I love Natalie Goldberg’s new book for many reasons. First, it is
a true inspiration. Second, I am in it.
As a writer, I have often written about friends and family–often to their irritation. I’ve tried to be pristine, getting permission, double checking facts, but it isn’t a foolproof system. Plus, I’m a writer. I like to tell my reader everything I’ve discovered about the human condition. Even if it is about other people.
So here I am in Natalie’s book–immortalized. I’m in a classic stance, standing at the board in front of my Santa Fe Community College poetry class. Teaching. It’s what I do.
I won’t give the chapter away–let me just say that Natalie makes me look a little bit more heroic, a little bit more obsessed with writing, than I really am. It is true I was shocked to hear that a weather emergency was causing school to close–and just as I was saying something important! But Nat makes it sound better. And maybe a few of the tiny details aren’t accurate, or the way I remember…hey, I’m starting to sound like my own subjects.
So am I more sympathetic, say, to my husband Rich who found his exploits in Sunday’s Sage Magazine discussed by his co-workers on Monday morning.? Not really. After all, I made him look good too. Maybe the details were off–but that just means he should write his own version.
It may be odd to a character. But I’m enjoying it.
PS. If you buy one new book on writing–make it this one!
What wakes us up?
Curve of a blue door
A gray wet wall on a gray day
When you call and tell me your suffering
When I tell you mine
When I remember my mother, dead for four years, her black curl, her big teeth
Vanilla smell of ponderosa
Corn tortilla crack in my mouth
Sudden light at day’s end
News of Rawanda, Bosnia, Hiroshima, Birkenau
The word “Paris”
Putting a large condolence card in the neighbor’s mailbox in the rain
Drinking tea with a friend as dusk falls and the chatter around us in the cafe fades away
Waves breaking black with volcanic sand
Crossing the hospital parking lot
Sound of the key in the lock
An old letter falling out of a paperback book
The sight of my naked feet
A glass of water
Overheard gossip from the next table
Far off siren
An earring dropped between floorboards
Thinking I understand a foreign language
The right song on the car radio
Biting into a jelly doughnut
Book Review: Old Friend from Far Away
In Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, the author suggests several exercises to get the creative juices flowing, to go deeper and question yourself, relentlessly. When I first saw that this text book was a collection of exercises, I groaned to myself. How I hated a specific exercise. I always thought these were trick questions with a right or wrong way to do the exercise. I usually would fall under the wrong category. In fact, I usually skip that part. But there was no escaping this assignment. I was here voluntarily after all. I was here to learn this craft of writing so that I could better tell my stories.
I’d have to face the agony of the task.
“Exactly how do you feel about apples?” the first exercise asks. I am to write with flowing dialogue everything I have ever known or thought regarding apples.
My professor, in an effort of encouragement said to the class, ”Just start writing. Write I hate apples and see what comes up.”
As I begin with the simplest of statements my mind begins to relax and unravel. The more I continue the babble or rather the stream of consciousness, the less involved my mind become, the less it sounds like babbling. It shifts somehow to a more sensible flow of thoughts that become more and more cohesive . I think the trick is to keep the mind out of the process as much as possible.
Suddenly I find myself engrossed in the writing. I believe this is the beginning of the creative process or “zone” that Ms. Goldberg is attempting to point in the direction of. Now, I am recalling all kinds of memories and associations revolving around apples!
Eureka! Maybe I have been wrong. Perhaps these exercises in process are not as harrowing after all. Maybe they are simply warms ups! Could it be this fear I have held on to all my life was just simply that? A thought, a product of my mind!
Maybe that bumper sticker that says “Never Believe What You Think?” has something to it after all.
Letter to Bernie Glassman about Auschwitz Retreat ~ Natalie Goldberg
by Bearing Witness Blog
In June 2011 Bernie Glassman brought another group to Auschwitz to Bear Witness. A hundred and fifty of us traveled from all over the world to attend. Ten years before I had heard about these Auschwitz retreats. I was drawn, but too scared. It was too immense, too far away. How would I even get to Poland?
But I have always loved being a Jew and was haunted by the Holocaust. When I taught in the public schools I read Night by Elie Wiesel aloud to my students and we had Holocaust projects. A mother came to me one morning before class, “Don’t you think it’s too hard for sixth graders? My daughter had nightmares all last night after doing research for her paper.”
“No,” I said. “If we look evil in the face, we will know it and not run from it.”
She nodded as she backed out the door.
Almost a year before the 2010 retreat Beate Stolte, the co-abbot at Upaya Zen Center, called to tell me she was going. Without a thought I jumped in, “I’m coming too.”
Germany terrified me. My family shunned anything German. Before Beate I rarely even spoke to a German. But at a retreat Joan Halifax and I did on the new Prajna land, Beate ended up being my partner on a silent nine-mile hike to the San Lorenzo Lakes. Prajna is at nine thousand feet and we were going to ascend to eleven thousand. In other words, the hike was steep and I was out of shape.
Every once in a while I whispered to Beate, “How much further?” By now most students were way ahead.
She’d whisper back assuringly in her deep German accent, “Oh, just a little further.”
About noon with the sun far overhead, the day heated, perspiration running down my face, hungry for the lunch in my backpack, when I asked her again, and she answered with the same encouragement, “Just up a bit”, I threw down my pack and yelled in her face, “I don’t believe you and I hate Germans.”
This was our true meeting. Instead of becoming defensive, she gently said, “I know what you mean. Sometimes I hate them too. I am so ashamed of what we have done.”
We both sat down in the tall weeds under the shade of the aspens, eating cheese sandwiches, and sharing the Jewish and German sides of our suffering.
A great weight lifted from me. Germans were human. I’d been practicing Zen for thirty years but still carried deep prejudice that I thought I had a historical right to. Yes, at times in long meditation retreats that part of me crumbled but I quickly reassembled it to face the world and protect myself.
So after this encounter I naturally leaped at the opportunity to go to Auschwitz as Jew and German. From the very beginning it felt healing, democratic, a fresh bond.
Six months before the trip great terror haunted me in the night. Unnamed, unconscious fears.
When I taught in Houston I went to the Holocaust Museum there. As I walked along the aisles of the exhibit I was concentrated, analytic. Good information, I thought, for my trip. And when it was done, I burst out the front door, literally ran to a chocolate shop and ate three ice creams right in a row. There was no way I could wrap my head around the material. And yet, I had taught it. I had always kept it at a distance.
Three months before the June retreat I was giving a keynote at a conference in Washington, D.C. I spent six hours at the grand Holocaust museum there. I went alone. Again I was concentrated, took in every detail in the way I can as a writer, even-minded. The moment I left, the experience left me. I did not think of it once during the conference.
Home, six days later, I woke up trembling, full of anxiety. Finally by three in the afternoon I surrendered, not trying just to get through my day, I turned on the computer and turned to the pain. My hands ran across the keys, my eyes closed, I shook and sobbed. My adored grandfather escaped the pogrom in Russia by coming to American in the early Twentieth Century but they hadn’t stopped looking for us. I was sure now they knew where I was and were coming to my door in Santa Fe any minute. They were climbing over the fence, no place to escape, as I wrote I kept glancing out the window. Any minute now–my whole body felt this, I would be taken away. I completely believed it as fact.
My family never spoke about pogroms. I was born in 1948 when the horror of the German concentration camps was just coming out. None of it was ever mentioned in my family but like serum, the panic was injected straight into my veins, unconscious, undigested. Going to the museum in Washington made it come alive.
When I finally physically arrived at Auschwitz, I realized I knew this place. I’d carried it in me all my life and though no known relatives had died there, all the murdered beings we could feel in the tall late spring grass were my people. And I, too, had died there. I was not separate. I kept repeating to myself, this is the darkest of the dark. Unexplainable, inconceivable and yet it happened.
The bookstore at Auschwitz was full of memoirs, accounts of survivors, histories of World War II, what happened to Jews in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Denmark, Slovenia. Beate and I brought back to our shared room piles of books. Long into the evenings, late into the nights as the crickets screamed outside and after hot days meditating on the tracks where the trains pulled in and the selections happened, both of us lay in our single cots, side by side, reading, like two hungry animals turning slowly on a spit and roasting. We wanted to know, to understand, to make sense–but there was no sense.
I bought videos of what was seen when the camps were freed by the Russians. And when I came home I greeted friends at the door, “Would you like to see a film on Auschwitz?”
At the time I returned the oil leaks in the Gulf were on all the news channels. That’s nothing, I thought. Let me show you what happened in Poland. I was stuck in a time warp. The Holocaust was vividly alive for me. Why go on? Why continue, if human beings were capable of doing this?
For five years my friend Eddie and I had had an African book club and I thought reading about King Leopold, Rwanda, what the British did to the Mau Maus, had readied me. But the Germans had taken genocide to an industrial level. They used every part of the Jews. Even their ashes were shipped to Germany to fertilize their fields.
And something else. I was a Jew. I could be outraged at the atrocities in Africa as a decent human being but this was different. I had no distance. I collapsed into darkness. Why didn’t you like us? What was wrong with us? Every layer of my heart hurt. I didn’t have the strength to feel outrage.
I came home and lived in the world of the camps. My friend John Dear, a Jesuit nonviolent activist, said to me, “Natalie, you have to stop reading this stuff. There’s a limit.”
I did finally let go of the reading. Over months I came back to present life, to Obama in the White House, to the students before me with their bent heads over notebooks. Beate and I gave talks about our experience. I told people that we need to also understand the guilt and shame of the Germans and the suffering of war.
And then one day as I was embroiled in thoughts, some daily controversy, I heard someone across the room mention Auschwitz. The word went through me and love spontaneously flooded my whole body, legs, chest, knees, arms, whole face lit up. Auschwitz had become synonymous with love. Dare I say that? I no longer carried all the cremated Jews unconsciously around with me. I acknowledged them and gained strength from them. The Germans weren’t my enemy. I was free. No horror couldn’t be faced.
Bernie e-mailed me soon after the retreat, asking me if I’d written anything about it. I digest things slowly. Only yesterday, hearing a lecture at Upaya Zen Center, where Wendy Johnson read from Bearing Witness, did I pick up his book. Everything about going to Auschwitz in his book is true. The words are not separate from the experience. It all bleeds together. I thank him for having such a large vision of what Zen can be.
recently had dinner with miriam. the bull’s ring where no one else would ever come with me. we shared a steak and it was good. always when i leave her and really when i’m with her too there is this feeling there is something we are not getting to or something i forgot to tell her that is so important. what can be more important than two old friends spending around five hours together. (we met in 1984) after dinner we walked around the plaza which was empty and debated whether i should have an ice cream cone at hagen daz, the energy center of santa fe, in my opinion. at the last moment i said i’ll pass, come to the post office with me.(i’m eating droste chocolate now as i write this) the moon was hazy and i told her it was a good moon for a haiku and she made up one on the spot which i can’t remember. but what i do remember was the two important things we did seem to talk about besides love, still her favorite subject: i said all these years when we look at the people we know no one has really changed much, even if they fulfilled their dreams, had children, married, divorced, published books, traveled all over. and the second thing was and i can’t remember it. forgive me. maybe it will come to me later. we were sitting on her brown couch in her living room and the late afternoon sun was slanting in and i asked her to lower the shade. what we said meant a lot to me but now all i remember is the mint tea, her new painting on the yellow wall in the kitchen, the oreo cookies in a jar, the tanazakii book she finally returned, the red and black coat she put on as we left her house. next to her house is an empty lot that her neighbor owns. i want to buy that lot and make a little park out of it. miriam seems indifferent to it. i say to myself, don’t you have enough to do. you don’t need to make a park on the other side of town from where you live. but always if something is not pretty, i want to make it beautiful. can you imagine how i suffer?
i remembered during late night zazen what the second thing was that was so important to me with my evening with miriam: she was trying to get across what last week was like. she was at the blackboard explaining a french form of poetry i’d never heard of before and suddenly an announcement “it’s an emergency. it’s freezing out and the gas has gone out in parts of the state and we are conserving energy. all schools closed right now. leave the building.”
then i turned to her. they should have let you continue with your lesson. what form is that?i never heard of it. and she explained it to me. and i said, “miriam, isn’t literature the most important thing in a society? ” and i was dead serious. “i mean, i didn’t choose something peripheral. what is more important.” how could we live without shakespeare, hemingway, mccullers, moby dick(which i still haven’t read but it’s presence is important). ok, water, food, clothes, heat, have their place. but i drive around sometimes thinking, while i listen to the news, they have it all wrong. they are too far away from poetry and that is their problem. i am not a fool. i did not choose something stupid and unessential. like the heartbeat, breath, like the core motor that runs us, look deep, you will find words there and sentences, details. what we do is central to the functioning of the world. don’t you agree?
And from Miriam: here are the haiku I wrote
how many haiku
must I write…
waiting for you
you say “hazy moon–
look! quick, write a poem…”
Here is “Paris Cats” by Natalie Goldberg. I’ve always loved her paintings–in fact own two. Obviously there are about color, but also, I think, about place. And the details of place–how small things give a feeling.
In “Paris Moon” are the antenna dancing because of the moon or vica versa?
Video excerpt of Natalie leading a workshop here.
This is a three question interview with Natalie Goldberg. I wanted to ask her some questions that were outside of the type of thing she usually gets asked.
1. Miriam Sagan: One of my favorite of your books is THE GREAT FAILURE which is about that unAmerican word “failure” as well as your father and the less than perfect side of zen teacher Katagiri-roshi. I think some of the reception of the book took you by surprise, and perhaps in its own way was an experience of disillusionment not unlike those which fueled the book. Do you feel ok talking about this? What happened?
Natalie Goldberg: sure i can talk about it. it was a very painful experience to publish that book. i was naive. i didn’t realize how institutional zen had become and that the sangha in mpls didn’t want it out that roshi had committed some sexual indiscretions. many of the zen teachers up there acquired their authority from being his dharma heir. but really no one can give you your authority. also the rationalization was , yes , he did these things but he also gave us such great teachings. that is so true but one doesn’t negate the other. i wanted to embrace the whole story. who was this great man that i loved so much? i was willing to go to the mat, to spend two years writing a book to find out. i never heard from anyone from that sangha again except two or three people who were friends before and remained friends afterward. i don’t think anyone read the book because if they did they’d see how full of love it was. i loved katagiri roshi. i was willing to take him off the pedestal and make him human. having gone through the hard reception of the book i gained my own authority. but it wasn’t easy. also when i named it the great failure i meant it as a buddhist term, like the great spring which means enlightenment. what i meant by the great failure was that it was beyond success and failure, or when you completly come to the bottom then failure and success disappear and you are on the ground seeing things as they are. how wonderful! what i didn’t realize is that america too is terrified by failure and the word immediately upset people. on book tour i had to defend using the word. we are always rushing after success and running from failure. we are afraid if we mention it it will contaminate us. finally, i think it was in boston i said to a hundred people in the audience, ok, who of you hasn’t failed. no one raised their hands. see, i said. it’s part of human life.
Miriam Sagan: I love your book on painting LIVING COLOR. I’ve so enjoyed looking at painting with you, and happen to love your painting as well. I’m curious–how did you come to care so much about abstract art? If I didn’t know, I’d say you were drawn more to the representational. How do you access it?
Natalie Goldberg: yes mostly i paint representational things like a duck, a church, a piano and make them look like they took lsd. but it was after katagiri roshi died that i had a need to express things outside of form, to express the formless world. i’ve painted for 35years. but it was hard just to come to the page empty of the known world. i would begin in the middle of a piece of paper and grab a stick of pastel, a crayon, a colored pencil, a paint brush and just begin as though i had no words. how do you say something you feel when you have no words? i dont’ think i’ve been totally successful but i’ve done some pieces i like.
Miriam Sagan: I think of you as someone who fulfilled her dream of becoming a successful writer. Is this true? Did you get what you imagined? Is there anything you don’t like about being a writer? If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
Natalie Goldberg: i’d be an opera singer or a farmer or the principal of a small public elementary school in texas. and yes i did achieve what i wanted. i wanted to be a successful writer. i didn’t know what i was getting myself into. it’s lonely. it feels like i’m still stuck doing term papers in school while the rest of the world grew up and had a career. you can never count on an income. you have to stay true to yourself because if you don’t you write poppycock (whatever that is). i would like it if people read my current books and didn’t keep referring to a book i wrote in l986 called writing down the bones. i’ve moved on. if they like my first book why not read others? i’d like it if i could go to a hot springs naked and no one recognize me.
This was done in April, 2010. I’m re-blogging it here as part of the Doodling Hearts category.
The Story of a Last Kiss
We sat in an airy light, high ceilinged room open to the cerulean Taos sky. A mostly female, mostly leaning toward middle age gathering of writers from novice to published, we had come to engage in writing practice as taught by Natalie Goldberg in a workshop titled, “Doodling Hearts” where we would look at love and relationships, turning them like diamonds to note and learn to describe the light reflected and refracted from different facets. On day one came the prompt, “Tell me the story of a last kiss”.
A romantic last kiss? Not the last time my sweet Ian wrapped his fifteen month old arms around me and planted a sticky wet one right on his Gramma’s lips, tender, so tender. He touches my necklace and whispers, “pretty”, adding his own verbal shorthand for whispering sounds, “skerssy, krss, skriss”. Not the kiss from my eighty-two year old mama when I left for New Mexico, and I could feel the scratching of her chin whiskers, and I hoped she wouldn’t try to shave on her own (nearly blind, on Coumadin).
No, the last loving kiss was from the man I am no longer married to, the only man I have kissed since 1974, the man whose bride I was, and at some place in some way in that paralysis of the eternal now, whose bride I am. . .
and I can’t recall it. We had so carefully negotiated a shared space, so cautiously separated from one another. Is this what an organ transplant team sees when the donor cadaver displays terrific vital signs maintained by the most fantastic technology? A perfect heart EKG on the monitor with adequate blood pressure to keep those treasured hearts, lungs, kidneys perfused, but the body housing them is dead, dead, dead. Know ye not, ye are the temple of the living God? This removal of the heart is so carefully choreographed. First, ligate here; cut tendons, fascia; suction the blood, the inevitable blood that testifies to the viability of the organ being removed, suction to maintain enough of a visual field to harvest the heart, a final cut and it is free, waiting for its new home where, God willing, it will resume beating when newly and appropriately tethered.
I know there were final kisses with the final clinging together before the final rending. Because neither of us had the skill or discipline of a surgical team, the final severing was more like tearing apart a whole chicken when you knew you should have just bought the boneless, skinless breasts in the first place, but there was yet, still, and again no money for food, only for bars and the whole raw chicken. The dull knife makes for an uneven distribution of meat between the leg and thigh.
In our bedroom, which was our refuge, our passion held on so much longer than the details of day to day living. We shed our clothes and still loved looking at each other, our eyes, blessed by the memory of how we used to look naked, graced the stark, clinical reality of who we had become.
Miriam Sagan: I think of you as someone who fulfilled her dream of becoming a
successful writer. Is this true? Did you get what you imagined? Is
there anything you don’t like about being a writer? If you weren’t a
writer, what would you be?
i’d be an opera singer or a farmer or the principal of a small public elementary school in texas. and yes i did achieve what i wanted. i wanted to be a successful writer. i didn’t know what i was getting myself into. it’s lonely. it feels like i’m still stuck doing term papers in school while the rest of the world grew up and had a career. you can never count on an income. you have to stay true to yourself because if you don’t you write poppycock (whatever that is). i would like it if people read my current books and didn’t keep referring to a book i wrote in l986 called writing down the bones. i’ve moved on. if they like my first book why not read others? i’d like it if i could go to a hot springs naked and no one recognize me.