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The Midwest Zen Summer of 1983


Natalie Goldberg remembers down-home days bringing Zen to the Plains.


A cold wet rain is falling, the fields are divided by barbed wire, and the slow Winnebago Creek is moving through the valley. I walk to dinner and see eight wild turkeys on the hill across from the kitchen. We are beginning to establish a monastery on these 240 acres in the southeast corner of Minnesota, one mile from Iowa.            

On weekends we go to the High Chaparral in New Albin. The owners, Herb and Ellie Mae, live in a trailer out back. Ellie Mae makes clear apple jelly, full of sugar, and as much fried chicken as you can eat on Saturday nights—with white buttered bread, cole slaw and cottage fries. All for $3.00, and the beer is 35 cents. We can sit there all night if we want, slowly losing our names or where we came from, who we loved and why.

When we first went to the High Chap on Friday nights for Ellie Mae’s fried cod, Greg, the head carpenter on the Zen land, whose father owned a similar place in Indiana and knows everyone here, asked me if I was ready to meet some real Iowa farmers. When he introduced me, they pulled him aside to ask where my people came from—Germany? Sweden? He told them I am a Jew.
They were stunned and crinkled their noses. Then in a magnanimous gesture, they said, “Well, everyone has to come from some place, I guess.”
Bob Stringer often sits at a corner table. Yesterday he showed me ten dead rattlers in his car trunk. He smashed in their heads behind the Gibbon’s farm, where he found them sunning on flat hot rocks. He pulled the biggest out of a brown paper sack and its fine spotted skin hung limp in his hand. He said he can collect bounty money for them.
One noon Larry Donahue came up to the Zen land to visit us and to give Greg some building advice. Greg was eating lunch.
Larry screwed up his face and pointed, “What the hell is that?”
“What does it taste like?”
“Here, try it.”
Larry put one alfalfa sprout in his mouth and Greg asked, “Well, what does it taste like?”
That night Larry told his wife Marie about the alfalfa sprout and Marie asked what it tasted like.
Two days later, Larry drove up in the middle of the afternoon. Greg came out of the kitchen to greet him, eating a rice cake with peanut butter. Larry sat in his blue pick-up, left arm hooked over the door, and stared. “Now! What the hell are you eating?”
“It’s made of puffed rice. Wanna try it?”
“Nope,” but all the while Larry talked about how Jim Larsen gypped us on the price of the generator, he watched the rice cake as it went from Greg’s hand to his mouth, as he chewed and actually swallowed it.
One morning Larry Donahue’s father, now in his sixties, picked me up walking from town in his red Oldsmobile on the dirt road. With his whiskey breath, his speech blurred, we wove down the road for a mile and came to a quick stop where I got out in front of the Solberg barn—tin siding slapped over gray peeling wood. Donahue’s wife went crazy in their big white farmhouse and killed herself ten years ago. Now Mr. Donahue wakes up early, like he did as a farmer, drives into town and drinks until ten in the morning. I point to the fields ahead and tell him they’re pretty. He looks: “I guess they are.”
I realize this place isn’t beautiful if you live here all your life. It’s deeper than that. The crickets fill your summer days, the hills turn brilliant in fall and white in winter. You don’t make payments on your own land; you have buried your parents on it.
Duane is the best pool player in the county, but says anyone from the city could beat him. He lives alone on the family farm and comes to the High Chap for company on Friday nights. The Zen students put quarters in the red flashing jukebox and country song after country song twangs out into the dark light of the bar. We get up in our jeans and sweat shirts, work boots—I am wearing Chinese sneakers—and dance near the pool table with no apparent partner or pairing of male and female. We dance loose limbed the way we learned in the sixties.
The three men at the bar, Herb behind the bar, and the farmer at the table with his pale wife and two children, watch us. The moon is almost full and for some reason it feels extraordinary that this night we are all here together. Duane, with pool cue in hand, joins us and dances a few excited, shy steps. For moments during “Sioux City Sue,” there is so much happiness that Greg kisses Duane, even though he’s just lost another game to him.
I smoke a thin stogie at our long table, where David eats french fries, then Ellie Mae’s peach pie a la mode. Everyone agrees that the High Chap is sophisticated tonight, with people from all over the country—New York, California—there’s even a Jew and a black person. Lots of Buddhists, a woman with a cigar, and a man kissing a man—and the people from New Albin even know our names and we know theirs.
Outside, Ford pickups with bumper stickers are lined up in the parking lot: DON’T CUSS THE FARMER ON A FULL STOMACH. Our Toyota is parked next to them with our bumper sticker: MY KARMA RAN OVER MY DOGMA.
Greg, Kevin and I drive home in the white flatbed truck Zen Center is renting. I walk to my tent. In the moonlight the Richter cornfield next door looks smoky blue, with high tassels swaying slightly in the breeze.
In a few days the new zendo will be completed. The carpenters, who spent their whole summer here without pay, are almost finished. Dana, whose family are rich grain merchants from Kansas City, tells us that if his mother calls, whatever we say, don’t tell her that he’s helping to build a Midwest Buddhist monastery—just tell her he’s out camping for the summer.
Two carpenters from San Francisco Zen Center have come to help. The blonde one repeats often: “This place has no culture! Only cows, corn and mosquitoes!” Paul has given him The Most Miserable Award—a one inch square piece of khaki canvas. We safety-pinned it to his shirt. The material was Paul’s from an earlier accident. One afternoon in June he found three big black and white neighbor cows standing in the middle of his collapsed tent. Deep yellow piss formed pools in the creases of the canvas and the cows mooed loudly.
Katagiri Roshi, our Zen teacher, drives down from Minneapolis near the end of September. Greg shows him around. He examines everything, bending down close to have a better look at a door knob, not saying a word, his hands clasped behind his back. The rest of us are hammering, sweeping, sanding, but breathless waiting for Katagiri’s response.
Finally he turns to Greg, “Thank you,” he bows, hands in gassho.
“It is a great honor,” Greg bows back.
During lunch Roshi hears about Kevin, who spent the last three weeks in an empty riverbed searching for perfect stones for the zendo entrance, and was stung twice by bees almost in the same place inside his nose.
Roshi grins, exposing a mouth full of teeth and says in English with his Japanese precision, “Very un-u-sual case!”
We all laugh and slap Kevin on the back.
The next day we sit our first seven-day sesshin in the new Hokyoji zendo. On the first evening a big harvest moon hangs in the dark sky and lights a silver path to our tents. The next night we listen to rain on the roof as we sit zazen, and then wake to a morning fog filling the valley. By afternoon I look up to see two hawks riding the cycles of air forty feet above our heads, and as I reach for a towel in the new bathhouse, I glimpse Napoleon, the ratty yellow cat we brought from the city, whom we thought we’d lost, dash by through the grass.

Natalie Goldberg’s new book is Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, published by Bantam. She is spending the next year teaching two practice periods at Clouds and Waters Zen Center in St. Paul.

The Midwest Zen Summer of 1983, Natalie Goldberg, Shambhala Sun, July 2000.


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