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A Time of No Place


Natalie Goldberg recalls a time when the bottom fell out of her life, when her place, purpose, and even her Zen practice seemed groundless. Was that a problem or the very point?

I have so many good memories—swimming in the Atlantic as a young girl; sleeping under the stars by the Chama River in New Mexico; eating cherry pie with my ninety-year-old mother at Hamburger Heaven in Palm Beach, Florida; the gray/brown deer, considered sacred, that ripped the map out of my friend’s hand in Kyoto; eating green tea ice cream out of a Dixie cup in front of the gates to Eiheiji monastery deep in the mountains outside Fukui—yet it’s none of these that I recall this early January morning. What halts me like a shot of electricity is the thought of the six months I spent miserably unhappy in Palo Alto, California, seven years ago at the beginning of this new century.

I had come straight from St. Paul, Minnesota, where I’d practiced for a year and a half with my old Zen teacher’s priest. Eventually I was supposed to enter the ancient lineage myself, but that all went awry. I began to trust neither my intentions nor my interactions with the teacher. I found myself spending more of my days at a café than in the zendo. In the evenings I retired to the small apartment I lived in, looking out through my second-floor windows at the green leaves of maples and elms, and in winter through their barren branches. Spring brought yellow neon sky and 2 a.m. downpours. I painted huge abstracts entitled “Searching for the Moon,” “Eye of the Storm,” “Inside the Mountain,” and “Walking in Ravines.”

Something strange and powerful was happening to me up there in the North, but I couldn’t recognize it. I went there looking for a formal Zen transmission and left disappointed, with only one wish: I wanted more time on the second floor among the trees.

With this ache and confused longing that began in St. Paul, I moved to California. My father had recently died and my mother was alone on the East Coast. I worried about her. We’d been strangers for so long; now she was an old woman who needed me, and instead of being with her, I was moving to the other side of the country. I probably shouldn’t have gone to the Golden State, but I had promised I would and felt obligated. My partner was living in the heart of Silicon Valley, running a small software start-up she and her friend from Sun Microsystems had created. Until then the computer world had passed me by—I’d put off email until my early fifties. But in Minnesota I was lost—stripped of what I thought I wanted—and one place seemed as good as another.

I stopped home in New Mexico for the Christmas holidays, where I came down with a whopping flu that would not go away, and drove across Arizona with my nose stuffed, eyes watery, and a chest that felt like I was transporting the weight of the queen’s jewels. In Palo Alto we lived in a tiny three-room apartment for $2,400 a month. Yes, it was that expensive. A Meyer lemon tree was out back. I made sure to use the fruit—I made gallons of lemonade, lemon pie, lemon soup. Long’s Drugs on University Avenue was the only whiff I had that this place had once been a locale of some simple dignity, drenched in sun with orchards nearby. Why Long’s? Because the lettering on the outside was in an old script and the aisles were lazy and sloppy and not propelled by a strong commerce.

A week into the cramped living arrangements, I took a slow walk one early morning, still sick, thinking that maybe we could find a junky fixer-upper nearby. Surely, for the rent we were paying we could own a little house. And behold! How could the stars be so kind! Down the block I espied a yellow stucco with a For Sale sign. With its twisted wires jutting out of sockets over the sidewalk and its torn-down awnings, this sad, modest fellow must be aching for love. I jotted down the realtor’s phone number.

“I’m asking about that rat’s nest on Cowper,” I breathed thickly into the phone. My nose was still bountifully stuffed.

“Yes, that property is three million,” she popped back.

The receiver dangled from my hand. I could hear the snap of her cell phone closing. She isn’t ashamed to tell me that? I knew I was in strange territory. No complicated Zen koan could contrive this.

Standing in our narrow bedroom, staring blankly ahead, I was jarred by a whirring sound out on the street. I tried to ignore it, and when finally I couldn’t, I went out to look. A young man was holding the handle to a vibrating motor connected to an extended nozzle pointed at the sidewalk, the nose of which was chasing a single red leaf. What was going on here? What didn’t make sense was very loud.

I marched over and motioned vigorously for the man to switch it off. I bent down and grabbed the leaf, that seeming culprit, ceremoniously walked it to the curb, and dropped it in the street.

“Use a rake. It’s a fine tool.” I motioned how to use one. “You are wasting precious oil reserves.”

The man was confused. He didn’t understand.

“No más,” I declared, and crossed my arms. Then wanting to make sure the point was made, I did the arrogant thing unilingual Americans do. I repeated myself, slowly, enunciating my words about the rake. Surely, everyone must know English, if spoken clearly.

He turned his back on me, blasted his machine again and chased another solitary leaf.

I whipped around and stomped back into my scrawny apartment. I heard the blowers starting up all down the block. What happened to the monk in the mist raking the monastery garden?

At night when my partner returned, I asked her how it was going. Did the engineers come up with a saleable product?

She shrugged her shoulders. “Who knows. I barely see them. They arrive at three in the afternoon and eat doughnuts, preferably with pink icing. They work till the early morning hours, gone in cyberspace.”

I thought of Max, whom I’d met in Cambridge three years earlier. I’d seen him writing intently in a notebook at the next table in a restaurant. “I write too,” I said, never too shy not to interrupt concentration.

“Journaling?” I asked.

He looked over. “In a sense. I keep a math notebook. I think mathematically.”

My eyes narrowed. “You mean like I might write, ‘Today I am grouchy,’ you would write, ‘Two plus two is equivalent to eight.’”

“Sort of.”

I couldn’t leave this alone. I bent over and whispered across his table, “Eight minus three is five.” I wiggled my eyebrows, hey, hey, hey.

He gave me a short snort. I threw out everything I could recall from algebra and geometry. I think the clincher was when I mentioned Euclid. (My Great Books days at St. John’s finally came in handy.)
He rescued me just as I was about to recite the multiplication tables. “I went to MIT and have a Ph.D. in math.”

“May I treat you to a croissant?” Anyone hovering over the slimness of numbers must need sustenance.

He told me that his dissertation, which was all equations, had jokes on pages 45 and 67.

“So there’s personality in math?”

“Sure. My adviser had a Nobel Prize. When he’d pull out his file cabinet drawer, the papers he’d written would swing balanced in their folders. All his work condensed on a few pages. Only three people in the world could read his last theorems. Extreme elegance.”

I couldn’t contain myself. I raised a single finger. “Everything in this, huh?”

He snorted again, but this time smiled.

This had been the simplicity of my Zen life. One ring of a bell, one breath, a single candle on the altar, a moment of still peace inside.

But I’d thrown that all out. In a single moment in the zendo in St. Paul I saw through all my cranky desire. My destiny was not to formally carry that ancient lineage of my teacher forward. Dharma transmission was another way for me to try to secure myself, make myself solid in this transitory world. Nope, I decided forever to dump myself out into the vast unknown with only a pen, a notebook, and thirty years of sitting practice under my ever-widening belt.

Now here I was with young programmers who ate pink icing, and my future was dependent on them. Would we ever leave this expensive hovel?

Slowly I regained my health and walked the dense streets. March in California—no one tells you this—is the most gorgeous of all months. Everything is blooming and opulent. After living so many years in arid New Mexico, how do I take it all in? Just one branch of one rose bush—and there were often hundreds in one yard—held eighteen perfect flowers. The pinks, the reds, the yellows. What could root me in this abundance? What had happened to my America, to the small empty, towns I loved?

I wanted to liberate the little yellow stucco house and its patch of bare yard, the only place in town where the weeds were allowed to grow. Mornings I’d sit on its cracked asphalt patio; I was certain no one would buy this house under the cool shade of a hawthorn.

Eventually I found another refuge, the huge live oaks and white oaks, some of them three hundred years old, looming in yards and bursting out of the concrete sidewalks. All of them were alive before this town was here. I became friends with eight of them and visited daily, begging for answers. What was I doing in this sanitary white place?

My deepest connection was with one tree dwarfing a two-storey Tudor house on Coleridge. How I loved that the street had the name of a writer. The oak’s roots were so big they dominated the lawn. No human could own this wild animal of a tree, nor plant flowers around it. Flowers needed ground water and this white oak, reaching the height of at least a five-story Manhattan building, was drinking from sources deep and unknown, forgotten aquifers way below the Earth’s surface. Trees of this nature that were watered were known to burst, exploding rooftops and building structures.

One day I knocked on the door of the house. A blonde woman with a young child hiding in her skirts opened it.

“I wonder if it’s OK that I hang out here a bit sometimes? I’ve fallen in love with your tree.”

“Tree?” she asked. I could see past the door. They’d just moved in.

“That one,” I pointed. I wanted her, too, to love it. Why else would she have bought the house? The mighty branches extended over the entire yard and out into the street.

She glanced at it. “Oh, yes, it costs a lot to prune. Sure, it’s fine,” she said, and shut the door.

Untold money was made during the nineties. Couples in their twenties were suddenly millionaires many times over. The category of billionaire came into being. I knew this owner was part of the phenomenon. Stunned by her sudden wealth, she had no time left to notice the tree. I worried for these people, but I was in my fifties, old enough to worship the great oak. I would do it for all of them.

Before I became a full-time writer, I was a teacher. My last teaching job was with twenty-five fifth- and sixth-graders in a private school. I’d never taught a whole group of white well-to-do kids before. My specialty was inner-city kids, ragtag, sometimes hungry. I developed writing practice with these young students. Rudely honest and still connected to community and family, however broken, these Chippewa and African-American students gave me fresh insights into the writing mind. But the ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-olds in this private setting I’d never encountered before. They came to school well-dressed, with too many snacks, but as soon as they were dropped off all hell broke loose. I was afraid they’d kill each other—or at least break a few arms, legs, and pelvic bones.

“Quick, without thinking, write what your mother was wearing this morning.” I gave this assignment in early September.

Most kids don’t notice their mothers that much, but their responses gave me some insight.
My mother is in Switzerland. She left two weeks ago, wrote one thin boy. I haven’t seen her in a long time.

My stepmother was making me breakfast. I hate her. She’s a lousy cook. I poured Coke on my cereal, penned a redheaded fifth-grader.

I understood that material goods replaced human attention, guidance, and touch. Each day I watched these kids take out their frustration and isolation on each other. The wealth served to create loneliness.

I sensed this same vacancy in these quaint, expensive streets that I walked. Soul was missing; only commerce was left.

Yet when I attended a luncheon celebrating a big investment in my partner’s company by a venture capitalist, I was surprised to meet the software engineers, who turned out to be fresh, idealistic, and enthusiastic. They said things we used to say as hippies, only they substituted the word “technology” for our word “love.”

“This technology program will change the world, will make it a better place,” intoned one young man.

I tried to find some common ground for sharing. Zen? Literature? Writing? These topics were getting me nowhere. I dropped them and finally just listened. The short-haired blond in a striped polo on my right told me about his love of waves and how he had followed the surf all over the world. The one across the table in a yellow tee-shirt and thick glasses spoke of the traditional Korean wedding he would have in six months. He had met his fiancée five weeks earlier in L.A. The others teased him, but they were all going to attend the ceremonies.

I tried to ask what they were developing for the company, but no one could tell me. It wasn’t a secret, they said. It was just that they hadn’t gotten far enough.

I’m no computer genius, but I didn’t quite believe them, even though I knew they weren’t lying. I feared a rootlessness at the core of all this research. In truth, I was disappointed that all this technology was discovered in my lifetime. It seemed to make time busier, more complicated, faster, as if the functions of the mind, the beat of thought I’d come to depend on for my years of sitting and writing practice, no longer applied. I understood how the brain made poetic leaps; how it could juxtapose seemingly dissimilar objects, people, rivers, fruit; how you could reach into the center of the source and discover a vast emptiness that was full and abundant. But the rhythm of the minds partaking of this Caribbean meal set before us felt jagged, even severed in some places, as though natural mind waves had been broken. Some neuron had gone astray from staring for so long at computer screens. They were lovely people, but America felt askew. This was what everyone was so excited about? All over the heart of Silicon Valley I sensed some human channel burned out.

In the afternoons I took long walks along a creek that wound between Palo Alto and Menlo Park. I sat on a stone bench to meditate as whole families biked by and couples jogged. From a house across the way I could hear someone practicing the cello. The person was a good musician. These were not beginning chords. I wanted to knock on the door: take me in, I’d demand.

Eventually I found an old Chinese restaurant that had let time pass by. The food was good and not fancy. Its gray walls became a refuge. The waiter recognized me each time I came and knew what I would order: shrimp fried rice. Two dollars more for extra shrimp. I sat in the booth at the back. I felt transported out of sunlit, jazzy California to an old place on Cedar Ave. in Minneapolis. Something ordinary and comforting.

My partner and I were growing distant from each other. Where had she brought me? More importantly, where had I brought myself? My source of inspiration had been grounded in a solid, rather unquestioning connection to Zen practice. Back in St. Paul the lineage had crumbled for me. I was in the midst of writing a book about betrayal and failure, about the indiscretions of my teacher. A lot of people I knew didn’t want me to write this book. I was on my own. How could I tell anyone what was happening? I was falling backwards off the diving board. I didn’t choose to lose my footing. One noon I even found myself on my knees under the tall eucalyptus on Stanford campus.

Right here is where we want to hear an epiphany, some grand realization to give meaning and relief. But no understanding shot through my cells to rectify my birth, my family of origin, the life I was living.

I continued to write my book, to have sleepless nights, to feel biologically out of sync with this new cutting-edge world.

In June, six months after I arrived, I left, driving out through the Sierras, across Utah, dropping down to New Mexico. I remember staying overnight in a barren motel on the California border, sobbing into the early morning. Nothing was the way I thought. Not a single thing was the way I wanted it.

As I descended into the northwest corner of New Mexico, a single lane of traffic piled up for miles. On all sides was open sage flatland. Nothing broke the horizon. My car inched along. A deep gray began to enfold us. The sky was no longer sky—the smoke from fires hundreds of miles away, burning up thousands of acres of Arizona forest, was coming our way. The air was unbreathable, filled with a suffocating fog. I could almost hear the high-pitched crack of ponderosas exploding in the extreme heat.

All summer that dismal cloud hung over Taos. Hands, faces, tables, chairs were gritty from ash. It was also the second year of a severe drought. I put out pans of water for the jackrabbits that usually shot across the mesa, but now even they were drooping. Several times a day I applied Chapstick.
I spoke to my partner long distance. The bombing of the Twin Towers wasn’t even a year old. Her company was merging with an older company. It was happening because the venture capitalists were skittish after the terrorist attack.

September Eleventh felt like just the beginning of worlds being shattered.

So why, seven years later, leaning over the sink brushing my teeth in a winter month, do those strange streets in another state call me? Why do they feel so strong that I ache to be back? I can see the library down the block with the English ivy at the entranceway, the low white concrete benches, the librarian who only allowed me fifteen minutes at the public computers. I can feel the air conditioner blowing much too cold. I remember going out and stepping down from the curb to cross Forest Avenue, practicing the crow’s caw caw caw in a poem by Ikkyu. He’d gotten enlightened at twenty-seven, meditating in a rowboat on Lake Biwa at midnight, at the moment the bird’s caw caw caw pierced his heart. I no longer believed in that enlightenment, where the whole world opened in a flash—for good, free forever. It seemed like a hope the sixties generation dreamed up after we took LSD: how could we make this acid trip continue ad infinitum? But I still admired Ikkyu, the old drunk priest who loved sex and hung out with vagabonds under the bridge by the river in fifteenth-century Japan.

Even Buddha seemed tiresome, I’m sorry to say. Now I’ll admit it—he never was my cup of tea. But all the teachings were pointing somewhere.

In Palo Alto I was beginning to say goodbye. Layer by layer I was pulling off the old protections. Nowhere could I find a foothold to drag myself away to some safe cave. Everywhere I turned there was confusion and suffering. Inside me and outside me. No difference. I had misunderstood where the path was leading. I was saying goodbye to all my old recourses—I could name a dozen right off the top—from just feeling the pain, from settling down into its scratchy nest. Finally there was nowhere to go, no more hiding place, not even Zen.
This is called groundlessness, no abiding. Supposedly a good thing in Zen practice, when you finally unhinge, admit you know nothing, surrender to the vast unknown. So many years ago when I heard my teacher talk about it, it sounded good and true. But actually to experience it was something altogether different. I felt frightened, hopeless, on the edge of depression, but not even able to sink into that hole.
Then one day in the middle of my muddled mind, back in the dry and barren air of New Mexico, I realized something. That story about Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi Tree—how he made a vow not to budge until he saw clearly into the nature of things. His determination was always touted. But, really, what was happening—all at once it seemed obvious—wasn’t determination, a steeling of will that brought him home. It was a total breakdown, a collapse of everything he knew. He’d tried devout training and austerity; nothing worked. It was in his giving up—drained, exhausted, under the big branched tree—that with the first morning star insight exploded inside him.
For the first time I felt akin to Buddha, that skinny man in his thirties, who left his wife and child, to seek the unknown. I was not him, but maybe after all I’d be okay. I could stop searching for some answer, some way out, some imaginary free land. So driven to find happiness, I was in the center of suffering. But now Buddha gave me a hint of a direction. Smack in the middle of being uncomfortable, confused, restless, I could accept this groundlessness, this not knowing, as a new place, as my own country.

Natalie Goldberg is the author of ten books, including The Great Failure: A Bartender, a Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth. She shows her paintings in Santa Fe at the Ernesto Mayans Gallery and leads retreats in Taos. 

A Time of No Place, Natalie Goldberg, Shambhala Sun, March 2007.


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