I’ve been slowly making my way through Eric Newby’s classic travel book, “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush”, which recounts Newby’s attempt to ascend the 20,000 foot Mir Samir in the Nuristan province of Afghanistan with uncanny eagerness and scant mountaineering experience. Rife with humor and resplendent descriptions of unfamiliar landscapes and bizarre encounters, Newby’s writing is purely pleasure reading—exactly the sort of escapist adventure I enjoy being sucked into before bed in my efforts to buffer the screen time of that day with the screen time awaiting me in the next.
A few nights ago, I had a strange experience while reading. I came upon a passage where Newby describes driving through the Panjshir Valley towards Mir Samir at twilight. In the shadow of mountains that seem to occupy the entire sky and within earshot of the expressive Panjshir River, Newby and his companions locomote through “infinitely secret-looking villages” until they suddenly arrive at a scene. Newby describes this scene as “paradise”: women and men are working in terraced fields harvesting wheat; life hovers and circulates around the river below as children and older men and women gather under the gentle sway of poplar, willow and apricot trees; and as twilight turns to dusk everything is soaked in a benignantly vibrant “golden light”.
“Newby describes this scene as “paradise”: women and men are working in terraced fields harvesting wheat; life hovers and circulates around the river below as children and older men and women gather under the gentle sway of poplar, willow and apricot trees; and as twilight turns to dusk everything is soaked in a benignantly vibrant “golden light”. “In regards to the “Infinitely secret-looking villages” in “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush”.
As Newby and his companions drove through this scene and I vicariously with them, I realized something strange had happened in my own head. Up until that moment, my brain had been constructing new images every second to keep up with Newby’s richly detailed prose (of course, some of my construction was assisted by a presumptuous subconscious assumption that the mountains of the Hindu Kush resembled other valleys and large mountain ranges that I had been to, like the Peruvian Andes or the Urubamba Valley). At that moment, however, something shifted. The continual adjustment and regeneration of images slowed, halted even. The image in my mind faded and relaxed into one that was familiar and quieting—one I had constructed in the past, and that had a matching pace and momentum to Newby’s descriptions of the scene before him.
It’s an image in my mind that was given life upon reading poem “28” in a collection of poetry by Rabindranath Tagore over a year ago. Tagore, arguably one of the most important artists and philosophers of his generation, is an enormously underappreciated figure in the West. His poetry is stunning. An image in my mind that was first crudely formed from inarticulate and visceral experiences was affirmed and refined by Tagore’s expressions, then familiarized by recollections of Tagore’s words in experiences to follow, and then recalled while reading Newby’s writing.
That image is one of the simultaneous stillness and vibrancy of life at twilight—life observed and life perceived, life felt and reached for—in that initial moment of relishing the mind’s freedom to detach from the day’s work and “[plunge] into the sky’s immensity.”
We all have images in our minds that frame our perceptions of the world and how we process information. I realized in that moment reading “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush” that sometimes these images aren’t from direct experience. They can also be from encounters with art that specifically collide with an inarticulate feeling in your own head, or from encounters with other people through conversation.
Aside from framing how we see, these images can also frame what we see. They define our notions of possibility, our recognizable and plausible situational landscapes.
Amidst all the tragedy and disruption of this year, for some, the greatest disturbance to life has been prolonged monotony. Some haven’t experienced unanticipated absences and losses of people or vocations. Some haven’t had to dramatically readjust their plans of continuing education. Some are in geographic locations that haven’t been devastated by natural disasters and changing weather patterns.
“Amidst all the tragedy and disruption of this year, for some, the greatest disturbance to life has been prolonged monotony.”
For those of us, it’s undeniably effortless to slip into boredom or frustration with monotony. Yet I’ve realized that doing so is to callously waste the luxury of monotony, which is an opportunity to deeply examine the possibility of present moments that repeat themselves—to refine and practice how we respond to information about friends and our communities, to learn how to articulate that response in action, and to incorporate that articulation into our ways of being and seeing so that it remains even when monotony is disturbed.
It’s the same process I’ve realized has occurred in my own mind with the repeated experience of that moment at the end of the day. Aided by Tagore’s words, an image has been incorporated into my own ways of seeing—and become so familiar to me that its most specific and important qualities are discernible even in unknown situations, like the one described by Newby.
At the very end of the same poem, Tagore writes, “I feel today: / The tremor of the colored veil, / The wind’s sigh, / The backward calling gaze, / The rhythm blossoming into love.” He feels that present moment personally and individually, then feels motion and uncertainty beyond himself. He is pulled into it and compelled by it. Rather than being binding or monotonous, the rhythm blossoms into something more powerful.