Long Quiet HighwayNatalie Goldberg
Long Quiet Highway
Waking Up in America
For my teacher
Dainin Katagiri Roshi
with boundless love, gratitude, and appreciation
A Biography of Natalie Goldberg
THERE IS AN ORDER of Buddhist monks in Japan whose practice is running. They are called the marathon monks of Mount Hiei. They begin running at one-thirty A.M. and run from eighteen to twenty-five miles per night, covering several of Mount Hiei’s most treacherous slopes. Because of the high altitude, Mount Hiei has long cold winters, and part of the mountain is called the Slope of Instant Sobriety; because it is so cold, it penetrates any kind of illusion or intoxication. The monks run all year round. They do not adjust their running schedule to the snow, wind, or ice. They wear white robes when they run, rather than the traditional Buddhist black. White is the color of death: There is always the chance of dying on the way. In fact, when they run they carry with them a sheathed knife and a rope to remind them to take their life by disembowelment or hanging if they fail to complete their route.
After monks complete a thousand-day mountain marathon within seven years, they go on a nine-day fast without food, water, or sleep. At the end of the nine days, they are at the edge of death. Completely emptied, they become extremely sensitive. “They can hear ashes fall from the incense sticks … and they can smell food prepared miles away.” Their sight is vivid and clear, and after the fast they come back into life radiant with a vision of ultimate existence.
I read about these monks in a book entitled The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei, by John Stevens (Shambhala, 1988). It was just before I went to teach the first of four Sunday afternoon writing seminars at The Loft in Minneapolis. I was excited by what I read and naturally I wanted to share it. I stood behind the podium and carried on to fifty Midwestern writers and would-be writers about how the monks became one with the mountain they ran on, how they knew the exact time each species of bird and insect began to sing, and when the moon rose, the sun set, the wind changed direction.
I was twenty minutes into the seminar’s two hours, telling about the monks, when I looked up and paused. “I guess you want to know what the marathon monks have to do with writing?
“Well, they have everything to do with it. The way I see it, you either break through in your writing—say what you really need to say—or head for Mount Hiei. As a matter of fact, take a gun with you next time you go to a café to write. If you don’t connect in your writing that day, just shoot yourself. Vague writing on Monday—off with the little toe. Tuesday, no better—the big toe. Get the idea?”
Why do the marathon monks go to such extremes? They want to wake up. That’s how thick we human beings are. We are lazy, content in our discontent, sloppy, and asleep. To wake up takes the total effort that a marathon monk can exert. I told my class on the last day of the four-week seminar, “Well, you have two choices: Mount Hiei or writing. Which one will you choose? Believe me, if you take on writing, it is as hard as being a marathon monk.”
There is a story about Hui-k’o, the Second Ancestor of Zen, who found Bodhidharma in a cave where he was meditating for nine years. Bodhidharma was the first patriarch, or ancestor, of Zen in China and, in fact, he brought Zen there from India. Day and night, Hui-k’o begged Bodhidharma for the teachings. “Please, master, I beseech you. Make my mind peaceful.” Bodhidharma ignored him and continued to sit in meditation. This went on for a long time: the beseeching and the ignoring. Then one evening in December, there was a huge blizzard. It snowed all night and all the next day. Hui-k’o just stood outside the cave without moving, until the snow was waist high. He was waiting to be recognized by Bodhidharma. Finally, he took out a knife and cut off his left arm. He threw it in front of Bodhidharma. You can imagine the red blood on the white snow. With this, Bodhidharma looked up and asked what he wanted.
There is another Zen story about a beautiful woman who came to a monastery and wanted to practice. The head monk said, “If you want to join a monastery, first you must get married and raise three children. Then you can come back.” She did this and returned years later. She was still refused entry into the monastery. The head monk said she was too beautiful. She would cause trouble for the other monks. She wanted to practice so badly that she went home and scarred her face. This time when she went to the monastery, they let her in.
Are these stories metaphorical or are they true? I believe they are true. There are people burning to realize the truth of existence and these are the extremes they will go to. Why so violent? Is Zen a violent practice? No, no more so than Jesus Christ being pinned to the cross or Abraham taking his son to be sacrificed.
There is a proliferation of writing books in America. They are very popular. People would rather read about how to become a writer than read the actual products of writing: poems, novels, short stories. Americans see writing as a way to break through their own inertia and become awake, to connect with their deepest selves.
Yes, writing can do this for us, but becoming awake is not easy. One must be persistent under all circumstances and it is not always exciting. It is hard. It is a long quiet highway.
Recently, I drove alone from Minneapolis to New Mexico in late December, the darkest time of the year. I had to cross the southern border of Minnesota, drive straight through Iowa, across Kansas, into Oklahoma and Texas. I had to drive through an hour of sleet near Des Moines, past empty fields and funky cafés that said Elvis ate here. I had a great moment listening to Jessye Norman blast out spirituals in her operatic voice on my car stereo, just as I turned a corner on a thin highway in Kansas. The half moon and one evening star were directly in front of me. A train roared by on my right. The moment was over and I was tired, pulling into a Best Western at ten P.M. in the town of Liberty on the Oklahoma border. What I wanted was to love all of this: my weariness, the wind lifting as I got out of the car at the Texaco station.
To love is to wake up. How do we wake up without becoming a marathon monk on Mount Hiei? Well, some of us will have to go to Mount Hiei. There is no other way. The rest of us must work as tellers in banks, drive our children to school, wash the kitchen floor, buy groceries. The marathon monks go all the way to the edge of death, so they may come back and be alive, so they can know gratitude for this moment. We need to wake up when we buy groceries, push the cart down the aisle, see labels, count out change, feel our step on the floor tile. Every moment is enormous, and it is all we have.
About twelve years ago, Chris Pirsig, the son of Robert Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was senselessly murdered near the San Francisco Zen Center. The killers knifed Chris and ran. They did not take a wallet (I don’t even know if Chris had one on him). I was sitting a seven-day meditation retreat in Minnesota. It was December. We all knew Chris. Rumors spread quickly during breaks, even though we were supposed to remain silent. We all awaited our teacher’s talk that morning. Katagiri Roshi was close to Chris. He would make it all better.
Roshi walked into the meditation hall, bowed, lit incense, sat down. We chanted. Then he spoke: “Human beings have an idea they are very fond of: that we die in old age. This is just an idea. We don’t know when our death will come. Chris Pirsig’s death has come now. It is a great teaching in impermanence.”
The bell was rung. It was the end of the lecture. I was furious. What kind of thing was that to say? How could Roshi be so cruel? I knew he cared about Chris.
Years later, distra
ught by learning that Katagiri Roshi had cancer, I cried for many weeks. In May, as I drove to the airport in Albuquerque to fly to see him, I suddenly remembered his talk about Chris. His talk had not been cruel. It was brave. He was willing to cut through all sentiment and touch the fundamental truth of impermanence. I appreciated it. What he said then helped my life now.
This is how we learn. Human life is very big. There is no short cut from Minneapolis to New Mexico. My car had to cover every mile. We learn with every cell and with time, care, pain, and love. I’m sure that many times when the marathon monks woke at midnight to prepare to run, they had an urge to go back to sleep, but the path was ahead of them. We, who are not marathon monks, wake up and have the toothbrush before us—brushing our teeth! the great ritual that gets us out of bed—and then we have the blank page in front of us, or the school bus, or the phone ringing. We all must go on down that highway. Our life is the path of learning, to wake up before we die. This book is about that.
Now I’m aware that I alone am in the vast
of the sea
And cause the sea to be the sea.
Go on with your story.
Dainin Katagiri Roshi
TAOS HIGH SCHOOL had career day and I was invited to give a talk. My heart goes out to high school kids, so I accepted and drove the hour and a half from Santa Fe. I hadn’t been in a high school for years. What surprised me was how scruffy the kids seemed, how much acne they had, how thin and young they were, how uninterested they acted, how much they wanted to know something and be contacted.
I felt like a fool standing in front of them. What could I tell them about “my career”? I told them I’d written some books. The teacher held up the books. I told them I make my living as a writer.
I took a deep breath. Here was something hard and familiar: that time in our lives when we’re innocent, tender, and growing, half with our parents and half about to break out, half in pain, half curious, and also scared. I wanted life to make sense for these kids, and even if I didn’t believe it did, I wanted them to. Looking at them slouched in their seats, I knew they hurt and were bewildered, but had no context for it. I wanted to give them one.
“You know, I was a nerd in high school,” I said. I paused. “Do they use the word ‘nerd’ now?”
“I didn’t know I’d be a writer. I was just bored.”
Then I told them about Mr. Clemente, my high school English teacher. One day he switched off the lights above our heads and told us to listen to the rain. My high school had big windows, I told them, and I felt what a blessing it was as I stood in front of this windowless modern classroom. “That’s all we had to do—listen to the rain. There wasn’t a test or a quiz on rain, on listening, or on cloudy afternoons.”
I told the kids in Taos High School that day to trust in what they loved, that you don’t know where it will lead you. “The important thing is to love something, even if it’s skateboarding or car mechanics or whistling. Let yourself love it completely.”
Then I had them do a writing exercise, because how could I keep talking about being a writer? They had to experience it.
“Okay, I’m going to give you a test”—they all moaned— “but the nice thing about this test is that all your answers are right. Each answer begins with ‘I remember.’
“I’ll give you the first question and then I’ll give you an example of what I want. Okay, give me a detailed memory of your mother, an aunt, or your grandmother. And whichever one you pick, be specific. Don’t write, I remember her,’ but I remember my Aunt Gladys, or my mother, or my grandmother.’ Here’s an example from my own life: I remember my mother wore Revlon red lipstick and she loved to eat Oreo cookies and the dark crumbs stuck to the corners of her lips.’ Okay, now it’s your turn. You have three minutes.”
When three minutes were up, I gave them the next one. “Give me a memory of sound.” And my example: “I remember the refrigerator hummed in the kitchen all summer and was louder than the crickets.”
I gave them a third one: “Give me a memory of the color red. You don’t necessarily have to mention red in your writing. For instance, if you say tomato, it immediately engenders the color red in the listener’s mind.”
I gave them a fourth: “Give me a memory, any memory, of last summer.” The fifth: “Give me a time when you were lonely.”
And for the sixth one, I asked for suggestions. They came up with memories of third grade. They wanted an example from my third grade.
“I remember I sat in front of the class next to Mary Brown, the only black girl in the school. We were whispering to each other and Mrs. Schneider screamed, ‘Natalie, would you shut up!’ This startled everyone. I remember her big teeth as she screamed this and her red lips and the terror I felt in Mary Brown’s body across from me as she tried hard to look like she was doing her math.”
The Taos students nodded and then they wrote. Then they read aloud.
We said good-bye to each other, and I wished them well. I left the class and walked down the long corridor lined with gray lockers. Again, I was that sad girl in high school, hair pulled straight 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.
Thank God for that rain out the window and for Mr. Clemente, who allowed us in ninth grade to listen to it for no reason, in the middle of the day. That one moment carried me a long way into my life.
I didn’t know it then. At the time, I think, it made me a little nervous—it was too naked, too uncontrolled, too honest. I thought it odd. In those days I was watching my step, making sure I knew the rules, keeping things in control. I wore the same long, pleated wool skirt every day, blue cardigan sweater, oxford shoes, and carried a brown leather school bag, even while the other girls were wearing makeup, nylons, heels. I never felt that I fit in. I was uncomfortable with the idea of lipstick, mascara, flirting with boys. I hated the idea that I had to have children, that I would be a housewife. Every grown-up female I knew in our neighborhood stayed at home and took care of her family. I thought I had to do that, too. I rebelled, but I turned it in on myself, and instead of feeling the energy that rebellion can produce, I became repressed and felt bland, unemotional inside. For fear that people would think I was weird—I saw no one around me I could identify with—I tried not to be noticed. I became a nerd. And here was Mr. Clemente who asked me 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.
I signed up for his class for all four years of high school. We studied Archibald MacLeish, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce. That was good, but it was the moment of rain that mattered. I was in Mr. Clemente’s class when it was announced over the loudspeaker that President Kennedy had just been shot. We all held our breath and watched for Mr. Clemente’s reaction. He turned off the lights, sat down at his desk, took off his glasses, leaned his head on the crook of his arm on the big yellow blotter of his teacher’s desk, and wept. Donald Miller, whom I knew from third grade and who drew ships in combat in the corners of his math papers and later died in Vietnam, yelled, “Far out.” I don’t think he meant anything about Mr. Clemente or JFK; he was just nervous and didn’t know what else to do. Mr. Clemente lifted his head off the desk, pointed to the door, and said, “Get out.” And Donald, as cool as he could be, but ashamed, tried to saunter out the door.
After Writing Down the Bones had been out for two years, I called Mr. Clemente on the phone. It was twenty-two years after I’d left that school. Mr. Clemente had left the school, too. He didn’t remember me, how could he? He’d taught thousands of kids since my time.
He said, “I know that book, Writing Down the Bones, but I never thought one of my students had written it.”
br /> We talked for a while. He had hated Farmingdale, as I had. He said he was protesting Vietnam at the time and the town was full of hawks. I just knew I was unhappy there, that I didn’t belong. I didn’t know there was any place better; I didn’t know why I was not at ease at the school.
I remembered my grandmother making me a chopped liver sandwich on rye for my school lunch and how when I took it out of its aluminum foil in the cafeteria, the kids sitting around me, holding peanut butter and jelly, or Kraft yellow cheese, or baloney sandwiches, yelled, “Ick!” and held their noses. I felt ashamed. That sandwich held my whole heritage. I was a Jew in a school of mostly Irish and Italian Catholics. I put the sandwich back in its foil, stood up, and headed for the girls’ room. I was torn between tossing the sandwich in the garbage and purchasing a cellophane-wrapped Drake’s crumb cake from the cafeteria woman, who had gray hair in a fine net and wore a white uniform and white sturdy shoes, or going into the bathroom stall and eating my ethnic sandwich, hidden from view. I loved my grandmother’s chopped liver, and I chose the stall.
My grandmother also squeezed fresh orange juice for me every morning. I was often late for the bus and ran out of the house toward the bus stop, my jacket open, my grandmother racing after me down the suburban block, clutching her flowered housecoat at the throat, the orange juice precariously balanced in a glass in her outstretched hand, yelling after me, “Natli, drink, drink,” and I tried to ignore her and leaped on the yellow bus.
In truth, I adored my fine white-haired grandmother and grandfather, who spoke Yiddish and snored in the bedroom next to mine. Having my grandparents always around gave me a knowledge that things would die. I looked at my grandmother’s face. It was wrinkled, and her eyes became rheumy and deeper set as time went on. Her hands were pale, frail, thin. Something I loved would leave me. I knew this and sometimes I wept in my bed at night.