Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Alive and Well
October 11, 2019 § 15 Comments
By D. A. Hickman
In an era of sameness and overt conformity, when conventional wisdom outshines a legitimate yearning for personal wisdom, I cling ever more closely to my intuition. The human pack, in other words, runs one way, but I, like Minneapolis native, author Robert Pirsig, am committed to viewing the common path with a skeptical eye before setting out, or wholeheartedly, joining in.
Especially when making seemingly innocuous choices, I avoid mainstream currents by noticing what feels meaningful, as opposed to traditional and automatic. I read slowly, for instance, with intention, books I’ve carefully, or carelessly, sidestepped.
Why not resist the formidable rush of a frayed culture, the oft-perceived need to worship speed, by examining my assumptions and habitual reactions? Besides, investing energy in what I’m sure I don’t want to do is likely to generate a viable path to untapped energy, a multi-layered sense of discovery.
Admittedly, as a discerning author and reader, I’ve brushed aside books because of hasty first-impressions: covers, titles, or slightly strange author photos, that didn’t resonate.
For a painful number of years, I had even avoided Robert Pirsig’s bestselling Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for such superficial reasons. A disinterest in an annoying piece of thunderous metal called a motorcycle had led me astray.
But, having studied sociology in graduate school, I was intrigued by the subtitle: An Inquiry into Values. I believe that cultural values lead to profound insights into the underpinnings of society, providing a roadmap to the unspoken, the unnoticed, the abandoned.
Still, sentiments of “I should read it” didn’t get me moving.
An April Death
My husband had a worn twenty-fifth anniversary edition floating around our house, and periodically, it surfaced when we culled books to donate to our used bookstore. Seeing it, I’d pick it up, flip through, and think: later on, when I have time. Then I caught the news.
The 88-year-old author who defied the literary gods in getting Zen published (William Morrow, 1974) had died on April 24, 2017.
The headline hit me with a painful sense of urgency. I’d, in fact, procrastinated so long that Pirsig had perished. The very poignancy of time—its brazen passage, its troubling complications—finally resolved the lingering issue for me.
I found the book, tucked in a bookmark, added it to a sizeable stack of must-read books near my bed. When relaxed, yet focused, and our house is pleasantly quiet, I read these gems—books I’ve wanted to read yet failed to read—two, maybe three, pages at a time. An informal mindfulness practice, if you will. A creative, surprisingly effective, way to row against the fierce current of trends, the monotonous rush to get somewhere, and the exhausting promotion of “popular, must-read books” that rarely reach us intellectually, spiritually, or emotionally. I prefer authors who dare to build their stories without all the glitter—who, like determined explorers, let things deepen slowly, imperceptibly so.
At long last, Pirsig’s Zen, all 425 pages of it, had a real—even honorable—place in my life, and the infamous, yet mysterious, Phaedrus was destined to surface once more.
The author broke through more layers of unjustified resistance when he mentioned South Dakota. I knew, and loved, this terrain. Would his perception of the plains, the wide-open prairie, sound authentic or contrived? Did he “get” the place I call home—the lonely tree near a long stretch of gravel road, the sky that permits no doubt or hesitation, the unique, yet humble, place I’d written about in my book (Where the Heart Resides: Timeless Wisdom of the American Prairie, William Morrow, 1999)?
The cross-country motorcycle trip with his 11-year-old son, Chris, originated in Pirsig’s hometown, Minneapolis, ended in California, but early on, as they approached eastern Dakota, Pirsig aptly described the psychic impact of space and empty roads, noting he felt “lulled” by tranquil thoughts of “wind sweeping…across open fields of the prairie.”
Relishing this surprising personal connection, I looked forward to resuming, without fail, my long overdue journey with Pirsig. And when I read his closing words, I realized, a book I’d senselessly avoided for so long, had almost nothing to do with motorcycles, per se. Meditative in nature, contemplative in style, reading about his observations and personal journey—his deep dive into quality and organizational dynamics—harmonized perfectly with a slow, intentional read. Pirsig’s message came through in neon letters.
Each breath, a critical form of life maintenance; each decision, a link to all the other pieces we must try to understand. Perseverance, patience, and the ability to confront obstacles within by not succumbing to the wild, ever-changing cultural winds are how we unravel the secrets of the universe.
As I noted the two-year anniversary of Pirsig’s death this past year, on April 24, 2019, and gingerly anticipated the 2020 anniversary (Will the planet still be here? What might the noted author tell us about motorcycle trips and the creeping power of climate change?), I felt extremely grateful for an insightful warrior who wrote a book that, unlike us, will never expire. Not even when allowed to collect dust on an old bookshelf.
D.A. (Daisy) Hickman, an avid student of culture and society, writes to connect more deeply to the complexities of the human condition. Her upcoming memoir, A Happy Truth: Last Dogs Aren’t Always Last, is about spirited dogs, clever cats, and fortuitous decisions. Previous titles include The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone, Always Returning: The Wisdom of Place, and Ancients of the Earth: Poems of Time. Hickman studied sociology (M.S.) at Iowa State University and completed her undergraduate work at Stephens College. To connect with the author, visit her website at SunnyRoomStudio.com, and find her on Twitter @dhsunwriter or Facebook. At work on a new poetry collection, Sometimes We Fly, Hickman lives in a small college town in eastern South Dakota with her husband and spirited schnauzers, Hannah and Georgia.