Zen and the Art of My Brother
The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head.
Peace of mind.
Underlined with a blue Bic, the words look important.
I mouth them as I trace each line,
feeling scratches the pen made.
Sometimes a memory is palpable.
Sometimes a simple scratch is seismographic.
Both of us lived through an earthquake.
Only one of us would live through life.
a complete identification
with one’s circumstances.
Inner peace of mind is a state of mind.
I value quietness as much as my brother did,
the two-dimensional world of the book.
Inside his books, hard edges seem rounder,
like worry stones or river rocks.
When I am inside them,
I am almost inside my brother inside himself.
What did he value most of all?
The pen touching his hand,
or the inked lines shadowing the hand?
The printing history on the copyright page
of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
is so much longer than my brother’s life.
The back cover promises
Zen will change the way you think about your life.
There is a reason my brother disassembled
the engine of his Triumph
and studied every single part,
like organs from his cadaver
doctors would study after his death.
There is a reason I touch the words in his book.
Mitchell comments on her poem:
When my brother John Henry came home from the Navy to die after being diagnosed a little too late with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, he enrolled in college. Why not? You can spend your time resting in bed, or you can juggle chemotherapy, pain, and final exams. He managed a full semester and then one course a second semester.
John Henry would have gone to Paris if he could have, but that wasn’t in the cards. With a prognosis of less than a year, which turned into a little more than a year, going to university was more practical.
So many people leave so many artifacts. Others leave so few. By the time John Henry died, his life was stripped bare, most of his possessions fitting inside a shoebox—except for his car and a sleeping bag he bought for a camping trip to the beach with his biology class a few weeks before he died.
The sleeping bag was a blue mummy bag. The car was a red 1968 Triumph 250 that John Henry enjoyed working on and driving around, the top down. He was as meticulous working with that car as the doctors were with his body.
He also left behind a paperback copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, something that has made me wonder what he thought about when he worked on his car.
I keep this book on my desk at work, as much as for the fact that his hands held it as for what it contains. Now and then I will read passages to myself or to my students. I am particularly interested in the sections my brother underlined. I like to think that these passages provide some insight into what he was thinking when he was living with cancer.
What a person reads, what a person writes about, what a person has to say about an idea—all of this provides insight when you’re trying to learn about somebody alive or dead. I believe that a relationship, like history, keeps on going when somebody dies. It persists, and you make attempts to get to know a person more, even as you mourn the fact that he or she has moved past getting to know you. At least I make the attempt. I have relationships with people alive and dead and not yet born. Maybe the dead are easier. Maybe, the dead teach me, the living are worth the effort, the unborn worth the hope.
I can listen to music John Henry listened to (The Who, Mott the Hoople, Jimi Hendrix, Beethoven) and feel very close to him. But touching something that he touched, reading words that he read: that gets inside my skin, not just inside my head.
One of his classmates in the class he took that last semester turned to my brother one day and asked him this: “Are you terminal?” John Henry said, “We all are.” That’s who he was. And who am I? I am the sister who spent her college years first waiting for a brother to die, watching him grow sicker and sicker, and then trying to make sense of it all. He was 21 when he died. I was 20.
I spent a lot of time during my college years trying to make sense of death, not that I stopped when I graduated. I also spent a lot of time then photographing trees, writing about trees, and reading about trees. I developed a theory that trees would explain the meaning of death, thus the meaning of life, to me.
That was a long time ago. Since then, I have studied Zen Buddhism, so death and life and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance make more sense. Even so, the most important words in Robert Pirsig’s book are the ones that John Henry underlined with his blue Bic pen.
When I wrote “Zen and the Art of My Brother,” I wanted to connect the experience of reading his book to the experience of Zen practice and of getting to know my brother. Like many of my poems, it is a small documentary of a small slice of life. Of course, I am not naïve. I realize that my brother’s life now is more metaphorical and symbolic, which is one way to keep his memory alive.
How can you put a whole life into one poem? You can’t really. But maybe you can provide a little insight into something like Zen or life and death or the ties that bind, or all that. You can interweave your own words with words that meant something to your brother and pass them on.