Let the Whole Thundering World Come HomeNatalie Goldberg
Also by Natalie Goldberg
Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America
The Great Failure: My Unexpected Path to Truth
Living Color: Painting, Writing, and the Bones of Seeing
The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life
Chicken and in Love
Top of My Lungs: Poems and Paintings
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within
Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life
Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft
Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir
The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language
Banana Rose: A Novel
Essential Writer’s Notebook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Better Writing
The Truth of This Life: Zen Teachings on Loving the World as It Is by Katherine Thanas (coedited with Bill Anelli)
Tangled Up in Bob: Searching for Bob Dylan
(with filmmaker Mary Feidt)
Shambhala Publications, Inc.
4720 Walnut Street
Boulder, Colorado 80301
© 2018 by Natalie Goldberg
“Spirit” by Gregory Corso, from Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit,
copyright ©1973, 1975, 1981 by Gregory Corso. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
One haiku of Buson’s from The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson & Issa, edited and with an introduction by Robert Hass. Introduction and selection copyright 1994 by Robert Hass. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers and Bloodaxe Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Ebook design adapted from printed book design by Steve Dyer
Cover design by Jim Zaccaria
Cover art by Kazuaki Tanahashi
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Names: Goldberg, Natalie, author.
Title: Let the whole thundering world come home: a memoir / Natalie Goldberg.
Description: First edition. | Boulder: Shambhala, 2018.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017039916 | ISBN 9781611805673 (paperback: alk. paper)
Subjects: LCSH: Goldberg, Natalie — Health. | Cancer — Patients — Biography. | Authors — United States — Biography. | Painters — United States — Biography.
Classification: LCC RC265.6.g65 a3 2018 |DDC 362.19699/4 — dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017039916
With love and appreciation
Tell me something beautiful
How sound repeats itself
The rooftops look backward
as the notes make a chorus
This fantasy number sixty-seven
How long can it go on?
How many more days can we live
in this beautiful thing?
Someday the real and unreal
The shell fall apart
There is so little time
Only poems will last
and the mountain ranges of Beethoven
So tell me something good
before it’s too late
We Won’t Last Forever
This Was My Life
Here Was My Beloved’s Life
Down to the Marrow
Closer to Death
Endlessly Like a River
Meditation on Metta
About the Author
During what I have come to call the Infusion Months of Summer — during the series of chemo infusions I had to battle the cancer raging inside me — and between the long visits to the Christus St. Vincent Regional Cancer Center, constant visits from friends, exhaustion, fever, sadness, sparks of extreme emotions, I wrote a book. Not this book but The Great Spring. A book that could be considered the afterword to this book.
Before I started the infusions, in the spring months when I was avoiding my cancer diagnosis, I didn’t pick up a pen. I had no language for what I was going through. In March and April, I painted abstracts. In the silence of paint, color, form, I attempted to express what I didn’t understand, what was way below the level of my conscious mind. When I gave in to the infusions, I began writing again.
For years I had aimed to create a particular collection of essays. Sitting on the couch in the lovely prison of my living room — when I had no energy to run around — and during long quiet afternoons when no one was there, I entered a secret island of peace. I left cancer behind and wrote about tennis and my father playing ball with me in the backyard. I collected past published essays and found new essays in my notebooks — surprising ones about being in Iowa during the 2008 presidential campaign and getting lost searching for the stone lions in the Bandelier back country. Essays that talked about how I lived my life, backed by Zen and writing; about going to Japan, France, and Archer City, Texas. That book claimed and asserted little-known parts of me. In case I died — I had no idea what the outcome of these treatments would be — at least I would have recorded times when I was alive. Maybe I wasn’t always paying attention, but life — poignant corners of it — came back to me.
As I wrote, years of practice kicked in, not with my usual determination and drive, but with something more serene. In the afternoons, while healthy people were grocery shopping, running up mountains, picking up children at school, waiting for the red light to turn green, I was able to find a small victory in the center of cancer — to forget it, leave it, and do what I love. Having cancer wasn’t everything, even right in the middle of having cancer. I thought of Lucian Freud, the premier British portrait painter, who died a few years ago at ninety-three, painting until the last. Death for him was like an afterthought.
* * *
The writing of this book came after cancer.
I never planned to write a book about cancer. I was on the other side and still alive, with my own aim: to wake up America through writing. And yet…
A saying exists: a writer gets to live twice. First we live, and then we write about what
we have lived. Like a cow that brings up its feed and chews it again, a writer has a second chance to digest experience. The second time is in the notebook or in front of a computer screen. Often the second time is the real life for a writer. It is then we get to claim our existence.
At lunch a friend told me that writing about my illness was a bit crazy. “Cut your losses and go on. You’re restimulating yourself.”
I sat up straight in my seat, “I’m a writer. This is what writers do.”
I wanted to grab a hunk of living again and hold on tight. But it wouldn’t have been genuine if I skipped over what was raw, dark, and painful. Another adage a writer needs to know: the things we avoid have energy. If I ignored suffering, the life of my writing would die. You can’t hold back, hide, disclaim. You have to bare your teeth and go back into the seething heat. If I didn’t write this book, no other book would possibly ever come.
Besides, I wanted to know what happened to me. When I was inside the world of cancer, I was just trying to survive. Slam bam — hit by diagnoses, one after the other, that shattered any composure I ever thought I had — hospital rooms, procedures, institutions, fast decisions, medicines I never heard of before. I wanted to record this also for the reader: when you go through extreme sickness, when everything you know and lived is tossed out the window and glass shatters — I want to say we are not crazy. This too is part of life. Don’t give up. Pay attention. We have to make ourselves larger to include the inconceivable. So many of us imagine — certainly I did — lying peacefully in our own bed during our last days, serenely bidding good-bye to relatives and friends. Good luck. It’s rare.
I felt so out there alone on a ledge. I looked for and needed to hear or read what other people went through, but I could find little about the nitty-gritty experience. I wanted to record my experience as a marker for others, even though everyone’s circumstances will be different.
For me this wasn’t war, something to fight. Disease was another aspect of human life. Could I be in the middle of it, not so much be victorious but actually flower, become more tender, more inside human understanding? Could it open love? And reflection? Could I stand inside the storm, be drenched and endure, whether into life or into death?
In the Book of Serenity, an ancient Zen text from China, is case 36, “Master Ma Is Unwell.” Given to us to ponder, not only with logic, but with the whole of our being.
* * *
Master Ma is sick in bed.
The monastery superintendent stops in and asks, “Master, how is your venerable state these days?”
The Great Teacher looks up and replies, “Sun face buddha, moon face buddha.”
We can be awake on both sides of the coin, in sickness and in health, in light and in the dark. In both states we can glow.
Can we do this?
I called on painting, writing, and Zen to help me on my way — those three practices I used throughout my life. Would they hold me now in good stead?
At the same time that eternity swung open in front of my shocked face, my partner of five years confronted her own deep challenge. Beside me, yet separate and apart, Yu-kwan peered over the edge into the vast dark, stumbled, and was caught by another cancer, in a different part of her body. It arrived unbidden and relentless. Her cells went out of whack and grew malignant. This book is also about how we continued together and alone.
None of us gets away from carrying the genes of sickness, old age, and death. May this book help build our capacity to relate to illness and to face whatever reality we encounter.
WE WON’T LAST FOREVER
I travel all the way to Kitada, Japan, to Taizoin Temple, near the Sea of Japan, to find the ashes of my Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi. I discover his tombstone in a row of rounded-top markers signifying his teaching lineage.
It is raining hard. I push off my hood, throw off my slicker, and prostrate myself three times on the wet earth, then kneel in front of his stone. Pushing the dripping hair from my forehead, rain running down my cheeks, I speak to my old teacher: “Took me a while, but I made it.” It’s been eight years since he died, and I cannot say how good I feel being near his ashes. Two rhododendron, a camellia bush, then rice paddies in the distance.
I’d heard about this place through Katagiri. For years it was only his teacher and young Katagiri, alone in the temple practicing. When Katagiri told his teacher he was going to America, the teacher said nothing, but from his teacher’s back, walking behind him, young Katagiri could tell he was lonely.
In the twelve years I studied with him, for six of them I lived in a two-story duplex on Emerson Avenue six blocks from the Minnesota Zen Center and walked the back alleys at 4:45 a.m. to sit an hour each early morning in the zendo with him erect in front of the altar. I was irregular for the first years, but he was there morning after morning. “Sitting,” he said, “for all sentient beings every moment forever.” His dedication eventually penetrated my skin and bones. He became my great writing teacher, inspiring me to continue under all circumstances. I learned not to be tossed away by resistance, inertia, boredom, the vagaries of the human mind. In that simple building, across from Lake Calhoun in the middle of Minneapolis in the heart of the country, I touched the ground of being.
It’s now been twenty-eight years since he died. Three or four times a year, I dream he has returned from the dead and is teaching again. I am always nervous and at first don’t go to see him. Then I sign up for a retreat, accidentally sleep through the morning service, then grab a pink cushion and settle in.
We never actually meet again face-to-face in the dreams, but I imagine his skin — dried and darkened, pulled hard across his cheeks, the way he looked in the coffin before cremation. I wake.
What can the dead teach the living?
I’m still alive, still on the other side. His death taught me that he and I are one.
I ARRIVED EARLY to a signing for my new novel. It was 1995 and I was sitting in the Taos Book Shop and chatting with Barbara Zaring, who had painted the cover to my book. Two young women poured through the door. They had just attended a palm-reading workshop and were full of exuberant knowledge. One took my friend’s bony hand. “You have a happy marriage.”
My friend bobbed her head up and down.
“And creative work.” Then they enumerated more details I knew to be true. I was impressed.
My turn. The one with long red hair glanced down at my knuckles and tapered, small fingers. “You are very sick.”
The other woman confirmed it. They didn’t even turn my hand over to see my palm.
I pulled away and tucked my hands under the table.
The shadow of that long-ago dark omen was now stepping forward.
* * *
“Your doctor called and left a message,” Yu-kwan sat across from me. I had just finished teaching a writing retreat in Rhinebeck, New York, where I luxuriated in afternoons telling stories to my friend Wendy on the white porch of our bunk-like rooms. Yu-kwan, my new girlfriend, lived in New York City and came up to meet me before heading to a friend’s house for the weekend. While she stayed in Rhinebeck, I planned to go to her city apartment. We had just sat down at an outdoor café.
“My doctor? Why would she call?”
“She said to call her back.” She handed me her phone.
I dialed. I waited for the doctor to get on the line. My lunch arrived — pizza with figs and mozzarella — and I began eating.
Eventually the doctor picked up her call, and with no pleasantries said, “There are indications you have chronic lymphocytic leukemia.”
Leukemia? I managed to hear that word. I also heard the word death.
“They are doing further tests to verify it,” she explained.
I wanted to finish the pizza and enjoy the short time I had with Yu-kwan before I dropped her off. But my tongue kept running over my doctor�
�s words as if they were a sore tooth. I cannot have leukemia — I don’t even know for sure what it is.
I drove that night down the Saw Mill River Parkway to Henry Hudson Parkway, made some wrong turns, and found myself in the middle of a tough area of the Bronx, almost out of gas. I had to exit. An Esso station — lively on a Friday night — was on the corner. All the gas pumps were being used; cars waited for cars to pull out; two men exited the station, each with a carton of cigarettes; a woman stood on the curb sucking a long inhale, curling her toes in a slip of sandal. The air was vibrating. I sidled slowly up to a pump behind a low car with its radio screeching hip-hop. Hip-hop doesn’t screech; it bops and bobs fast. But I was screeching inside. I might have leukemia. I was lost and my tank was empty.
The man on the other side of the gas pump had a goatee and a blue cap on his head. I asked him, “How do I get to the Upper West Side — Manhattan?”
His face showed delight. He knew the way and could help. “Go to the second light. Make a left. Then a right at the next light. You’ll see an entrance sign….”
I repeated every turn once and then again.
He nodded and gave me a thumbs-up. Many times over the last years I’ve thought of him. To know directions is a good thing.
Almost midnight, the lights unfurling; my little rental zipped into the right lane of the curving route into the Big Apple.
I left my suitcase untouched on the dining room floor of Yu-kwan’s apartment. I couldn’t sleep that night. I moved from chair to chair in my rumpled clothes, never switching on a light, looking out the windows at the jazzed neon and yellow cabs, finally stripping down naked and lying on top of the sheets, staring at the ceiling, listening to the forever hum of traffic.
As a tinge of light touched the dark sky, I prayed with the slightest twist of hope that the final results would be negative.
* * *
In 1990 my Zen teacher died of lymphoma after a year in and out of hospitals and several rounds of chemo. The last weeks he lay in bed, hardly stirring. A Zen student sat with him through each night as slowly, the irreversible cold crawled through his body.