For the past four days, while Aki enjoyed a rare stretch of sunny weather with her other human in Juneau, I attended the North Words Symposium in Skagway. Each day fellow writers and I enjoyed workshops and listened to panel discussions in the Arctic Brotherhood Hall. Outside the hall thousands of cruise ship tourists crowded the boardwalks of the old gold rush town. Behind carefully preserved false fronted buildings sellers of jewelry, art, draft beer, and popcorn waited for customers. Women dressed like 19thcentury prostitutes dangled a leg from the second story windows of a music hall to entice tourists to attend the 2 p.m. performance of a gold rush drama.
The symposium organizers didn’t provide us with showgirls or faux prostitutes. But they did provide a faculty of talented writers, including Pico Iyer. Pico offered insights and advice in a manner that showed respect for the attendees and fellow faculty members, knowledge of his craft, wisdom, and inchoate gentleness.
Before the concluding banquet, we pulled up chairs in a circle around Pico in a northern garden just warming toward summer. His face was dappled by sunlight filtered through the leaves and flowers of a lilac tree. He talked about his time spent with the Dali Lama. We learned that every October the Dali Lama travels around Japan with Pico, shaking the hands of truck drivers as well as dignitaries.
This morning, back home with Aki in rainy Juneau, I wondered why Pico’s description of the Dali Lama among the truck drivers grabbed pride of place in my memory of the symposium. I had heard more powerful stories about his life and travels. I had learned much from other facility members and fellow participants. But my strongest memory is of a smiling, bespectacled monk by the door of a gas station convenience store pressing the flesh of a line of confused working men. It seems an apt metaphor for Pico’s presence at the symposium, offering without judgment, a recognition of our human value.