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October 13, 2008

Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg

A memoir of a woman waking up through the practices of writing and Buddhism

Natalie Goldberg has published ten books.  Seven of these I’ve read, including her first book, Writing Down the Bones, and her most recent, Old Friend from Far Away, a book reminiscent of Bones but skewed more toward the writing of memoir.  This book, her third, remains my favorite.

I began rereading it on one recent Sunday and ended up finishing nearly the whole book that same day.  It was a September Sunday.  I also cleaned the porch, swam laps, bought a flat of giant pansies, fixed supper, carried on conversations, listened to music.  But between all that, and among all that, I read Long Quiet Highway.  My mind seeming to get quieter and quieter as I read it.  Clearer.  More awake?

The subtitle of Ms. Goldberg’s book is Waking Up in America.  If there were a central question to the book it might be this one: What exactly does it mean to be awake? 

What might it mean to wake up in America or anywhere else?  What might writing have to do with it?  What might Buddhism have to do with it?

First, the long sleep, as counterpoint.  She describes walking through the halls of her high school in Long Island:

. . . hair pulled back in a pony tail, walking lonesome down those halls, up and down many flights of stairs, going into Latin and Algebra classes, passing rest rooms and janitor storage rooms, lost for a whole century of my life.

She describes a “doomed lethargy.”  A feeling of “disconnection from the present.”

Then, moments of awakening:
A moment in English class when the teacher turned out the lights and told them to listen to the rain.

to connect a sense organ with something natural, neutral, good.  He asked me to become alive.  I was scared, and I loved it.

A moment after graduating from college, alone in a rented room, writing a poem about a chocolate cake.

It held my entire childhood.  I smelled the baking, the garbage in the streets, heard the cash register ring, felt the newsboy on the corner, saw the green container they used to box the cake.  This was all coming up from someplace inside me.  I wrote my first real poem.  I had never felt this way before.

Sensory awakenings.  A sense of re-connecting—

A moment in front of a sixth-grade class as a teacher in Albequerque, New Mexico when her chest begins to ache and an image comes to her that her heart is opening like a giant peony.

One thing leads to another after that.  She leaves her teaching job and goes to live at the Lama Foundation, a kind of spiritual camp.  She moves to Boulder and studies with Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher.

Eventually she travels to Minneapolis.  She meets, Katagiri Roshi, a Zen Buddhist monk, and asks him to be her teacher.  For me, this is the moment at which this book becomes absolutely compelling.  The moment that pulled me in and kept me reading all of one Sunday.  This in spite of the fact that the moment itself is in many ways quite ordinary.  It occurs in the kitchen of the Zen Center in Minneapolis.  Roshi is wearing a T-shirt from his children’s school that says “Marcy school is purr-fect.”  She asks him to be her teacher and he says “yes.” 

I read somewhere—and I can’t remember where now—an interview?—one of Goldberg’s other books?—I remember her saying that this memoir is in fact a memoir of her relationship with her teacher, Katagiri Roshi, but she believed that if she started at that point it would be too strange.  People—her readers—would not come along with her.  And so she began, instead, with what she thought would be a more familiar moment, an ordinary moment that people in this country might be able to relate to—a high school teacher turning out the lights and asking the students to listen to the rain.

She draws the reader in.  And I can say that this worked for me.  She drew me in from the outset.  But when she gets to her time in Minneapolis, something happens—to her, to the writing itself.  I become drawn into the book in a deeper way.  The best way I know to say it is to say that she falls in love with the practice of Buddhism in Minneapolis and this love comes through in her writing.  Because she is writing the memoir later, after leaving Minneapolis and moving back to the Southwest, the love comes through as elegiac, rather like Hemingway writing in The Moveable Feast.

Here she writes of beginning a hundred-day training period at the Zen Center after she has been in Minneapolis for a year and a half.

Getting up at four A.M. every morning to get to the zendo by half past was one of the hardest things I’d ever done and one of the most secretive, deep, wild, and scary.  I’d rarely wakened at four except to turn over and go back to sleep.  And there I was doing it every day.  I found a pocket of darkness I’d never known before and it felt like it was all mine.  The people in the houses I walked past were all asleep and there was rarely a car on the street.  The traffic signal blinked red, then green, then yellow for no one.  Down the alleys I’d grown to love, behind people’s houses along their backyards, I’d walk on solid ice in weather well below zero as we moved into late November and December and I was wrapped in more and more clothes against the wind chill that was no longer just the news announcer’s term; I was experiencing it with everything in me.  During that training period, I entered another part of my life, something that was always there, but usually I was asleep when it was happening.  Now I and fourteen other Zen students carried our unconscious minds still raw from having wakened in the middle of our dreams and sat on black zafus in a white-walled room lit by a candle, the smoke of incense wafting by, watching our minds and feeling our breath.  At the time I was not attuned to the wonder.  I was mostly tired.

She stays in Minneapolis six years.  I am including here a passage about her taking leave of Minneapolis because it seems to me now, on rereading, that this gets to the heart of where she is heading—this I think is at the heart of what she means by waking up.  Her tone is again elegiac, this passage written with the knowledge that within a few years after her taking leave of Minneapolis Roshi will be diagnosed with lung cancer and he will die not long after.  (I have carried on here a bit longer than usual.  And now this next passage is quite long.  Please forgive me, but my imagination has been captured of late with this notion of waking up.)  In any case, the passage:

So I left Minnesota.  I returned to New Mexico, but Roshi came with me.  I carried his teachings south down Interstate 35, then out 90, past the exit to Blue Earth and Worthington, into the tip of South Dakota, stopping at Costa’s Café and eating at the salad bar full of marshmallows, canned fruit salads, and small cellophane packages of saltines.  I carried his words, his friendship, down highway 81 into Nebraska, lingering in Norfolk among fertile fields and cows, with friends, Bob and Barbara, who lived in a big white house, then along Interstate 80, going west, past Kearney and North Platte, and then south through Colorado, opening into my beloved big sage space of northern New Mexico.

I never said good-bye formally to Roshi and I am sorry for that.  Though I carried him with me, our formal time of teacher and student in Minnesota was over and I wish I had expressed my gratitude.  But I was ignorant.  I didn’t know it was over.  It seems to me now that I still didn’t know anything.  Gratitude is a mature emotion.  Only in the last year or two in Minneapolis, with the divorce, did I start to digest the teachings on a quieter, deeper level inside me.  And at that time of my departure, I was in too much pain to understand my relationship with Roshi and what he had given me.  I knew Roshi meant a lot to me, but I thought he would always be around, the way you think as a young child that your mother will be there, or a house, a street you live on.  We are naïve, innocent when we are children.  I was still ignorant as an adult and as a Zen student.  Six years I had been there and still ignorant!  We take a long time to learn some things.

Roshi once told us that there were three different kinds of horses: with one, just a tug at the reins made them start moving; the second, a kick in the flanks and they were off; and then there were those that had to be beaten to the bone with a whip before they started to move.  ‘Unfortunately,’ he said, ‘most human beings are the third kind.’  He told us we act as though we were going to live forever.  ‘Wake up,’ he said.