Sunday, April 06, 2014
remembering Peter Matthiessen
Music books aside for now, for a moment of remembrance - here is a short story. When I was about 25 years old and was working for a new-book store, we in the trade book department provided the books for a lecture and book signing by Peter Matthiessen. I heard his talk about conservation and literature, then sold books afterwards. He needed a pen to sign books for people and in the midst of the fray I passed him my "good" pen, the one with real ink that flowed beautifully. We sold books in the hallway and he signed them for anyone that wanted them signed (me included), and then went back into the lecture hall to speak to some remaining people and sign a few more books in there. After the crowd finally dispersed, just two of us from the bookstore remained, and the graduate student who had arranged the lecture in the first place, and Matthiessen himself - a vivid presence in the otherwise nondescript hallway of this bland academic building. We thanked each other and talked briefly about religion (his Zen journals, Nine-Headed Dragon River, and classic The Snow Leopard are among my favorite books) and he asked me if I was a student of Zen. I so, so wanted to say yes, because I was reading widely about Buddhism at the time, and I was star-struck besides, but it wasn't true and so I mumbled something like, No, I am just a seeker. Of what, I still wonder. Anyway. He was kind and thoughtful and his voice sounded more like that of my grandfather than anyone else I've ever heard. He left with the graduate student, and it was just the two of us from the bookstore, packing up the leftovers. It was then I realized Matthiessen had taken my pen. Oh well! I let it go and hoped he would do some more good writing with it. But. When I went back into the lecture hall for a final clean-up, there, placed carefully on the center of the podium, held neatly in place by its little lip, was the pen. He obviously hadn't remembered who he borrowed it from, but he knew it wasn't his to take and so he didn't. This small act, this tiny, kind decision, seems to me to be at the heart of spirituality and morality. You do the honest, right thing, just because it is the honest, right thing, in actions both large and small. That small action of his seems large in my memory, and I hope it was an indication of how he lived the rest of his life. His literary legacy points in that direction, surely. I still have my signed books and I will always think of him with tenderness. Reading his obituary this morning was an emotional experience.