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The Great Spring

Natalie Goldberg

  “Natalie Goldberg is one of the world’s most beloved writing teachers, a mentor who has inspired millions to take up the pen and write. Here, in The Great Spring, a collection of her best short essays on food, family, writing, painting, meditation, travel, love, loss, death, and enlightenment, she follows her own sage counsel, writing her way toward an understanding of what it is to be fully alive.”

  —Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being

  “At times rhapsodic, at others profound, Natalie Goldberg delivers her heart in The Great Spring. She’s courageous to bring us this great ride through her life.”

  —David Chadwick, author of Crooked Cucumber

  “The Great Spring is a wonderful jaunt through a woman’s life. What a solace it is to know there is a smart, stubborn, outspoken human being in the world who is obsessed with figuring it all out. After reading Natalie Goldberg’s The Great Spring, I felt a stirring—something curious, nostalgic, and something I’d sorely missed: there is hope for all of us.”

  —Tom Spanbauer, author of I Loved You More

  “No one writes about Zen and writing and being human with more honesty, verve, and punch than Natalie Goldberg. Now in the fullness of her Great Spring, she tells, with more vividness and wisdom than ever before, stories from her life illuminated by the Zen teachings and practice that have informed it. I promise you will be, as I was, enthralled from the first page to the last. This may be her best book yet!”

  —Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Zen priest, author of Experience: Thinking, Writing, Language, and Religion; What Is Zen?: Plain Talk for a Beginner’s Mind; and Magnolias All at Once

  “Goldberg writes observantly, with a direct simplicity. She gently catches your eye while piercing the soul. To read her is to invite your own transformation.”

  —Jonathan Odell, author of Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League


  Let’s be honest: Life is not a straight shot. It unrolls crooked, at a slant and zigzag. Here beloved writing teacher and author Natalie Goldberg shares those vivid moments that have brought her a felt sense of vitality and opened her up to new ways of being alive—from getting lost in the arid wilderness of New Mexico to playing ball with her father as a child on Long Island, reflecting on the dusty beginnings of Zen in the Midwest, and receiving the shocking blow of a bad health diagnosis. Deep down in her work, Natalie remains grounded in her two constants: a life informed by the practices of writing and Zen. Yet all the while there is an undercurrent of questioning and searching: Where does this life lead? Who are we? This is a book to be relished, devoured, and digested, one awakening at a time. Each piece is a reminder that no matter how hard the situation or desolate you may feel, spring will come again, breaking through a cold winter, bringing early yellow forsythia flowers. And the Great Spring of enlightenment—that sudden rush of acceptance, pain cracking open, obstructions shattering—will also burst forth.

  NATALIE GOLDBERG is the author of ten books. Writing Down the Bones, her first, has sold over one million copies and has been translated into twelve languages. For the last thirty years she has practiced Zen and taught seminars in writing as a spiritual practice. She lives in New Mexico.

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  Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life

  Natalie Goldberg




  Shambhala Publications, Inc.

  4720 Walnut Street

  Boulder, Colorado 80301

  Cover art by Natalie Goldberg

  Cover design by Jim Zaccaria

  © 2016 by Natalie Goldberg

  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.


  Goldberg, Natalie.

  The great spring: writing, zen, and this zigzag life / Natalie Goldberg.—First edition.

  pages cm

  eISBN 978-0-8348-4002-7

  ISBN 978-1-61180-316-7 (hardcover: acid-free paper)

  1. Authorship. 2. Zen Buddhism. 3. Creative writing. 1. Title.

  PN145.G634 2016



  For Baksim and Pearlie with Love



  Introduction: Fat Robins Arrive


  1. On the Shores of Lake Biwa

  2. Tennis

  3. A Long Relationship with Zen

  4. Blossom


  5. The Great Spring

  6. Wrong Way

  7. Archer City

  8. A Student Again

  9. Rain and the Temple


  10. Dog-Bite Enlightenment

  11. Iowa

  12. Writing as a Visual Art

  13. The Lineage of Literature


  14. In the Crossing

  15. Losing Katherine

  16. BJ

  17. Old Zendo

  18. Lost Purse

  19. Another New Year


  20. Meeting the Chinese in St. Paul

  21. First Edition

  22. A Time of No Place

  23. Zen at the High Chaparral

  Afterword: The Smoke of Memories


  About the Author

  E-mail Sign-Up


  People come up to me and say, “I love your book.”

  Mostly I know what they mean, but I become difficult and a bit ornery. “Which one?” I ask. “I’ve written fourteen.”

  I ought to feel grateful that I’m still being read, that my work has continued, and simply take in the pleasure that I might have helped someone with the early inspired energy of Writing Down the Bones, my first book on practice.

  It is auspicious that with The Great Spring I have returned to Shambhala, its publisher. Like a big circle closing, the arc is completed. The thirty-year-anniversary special edition of Writing Down the Bones and this new book will be released at the same time.

  I joke that big brother Bones will introduce the public to little sister Spring. But in actuality The Great Spring holds a more mature knowing, saying in an even clearer, more experienced way what is important. I have searched through these stories to find answers—if answers are ever possible—about who I am and who I have become, standing on the ground of being, driven by the practice of Zen and writing.

  There are many ways to manifest our true life. In Bones I promised to continue. Here are some of the ways I have done so. Please join me in this deep practice of honoring all of our moments. I cannot do it alone. We are here, but not forever.


  Fat Robins Arrive

  “Listen to the rain,” instructs my ninth-grade English teacher, Mr. Clemente, one March afternoon as he flipped off the lights at the beginning of class. There was to be no essay to write or any test on rain. He simply wanted us to listen. We could even put our heads down on our desks if we wanted.

  For a few minutes in the regulated school day, we experienced a moment of space, a recognition that something existed outside the classroom. A torrent was hitting pavement and bouncing, sinking into grass, pounding on the window. It was an acknowledgment that an element unknowable and mysterious could be encountered with our senses without referring it to our thinki
ng brains. I felt and smelled rain. It coursed through my blood.

  After six minutes Mr. Clemente switched on the light and we abruptly moved into analyzing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, removing ourselves from the true origin of inspiration: a rootedness in the body and the breath. Though Joyce imbued those pages with essential connections, we dissected his novel rather than staying close to it.

  Perhaps the power of those six minutes was intensified because it was so unlikely in our usual scheduled day, like a dangling clause, unrelated to the rest of the sentence. Though I did not pick up a pen and attempt to write a word until I was twenty-four years old, the true heart of a writer was born in me that day. From then on, dreaming became legitimate. Intuiting something beyond the ordinary, yet at the same time smack in the familiar, eventually grew into my life’s work. That one afternoon—a Wednesday—liberated me. The downpour was mine.

  And isn’t that the writer’s task? To claim experience, bring it back, express it, not let it pass into oblivion. It’s a physical activity, coming from the whole body—lungs, shoulders, hands, kidneys—and from beyond the corporeal. From memory, vision, imagination, the fusing of what is and what isn’t, a coalescing of time.

  I have dedicated my life to the practice of writing and Zen. The two naturally went together, became inseparable. Through the seen the fine edge of the unseen revealed itself. Writing became religious. The place to encounter oneself, to anchor all the running thoughts and interconnections. Through writing I grew strong-minded, not stubborn. I stood close witness to our aching, inspired living. The act of pen on paper, or two hands on keyboard, rendered a practice of confidence, a training in waking up.

  I studied Zen from 1978 to 1990 with a Japanese Zen teacher living in Minneapolis. His name was Katagiri Roshi. From all the early-morning, all-day, weeklong practices—the bowing, chanting, and general fierce regimentation and challenge—and from the years of practice since my time with Katagiri Roshi, I found the heart and dedication that allowed me to give my life to writing.

  From my time with Katagiri Roshi, I came away with three clear statements that have created the spine of my long writing life:

  1. Continue under all circumstances. No excuses.

  2. Don’t be tossed away. If your kid falls and needs stitches, write in the waiting room. If a teacher tears your work apart, learn from it. Be steady. Don’t forget your direction and path.

  3. Make positive effort for the good. Roshi told me this when I was going through a divorce. Positive effort doesn’t mean hauling a mountain to Iowa. Sometimes it just means getting out of bed and brushing your teeth. Even if you write about rape, racism, poverty, cancer, it’s a positive act. You are speaking out; you are standing up.

  Being a writer is not easy. Layers of skin are yanked off. People often don’t like what you have to say. Roshi’s three dictums gave me a backbone.

  Four of Jack Kerouac’s List of Essentials from his Belief and Technique for Modern Prose that provided spirit for this path are:

  Accept loss forever.

  Be submissive to everything, open, listening.

  No fear or shame in the dignity of your experience, language, and knowledge.

  Be in love with your life.

  The two together—determination and heart, practice and spirit, Katagiri and Kerouac—bestow on us an essential core for a long life of good work and a strong foundation for facing criticism, resistance, boredom, and the transience of mood and desire. We learn to continually show up.

  The title The Great Spring signifies the great rushing of energy that arrives when you think no life will ever come again. A spray of vitality breaks through: that early yellow-flowering forsythia bush sprouts. Fat robins arrive—you wonder where they’ve been—and the low moan of the pale-gray mourning dove sitting on the telephone wire fills the air.

  I’ve lived into many beautiful springs, but none ever felt as miraculous as the Minnesota spring. After a northern winter of forty below, you feel certain nature is dead dead—for good. Then the power of life shoots up through elm, birch, and willow, and small crocuses pry open the frozen earth. How can this be?

  Spring is a force—impersonal, potent, available to all. Not orderly, not calculable—more like the rain shower I listened to in that English class.

  February 2014 in New Mexico was surprisingly mild—in the fifties day after day—while the rest of the country, even Atlanta, was slammed with abnormally cold weather. But my home in Santa Fe might as well have been the Arctic. My hands and feet continually felt like ice, and nothing warmed them. I had received hard news about my health. My heart felt halted by the diagnosis. At night no sleep came. I lay in bed blank minded till dawn. My shoulders were hunched and rounded. I felt the certainty—the inevitability—of death. Yet February turned into March, March into April.

  In Zen, the Great Spring is a way of describing enlightenment. Obstructions shatter. Pain cracks open. The previously resisted truth releases. An acceptance of transiency flows through. The Great Spring includes everything; nothing ignored, nothing passed over. No one is so odd that anyone is left out. In this huge terrain, we can find ourselves.

  In this book are some of the ways I have found myself—breaking open some of the old strictures of Zen, finding new ways to be alive.

  In The Great Spring I offer an invitation to enter into a larger, more intimate territory, to commune as fellow reader, writer, explorer, teacher, human being. It is also an invitation to notice, embrace, and record those moments that move us forward—even when the path is not direct. To live a creative life is to search and wander, zigzag and leap, but then to return our pen to the page, again and again, and to reflect.

  All of us will die someday. This is not morbid. It is a wedge into fresh life. Finally we look at death—and life—like the old woman at the crossroads in the ancient Zen story. Two lost, wandering monks approach her and ask her the way. She points and answers, “Straight ahead.”


  Often I ask:

  Was it worth it

  to dedicate yourself so completely?

  The answer


  Then I remember:

  I saw inside the night sky


  On the Shores of Lake Biwa


  I wanted to go to Japan. But Japan was far away. I’m terrible with languages. When I tried to learn short Japanese phrases, it sounded like I was shredding coleslaw with my tongue and not budging one inch from Brooklyn. Plus, all the words of that island country were written in kanji. I wouldn’t even be able to decipher signs.

  People assured me that everyone in Japan learned English in school. “No problem,” they said. I’d studied French for eight years, and all I could do was conjugate the verb to be. Better to just spend my days on Coney Island—I knew where the hot dogs were.

  But I had a writing student who had lived in Japan for several years. She generously contacted a Japanese couple, and they agreed to take me around Kyoto. They spoke good English, so I could ask questions.

  My girlfriend, Michèle, and I had been there a week when Kenji and Tomoko picked us up at the hotel. I’d already felt isolated, walking down crowded streets, peering into unknown temples. I often found myself towering over a young man or woman, asking something and receiving giggles behind polite hands. The Japanese might have learned English in school, but they were too shy to speak it.

  “They grind their own beans here,” Kenji said as he drove us to a coffee shop.

  The smell cleared my sinuses. I rarely drink coffee—I have enough trouble sleeping. But at this moment, I was so elated to speak to a native, not to feel so alone, that I ordered a shot of espresso.

  The four of us sat at a small square table, elbow to elbow. “So how do you know English so well?” I asked.

  The white cups were placed in front of us. I took a sip. The black blend cut off the top of my head. My eyes darted around the room. No tea, cookies, buns, rolls, rice cakes. Zen
purity had been translated into a single-taste caffeine shop.

  Kenji explained, “We lived in England for four years. I was getting a PhD in philosophy.”

  “Really? Who did you study over there?” I’d done my master’s in Western philosophy in my early twenties. But soon after I discovered Zen, I never thought of Bergson or Heidegger again.

  “Immanuel Kant.”

  “You’re kidding. I did my thesis on him. You went all the way over to Europe for Kant? In America we want to study Dogen.”

  It was Kenji’s turn to be dumbstruck. His nose crunched up. “Ugh, no one understands Dogen. He’s much too difficult.”

  Then I let the bomb drop. “I’ve been a Zen student for more than two decades.”

  Now Tomoko grimaced. “That’s awful. No one here likes Zen.”

  I had suddenly become peculiar to this Japanese couple.

  Kenji said, “Zen monks all die young.”

  I already knew but asked anyway: “Why?”

  “The training’s too hard for a human being,” he said.

  My teacher had died in his early sixties. I could name several other Zen teachers who had died too early. I had hoped it was the difficult shift they had made to American life, but it was the years of knee-aching, backbreaking sitting on little sleep.

  The conversation slid into pleasantries. Yes, I was a writer. Yes, my first book had been translated into Japanese.

  My cup was almost empty. If I took one more sip, I’d buzz out the window. I threw care to the neon lights above the entrance and put liquid to mouth. I leaned in close. “Can I ask you a question?” They nodded simultaneously.

  Michèle rolled her eyes. She knew where this was going. That morning in bed I had had a realization. Maybe I did know a little Japanese after all. In the zendo we chanted from chant cards that translated Japanese sounds into English syllables.