Thursday, June 20, 2013

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I'm never reading only one book at a time. Right now, along with the book about ancestral homes known to Virginia Woolf, I am reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig. It's subtitle is An Inquiry into Values. It's listed in Wikipedia as a 1974 philosophical novel in which Pirsig "explores his Metaphysics of Quality". My late mother-in-law read it in the '90's. I never did read it, until now.

The fiction of the story is a road trip on a motorcycle. The Zen is an extended Chautauqua about Quality, which, loosely speaking, is achieved when subject and object are one. When a mechanic and the part to be fixed are in tune with one another. Where there is no thee and thou but we. This is how I read it.

Last week I wanted to move a very heavy craftsman-built dining table (Robert Treate Hogg) against the wall so I could fit my church office furniture in the dining room of the rectory. I thought the center piece was a removable leaf. However, it was the two ends which were the leaves that when folded down reach almost to the floor, leaving a narrow table top.

I couldn't remember how to get the leaves to fold down, so I got down on the floor to look at the underside to see how this works. I took my time gazing. I could see how the two legs held up the leaves, and how they had to be moved to release them. Each leaf is very heavy, so I had to work with the legs and leaves in order not to stress one or the other into snapping off. As taxing as this was, I felt as one with the table, calm, peaceful, though the work of shifting weight was hard. I have the bruises to prove it!

Reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I see exactly what the author is trying to say about quality. When I face something that is not in my skill set, I face it in one of two ways: it becomes a problem to be solved and I get anxious and frustrated and even angry, or I sit and gaze at it, work out how it goes together, become calm in the contemplation, and am at peace with whatever I then do.

The latter means is my preference. I sometimes remember it. More often I don't. The first time I discovered this was probably 20 years ago when my bicycle chain came off and there was no one around to help me get it back on. I understood, then, that what I did was go into my recessive left brain, clear away all distractions, and gaze at the whole assembly, really see how the whole chain/bicycle thing goes together, and voila, I fixed it.

I know I have experienced this at least one other time, maybe a few more, in the intervening 20 years. Not a lot. Some of them involved emergency situations with people. As I have more times of awareness of things like moving the table and fixing the bicycle chain, I expect I will face a lot more situations in the preferred way more often.

Only took me 60mmppphhhh years.

I expect you are now waiting for me to bring Jesus into this, since I'm a priest. Well, I'm also a teacher and sometimes it is good for me to leave it to you to make the connections. I'm sure there are some. I also expect yours will be different from mine. That would be lovely!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Summer Reading in a Room of One's Own

Summer is the time I read, read, read anything I can get my hands on - usually fiction (murder mysteries) and sometimes a biography or a theological text.

This summer I have lots of time on my hands. The church I have served for the past seven years closed on May 26th. I'm supplying for Sunday services and a few hours of pastoral availability at various other churches and the rest of my time is free. Well, free to be looking for another position in which to serve God and the people of God as a priest in The Episcopal Church.

It may be a symptom of my feeling at loose ends because of having no job - I'll have to check this out with my shrink! - or a need to be connected, in the way serving a parish kept me connected to other humans, but instead of reading a book a day (yes, I usually read a book a day when I am on vacation), I spend time on Facebook. And instead of writing, I spend time on Facebook.

However, summertime also turns my mind to Virginia Woolf, the writer, probably because it was during a summer vacation I read straight through five of her books. Right now, in short bursts while my tea water is coming to a boil, I'm reading a book nominally about Virginia Woolf, but really about her social milieu, using the houses and estates of her family and acquaintances as the framework. It's called Ancestral Houses: Virginia Woolf and the Aristocracy, by Sonya Rudikoff, who died shortly after it was finished.

It is not a biography. Instead of photos of people, there are plates of 12 castles, manors and cottages where Virginia stayed, or which she would have known about, or which belonged to people she knew or to whom she was related. So, for instance, I know from the book more about Violet Dickinson, or about Orchardleigh House in Frome, Somerset, the family house of the Duckworths, than I learn about Virginia herself.

In fact, this is a biography of a time, a particular time, through a particular set of people in that time, in particular sets of places in that time. It is a romantic sort of piece of non-fiction. Indeed, one of the chapters is titled "The Romance of the Aristocracy"; another is called "Gardens Where the Peacock Strays", this last title having been taken from a poem by W.B. Yeats, "Ancestral Houses", which Rudikoff took for her book's title.

This is not deep reading. It is pleasant reading, if you like this sort of thing, which I do. It gives me the enjoyment of seeing one of my literary heroes through different lenses, and to read of some of the places and people Woolf knew which found their way into her works of fiction.

When I finish this, I shall return to three of my favorites of Virginia Woolf's works: A Room of One's Own, To the Lighthouse, and Mrs. Dalloway. And I may also revisit the works of Jeannette Winterson, some of which seem to me to pay homage to the works of Woolf.

And I will not forget to season it all with a murder mystery or two or four or more!

[Note: The photo above, "Untitled", is from the series "A room of one's own" and is the property of Lois Keen alone.]