Some of the best memoirs are meditations.
In recent weeks I’ve been on a Natalie Goldberg reading binge. What started me down the path of taking in the thoughts of this longtime Zen practitioner and world-renowned writing teacher was her powerful 2018 memoir-as-meditation Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home. I had picked it up on a whim at Berkeley’s Pegasus Books but only recently pulled it out to read. It was a revelation.
This is Goldberg’s story of a cancer diagnosis that forever changes the way she looks at life. And death. She was sixty-three and, she writes,
“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.”
The Stoics suggest that we meditate on our mortality every day. Goldberg’s Zen training helped, in a similar fashion, because it “harped on death. We won’t last forever. Wake up. Don’t waste your life.” But that urging too often seemed “artistic, remote.”
Until she was face-to-face with death.
I read this short but gripping memoir in a day. On page-after-page Goldberg shows how she and her partner — who along the way is diagnosed with breast cancer — grapple with their battles (with the cancers, with their bodies, with the cancer-industrial complex, with their emotions) separately and together. The cancer twins, she calls them. They both have to face the unknown, the void. Cancer forces that type of focus.
In her telling of this story, there is laughter. She hears the name of the medication she is taking at one point — ofatumumab — and decides that it sounds like “Oh Fat Tuna Man.”
There is food, more than one person can eat, thanks to their friends. But her lithe partner chows down with the best of them.
There are new perceptions, such as the following about those friends.
“I did notice, when friends visited, subtle differences. Yes, they had more energy, more mobility than I did. They were still busy in the world with the routines…But there was something much more subtle, something I don’t often catch until after they left: They don’t know they will die. It was constantly with me now, my mortality. It hung out on my right shoulder like an animal, patient yet hungry. It wanted me, and I knew that eventually it would have me.”
There is despair, when she realizes that Oh Fat Tuna Man hasn’t worked, and all the while the cancer has, worming its way into her bones. This person who for years has used natural medicines now, in desperation, shifts to an experimental drug…which works, beating the cancer.
And there is some sort of elation. “I was supposedly normal again, as if no hole had been blown through the center of my life.”
Goldberg’s path through is based on a commitment to embrace the suffering directly. She ends with a moving poem and thoughts on a favorite painting. The poem is from her visit to a remarkable place — the non-Catholic cemetery in Rome — where she visits John Keats’ grave and meets “not only Keats but young Natalie again.” But the poem she quotes is from the grave of Gregory Corso.
it flows thru
the death of me
like a river
This is a meditation on finding a path, finding a place, “to set one foot after another. To come inside out; to show your guts, everything that you are made of.” And the path brings her to a painting by Pierre Bonnard, who “silently grieves” about the emotional absence of human fulfillment through the medium of paint.
“I viewed the last piece he painted, a week before his death in 1947. Almond Tree in Blossom. Full of light. The tree in white takes over most of the canvas, and it feels as though it were about to ascend….
When Japanese Zen masters approach death, they write a poem to reveal their mind at the final moment. In this final painting, Bonnard does something similar, displays his lightening heart. Before the great question — How is it to live with eternity at your door? — Bonnard answers: In full bloom.”
More to come…