When Pico Iyer wrote “Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells”
(Vintage Books, 2019), he had no idea how much his ideas would resonate just one year later.
Mr. Iyer’s newest autobiography deals with living with uncertainty and a looming mortality.
Both themes resonate with millions of people around the world, as nearly every country is dealing with a coronavirus pandemic that has already taken thousands of lives worldwide.
“I never imagined it would be so relevant,” Mr. Iyer, who has regularly interviewed people onstage for UCSB Arts & Lectures programs, told the News-Press in a phone interview from Japan.
“Except, I think we are always living with uncertainty and mortality. This moment dramatizes it, especially for people who are young and healthy, but at any moment, whether it was a year ago or one day ago, I cannot tell you what will happen. So I have always felt we should always think about how to make peace with our uncertainty.”
In the book, Mr. Iyer travels back to Japan, a place he considers another home, following the sudden death of his father-in-law.
The memoir then beautifully traverses the difficulty of having to come to terms with this mortality.
In one of the early pages, Mr. Iyer describes his father-in-law, who was 91, as someone who was proud of his good health.
In fact, his wife was just with Mr. Iyer’s father-in-law at a shrine last week. The moment showcases just how quickly life happens.
“I often think we prepare so hard for a driving test or a job interview, but we don’t prepare for this huge moment in our life, which will come to all of us,” Mr. Iyer said.
“The fact of impermanence, which says that nothing lasts, isn’t a call only for grief but it is also a reminder of how we can find joy right now,” the author said.
Mr. Iyer writes in the book, “We cherish things, Japan has always known, precisely because they cannot last.”
The author’s memoir explores this in two ways beyond his father-in-law’s death. The book discusses his mother-in-law dealing with her dementia, while his wife attempts to reach out to her brother, who has severed his ties with his family long ago.
These are two things that neither Mr. Iyer nor his wife will ever have control over.
It’s also why the title of the book and the memoir itself explores autumn, which represents the inevitable changing of seasons and life.
“I have a wise friend who says change is not the problem, resistance to change is,” Mr. Iyer said. “My book was about the seasons and saying that autumn will come along, then it will end and winter will come and it will end, and there is nothing we can do about that except make our peace with it.”
“I have always felt we have no control over outside change, but we have a lot of control over the inside world of how we respond,” he said.
When thinking how to respond, Mr. Iyer brought up the 1990 Painted Cave Fire taking his Santa Barbara home and countless things he would never see again.
“In my case, a year after I was reduced to nothing, I thought about how I don’t need 90% of my books, clothes that the insurance company was ready to replace. I could live more lightly. Now that I don’t have a house in Santa Barbara, maybe I could go to Japan more, which I love and now that I don’t have my notes, maybe I can take my hand at fiction,” Mr. Iyer said.
“It’s an example of how we have the chance, if we come out of it intact and healthy, an opportunity to rethink our priorities and actually live closer to what we’ve always wanted.”
Mr. Iyer also said two big inspirations for the book were Leonard Cohen, who recently passed in 2016, and the Dalai Lama.
Mr. Iyer described Mr. Cohen, a beloved and talented singer and poet, as the “secret person in this book.” Mr. Iyer met Mr. Cohen when the singer was 61 and said he could be doing anything he wanted. Mr. Cohen chose to live for five years as a monk, shoveling snow, scrubbing floors and making food.
“I was so impressed that this great man of accomplishment with this much fame could see that really the most interesting and important thing in life was what you do when you’re sitting still,” Mr. Iyer said.
The Dalai Lama, while being an inspiration, also appears in the book. Hiroko, Mr. Iyer’s wife. asks the Dalai Lama how she is supposed to deal with her parents getting older. The scene takes place before her father’s death.
The Dalai Lama’s response is simple, yet captures the true essence of the memoir as he says, “Spend time with them. Don’t spend it here!”
It highlights what Mr. Iyer later touches on which is that words are meaningless, yet, the simple action of being there with your loved one speaks volumes.
“Because I don’t know how long I will be around or people I care for, I can’t take anything for granted, I have to make the most right now,” Mr. Iyer said.
Another big part of the memoir is noticing the patterns of everyday life, whether it be the simple tasks Mr. Iyer does everyday or his ping-pong matches he takes part in, tasks that nowadays aren’t so simple.
“We will be going back to those things, but I think this is a great opportunity, people to kind of take a deep breath and think of how they really want to live their life,” Mr. Iyer said.
“I have many friends and family who are moving too fast … Suddenly we’ve been given the chance to stop and to break that vicious cycle and maybe we can live thinking more of our friends and family and less about Brad Pitt and the Kardashians, maybe this is just a chance to clarify our priorities.”
While the memoir does focus on sorrowing topics like mortality, Mr. Iyer pointed out the second word of his autobiography’s title: light.
“I am very glad the main word in the title is ‘light.’ This isn’t just a moment of dark. Every moment is a time of light and dark so I wrote this book to remind us, anything that is happening in the world, there is always a possibility of hope and so I am glad I did it then and I’m very happy if that message can keep people company right now.”