It is not a metaphor. I found a coconut on the ground, where tons more lay because I am in Florida, and watched youtube videos and took a chisel and hammered away at it. People so often think of birthdays or celebration is getting something – and so I could have bought coconut water, dried coconut, coconut ice cream, coconut milk, coconut cream, coconut lotion etc. But even with the same outcome, it is not the same thing. When my friend moved to Colombia she also was determined to crack a coconut, and I watched her try different strategies until she mastered it. I was not motivated to crack my own coconut – it looked tiresome, difficult and a bit ridiculous. But I was missing a part of the story, the day-to-day reality of seeing these fruit grow and then drop from trees, on the ground – unharvested, to rot. While going into a store coconut products are expensive and often not deliciously real coconut.
When I was graduating high school and having one of my many existential crises, I asked my favorite history teacher for guidance, and before he went out for his lunchtime cigarette he tossed me a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Thousands of people have had similar moments in their lives – of which I am sure some watched the coconut get cracked, while others grabbed a metaphorical chisel. It was a strange book because it seemed to have no purpose, no hero to cheer on, no fantastical landscape or insurmountable challenge – just a father and son on a motorcycle with a few friends. Nothing remarkable about the people in attributes physical or great accomplishments or glorious recovery – I can name none of them or see them in my minds eye or even tell you how many there are. And the books seems to be a meditation on taking things slow, on the reward of repairing rather than replacing the parts of a machine, the freedom of the open road, the quiet as a setting both in the scenery and the interior lives. It is relatively easy to read and as I had been promised some grand revelation I pushed through any of the more meandering and philosophical parts. But I do remember the end, the crescendo, the part where the narrator reveals that they had been wrong, had led you down the wrong path, had misdirected your gaze from the real treasure. He realizes that is son has spent the whole trip on his back, taken along for the ride, audience to the bodhisattva under the tree, he thought that he had been teaching his son along this journey but it crystalizes at the end that it is not in the repaired motorcycle or the completion of the trip or the grand vistas – it is in the DOING. It is the act of taking wrench in hand, loosening the wrong bolt, setting aside a wheel, the sense of loss and confusion, if not desperation and sometimes solution that defines the quality of our lives. And his son had yet to do the DOING – that is what the reader is left with – the sense that it is on the reader to make quality of this life.
I have a young adult in my life who squirms and placates me every time I call myself old or too old for something – she doesn’t want me to feel any shame about my age. I remind her that I am happy to be turning 40, that I have earned each of these years and wouldn’t want any one taken away from me just to be younger. It might be midlife, closer than ever before, and some people go out and buy shiny new Harley’s or a breast lift or cruise to reclaim their vitality – but those are fleeting and cheap, no way to fill up a life. So I cracked a coconut – not to start some coconut sales, or gain IG followers of the DIY ethos, nor because it was the best way to get any actual coconut. It was in seeing the dried husk, hairs strong enough to build with, too tough to tear apart with my hands, the fruit inside so well protected – imagining the first people to find one split open on a rock and find the pure white meat inside. And I make no grandiose claim that it was the best coconut I have had, that the drips of my sweat added a salty contrast to the sweet water. The best coconuts I’ve had come from carts loaded with pyramids of coconuts and an expert makes four cuts with a machete, sticks a straw in and tells me to drink it before cracking it open to eat the soft meat. I always had appreciation for that skill and gratitude for being in a place where the fruit is plentiful enough that a fresh green coconut costs less than the cans pretending to be it at the grocery story. I won’t appreciate it more simply because I struggled to break one open. The value of the doing is simply that – THE DOING.
The Zen of the book is one I fear we lose every time we try to calculate, monetize, replicate, advertise, make more efficient an activity, a goal, an idea – anything can have innate value if we choose to see the quality of the process, not measure it by the outcomes. Each year of being on this green planet has us tasked with the act of living and may I propose that we find more joy and satisfaction from the little things we get to do rather than trying to do it the “best” way.