I'm really enjoying Colin Thubron's latest book, To A Mountain In Tibet. It's odd, but this is the first Thubron I've ever read. He's such an exceptionally gifted and vivid travel writer. This from Chapter One, where Thubron explains the motivation behind his pilgrimage to sacred Mount Kailas:
Sometimes journeys begin long before their first step is taken. Mine, without my knowing, starts long ago, in a hospital ward, as the last of my family dies. There is nothing strange in this, the state of being alone. The death of parents may bring resigned sadness, even a guilty freedom. Instead I need to leave a sign of their pasage. My mother died just now, it seems, not in the way she wished; my father before her; my sister before that, at the age of twenty-one ...
... You cannot walk out your grief, I know, or absolve yourself of your survival, or bring anyone back. You are left with the desire only that things not be as they are. So you choose somewhere meaningful on the earth's surface, as if planning a secular pilgrimage. Yet the meaning is not your own. Then you go on a journey (it's my profession, after all), walking to a place beyond your own history, to the sound of the river flowing the other way. In the end you come to a rest at a mountain that is holy to others.
The reason for this is beyond articulation. A journey is not a cure. It brings an illusion, only, of change, and becomes at best a spartan comfort.
All this is quite subtle, and honest, and beautifully expressed, I think.Thubron is saying that grief cannot be assuaged by propitiating the gods after walking another culture's pilgrimage route. You still exist - a survivor - for the moment, and death is still final. Nevertheless, there is meaning to this journey, even if the meaning is not clearly relevant to your own history. He's doing the trip in memory of his parents, as a sign of their passage, although actually the real reason is beyond articulation. You follow the river flowing the other way (he's travelling upstream from Nepal into Tibet) - suggesting difficulty, going against the current - until your secular pilgrimage reaches a mountain that is holy, but holy to others. You are not cured of your sadness, and any change you may feel is an illusion.
We'll see by the end of the book if he gains any enlightenment.
My own mother and father also died during the past few years; and my sister, like Thubron's, died in her twenties.