One of America's favorite teachers, Natalie Goldberg has inspired millions to write as a way to develop an intimate relationship with their minds and a greater understanding of the world in which they live. Now, through this honest and wry exploration of her own life, Goldberg puts her teachings to work.
"Of course, we are drawn to teachers that unconsciously mirror our own psychology," writes Goldberg in a memoir about her wrestling match with her particular devil. In Writing Down the Bones, she coupled writing with the insights of Zen Buddhism, showing writers how to use a stream of consciousness approach to move through blocks and understand their true experience. Here, however, as Goldberg explores the link between her elegant Zen master, Katagiri Roshi, and the gritty, charming bartender father who sexually violated her, she inadvertently demonstrates this approach's shortcoming. Years after his death, Goldberg learned that Katagiri, the teacher who taught her so much (and the subject of Long Quiet Highway), carried on affairs with female students. Goldberg was shattered; she'd wanted to believe he was an immaculate refuge. Liberation through disillusionment is a universal and durable theme, yet as Goldberg muses and tells stories--splicing in a long Zen tale for a little extra-dimensional oomph--her account closes rather than opens up. In spite of her fluid writing and honesty, the work feels insular and self-cherishing, like personal notes rather than a compelling narrative for the rest of us. Many readers will conclude that this is a not-so-great failure after all, or perhaps a heartache that hasn't really healed.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 04, 2005
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Excerpt from The Great Failure by Natalie Goldberg
With orange leaves still clinging to branches in that unusually mild stretch of late fall, on a sweet street in quiet St. Paul, I was about to slip my key into the front door of the apartment building. I was returning from Zen Center, where I came to study for two months. It was Monday at nine in the evening; no one was on the street. Suddenly I jerked my head to the right. One step below me in the entryway stood a beautiful man, shining face, almost clear eyes, in his late teens, aiming the barrel of a shotgun right at my neck. Feeling the small opening circle on my skin, I jerked my head.
"How dare you!" I was about to be outraged when he hissed, "Don't make a move. Give me your purse."
On my left shoulder dangled a small black backpack with three hundred dollars in twenty-dollar bills. Just that day I had been to the bank. To my chest I clutched my spiral notebook, the hefty 463-page Book of Serenity containing one hundred Zen dialogues, and a thinner black paperback, Transmission of Light.
On my right shoulder was a big blue plastic bag advertising a pharmaceutical company in white letters. My friend, a dermatologist, had picked it up for me at a medical convention. This bag held my old brown sneakers, black pants I bought when I returned a gift sweater that was too small, a Bob Dylan T-shirt a student had given me fifteen years ago, and a pair of good socks. I had gone to the gym only three times in the last month. That afternoon was my third time.
"C'mon, give it up."
I looked at him. He was nervous. Was this his first? Or was he on drugs? In a magnanimous moment I handed over my exercise bag.
"This is your purse?" He took a step back and surveyed me.
"Yes," I said emphatically.
"You sure?" I nodded my head up and down in earnest. We were having a fashion disagreement.
He turned and ran. I bolted through the front door. I had fooled him. He could keep those worn gym shoes. I felt a small victory.
Five days later I was standing on the podium during a conference at a Marriott Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Seven hundred people were staring up at me. The title of my talk was "Riding Your Wild Horses." I was supposed to be speaking about creative writing, but the night before I had decided to change the whole lecture. In St. Paul I'd been studying Zen koans, short interchanges between teachers and students from eighth- and ninth-century China that cut through conditioned ways of seeing, enabling a person to experience one's true nature. I wanted to talk about that in my keynote speech, then to link it up to my being robbed, another kind of wake-up experience. I was sure it would work. I loved giving talks. Eventually, I'd meander over and tie it up with writing to fulfill the obligation of my original contract. This felt adventuresome and I was pleased. I made three notes on the smallest torn-off corner of a piece of paper and went to bed.
A tall lovely man who had read my books introduced me. I stepped onto the stage and thanked him. I took a sip of water and began by telling an ancient teaching tale.
Te-shan, a learned Buddhist scholar, piled up all his sutras -- they weighed a lot -- put them in a bag on his back, and headed south. Te-shan thought the Zen practitioners in southern China who espoused direct insight not dependent on book learning had it all wrong, and he was going to set them straight. On the way -- of course he walked, maybe for a portion of the journey taking a boat down the Yangtze -- he met an old woman selling tea cakes on the side of the road. He stopped for some refreshment. But the old woman, instead of setting out the provisions, inquired, "What's on your back?"