enters. They wear black. They pay a local temple priest to offer a special Buddhist name to protect the deceased in the afterworld. Since mourners must stay away from the temple, they pay the priest more to come over on the seventh day after death — and on the 49th, and the hundredth — to chant the Heart Sutra, which is like a Kaddish for Japanese Buddhists. Iyer notes that his father-in-law was always impatient with such rites, but he understands “how they offer a container for grief, a time-tested way of channeling sorrow so that every family can be joined with every other.”

But still, Iyer’s mother-in-law can’t process that her husband of 60 years had died. She thinks he’s at the races. “No,” Hiroko explains to her, “he died. Don’t you remember?” The old lady keeps forgetting; later in the book, when she can’t recognize her own grandson, she admits, “My mind’s broken.” It brings to mind a line from Bergman’s peerless film Through a Glass Darkly (1961). The main character, a young woman suffering from worsening schizophrenia, thinks she has met with God. At one point, she says, in anguish, “It’s so horrible to see your own confusion and understand it.” But Hiroko’s mother doesn’t seem so troubled: she chuckles happily and repeats, “My mind’s totally broken.”

To understand your own confusion — it doesn’t take psychosis or old age to feel this way. Before her father died, Hiroko was in Dharamshala, India, with the Dalai Lama. (Iyer has known the Dalai Lama for decades.) “My parents are getting old,” Hiroko told His Holiness, “and I don’t know what to do exactly.” Who knows what to do? It’s paralyzing. But the Dalai Lama had a great response. “Spend time with them,” he said. “Don’t spend it here!” This line was such a relief, a spotlight shining through the darkness of confusion, and Autumn Light is peppered with such moments. It’s not only a joy to read, it’s helpful. After all, what can we say to someone who is suffering a fatal illness, or to someone who has experienced a great loss? “Words have little value in the kingdom of essential things,” Iyer writes, casually profound. “They’re just decorations on the feelings too deep for us to put into syllables.” Presence is enough. We don’t have to say anything. We just have to be there.

It’s one thing to deal with the loss and mental slippage of your elderly parents; later in the book, however, Iyer’s “ultra-chic, motorbike-riding” wife abruptly has a stroke during a yoga class. “What happened?” she keeps asking him, as if he didn’t just answer the same question several times. Hiroko has always been sharp, attentive, bustling around the house with compulsive energy, and so Iyer worries as he watches her mind run off the tracks before his eyes. The doctor says she has “transient global amnesia.” Fortunately, the condition passes; the doctor thinks it shouldn’t happen again. But how harrowing! To see how a life can “be turned around in an instant and put back together again in another” — how can we continue, after being so shaken?

Such situations raise disturbing questions. “What is the self,” Iyer asks, “if so quickly it turns into something it couldn’t recognize two days ago?” It’s not just our bodies that are fragile but our very personalities. As we witness the decay of those around us, we see proof of the Buddhist concept of anatta — the essencelessness of all things. That there is no such thing as a self. That words like “self,” “soul,” and “I,” are merely figures of speech. So who or what dies? No one. Nothing. There is only the process of dying.

Since Iyer has admittedly never been one “for trying to put words to what’s beyond us,” he uses Ozu’s films as a framework for understanding his own life. Late Spring (1949) is about a sickly 27-year-old woman who remains unmarried to take care of her widowed father, who tricks her in order to marry her off. The similarly season-themed films Late Autumn (1960) and An Autumn Afternoon (1962) also have marrying-off plots. Like the parents in all three movies, Iyer and Hiroko worry about their daughter Sachi, who has suffered bouts of debilitating illness and, in her 30s, remains unmarried. Tokyo Story, in Iyer’s view, seems to be about his parents-in-law: they come from the same town as the elderly parents in the movie (Onomichi), and Hiroko is too busy to let her widowed mother live with them.

But there’s an exchange at the end of the movie that more deeply captures what Iyer’s entire book is getting at — the lesson that autumn teaches us about life. After the mother of the family dies, the youngest daughter, who is in her early 20s, asks, “Isn’t life disappointing?” Her slightly older sister-in-law, who is already eight years a widow, smiles sympathetically and says, “Yes, it is.”

In Japan, the lesson autumn teaches is not merely that life is disappointing. It is to acknowledge that disappointment with a smile.


Randy Rosenthal is a writer and editor currently teaching writing classes at Harvard University.

LARB Contributor

Randy Rosenthal is the co-founding editor of the literary journals The Coffin Factory and Tweed’s Magazine of Literature & Art. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including The Washington Post, The New York Journal of Books, Paris Review Daily, Bookforum, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Daily Beast, and The Brooklyn Rail. He is a recent graduate of Harvard Divinity School, where he studied religion and literature, and currently teaches writing classes at Harvard.


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