Shambhala Sun | March 2014
Fearlessly direct and endlessly curious, Katherine was
the sort of person who might suddenly ask, “How do you know love?” NATALIE GOLDBERG recounts what she learned from loving and losing this special friend.
I think the first time I met Katherine was in the late
eighties, around the time my Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi, was dying. She
visited him in Minneapolis because he’d been one of her teachers when he first
came to America to help Suzuki Roshi in the early years of the San Francisco
“He was not a good example. He was too perfect.” She lifted
her elbows to show how erect his gassho was.
Or maybe I met her first after Katagiri Roshi died and she
asked me to do a benefit for her small community. The money they made from the
writing workshop would build a bathroom for the zendo, previously a Chinese
laundry. She picked me up in her Honda and we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge en
route to her shoulder of the Peninsula. My only memory of the drive is of her
energetic foot pouncing on the shift pedal.
Five years later was my true meeting with her. I had taught
writing for a week at Tassajara Zen Monastery and was given a week on my own in
exchange, to soak in the hot springs and stay in a new stone guesthouse. I was
teaching myself to do abstract paintings. Form detached from meaning, meaning
expressed in color. I had six cheap oil pastels and an even cheaper packet of
8" x 11" sheets of paper.
Katherine was there that week leading a Zen and yoga
retreat. She had lived at Tassajara for many winters, after the summer guests
had left. Winter was when Zen students faced the wall for long hours far away
from city distractions, settling deep into remote silence.
She leaned over my shoulder as I sat on the dirt path
looking up at the waterfall. “Not quite abstract, not realistic, either.” She
pointed her index finger along the blue line.
“What was it like to study with Diebenkorn?” I asked her.
Richard Diebenkorn was a preeminent Californian ab-stract painter.
“I knew I couldn’t be great. I was pulled to Zen,” she
That week I sought her out. I practiced Zen with all my
heart but loved writing and painting. At that time, Zen and creativity were
still opposing each other. Katherine knew about both.
“I like this line.” She came up behind me on the third day.
“But you don’t have it yet.”
“Why don’t you paint anymore?” I asked her.
She laughed and said nothing.
A year ago she visited me in Santa Fe and popped up after
each meal to clear her plate.
“Don’t wash the dishes,” I told her. “You’ll make more of a
mess. You can relax and let me do the work.”
“I want to be useful,” she said, always the Zen
practitioner: when you can no longer work, you can no longer eat. We were
brought up on the raw edge of ancient Japanese teachings, transmitted through
great human effort, challenging all adversity.
Natalie Goldberg is the author of Writing Down the
Bones and The True Secret of Writing. In 2014, she will be leading
two writing retreats in France.
Photo: Natalie and Katherine with a photograph of Katagiri Roshi. Courtesy of the author.