Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life
Nichole L. Reber
Part travelogue, part Buddhist meditation, Natalie Goldberg’s latest book, The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life, was published this past February along with the 30th anniversary edition of her classic title Writing Down the Bones. Through graceful prose and occasional humor, these essayistic memoirs weave between the covers as she tackles a reel of subjects such as death, the promises and faults of Buddhism, stalking, and, of course, writing. Part travelogue, part Buddhist meditation, Natalie Goldberg’s latest book, The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life, was published this past February along with the 30th anniversary edition of her classic title Writing Down the Bones. Through graceful prose and occasional humor, these essayistic memoirs weave between the covers as she tackles a reel of subjects such as death, the promises and faults of Buddhism, stalking, and, of course, writing.
Readers travel through sections called Searching, Wandering, Zigzagging, Losing, and Leaping. We search for and sometimes discover meaning from Japan to California and from New Mexico to Minnesota. Goldberg’s leaps into the literary appeal to us cursed writers and devout readers in statements like this: “To live a creative life is to search and wander, zigzag and leap, but then to return our pen to the page, again and again, and to reflect”; and this: “I lifted my head through four centuries,” and “The Japanese liked loneliness. It had a different quality than our dreaded isolation.”
Perhaps one of the best things we writers can do is to read and re-read her essay, “A Long Relationship with Zen.” In it, we can strive to become more compassionate with ourselves. We might learn to stop judging ourselves. “Have you failed? Do you quit altogether?” While she might be talking about her relationship with meditation, her words apply also to writing. “Sometimes our minds set up stiff expectations and when they’re not met, we drop the whole thing.” And so she offers advice, as she would to meditation or writing students: “Don’t make a rigid structure and then chastise ourselves when we don’t live up to it.”
As a travel writer and former expatriate, I gravitated naturally to the Wandering section, which contains essays such as “Wrong Way.” Here Goldberg shows how people travel differently even when we’re hiking. Sometimes you’re the person so excited to be outside of your captivity or routine that your inner child comes out and you instantly spring into play, shrugging off cloistering responsibility. Sometimes you’re the person who can’t relinquish that debilitating need for control or the metal jacket of purpose, aim, direction. In this essay, we see Goldberg wandering between both sides. She’s running from the crush of big city life and in need of some space, some privacy, some nature.
“I am jazzed. Consequently, I don’t pay close attention as we begin to ascend [ . . . ] I’m exhilarated by the land and look at the sky.” Then, after she and her hiking companion lose the trail and relocate it, she says, “I am relieved. When you have a path, you don’t have to think. You’re secure in your direction.” But are you? Even when her friend lands a full professorship in writing she ponders leaving it all to lead the full-time life of a writer. This essay ponders what is the wrong way or right way, using the trail as a metaphor that all of us can relate to and applying it to artistic careers, with which we writers can definitely connect.
The Wandering section journeys through “Archer City,” in which/where Goldberg stalks the writer Larry McMurtry, then to the Oregon coast where she reveals herself as a true traveler by delighting “in being half lost and half wandering,” and then the section jumps to Japan. Along the path, we glean insight into her Buddhist studies and writerly habits. She lets us in on her fears such as taking the trip to Japan. She was so afraid of going, she writes, that twice she purchased then forfeited airline tickets to get there. Still, it was impossible to ignore her thoughts of Katagiri Roshi, with whom she had studied Zen and who had inspired her to see his homeland. Now, however, her roshi was dead and seeing Japan might bring her closer to him, at least by learning more about him. But first she had to learn the country.
One of the funniest moments in this bittersweet essay takes place when she’s scared she won’t get off a bus at the right place traveling to visit her roshi’s ashes. “People in the bus continue to gawk at us. Several times I run up to the bus driver and ask, ‘Kitada?’ He nods. Finally, everyone in the bus knows, so when we get there they yell in unison, ‘Kitada!’” The piece closes by vividly placing us in her experience. “When we leave, walking down the road, facing the Japan Sea, I know this is the path he took into the village,” she writes, and our hearts fill in unison with hers at the tenderness of the moment.
The Great Spring proves a moving read—one filled with tenderness and contemplation, humor and bittersweetness. It’s about getting lost and finding yourself, in another country or town or another mindset.