A Passage From Natalie Goldberg’s Long Quiet Highway

The following passage is from one of my favorite books of all time, Natalie Goldberg’s Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up In America, the story of her 12-year relationship with her spiritual teacher, Zen master Katagiri Roshi, until the time of his death.  Interwoven with her experiences as a Zen student is a memoir of her life, beginning in 1950’s Long Island, and how her journey to free the writer within herself was connected to her journey as a spiritual seeker.  This passage resonates with me because it points to the true depth of responsibility involved in taking the seat of a teacher, and the potentiality of a beautifully functioning teacher/student relationship.

“We have an illusion that a certain time, a certain place, a certain person is the only way.  Without it, or them, we are lost.  It is not true.  Impermanence teaches us this.  There is no one thing to hold on to.

Once, a few years earlier, I told Roshi in anger ‘I’m never coming back here’.  He laughed and said ‘The gate swings both ways, I cannot hold anyone’.  Yet when I returned two months later I could tell he was happy to see me.  But he had to go beyond his personal likes and dislikes.  He could not say to me ‘Please Natalie, don’t go.  I like you’.  He was my teacher.  As a teacher, he had the responsibility to teach me, to put forth the depth of human existence, whether he or I liked it or not.

Meetings end in departures is a quote from the early Sutras of Shakyamuni.  No matter how long the meeting, or what the relationship, we depart from each other.  Even marriage or monkhood end in death.  ‘In the face of that truth’, he said, ‘you can go or come’.  He was not tossed away by personal preferences.  It was his practice to stand on something larger, regardless of his subjective feelings.  And if I returned, the choice had to be mine.  I was responsible for myself.

I drove my thick carcass out of Minnesota.  I did not thank him for his great effort, did not bow in front of him, present him with a little spice cake, an orchid, a wool cap to keep his shaved priest’s head warm.  I know he understood.  He did not teach in order to receive anything, but gratitude may be the final blessing for a student.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.  I know what I have received.  Knowing that, the duality of teacher and student dissolves.  The teacher can pour forth the teachings; the student absorbs them.  No resistance, no fight.  It is a moment of grace.”

 

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The Power of Character

One of the things I loved most as a kid was my Grandma Ruth’s collection of 45-records, passed on to her from her dad’s jukebox and pinball machine distribution business in Oregon.  She would “ride the route” from customer to customer (taverns, arcades, roller skating rinks, etc.), and change out the records in the jukeboxes.  That was years before I ever came along, but those records would become an important part of my childhood.

I was drawn to music and storytelling from the beginning, so my discovery of the old 45′s was thrilling, to say the least.  A few were old jazz and 70′s disco, but the vast majority of them were country songs, trucker songs, and obscure story songs from the 60′s and 70′s.  Songs of humor, danger, tough characters and outlaws.  Songs depicting bad guys as heroes.  Trains, knives, guns, booze, diesel smoke, and girls.  As Joe Piscopo says in his role as Danny Vermin in the film Johnny Dangerously, “these are a few of my favorite things”. I’m talking stuff like Red Sovine’s Big Joe and Phantom 309, Johnny Paycheck’s Colorado Cool-aid, and Cledus Maggard’s The White Knight. Songs in the vein of Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, but not as well known.

“Where the hell are we headin’ on this saunter down pothole-riddled memory lane?” you’re probably asking yourself now (in the voice of Sam Elliott) while stroking your handlebar moustache and squinting beneath the brim of your ten-gallon hat.  Just settle yer spurs, Lefty – I’m gettin’ to it.

One summer my dad took me to meet his dad – a retired shrimper named Buddy – in Florida. I was eleven or twelve, I guess.

“Grandpa Buddy’s gonna tell you that you gotta be tough, and that gettin’ old ain’t for sissies,” my dad told me.  For a country boy from Oregon who’d never really been anywhere, it was a big adventure.  Flying in a plane across America, I stared down in amazement at the “circles and squares” of farmland, and the silver ribbons of winding rivers.

“What kind of name is ‘Buddy’,” I thought?

Imagine my delight and surprise when Grandpa Buddy turned out to be a retired version of one of the tough characters right out of those songs I loved so much.  He’d lived a life full of adventure and danger as the captain of his own shrimp boat; he’d lived out a slice of the Americana I’d come to idolize, and so I instantly idolized him.  He had enough stories to fill not just a book, but an entire shelf, and he embellished those stories just right when he told them to me, in his deep southern voice that sounded like Johnny Cash.  He talked about a different world then the one I knew, but I identified it as the same world being sung about on those old 45 records: heroes, villains, tough guys, mercenaries, pirates and prostitutes.

“You gotta be tough,” he said over and over again.  Most of the stories ended with that sentiment – it was the takeaway, the moral, his mantra.  And in my mind, he was the coolest, toughest guy I’d ever seen.  He lived in central Florida on a river full of gators and snakes.  He made shrimp nets by hand out in his workshop.  He had tattoos, a jeep, nine machetes and an earring.  Okay, it was probably more like two or three machetes, but in my imagination it was definitely nine.

It turned out that my Grandpa’s real name was Marvin, a name he never liked. He quit school as a young boy and worked as a helper on fishing and shrimping boats. The fishermen would say “Hey buddy, get me the so-and-so”, “Hey buddy, I want you to do this or that, or “Thanks buddy”. And so his new name was born.

After that trip, I returned to my familiar life with my mom in our little house surrounded by farms and fields in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Depressed and bored, I stayed in bed all the next day, tears rolling.  When my mother asked me what was wrong, I told her I wanted to go back to Grandpa Buddy’s house. I was just a kid with an overactive imagination. I didn’t yet have the understanding that my grandfather was just a man, just a vulnerable person with fears and desires like anyone else. In my head, he was way larger than life.

I spent the rest of the summer hating myself, because I had learned that – when it came down to it – I wasn’t tough, and probably never would be. But I had also learned something of immense value, something I would carry with me from then on, something that tied the old 45 records and my grandfather together in a more cohesive way.

I now understood the magic of storytelling, and the power of character.

 

Over the River and Through the Woods, To Grandmother’s House I Went

I grew up with a dairy allergy, a hardcore vegetarian/raw food advocate mom who juiced her own wheatgrass and fermented her own probiotic drinks, and no TV.  Books, cats, the outdoors, an occasional friend who didn’t think I was too weird, and an overactive imagination were my entertainment.  Once a week, mom would take me to the library and I’d check out so many books I could barely carry them all.  I’d lie around reading for hours on end, picking sadly at my salad garnished with home-sprouted lentils and fenugreeks.  I ate soy cheese, Rice Dream, unstirred no-sugar peanut butter/honey/banana sandwiches, tofu, and granola with orange juice on it.  But this nerdy only-child hippie kid was perfectly content, man, because most weekends I went to Grandma’s house.  Grandma’s: where I could count on the fridge being well-stocked with a veritable plethora of meats, and the never-deviating placement of a hazy crystal bowl of candy near the record cabinet.

My grandma Ruth had everything my child’s mind deemed to be most important in life: Dr. Seuss books, a pool table, an eclectic collection of old country and trucker songs on 45′s (relics from my great-grandfather’s jukebox distribution business), and a TV.  She would fry up kielbasa for breakfast (which she called Oktoberfest sausage), give me liverwurst for lunch, and serve me pot roast for dinner.  Then I’d collapse onto the couch – or as she called it, the davenport – and watch the tube, my scrawny bag of flesh exhausted from digesting so much animal protein in such a short amount of time.  I’m not certain how aware my mom was of this carnivorous debauchery. I think she knew, and allowed it, because she realized her little son was in dire need of some surf-and-turf (or as my uncle calls it, bait-and-bovine). Mom eventually began taking me out for an occasional hamburger, no doubt a result of my grandmother’s persuasion.

Grandma Ruth always had a sparkle in her eye and a spring in her step.  She’d fix herself a martini, dance around in her robe to old records, and school me at billiards.  ”Not enough,” she’d typically comment, referring to my heinous lack of English applied to the cue ball.  Every so often I’d make a damn good shot, and she’d say “here’s lookin’ at you, kid”, calling me Straight Shooter McGee and other nonsensical nicknames. She drove a little yellow Porsche convertible, and she drove it with a heavy foot.  There were racing goggles and (imagine!) gloves in the glove compartment, and a little silk pillow on the dash in the shape of a candy bar that said “Baby Ruth” on it.  Sometimes she’d drink half a pot of coffee and then fall asleep in her chair, her snores rattling the walls.  When she glimpsed a mole in her yard she threw open the closet door and pulled out her shotgun. When contestants got greedy on Wheel of Fortune and then hit bankrupt, she’d say “serves you right, you dirty rat fink”.

Grandma would usually cook me an enormous Sunday breakfast and then drive me home in the yellow Porsche, stopping for hot chocolate on the way. And so I’d return to my meatless, T.V.less abode.  I didn’t mind though.  I loved my mom hugely; she was one of my best friends growing up, though I despised my rainbow suspenders, hated my bowl haircut, and resented the cowlick in my hair.  Even a wet hairbrush only kept it at bay for a few minutes.  I guess I didn’t exactly hate being the only hippie kid in a rinky-dink three-classroom rural school where the other boys’ idea of fun was to shove a firecracker up a dead gopher’s ass and then light it, but I was certainly aware that I was the only one, and it was just downright irritating.

Growing up with such limited food options has definitely had its effects on my eating habits over the years, and is probably a big part of why I became a chef.  When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered “food taster”.  One time we ended up with one of those big round tins of Christmas fudge, and I found myself home alone with it. I methodically ate the entire tin – every last piece – all the while telling myself mom wouldn’t notice or care.  Boy was I wrong.  Not to mention I puked on a shrub outside and it never grew back.

I Want

I want to ponder the radius of the earth as if it was yet to be discovered.  I want to burst through doorways with a clear voice singing, intoxicated with life.  I want fistfuls of cloud spilling out of my pockets.

A poet is hungry, a poet is very thirsty. A poet dies every day, even as she lives. Only a pilgrim soul would put all her stock in poetry, rest all her matters in the hands of such an elusive music.

I want to be both arrow and shield.  I want the dense, substantial blue of an open sky just before nightfall.  I want butter and herbs, olives and fish.

The pilgrim is just beginning to understand who she truly is. She sees the world through the eyes of poetry, listens to the world with the ears of poetry.

I want smoke curling up around treetops.  I want a silky bun of dark hair tied on top of my head.  I want bright eyes and a beginner’s mind.

Towards The Fire

When things unravel with such fury, we conclude that something should be held responsible.

We look for a place to lay our blame, though the source of our pain often has the power to be a catalyst for growth, a facilitator of movement in stagnant waters.

If we can un-stick ourselves from the quicksand of resentment, if we can rise up out of our blaming the way mist rises from a lake, it becomes probable that we will find our way out of every yesterday and all tomorrows, arriving like a loosed arrow in the heart of this very hour, the mark of this very breath.

It’s okay if we haven’t learned this yet, we just keep trying. Eventually, when the nameless urge tugs at our navel, we will follow it more easily, breaking out of our old habits, though it takes everything (even the undivided attention of our bone marrow) to not step over the edge and sink like a stone.

We turn, instead, summon our courage, and go toward the very source of the tremors, run towards the fire, moving deeper and deeper inward – the way all those long winters have taught us.

Ephemeral

There are transitory moments

between seasons

when the world

comes out of its dressing room,

so stunning we lose our balance.

This moment of spiritual frenzy

does not wait to be discovered.

It comes and goes like a fire

of dry kindling,

and can be easy to miss

depending on one’s latitude.

 

Light spills through antique bottles

on a sunken windowsill,

stones and tree-roots

are less discreet than usual.

We feel our fingertips more closely,

an un-namable itch turns over inside us

and we want to know everything.

 

It is my job to point this out,

as I pointed out the copper-plated bar top

while you gobbled up your crustaceans,

swimming in a sauce of cream and brown roux,

sopping up the last remnants with grilled bread.

Planets may rotate and stars explode,

but earthbound as we are,

we listen for warblers.

 

We look ahead to coffee,

meals, holidays, weather.

 

Reception

Friends, I toss myself aside for you.  I become available for you.  I eat, drink, mumble, run hands through hair for you, scramble down the gulch for you, carry wood, fold socks, scrub pots, ever-fearless, requiring nothing.

These are not the days of time’s inhalation pulling way up under the world’s collarbones, stitching together the fibers of dream and memory.  These are days of emptying the mind, distilling the essence.

Friends, what does it matter if the world hears your voice?  We all belong to each other. Your voice is here, mine is here: as wild, small, and equal in worth as any other.

The voice is in your heart and so the world’s heart knows it, as surely as you know the heart of the world and hear its voice also, as surely as there is perfect stillness in the eye of the storm.

We listen for the voice with all the power of our deepest listening,  as if our line is cast before the coming of a great fish, a sudden tug is felt through our hands, and our withered husks give rise to some new possibility, somewhere between dusk and our return journey.