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Another New Year

Sitting still in the dark zendo and breathing with others is exactly what NATALIE GOLDBERG needs. On this last night of the year, she wonders what this human life is all about.

I wake up this first bitter cold day of the New Year, the streets an ice sheet, and recall my dream: small mice are marching across a flower-papered bedroom with an unmade mattress on the floor and my friend Sean sits curled up around his guitar in a wooden chair, weeping that his father never asked him to play, and this New Year’s no one else did either. I clutch his hand, comforting him, at the same time commanding the cats to catch the mice. No one is listening. The cats do not scare the mice. They keep coming.

I lay in bed in my home in Santa Fe with the dream all over my face—the linoleum floor, the woman with bleached blonde hair in the next apartment dropping off her yellow cat, the brick tenements through the window; how very large and empty that dream apartment of mine is.

The night before, at ten o’clock, I snapped my Yaktrax to the bottom of my snow boots and trudged under a full complement of stars in a black sky to Upaya Zen Center across the road. There seventy of us sat for two hours, then listened at midnight to 108 bells ring out the night, a short talk by the roshi (Joan Halifax, my dear friend) and had tea and cookies in the kitchen.

I ate way too many but insisted this was just what I needed. At the time I meant the cookies, but really it was sitting still in the dark zendo, breathing with others, coming together in this sober way on the last night of the year. More than deep or spiritual or any of the words one would associate with Manjushri, his sword of wisdom slicing through ignorance, his statue on the altar and candles flickering, what I felt was relief. To stop at the end of a hectic year that I was trying so hard to rein in, then surrender to, then wonder what this human life is all about.

My mind wanders to the actress I met at the same New Year’s Eve sit three years ago. How much I liked her, how she looked both beautiful and tired. I’d heard a few months ago she had breast cancer. At any age this is bad but in your seventies—even if she gets the best care and survives—it’s a big toll on an aging body.

That evening I had told her how I loved her Broadway performance.

“Did you really? Why didn’t you come backstage afterward to tell me?”

“It never occurred to me.” I didn’t think you could go backstage. I loved her innocence and insecurity—and that her vulnerability remained after her years of fame.

Lying in bed thinking of all the chemo she’d endured, the visits to doctors, the exhaustion, blood tests, worry, hope, phone calls, antiseptic hospital, “It’s about death, isn’t it, Nat?” I say to myself. “Either way, no matter what, there is death at the end.”

My mind flies back to ten years ago: a sawed-off shotgun at my neck, “Give me your purse,” the front door to the apartment building an arm’s length away, nine in the evening under the front porch light. I fooled him and gave him my athletic bag instead, clear and unafraid, but on the other side of the door, back in my small living room I was shattered, hysterical, terrified. All weekend I did not leave the apartment and Monday morning I had to appear at 5 a.m. in front of the Zen teacher I’d come back to the Twin Cities to study with. There was a plan to receive dharma transmission, permission to teach in my old Japanese teacher’s lineage. He had died ten years before. I was in my early fifties, still working out his death, thinking that if I was in his teaching lineage he’d be able to meet me on the other side, the silver death plane would land and voilà — he would be standing at Gate 57 waiting for me. It was naïve, stupid; I hadn’t thought it all through. Deeply entangled, I’d hauled my ass—and my furniture—up once again to the upper Midwest in my blind drive to work it out.

And I’m glad I did. One early morning in a clear ordinary moment I realized I didn’t want dharma transmission. I didn’t need anything from this teacher in front of me. We were both free: no one could give me my own authority. I always felt great gratitude toward this teacher for the opportunity to discover that.

But that morning, forty-eight hours after being assaulted, all I thought about was how I was going to dash to my car across the street, unlock it, and get in before another man with a shotgun grabbed me.


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