« Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and to be awake, » the Zen master and great American writer Peter Matthiessen once said. « Zen practice is about appreciating your life in this moment. If you are truly aware of five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well. »
Until he died on Saturday at age 86, Peter served as a sterling example of staying alive and being awake. His was an extraordinarily rich life. He was a prize-winning writer of both fiction and nonfiction who explored the wilds of nature as well as those of our inner life, and championed endangered species and the oppressed, particularly Native Americans.
Here are some links to get a feel for him:
His last novel was published on Tuesday, three days after his death. Called « In Paradise, » it is the story of a group of people who come together for a retreat at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland. Peter had been trying to write this book for nearly 20 years, since his own participation in such a retreat at Auschwitz in 1996, at which I first met him. How is it possible to write anything about this place? we both wondered. Eventually, we both did it – or tried to – for better or worse.
His was a grand life of adventure and inspiration. On the last postcard he sent to me, about a year ago, he wrote that he hoped we would have the opportunity to see each other once again « before the smoke clears. »
On Sunday, after learning of his death, I sat in my garden in the city, beside the little apple tree in bloom, the spring birdsong rising and falling with the breeze. It could have been the Himalayas, it could have been Long Island, it could have been Poland, it could have been New Guinea or any of the lands near and far that Peter visited and loved and appreciated moment to moment. But it was right here that I sat with him in the afternoon, wishing him safe passage on his journey, now that the smoke has cleared.