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Long Quiet Highway, Page 3

Natalie Goldberg

  Often I am asked, who taught me how to write? Everything, I want to say. Everything taught me, everything became my teacher, though at the time I was not aware of all the tender shoots that helped me along, that came up in Mr. Clemente’s class, in Mr. Cates’s, with all the teachers I can’t remember anymore, with all the blank times, the daydreaming, the boredom, the American legacy of loneliness and alienation, my Jewish background, the sky, the desk, a pen, the pavement, small towns I’ve driven through. The list could go on and on until I named every moment I was alive. All of it in mysterious and ordinary ways fed me. Writing became the tool I used to digest my life and to understand, finally, the grace, the gratitude I could feel, not because everything was hunky-dory, but because we can use everything we are. Actually we have no choice. We can’t use what someone else had—a great teacher, a terrific childhood. That is outside ourselves. And we can’t avoid an inch of our own experience; if we do it causes a blur, a bleep, a puffy unreality. Our job is to wake up to everything, because if we slow down enough, we see we are everything.

  Last December, when I taught a writing workshop in California, I talked about particular authors’ lives and their work. I’m thinking of two of my favorites right now: Richard Hugo and Raymond Carver. I discovered Hugo one cold evening in Owatonna, Minnesota. I was down there for a week teaching in the poet-in-the-schools program. I had brought with me a thin volume of his poems, What Thou Lovest Well Remains American. I sat in the orange plastic chair in motel room 208 next to the window overlooking the Sears parking lot where snow covered everything, the parking meters and the curbs. I read one of his poems, then stared out at the flurries lit by the street light. Farther down the block was a magnificent bank built by Louis Sullivan. He called it a color-form poem and it was a tribute to America. Inside was a mural of cows and pastel stained glass. I had discovered it the night before. I had stood in front of it, my down hood tight around my face—it was freezing out—and stared up at this building that stood like a god against the dark cold sky. I was amazed that it existed here in this bleak landscape.

  I read Hugo on a Tuesday evening in Owatonna after my second day spent teaching verse in an elementary school a mile away. Dark and Jewish, I looked out at a classroom of blond third graders, like a field of sunflowers. One student raised her hand, “Are you Puerto Rican?”

  “No,” I said.

  Italian? Spanish? they guessed.

  “No, I’m a Jew,” I told them.

  They put their hands over their mouths. I had said a dirty word.

  Richard Hugo wrote about small towns, not in the Midwest, but in the West—Montana, Idaho. I was primed for reading him in Owatonna. He gave me an entry into the small-town world.

  I told my writing group in California that Hugo worked in the Boeing plant in Seattle for eleven years, that he was raised by his aging grandparents, that he played a lot of baseball and was an alcoholic who eventually stopped drinking. He had humble roots; no one seeing his background would have thought he would become a poet.

  Later in the week I talked about Raymond Carver. I read from A New Path to the Waterfall, poems that he wrote as he was dying of cancer. He, too, had been an alcoholic, divorced after an unhappy marriage. In the last eleven years of his life he was sober and prolific. In the introduction to his book, Tess Gallagher, his partner of those last eleven years, wrote, “Ray knew he had been graced and blessed and that his writing had enabled him to reach far beyond the often mean circumstances from which he and those he wrote about had come, and also that through his writing those working-class lives had become a part of literature. On a piece of scrap paper near his typewriter he had written: ‘Forgive me if I’m thrilled with the idea, but just now I thought that every poem I write ought to be called “Happiness.” ’ ”

  My voice broke when I read this in class, as it did when I read aloud from Hugo. These writers were my friends and my teachers. They were farther along on the path. They guided me. I had never met either of them, but I loved them through their work. I explained to the class that often when you take on the voice of a great writer, speak his or her words aloud, you are taking on the voice of inspiration, you are breathing their breath at the moment of their heightened feelings, that what all writers ultimately do is pass on their breath. “That is why,” I explained to the class, “you felt in me as I read—and it spread out like a rain to all of you in the room—that feeling of sorrow, gratitude, and acceptance. Because that was in these authors’ work.”

  What I didn’t realize until later was that in seeking out these authors, I was also looking for a salve for my personal grief. I identified with their lives, not because they were women or Jewish (they weren’t), but because they had wrestled through lonesome, alienated, ordinary beginnings and managed to find a way through writing to make their lives glow. They had found a holiness in the center that carried them to satisfaction. I needed these people, because I came from different but similar American beginnings. Loneliness and alienation were my dead center inheritance. Though I did not come from the Midwest or from a small town, I could identify with the doomed lethargy I felt there, and that lethargy, too, became my education. I learned from the emptiness, the disconnection with the present, that I felt all around me. I became that empty myself.

  A two-lane highway, a gray day in November, tree branches bare of leaves scratching a dark sky, one terrible café on the roadside, just opened in the morning, serving greasy fried eggs and home fries, the counter strewn with the local paper, buying a Hershey bar before eight A.M.—that kind of landscape mirrored what I knew of as home. My external family life was different—my childhood was filled with shopping malls, pot roasts, housing developments, and three big TVs always on, no matter what was showing—but it created the same desolation inside me.

  My family were pioneers, among the first to move out from Brooklyn to savage nature, to Long Island. From Levittown, we moved even farther out when I was six, about to enter first grade, to that green split-level in Farmingdale, practically the jungle. They were still paving the roads of the development as we rolled up in our blue Buick, my grandparents close behind in their green Plymouth station wagon. The land behind our house was undeveloped. That first year I discovered “my” oak tree and climbed it, found a cave, roamed through a trail of wild berries. The next year they built a GM plant in “my” woods, right in back of our house, and I don’t remember even one whimper of a complaint from my parents. After all, wasn’t this progress? The plant was lit brightly for the evening shift. I remember going down into the kitchen in the middle of the night to get a glass of cold water from the refrigerator, the GM lights falling in a large square pattern through our bay window onto the green linoleum.

  My family read Newsday, but there were no books in my home. In my middle teens my father bought a hi-fi and we put it in the cocoa-carpeted sunken living room. We sat on the couch opposite the wooden console and were honestly stumped at what to play on it. Then my father had an inspiration: He ran out and bought a Montovani record. My mother, my sister, and my grandparents approved when they heard it, and we played that one record over and over, nothing else for the first year. Then my father’s brother died, Uncle Sam, who lived in a rent-controlled flat on the lower East Side, kept his monev stuffed in a mattress, and carried it around with him in a brown paper bag when he went out. He was also a classical music aficionado, and we inherited his record collection. Suddenly we had a pile of Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, and Mozart next to the stereo. My family was curious about these records, and one day we tried Bizet’s Carmen on the turntable. We frowned: It was too loud, too excitable. We put on Montovani, something familiar, and relaxed again on the couch.

  My desolation was that no one knew me and I did not know myself. My family’s life was my life. I knew nothing else. I was clothed, fed, given a bed to sleep in, encouraged to marry early and rich, and loved in a generic way—I was “the big one,” which meant the older and my sister was “the little one”—but no one s
poke to me, no one explained anything.

  In all fairness I think my family was stunned to be alive in the twentieth century, eating white bread, buying new products, removed from a community or religious context. Even now when I see my parents, who are in their seventies, they seem a little dazed that they “may” die someday, that they are in Florida far from their children, and that their children are so different from them.

  Once when I was visiting my parents, my father and I sat up late one night to watch a movie. The end came earlier than we expected. My father turned to me. ‘That’s just what it’s like. You’re in your life and suddenly it goes blank. They flash The End’ across your face.”

  Everyone in my family was busy, but busy doing what? My mother was busy being on a diet. She ate thin, dried white toast, which she cut diagonally, leaving a line of brown crumbs on the white paper napkin. Then she spread lo-cal cottage cheese over it and drank black coffee. She bought things with credit cards in department stores and then returned them. My father was busy running a bar, the Aero Tavern, in downtown Farmingdale, going to the race track, eating T-bone steaks with lots of ketchup, and a wedge of iceberg lettuce with ranch-style dressing from the bottle. My grandfather mowed the lawn with the new power mower that automatically collected the cut grass in an attached pouch. He read the Yiddish paper, smoked stogies, and sat in a brown suit on a lawn chair in our driveway. Grandma told me stories and baked cookies. My sister, I suppose, was lost in her own activities of being the youngest. I never really got to know her, though we had slept side-by-side in the same bedroom all our lives.

  This alienation is the American disease. It is our inheritance, our roots. It can be our teacher. Mother Teresa, who works with India’s poorest of the poor, has said that America has a worse poverty than India’s, and it’s called loneliness. Mr. Gates once asked us in class after we read King Lear—after Gloucester plucked out his eyes and Lear anguished over the betrayal by his daughters—“Which would you prefer? Physical torment, or mental and emotional suffering?” When we thought about it enough, no one in class could honestly choose.

  Tibetan Buddhists say that a person should never get rid of their negative energy, that negative energy transformed is the energy of enlightenment, and that the only difference between neurosis and wisdom is struggle. If we stop struggling and open up and accept what is, that neurotic energy naturally arises as wisdom, naturally informs us and becomes our teacher. If this is true, why do we struggle so much? We struggle because we’re afraid to die, we’re afraid to see that we are impermanent, that nothing exists forever. My childhood suburbs gave the impression that they would exist forever, placid, plastic, timeless, and monotonous, but natural wisdom, the other side of neurosis, embodies the truth of transiency.

  I will give you an example of this transformation of energy from my recent life. Kate, my dear friend, and her three sons, Raphael, age ten, Elliot, age eight, and Jordan, age three, were subletting a house for a month last summer in Taos. Of course, I was delighted; and though I do not have children of my own, I tried hard to include them in activities and not to continually suggest, “Hey, Kate, why don’t you get a baby sitter, so we can...” I found a brochure advertising an all-day train ride on the old Cumbres and Toltec railroad. I suggested all five of us go on a Sunday. We left Taos by car at seven-thirty A.M. for Antonito, an hour and a half away. I had miscalculated somehow and we arrived an hour early for the train’s departure. Kate suggested we have breakfast at the café that was especially for tourists. I said okay—I wanted to be a good sport—and sat among souvenir conductor caps, postcards, flags, and maps, eating white-flour pancakes with fake maple syrup. For the last two months, I had been trying earnestly to cut out all sugar and to eat well. As I poured the artificial maple sugar over my pancakes, I thought, Oh, well, this is a special day. You have to learn to be flexible: You’re with kids.

  When we settled into our seats on the train, I looked around. Everyone seemed to be from someplace else—Iowa, Kansas, Texas. I shrugged. I don’t know why I thought the train should be full of my Taos friends. A man in front of me wore a baseball cap from Texas Instruments; a man behind me had on a GM tee-shirt. These people are on their two-week vacations, I thought. In our small car, I was surprised to see five women with bleached blond hair. They’re still doing that? Way back in my high school days, I had known girls who had done that. I felt like a foreigner, in the middle of America.

  The train chugged along. It went surprisingly slowly. Uh-oh. This was going to be a long eight-hour ride. As soon as the train began to move, people bolted out of their seats to go to the open-air car in back and to the food car. Kate and the kids went with them. I sat almost alone for half an hour.

  After a while I, too, wandered back to the last car. Kate’s kids were sucking Tootsie Pops, leaning against a rail, and feeling the wind in their faces. We traveled through empty land full of sage for mile after mile. People were wildly snapping pictures. I wondered what they saw out there. Then I remembered this land was new to them. They asked other people to snap pictures of them standing with their families. Kate offered to take a picture of one family: a husband in a yellow nylon shirt, a wife wearing turquoise earrings, and, in front of them, a son entering adolescence with a rash of pimples across his forehead and a younger boy, clear faced, blond, more innocent, less disturbed. The mother’s arm was around the younger boy. The father’s arm was around his wife.

  “Smile,” said Kate. History was made in New Mexico for this Oklahoma family.

  I turned to Raphael. “Have anymore of those Tootsie Pops?” I didn’t want to be left out. These people seemed to be content. Maybe I could learn to be happy like them.

  He eagerly offered to get me one. “What flavor? I have cherry.” He held his out. “El has grape.” He pointed at Elliot.

  “Cherry,” I said.

  He ran off to the concession stand.

  Kate returned with Jordan. She’d just bought him a gray-and white-striped conductor’s cap. He did look cute, with a brown curl sticking out the back.

  By four in the afternoon, I’d eaten three Tootsie Pops and many Chips Ahoy. We traveled in the dazed rhythm of the train. Elliot had fallen asleep in my lap. All day a strong fear of American “normalcy” had chewed at the edge of my psyche, but I’d successfully kept it at bay, surprised at how I was quietly enjoying myself.

  Then, suddenly, a terrible blues descended on me. An old desperation that probably began on nothing-happening Sundays in suburban America when I was a kid. Sunday, the Christian day of rest, was when my friends went to church. We were Jews. We didn’t go to church, and in the fifties, the stores and malls that served to fill up suburban life and give the illusion of activity and accomplishment—“I finally found that blue sweater I was looking for”—were closed all day on Sunday. What was left for me, a Jewish kid in Farmingdale, Long Island? No spirit, no religion, a desert of empty shopping centers.

  The feeling on the train was familiar: There was nothing for me. My life was bland, and would always be this way, and juxtaposed to this was the nagging feeling that everyone else was having fun, everyone else belonged. They were content, somehow filled up in an America that left me empty.

  The feeling descended and I was about to grasp it, hold it hard, and be unhappy, all the while struggling against it. Instead, like an act of grace, I let that old Sunday feeling fall all around me and I didn’t grab it. It kept falling and the space opened up—big space, the space I used to be scared of, that told me I was nothing, that made me clutch at my life. Now, yes, it was true I was nothing, but not separate, not alone. I didn’t struggle, so I merged with everything around me: kids, Tootsie Pops, the sage, couples in tee-shirts and Reeboks. My life felt empty and jolly and open. Nothing could stop me, freeze me.

  I was excited. I had physically experienced what the Tibetans talked about, the transformation from neurosis to wisdom. I sat in the train and watched my letting go, my opening into an old painful feeling, and I ex
perienced it in a new way, felt another dimension of it—its largeness.

  I graduated from high school and planned to go away to college. My family never discussed my imminent departure. I simply filled out applications to universities and was accepted at one. I did this all on my own. No one in my immediate family had gone to college and I knew they could not help me.

  The end of August arrived. We loaded up my parents’ brown Buick convertible and off we went to Washington, D.C. I’d never been there before. I was amazed when we arrived. There were big parks and white buildings, but no skyscrapers. Unlike in Manhattan, I didn’t have to bend my head all the way back to see the sky between tall rows of apartment houses. My parents helped me carry my suitcases into Thurston Hall and then up the elevator to the eighth floor. One of my roommates—there were four per room—was already there. She was from Shaker Heights, near Cleveland. We all said hello to her, then my parents and I went back down in the elevator and stood looking at each other in the dormitory lobby. What else was there to do? They had delivered me to college. We hugged good-bye and they walked out the door. I stood there. My mother told me years later that she cried, back in the car. “We just left her. We should have taken her out for juice.” I was all alone. My childhood in Farmingdale was over.

  But I couldn’t get away from home so easily. I studied Plato, Descartes, John Milton, William Blake, Shakespeare. All of it was far away from my roots. It all seemed exciting for a while. I had done it: I had broken out. But I wandered around at George Washington University in a daze. Half of me was still in Farmingdale: I wore clothes my mother had picked out back on Long Island; I dated boys my mother would like. There was no one like Mr. Clemente or Mr. Cates at the school to make what I read alive in my present life. I didn’t have a way to digest the new influences of college.