I was nursing a midafternoon beer when I saw him cross the street.
He headed for a bank across from the tavern.
My first thought: Why does a Zen master need money?
My second thought: Maybe I should invite him over for a beer.
Maybe then I could learn whatever it was I wanted to learn from him.
The man I saw was author Peter Matthissen.
I’d finished an interview with him and was dissatisfied with the results.
I was crying in my beer so to speak, when I saw him cross the street on the way to the bank. I resisted the urge to invite him over — something I’ll always regret.
That scene took place a quarter century ago in Madison. I’d just come back from an interview with Matthissen at the studios of a radio station.
I’d seen Matthissen earlier that week giving a “reading” at Beloit College. Wearing a denim shirt, blue jeans and a corduroy sport coat, he looked like the cliché of the writer — only the clothes fit him perfectly, because he actually was one.
His gravelly New England accent made you imagine his brogue came from the mouth of a sea captain — which he actually was for awhile.
He was one of my writing heroes. The last of a breed. Descending from the Ernest Hemingway-Jack London strain of adventurous writers who lived the life they wrote about. He’d rubbed shoulders with cannibals. Chased sharks. And climbed the Himalayas.
Though he wrote some fiction, most of Matthissen’s 30-some books were in the pursuit of causes. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with migrant leader Ceasar Chavez and wrote about it. He defended an American Indian accused of murder and ended up entangled in one of the biggest libel cases in U.S. history. His writings in support of the environment are legendary.
And, along the way, he became a Zen Buddhist priest.
With all of that as a backdrop, there was no excuse not to have the interview of a lifetime. But I walked away empty handed.
It wasn’t his fault.
His penetrating eyes seemed to pick up every nuance of our conversation. I could see he was carefully processing every word of every question I asked him. His answers were both articulate and poetic — just what you’d expect.
But I was afraid to ask him the tough questions, the things I really wanted to know.
I was star struck to be sure.
I feared every question I’d ask him would sound stupid.
But more than that, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was after, I figured there must be some wisdom I could garner from such a seasoned man, but I didn’t know enough to ask him the right questions. Or so I thought.
At the end of our interview Matthissen gave me his address and asked me to mail him a copy of the story I planned to write.
I was flattered. Why would he care about a story written by a small-town writer from Wisconsin?
It didn’t matter. I never wrote the story.
How could I write something good enough for a writer I admired so much?
I never forgot that interview. From time-to-time, I’d Google him to see where he might be speaking. Maybe I could try again, I thought. Maybe we could meet up and I could buy him that beer. But his speaking engagements never quite came near enough to pursue a second chance.
I randomly Googled him again last Friday. I noticed there was a story about him that was coming Sunday in the New York Times.
I asked my ex-wife, who gets the Times, to save me a copy. She knew why I wanted it.
The story discussed his new book about a fictional Buddhist retreat at Auschwitz. It contrasts the studied calm of Eastern religions with the one thing that might shake that calm.
The story also noted that Matthissen had leukemia and was about to die.
“I’ve had a good life,” he told the interviewer. “Lots of adventures. It’s had some dark parts, too, but mainly I’ve had a pretty good run of it, and I don’t want to cling too hard. I have no complaints.”
The picture accompanying that story is reproduced on the first page of this column.
It was the face I recalled, only older.
As craggy as one of the mountains he’d climbed, with wrinkles seemingly as deep as some of the river beds he’d crossed. It shows a life fully-lived.
Matthissen died Saturday, a day before the Times story was published, and three days before his last book hit the bookstores. He was 86.
In that Times story came the answer I was searching for from the man I was hoping to learn it from.
It was a quote from one of his books:
“Lying back against these ancient rocks of Africa, I am content. The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without ever having discovered what it was.”
As it turned out he was a seeker, too. Like all of us.
He spent a lifetime seeking something he could never quite name.
Had I been able to turn back the clock 25 years, he would not have been able to answer my questions any better than he did on his death bed.
He was still seeking. That was the engine that drove him.
Now that he’s dead, I’m writing the story I always wanted to write.
I’ve found my words in his words.
I still have Matthissen’s address, too. I could send him this story.
But now he’s not there to read it.
Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.