“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.” – Robert M. Pirsig
In 1981 I was a freshman at a Junior College. I had laid out of college for a year after graduating from high school because I honestly had no idea why I needed to go to college. My guidance counselor had recommended trade school, learn how to weld or become a machinist. I was pretty good in math and science and scored well in those SAT subjects but reading, and vocabulary sank me.
I had a decent job in high school and once I told my boss I wasn’t going to college he offered me full-time spot. I was a nineteen years old, making decent money but living at home under my parents roof, and under my parents rules. The chafing began immediately. I figured that I had three options, find a roommate and move-out, join the military or find a college that would accept a guy that had the English skills of an eight year old.
Given how hard all my friends were partying I figured if I moved out I would be dead or broke in a year. The military really wasn’t an option because I was a headstrong, long-haired, had trouble with authority figures kind of a kid. I still am, accept for the hair. So I found a very small, christian based (which caused me trouble later but that is another story) junior college that was willing to take my Dad’s money and accept me.
My English teacher was an old beatnik, Dr. Ted, who had survived the 60’s and had started teaching at this college ten years earlier so he could hide in the mountains from his three ex-wives, write poetry and play his mandolin. We hit it off immediately.
Ted looked very different from the other professors at this tight ass little school whose President, even in the 1980’s, still rocked a crew-cut and skinny ties. Dr. Ted had crazy long gray hair that looked like he combed it with an egg beater and a scraggly beard he must have trimmed with a pocket knife. On pretty days he would move class outside on the stonewall around the courtyard. Even though he was born and educated on the West Coast he morphed into an Appalachian hillbilly with a Jack Kerouac hue.
Dr. Ted and I spent hours talking and playing music together. As an impressible nineteen and twenty year old it would have been easy for me to worship the ground he walked on, to be star struck by this Renaissance Man who seemingly lived his life on his own terms. But Ted was always quick to point out his faults to me. He wasn’t a good father, a lousy husband and given his education and pedigree here he was teaching at a junior college that was basically one glorified step-up from a community college. Despite all that, despite all the disappointments, despite not living up to the expectations he and others had for him, Ted had found something, his sweet spot, his center, a place I hadn’t found and Ted knew that.
One day after class he told me to hang around for a minute. He reached into his desk draw and pulled out a book and handed it to me, the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I remember thinking at the time what the hell was Zen. It was not really a word tossed around in the 1980’s, in the southern Baptist culture that I grew up in like it is today. Ted’s request was simple if not a little cryptic, read it and find something about yourself in it.
“The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.” – Robert M. Pirsig
What Dr. Ted understood about me that I didn’t understand about myself was that I was just here, occupying space. Now in itself there is nothing wrong with that, but at a two-year junior college there aren’t infinite possibilities. Maybe I could extend two years into an extra semester, but beyond that I needed to figure out where was I headed. I didn’t necessarily need to know the destination but I needed to find the direction. Dr. Ted explained that anything was possible if I could find my center, and that all paths, which ever path I chose would begin there. If I didn’t know my center, if I couldn’t find my core then the temptation would be to just walk around in a circle and circles will and do confine us. Ted discovered that time inside a circle evaporates quickly and we can’t and won’t ever get lost time back.
Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance died Monday at the age of 88. I won’t go so far as to say that his book changed my life but it did help me steer the ship somewhat and maybe that was life changing enough. I have read and reread the book more times than I can remember. Sadly, the copy that Dr. Ted gave me disappeared many years ago. It may have gotten tossed in a Goodwill box by mistake, or I could have lent it to someone who never returned it. But the thing I do have is another copy and the memories of a twenty year old still finding his way.
“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes much sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge. And if you project forward from that pattern, then sometimes you can come up with something.” – Robert M. Pirsig