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Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, Page 2

Natalie Goldberg

  I flew into Minneapolis in late afternoon a few hours after his death. March first. The gray, brooding lake was across the street from the white, three-story Zen center. The branches of trees would be bare at least another six weeks.

  He was already laid out in the zendo. The first dead body I’d ever seen. For three days we sat with him, until he was cremated.

  I studied Zen Buddhism, but the old family religion never left me. In Judaism you bury the body within twenty-four hours. I was pushing against the mandates of my birth by sitting with a dead body for so long. I felt shattered and lost without him. We had gone deep together in the last twelve years. How do you resolve the death of someone so important to you? You don’t.

  Two months after Roshi died, I entered an explosive, wildly sexual love affair that continued for ten months. When we argued, I bent over and sobbed as if the earth had split open. I knew it wasn’t about the relationship. Grief — long, deep, old, past this lifetime — erupted. I’d lost something huge. I was pulled in two directions — this manic ecstatic sexual scrambling versus that violent pull inside toward destruction, the end of everything.

  Two months into this new relationship, I noticed three long marks behind my left ear — spider bites? — and a general weakening. I went to a doctor.

  “Shingles,” he pronounced.

  “What’s that?”

  He explained it was a nerve infection that came from stress. Nothing to be done. It would go away on its own.

  Something else was laying the groundwork for my sick state: the stress I carried for years from my divorce. In my early thirties, feeling invincible in my sorrow, I ate for two years — mostly chocolate croissants and chocolate chip cookies. They were baked in glorious abundance at the corner café. The odor filtered like a siren song through the room of customers hunched over newspapers and notebooks where I wrote my sorrows daily. Like my Zen teacher, the place is long defunct.

  I was now, at sixty-three years old, finding out I had cancer. From the age of forty-two I had understood something was wrong with me. But no one in twenty-five years could find anything. Maybe chronic fatigue? Maybe Epstein-Barr? Any good doctor I’d hear about, I’d make an appointment with. “Your blood work is fine — only your white cells are a bit elevated. A recent cold or flu, probably.” I’d nod, fold up my half-hopes of some ghostly cure, and leave.

  Why did I think I was sick? I wrote books, hiked, taught all over the country. I was not a hypochondriac. But when I’d get the flu, as I did each winter, shot or no shot, I’d drag out of bed after five weeks, while my friends recovered in two. If something was in the air, I’d catch it. I felt at some edge, as though my immune system were so thin it was transparent.

  Eventually I learned that the double stress of divorce and death made me ready for the slam punch of that disease groping its blind path into my blood and coasting through my veins for twenty-five years. It found a gaping hole in my immune system, crawled inside, and settled, inactive but patient, waiting through my forties and fifties and early sixties.


  ON A WEDNESDAY morning, sitting in my old blue Volvo in a parking lot after just getting a facial — my cheeks redolent with cream, all pores clean — I called the Cancer Center in Santa Fe, persuaded an oncologist to look up my chart. The oncologist I was assigned to was on vacation, and no one else was willing to give me the results of my blood tests. “Sure, I can do that,” he said. He came back on the line. “It’s positive for CLL.”


  “Really, it’s nothing. It’s at zero level. It’s nothing to worry about. It’s no problem. Just make an appointment next week, when your doctor is back in the office.”

  I hung up and sat in the barren lot staring out at a brown hump of pale dirt. A white Acura pulled up next to me. I put the key in the ignition, moved into reverse, and slipped out of my spot.

  What did I do the rest of the day? I don’t remember. The information, like a wild animal, followed me one hundred paces behind. I tried to ignore it, numb with refusal. This cannot be. This is not the way the world is.

  And what way, exactly, is the world? The way I wanted it to be. Death a long-distance call. I wanted to deal with death at the proper time — in my eighties or nineties.

  That night I called friends while I sat in my living room in my summer cotton pajamas. I told them of my diagnosis. As soon as we hung up, many ran immediately to Google to do research.

  Eddie and Mary were different. They called from a restaurant where we often ate together. “We thought we’d bring over a chocolate pot.”

  “No, I don’t want it, but come over.”

  Mary repeated the offer. I normally loved that pudding.

  “No, I’m really not interested.”

  When they came over, the late August sun was slanting on the back porch. They sat on the couch, and I sat on a chair opposite. What was there to say? Mary, who is a nurse, reminded me that the cancer was at level zero.

  “Yeah, but it won’t stay that way.”

  * * *


  In 1979 a fellow Zen student was killed in the streets of San Francisco at the age of twenty-two. Katagiri Roshi’s admonition: “Human beings have an idea they are fond of — that we die in old age. That’s just an idea. We don’t know when our death will come. Chris’s death has come now.”

  Chris was Chris Pirsig, the son of Robert Pirsig, who wrote the well-loved Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book was based on a trip from Minneapolis to San Francisco the author took with his young son Chris on a motorcycle. It was the middle of November when Chris was stabbed in that fatal mugging. I stood out back of the zendo during a break in the retreat after Katagiri had made his announcement. I’d never before heard a pronouncement like Roshi’s — of course it was true. People died at all ages. I never forgot it until death came close to me.

  Katagiri himself died young, at the age of sixty-two, one year younger than I was now.

  * * *


  Zen training harped on death. We won’t last forever. Wake up. Don’t waste your life. But Zen’s urging seemed artistic, remote.

  I was deeply aware that human beings were dying in Vietnam, then in Iraq, all over the world. One person’s death was my death. I could meditate and feel the poignant, exquisite melting of boundaries, the compassion for all beings, the deathless place of interconnectedness. That was all fine. Then cancer — a nugget of death — entered my individual body. I was suddenly not connected to anything, about to disappear — forever unknown, disregarded, lost in eternity.

  All I heard from people who had survived cancer was how they were victorious. I know they meant to encourage me, but it left me lonelier. I needed to hear about being in the deep pool of fear before you swim out.

  The first help I received was from a woman named Sue from Boston. In the fall I went on a three-day solo retreat at a just-finished set of cabins in La Madera, north of Santa Fe. She was there because she’d helped build them. She’d been a business executive on the East Coast and fifteen years earlier had been diagnosed with breast cancer, both breasts. It turned her life upside down. She left her job and eventually joined with an old friend from Antioch College to create these glorious cabins. Her husband and kids still lived in Boston, and she commuted back and forth.

  As she helped me with my luggage, I told her how scared I was. Though her cancer had been many years ago, her old fear was accessible to her. She put down the box she was carrying and trembled, telling me about her first six months of dealing with it. “Every possible test came out positive.”

  Her sharing helped. I didn’t feel so crazy that I was so shattered.

  Twice a day I recited a loving-kindness chant and meditated on the pier she had built, jutting out into a pond full of ducks. The weather was sweater warm, the light low and still full. May I be attentive and gentle toward my own discomfort and sufferin
g….May I receive others with sympathy and understanding….

  When I left, I gave Sue a copy of the chant.

  I tried to find the words to describe my emotions to two or three friends. Unless I talked, no one would have any idea what I was going through. The hard part was trusting that someone would understand, when I didn’t understand.

  * * *


  Sean called from Taos. “I think I know what you feel. Remember ten years ago, when I had a thyroid imbalance? The doctor came at me with a needle right at my throat. It’s such a vulnerable place. I was brave, squeezing Tania’s hand, but the minute he went out of the room, I began sobbing like a five-year-old. I fell apart.” A pause. “Then the doctor came back. ‘We have to do it again. We didn’t get enough fluid.’ ”

  I could feel Sean’s shoulders shake, even on the phone. I said, “I always wondered why what happened seemed like such a big deal for you. All I knew was you had to take a pill.”


  WE MET WITH the oncologist — me, my longtime friend Annie Lewis, and Yu-kwan, who was visiting from Manhattan. Yu-kwan wanted me to come to New York, where, she insisted, they had the best doctors and medical care. It was inconceivable for her that good doctors could be out in the boondocks of New Mexico. I told her no, I wanted someone near my home — and that New Mexico had plenty of good doctors.

  “How did I get it?” I asked the oncologist.

  “We don’t know. Have you lived near fields that were sprayed with pesticides?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “They are doing studies along the Platte River in Nebraska. All rainwater in the area eventually runs into that river. The insecticides, the fertilizers, are carried and dumped there. It’s a cancer corridor. High proportions of people living along the Platte have cancer like yours.”

  “I love Nebraska,” I said, more interested in place than science.

  She’d done further tests on my blood and determined that I also had a genetic marker, whatever that meant.

  Eventually she said, “There’s nothing to do at this point. Come twice a year for a checkup and blood tests.”

  I never went back. Why should I? I thought. I’m at zero.

  * * *


  For the first years of my zero-level CLL I told only a few people. Partly I just wanted the cancer to go away. Partly I was focused on a mission to spread writing practice, to show people they can trust and have a relationship with their own mind, a confidence in their own experience. It was a human right to write, to accept how we see, think, and feel.

  I wanted everyone to come alive in this one great life. In my zeal, I ignored the truth of my own mortality. I couldn’t face my own sickness and death, and as a result I became scratchier, tighter, more agitated in some cellular, unconscious way. And also more vulnerable — raw, right at the edge of truth.

  In 2011 I was leading a writing intensive with thirty students. We met once a season for a year. Between meetings the students worked on their own. We had become close in the practice time together. We sat in meditation, did slow walking practice with mindful steps, wrote, ate in silence with each other. Below the level of social detail and constant talk, we dropped to an unspoken awareness and intimacy.

  Soon after I had knowledge of my secret leukemia, the autumn gathering convened. By the middle of that week we were very much in tune. When we were practicing mindful walking in the zendo during the last two days, each time I passed Dorotea, she whispered under her breath: Don’t die, don’t die. A shiver ran the length of my spine.

  Dorotea knew nothing about my medical condition, but in the extensive hours of practice, boundaries melted. We were attuned to each other’s twisted agony and greatness on an unconscious level.

  Each time she whispered that phrase in my presence, a long lineage of teachers vibrated through me. I did not want her — or any of my students — to suffer the way I did when Katagiri Roshi died. And I would surely go, no doubt about it, sometime, no matter what form of denial I played.

  While I mostly ignored my diagnosis, not wanting to take a backward step into this new, larger truth, it showed me just how much I was in love with all of my life. I even loved the 5:00 a.m. straight-shot, hour-long drive to the Albuquerque airport through the open dry mesas; the security lines, bending down to untie shoelaces, jacket off, all back on at the other end. I loved the teaching, the students — even the difficult ones — the pen on paper. My enthusiasm often turned to sleepless nights, but still I loved the walking through exhaustion, the small bags of plane peanuts found in my purse, the tedious flights, my complaints and grievances that American students didn’t read closely or care about literature. Illness or no illness, I had the energy to want more for them. Where did it come from?

  I had been trained well under the guidance of Katagiri Roshi. Jump in, no excuses. Exert the force of your life. Persevere under all circumstances. Zen gave me the tools; the practice lit me into bright action for all sentient beings. True, we also sat stone still for many, many hours, but that stillness ignited my life force. I’d been brought up in a sleepy, conventional suburban town. The fire of practice burned up the confining cloak on my back. Zen tells us that we are already free, that we should simply become who we are, but how to do this? In that cold zendo in Minnesota I was taught how; I was given the means for action.

  But still I did not yet know how to turn 180 degrees and face the unknown, the void. Cancer demanded that I let the whole thundering world come home, that I accept the horror and unknown of human life — and death. Zen taught that, too, but I was not ready to receive it.


  Carson McCullers was raised in Columbus, Georgia. I visit her home, finally made into a museum by Columbus State University. I go downtown and ask a young clerk in a pharmacy, then a saleswoman in a dress shop, if they ever read her, and they shake their heads no.

  “Did you go to the local Columbus high school?”

  “Yes. Never heard of her.”

  In Europe she is recognized along with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Of all writers, she is most important to me. We read The Ballad of the Sad Café in ninth grade on Long Island in Mr. Cate’s English class, and I never got over it. But she left her hometown — and a small town marks you, never forgives you for leaving, no matter how successful you become.

  Also, late in her life, around the early sixties, she offered all of her papers and manuscripts to the Columbus Public Library with one stipulation: they allow negroes to use the facility. This, too, was unacceptable.

  I also visit her grave in Nyack, New York, another small town, this time along the Hudson, north of the Big Apple. I often visit the graves of writers and painters I admire, to pay homage, to acknowledge where we all end, and also in case there might be a trace of them still around. I want them to know, in this tough world, that what they did mattered. It’s a practice of heart, of gratitude.

  Carson lived in Nyack for the last twenty years of her life, mostly sick but still writing, her work haunted by the Deep South, her mother living with her. I only find out much later — fifty years after her death — that the references to Dr. Mary Mercer, always accompanying anything I read about Carson in Nyack, were not about her being Carson’s doctor but were because she was her intimate partner. That was hidden by society all of these years.

  One noon a black limousine pulled up and deposited Isak Dinesen and Marilyn Monroe and her husband, Arthur Miller, at the door of McCullers’s white, three-story house. On her tour of the United States, Dinesen requested to meet only two people, this writer McCullers and this actress Monroe. The great Danish writer insisted on eating only three things, so this is what was served at lunch: white grapes, white wine, and white scallops.

  I stand over McCullers’s grave, her mother buried next to her, on a small hill, the river in the distance. I read her pink marble headstone that records her name and her two important
dates: the month, the day, the year she was born and then her death in 1967 at age fifty. I think, She was still alive when I read her in high school in 1964.

  “Thank you,” I whisper in reverence. I place a small stone I find nearby on the top of her mound. I was here. I reach out across the years — across life and death — to say, “Your writing meant everything to me.”

  Edward Hopper’s grave, whose childhood home is in Nyack, is nearby, but I do not search it out, though I very much admire his paintings. Not this time. I want nothing to dilute this singular visit.


  IN LATE OCTOBER of 2013, I traveled to Japan for a month on a trip with Upaya Zen Center. Joan Halifax, one of the leaders, arrived from India with a bad cold. I kept my distance from her and was proud that I managed to ward it off. I could not afford to get sick.

  I arrived home late on a Sunday night, right before Thanksgiving, and slept in Monday morning. When I awoke and went into the kitchen, Frances, the cleaning woman who had worked for me for ten years, was sweeping. I went to greet her — then stopped dead in my tracks. She was coughing, clearly sick with the flu that stalks New Mexico when the season first turns cold.

  I said from a distance, “Frances, go home. Don’t worry about cleaning. You’re sick.”

  She grabbed her coat and the check and slipped out the door.

  Three days later I came down with the same flu. No way I could have avoided it. She had touched every inch of the kitchen.

  The flu arrived in my body, and it would not leave. Three weeks turned into four, five, six. I struggled out of bed and then collapsed in a chair. The New Year came and went. I couldn’t get better.