My favorite book in the world is “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig. Why? Because it’s about the word “quality”… a word I think about a lot, especially now.
What does it mean if something has high quality? And what does it mean to have a good quality life? This weekend I thought to myself, “Wow—I have a quality life right now.” I filled my hours playing my clarinet, laughing, writing, reading, taking several walks in the crisp not-so-wintry air, venturing north a few blocks and to the west in search of Ohlin’s donuts (and stuffing myself with three of them), listening to the NPR and organ music, discovering Cuban and Italian restaurants I hadn’t noticed before, napping in the afternoon, making quiche with far too much spinach and not enough cheese, and starting a project in which I record one second of my day—every day—for a year.
In Pirsig’s novel, his narrator writes that quality is “what you see out of the corner of your eye.” Not what’s right there in front of you—but the particular aura surrounding it. It’s not necessarily the sounds I hear when listening to, say, the opening of Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra,” but it’s the way it lends character to other aspects of my life… it’s the way it permeates the trees that flood my neighborhood streets when I look at them, it’s the way it gives my Sunday a sense of compactness and dignity (as though no single moment has been wasted, even if it has), it’s the way it helps me view other people I come across on an ordinary afternoon. I’m speaking at this point not so much about Britten as I am about music in general, and about this particularly rich way of observing your thoughts, activities, and your days.
So it’s not the individual elements of your day—it’s the character that each activity or premise or idea imbues on the whole. It’s not so much what you do in a life, but the pattern that your life follows. I realized that the tone and texture of each of my days is determined by my thoughts, my associations, and the quality of my interactions with objects, people, places, and so on. It’s not so much what I do as it’s the “stuff” on the periphery of those activities. It’s even more than how you feel while doing it—it’s an awareness of that feeling, an ability to comment on it and sense that it becomes part of you in a way that is different from how it becomes part of someone else. I’ve always believed that one way to be truly happy is to realize that, however important it is to listen to other people and see things from their point of view, it’s equally (if not more) critical to delight in one’s own senses, and the sheer knowledge that what you experience are things captured through your own body’s life and mental workings. And so quality is the moment that you see your life as not a series of things that you do but a series of things that you become.