New Century

I have so many good memories: swimming in the Atlantic Ocean as a young girl; sleeping under the stars by the Chama River in New Mexico; eating cherry pie with my ninety-year-old mother at Hamburger Heaven in Palm Beach, Fla.; the gray and brown deer, considered sacred, that ripped the map out of my friend’s hand in Kyoto; and eating green-tea ice cream out of a Dixie cup in front of the gates to Eiheiji monastery, deep in the mountains outside Fukui. Yet, it’s none of these that I recall on this early January morning. What halts me like a shot of cold electricity is the stunning thought of the six months I spent miserably unhappy in Palo Alto, Calif, three years ago, at the beginning of this new century I had come straight from St. Paul, Minn., where I’d practiced for a year and a half with my old Zen teacher’s priest. Eventually, I was supposed to enter the ancient lineage myself, but that all went awry I began to distrust my intentions and the students’ interactions with the teacher at the center. I found myself spending more of my days at a cafe than in the zendo.

In the evenings, I retired to the small apartment I lived in, where I would look out my second-floor windows at the green leaves of maples and elms and, in winter, through their barren branches. Spring brought the neon yellow sky and 2 a.m. downpours. I painted huge abstracts entitled “Crossing the Yellow River,” “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” “The Sound of Rain” and “The Great Spring.”

Something strange and powerful was happening to me in the North, but I couldn’t recognize it. I went there looking for a formal Zen transmission and left disappointed, with only one wish: I wanted more time on the second floor among the trees.

With this ache and confused longing, I moved to California. My father had recently died, and my mother was alone on the East Coast. I worried about her. We’d been strangers for so long, and now she was an old woman who needed me, and instead of being with her, I was moving to the other side of the country. I probably shouldn’t have gone to the Golden State, but I had promised and felt obligated. My partner was living in the heart of Silicon Valley, running a small software startup she and a friend from Sun Microsystems had created. Until then, the computer world had passed me by. I put off e-mail until my early 50s. But in Minnesota I was lost, stripped of what I thought I wanted, so one place seemed as good as another.

For the Christmas holidays, I stopped home in New Mexico, where I came down with a whopping flu that would not go away, and then I drove across Arizona to California with a stuffy nose, watery eyes and a chest that felt like I was transporting the weight of the queens jewels in it.

In Palo Alto, we lived in a tiny, three-room apartment for $2,400 a month. Yes, that’s right—it was that expensive. A Meyer lemon tree was out back. I made sure to use the citrus fruit—I made gallons of lemonade, lemon pie, lemon soup. Longs Drugs on University Avenue was the only whiff I had that this place had once been a place, a locale of some simple dignity, drenched in sun with orchards nearby. Why Long’s? Because the lettering on the outside was an old script, and the aisles were lazy and sloppy and not propelled by a strong commerce.

A week into the cramped living arrangements, I took a slow walk one early morning, while still sick, and was thinking, maybe, we could find a junky fixer-upper nearby and purchase something. Surely, for the rent we were paying, we could own a little house. Behold! How could the stars be so kind? Down the block, I espied a yellow stucco with a ‘Tor Sale” sign. With its twisted wires jutting out of sockets over the sidewalk and its torn-down awnings, I thought this dive—this sad, modest fellow—must be aching for love. I jotted down the realtor’s phone number.

“I’m asking about that rat’s nest on Cowper,” I breathed thickly into the phone. My nose was still bountifully stuffed.

“Yes, that property is $3 million,” she popped back.

The receiver dangled from my hand. I didn’t respond. I could hear the snap of her cell phone closing. She wasn’t ashamed to tell me that? I knew I was in strange territory No complicated Zen koan could contrive this.

Standing in our narrow bedroom, staring blankly ahead, I was jarred by a whirring sound on the street. I tried to ignore it, and when finally I couldn’t, I went out to look. A young man was holding the handle to a vibrating motor connected to an extended nozzle whose nose was pointed at the sidewalk and chasing a single, red leaf. What was going on here? What didn’t make sense was very loud.

I marched over and motioned vigorously for the man to switch it off. I bent down and grabbed the frond, that seeming culprit, with my right hand and ceremoniously walked it to the curb and dropped it in the street.

“Use a rake. It’s a fine tool.” I motioned how to use one. “You are wasting precious oil reserves.”

The man was confused. He didn’t understand.

“No mas” I declared and crossed my arms. Then, wanting to make sure the point was made, I did the arrogant thing uni-lingual Americans do. I repeated myself, slowly enunciating my words about the rake. Surely, everyone must know English, if spoken clearly.

He turned his back on me, blasted his machine again and chased another solitary leaf.

I whipped around and stomped back into my scrawny apartment. I heard blowers starting up all down the block. What happened to the monk in a mist raking the monastery garden?

At night, when my partner returned, I asked her how it was going. Did the engineers come up with a saleable product?

She shrugged her shoulders. “Who knows? I barely see them. They arrive at three in the afternoon and eat doughnuts, preferably with pink icing. They work till the early morning hours, gone in cyberspace.”

I thought of Peter, whom I’d met in Cambridge three years earlier. I saw him writing intently in a notebook at the next table in a restaurant. “I write, too,” I said, never too shy not to interrupt concentration. “Journaling?” I asked.

He looked over. “In a sense. I keep a math notebook. I think mathematically.”

My eyes narrowed. “You mean, while I might write, ‘Today, I am grouchy,’ you would write, “Two plus two is equivalent to eight.’”

“Sort of.”

I couldn’t leave this alone. I bent over and whispered across his table, “Eight minus three is five.” I wiggled my eyebrows—hey, hey, hey.

He gave me a short snort.

I threw out everything I could recall from algebra and geometry. I think the clincher was when I mentioned Euclid. (My Great Books days at St. John’s finally came in handy.)

He rescued me just as I was about to recite the multiplication tables. “I went to MIT and have a Ph.D. in math.”

“May I treat you to a croissant?” He looked hungry. Anyone hovering over the slimness of numbers must need sustenance.

He told me his dissertation, which was all equations, had jokes on page 45 and 67.

“So there’s personality in math?”

“Sure. My adviser had a Nobel Prize. When he’d pull out his file cabinet, the papers he’d written would swing, balanced in their folders. All of his work, condensed on a few pages. Only three people in the world could read his last theorems. Extreme elegance.”

I couldn’t contain myself. I raised a single finger. “Everything in this, huh?”

He snorted again but, this time, smiled.

This had been the simplicity of my Zen life. One ring of a bell, one breath, a single candle on the altar, a moment of still peace inside.

But I’d thrown all that out. In another single moment in the zendo in St. Paul, I saw through all my cranky desire. My destiny was not to formally carry that ancient lineage of my teacher forward. Dharma transmission was another way for me to try to secure myself, make myself solid in this transitory world. Nope, I decided to dump myself forever into the vast unknown with only a pen, a notebook and 30 years of sitting practice under my ever-widening belt.

As my father would say, that and a dime will buy you a cup of coffee.

Now, there I was with young programmers who ate pink icing, and my future was dependent on them. Would we ever leave our expensive hovel?

Slowly, I regained my health and walked the dense streets. March in California—no one tells you this—is the most gorgeous of all months. Everything is blooming. The state is opulent with beauty. So many roses actually scared me, after living so many years in New Mexico. How do you take it in? Just one branch of one bush—and there were often hundreds in one yard—held 18 perfect flowers. The pinks, the reds, the yellows. What could root me in this abundance? What had happened to my America, to the small, empty towns I loved?

I wanted to liberate my little, yellow stucco house and its patch of bare yard, the only place in town where the weeds were allowed to grow. Mornings, I’d sit on its cracked, asphalt patio; I was certain no one would buy this house under the cool shade of a hawthorn. Trees are good things, I’d think.

Eventually I discovered the huge live oaks and white oaks, some of them 300 years old, looming in yards and bursting out of the concrete sidewalks. All of them were alive before the town was there. I became friends with eight of them and visited daily, begging for answers. What was I doing in this sanitary, white place?

My deepest connection was with one that dwarfed a two-story Tudor on Coleridge. How I loved that the street had the name of a writer. The oak’s roots were so big it dominated the lawn. No human could own that wild animal of a tree—nor plant flowers around it. Flowers needed ground water, and that white oak, reaching at least the height of a five-story Manhattan building, was drinking from sources deep and unknown, forgotten aquifers way below the earth’s surface. When watered, trees of this nature were known to burst, exploding rooftops and building structures.

One day, I knocked on the door of the house. A blond woman, with a young child hiding in her skirts, opened it.

“I wonder if it’s okay that I hang out here a bit sometimes? I’ve fallen in love with your tree.”

“Tree?” she asked with an accent. I could see past the front door. They’d just moved in.

“That one,” I pointed. I wanted her, too, to love it. Why else could she have bought the house? The mighty branches extended over the entire yard and into the street.

She glanced at it. “Oh, yes, it costs a lot to prune. Sure, it’s fine.” And she shut the door.

Untold money was made during the ‘90s. Couples in their 20s were suddenly millionaires many times over. The category of billionaire came into being. I knew this owner was part of the phenomenon. Stunned by the sudden wealth, she had no time left to notice a tree. I worried for these people, but I was in my 50s, old enough to worship the great oak. I would do it for all of them.

Before I became a full-time writer, I was a teacher. My last teaching job was with 25 fifth- and sixth-graders in a private school. I’d never taught a whole group of white, well-to-do kids before. My specialty was inner-city kids, who were ragtag and sometimes hungry. I developed “writing practice” with these young students. Rudely honest and still connected to community and families, however broken, Chippewa and African-American students gave me fresh insights into the writing mind, but the 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds in the private-school setting were a phenomenon I’d never encountered before. They came to school well dressed and with too many snacks, but as soon as they were dropped off, all hell broke loose. I was afraid they’d kill each other—or, at least, break a few arms, legs and pelvic bones.

“Quick, without thinking, write what your mother was wearing this morning.” I gave this assignment in early September.

Most kids don’t notice their mothers that much, but their responses gave me some insight.

My mother is in Switzerland. She left two weeks ago, wrote one thin boy. I haven’t seen her in a long time.

My stepmother was making me breakfast. I hate her. She’s a lousy cook. I poured Coke on my cereal, penned a redheaded fifth-grader.

I understood that material goods replaced human attention, guidance and touch. Each day, I watched these kids take out their frustration and isolation on each other. Wealth served to create loneliness.

I sensed the same vacancy in these quaint, expensive streets that I walked. Soul was missing; only commerce was left.

Yet, when I attended a luncheon celebrating a big investment in my partner’s company by a venture capitalist, I was surprised by the engineers, who were fresh, idealistic and enthusiastic. They said things we used to say as hippies, only they substituted the word technology for our word love.

“This technology program will change the world, will make it a better place,” intoned one young man.

I tried to find some common ground for sharing. Zen? Literature? Writing? These topics were getting me nowhere. I dropped them and finally just listened. The short-haired blond wearing a striped polo shirt and sitting to my right told me about his love of waves and how he had followed the surf all over the world. The one across the table in a yellow T-shirt and thick glasses spoke of the traditional Korean wedding he would have in six months. He had met his fiancee just five weeks earlier in L.A. The others teased him, but they were all going to attend the ceremonies.

I tried to ask what they were developing for the company, but no one could tell me. It wasn’t a secret, they said; they just hadn’t gotten far enough.

I was no computer genius, but I didn’t quite believe them, even though I knew they weren’t lying. I feared a rootlessness at the core of all their research. In truth, I was disappointed that all this technology was discovered in my lifetime. It seemed to make time busier, more complicated, faster, as if the functions of the mind, the beat of thought I’d come to depend on during my years of sitting and writing practice, no longer applied. I understood how the brain made poetic leaps; how it could juxtapose seemingly dissimilar objects—people, rivers, fruit; how you could reach into the center of the source and discover a vast emptiness that was full and abundant. But the rhythm of the minds partaking of the Caribbean meal set before us felt jagged, even severed in some places, as though natural mind waves had been broken. Some neuron had gone astray from staring for so long at computer screens. They were lovely people, but America felt askew. This was what everyone was so excited about? All over the heart of Silicon Valley, I sensed some human channel had burned out.

In the afternoons, I took long walks along a creek that wound between Palo Alto and Menlo Park. I sat on a stone bench to meditate as whole families biked and couples jogged by. From a house across the way, I could hear a cello being practiced. The person was a good musician. These were not beginning chords. I wanted to knock on the door: Take me in, I’d demand.

Eventually I found an old Chinese restaurant that had let time pass by. The food was good and not fancy. The gray walls became my refuge. The waiter recognized me each time I came and knew what I would order: shrimp fried rice. Two dollars more for extra shrimp. I sat in the booth at the back. I felt transported out of sunlit, jazzy California to an old place on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis. Something ordinary and comforting.

My partner and I were growing distant from each other. Where had she brought me?

More important: Where had I brought myself? My source of inspiration had been grounded in a solid, rather unquestioning, connection to Zen practice. Back in St. Paul, the lineage had crumbled for me. I was in the midst of writing a book about betrayal and failure, about the indiscretions of my teacher. A lot of people I knew didn’t want me to write the book. I was on my own. How could I tell anyone what was happening? I was falling backward off the diving board. I didn’t choose to lose my footing. One noon, I even found myself on my knees under the tall eucalyptus on Stanford’s campus.

Right here is where we want to hear an epiphany, some grand realization to give meaning and relief. But no understanding shot through my cells to rectify my birth, my family of origin, the life I was living.

I continued to write my book, to have sleepless nights, to feel biologically out of beat with this new, cutting-edge world.

In June, six months after I arrived, I left, driving out through the Sierras, across Utah, dropping down to New Mexico. I remember staying overnight in a barren motel on the California border, sobbing late into the early morning. Nothing was the way I thought. Not a single thing was the way I wanted it.

As I descended into the northwest corner of New Mexico, a single lane of traffic piled up for miles. On all sides was open sage flatland. Nothing broke the horizon. My car inched along. A deep gray began to enfold us. The sky was no longer sky. The smoke from fires hundreds of miles away, burning thousands of acres of Arizona forest, was coming our way The air was unbreathable, filled with a suffocating fog. I could almost hear the high-pitched crack of ponderosas exploding in the extreme heat.

All that summer, the dismal cloud hung over Taos. Hands, faces, tables and chairs were gritty from ash. It was also the second year of a severe drought. I put out pans of water for the jackrabbits that usually shot across the mesa, but now even they were drooping. Several times a day, I applied Chapstick.

I spoke to my partner long-distance. The bombing of the Twin Towers wasn’t even a year old. Her company was merging with an older company. It was happening because the venture capitalists were skittish after the terrorist attack.

Sept. 11 felt like just the beginning of worlds being shattered.

So why, in a winter month four years later, while I’m leaning over the sink, brushing my teeth, do those strange streets in another state call me so strongly that I ache to be back, can see the library down the block with the English ivy at the entranceway: the low, white, concrete benches; the air conditioner inside blowing much too cold; and the librarian allowing you only 15 minutes at the computers? I remember stepping on the curb to cross Forest Avenue, practicing the caw caw caw of a crow in a poem by Ikkyu. He’d gotten enlightened at 27, meditating in a rowboat on Lake Biwa at midnight, at the moment the bird’s sound pierced his heart. I no longer believed in enlightenment, that moment when the whole world opened in a flash—for good, free forever. It seemed a hope that the ‘60s generation dreamed up after we took LSD: How could we make the acid trip continue ad infinitum? But I still admired Ikkyu, the old, drunk priest who loved sex and hung out with the vagabonds under the bridge by the river in 15th-century Japan.

Even Buddha seemed tiresome, I’m sorry to say. Now, I’ll admit it—he never was my cup of tea. But all the teachings were pointing somewhere.

That time in Palo Alto was the beginning of saying goodbye. Layer by layer, I was pulling off the old protections. Nowhere could I find a foothold to drag myself away to some safe cave. Everywhere I turned was confusion and suffering. Inside me and outside me. No difference. I misunderstood where the path was leading. I was saying goodbye to all my old recourses—I could name a dozen right off the top—by just feeling the pain, by settling down into its scratchy nest. Finally there was nowhere to go, no more hiding places, not even Zen.

About the Author

Natalie Goldberg

Natalie Goldberg is the author of 10 books, including Writing Down the Bones, Living Color, Long Quiet Highway and her most recent book, The Great Failure. She lives in northern New Mexico.

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