Have you ever read a book, thought you knew what was going on with it, then come back to it a couple of years later and realize that you have no idea what the hell the author was actually trying to say? I had that experience with Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance this past weekend.
I tossed it in my bag while I was packing, figuring I’d have a little bit of time to read while I was on my mini-vacation, thinking that yeah, I’ve read this before. It wouldn’t take all that much brain power to go back through it. It seemed all sorts of appropriate- Pirsig’s on a journey through the West, and so was I. Pirsig talked about having to pay attention to the workings of a vehicle (a motorcycle for him, and car for me), being mindful of the environment (a gigantic thunderstorm followed me from the mountains across the prairie until I reached my night’s destination, where it finally caught up and rained down all sorts of fury for two hours before it moved across the rest of the state), and we both had hours of time in an empty land to think about all sorts of things.
Easy read, right?
Except it wasn’t. The territory I thought I understood with this book was suddenly alien, leaving me to flounder about for page after page until I found a familiar point and was able to trace my figurative steps back through the narrative until I found a familiar land. It wasn’t unlike the road I was on. I had charted a course several days before I left- take a particular highway until it met up with this other one, and the second highway would go through the scenic areas I wanted to go, as well as taking me straight home. Simple enough.
Except somewhere outside of the mountains, I ended up on an interstate that took me north instead of east, where I needed to go. Without reliable cell service out in the high plains, I wondered if this accidental detour would take me hours out of my way. Until I saw a road sign stating that the town I had wanted to stop for fuel in had an exit some twenty miles away. Problem solved. I had moved from unfamiliar territory back to a known one, and once I had calmed myself down, it was easy enough to retrace my path and find out where I had gone wrong.
Just like the book. There is a map inherent to its structure, and if you’ve breezed through it before and have a sense of where you’re going, then it’s okay if you get a little lost the second time. Because if you stay calm, pay attention, and trust your own memory you’ll be able to find your way home.