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.
After two days in Paris, still jet-lagged, we rent a car to drive
down to the retreat center where I will teach. The estimated travel time is two
and a half hours. But at the Orléans exit an hour south of Paris, I veer off
the highway. I want to see the town whose name is referred to so often in
Paris, as in: Porte d’Orléans, a subway stop; Velodrome d’Orléans, for cycling
races; the clock at the Musée d’Orsey inscribed Paris-Orléans; and the dock
called Quai d’Orléans.
I and my assistant, Saundra, who is a longtime student, the
wife of a rabbi, and a Ph.D. in art history, will have some fun. I keep
repeating that word, strange to a Jew, but I consider it important. This is it.
This one great life. Let’s take some pleasure, even when we discover that this
Orléans turns out not to be much of anything—bland streets, one cathedral, and
a nasty tea shop, the only one open at 3 p.m. But we make the most of it: we go
to their one musée des beaux-arts that has a Gauguin, a slab of raw animal meat
painted by Soutine, and a quiet Corot we forget as soon as we pass it. But
still, name a town in North Dakota that has anything equal. And there are fresh
peaches in the market, not to be seen till August at home in New Mexico.
The problem is that we can’t manage to drive out of the
town. Around and around we go with no map. Forget the GPS on Saundra’s iPhone. You
are here, a metallic female voice repeats when we face a dead-end street at
the edge of a river bluff. You have arrived. Very Zen of her but not
At least I am relieved of the burden of planning—this
retreat has been in the works for almost two years. Justine, a longtime
student, has a French grandmother who has a retreat center, which her uncle, a
conductor in Paris, developed for musicians. They’ve taken a barn and made it
acoustically perfect for concerts. We will use it as a zendo. Justine’s father
was a serious Zen practitioner under the famous teacher Taisen Deshimaru, and
he is delighted this is happening on his mother’s farm.
Saundra and I manage to arrive at Villefavard twelve hours
late, just before the nearby Protestant church clangs out twelve midnight
gongs. The lights are out and we tramp up the steps, dropping into a sleep
disconnected from country or the twirling Earth.
Two nights later, about to begin the course, I am met at the
bottom of the steps by a burly, ponytailed man who has studied with me before.
His name is Steve and he’s the nephew of a dear friend of mine, Katherine
Thanas. The twilight is casting a yellow glow on his face and on everything
“I just spoke to my brother back in California. Aunt Katie
is in the hospital,” Steve blurts out. “She hit her head and lay unconscious
for eight hours before they found her. Her blood was thinned by the pills she
took for her heart condition and it seeped into her brain.”
I grab the front of his shirt and lean into his chest.
Katherine is eighty-five, insistently independent, and lives alone in her own
apartment. Bloody tissues were found upstairs—it seems she tried to administer
to herself. When she came downstairs, she blacked out.
A black chasm opens in front of me: we are losing her.
Through sobs, I muffle out, “Any chance?”
“None,” her nephew chokes on that single word.
I’d seen her last in early January. I had brought her bright
red, blue, and black striped wool socks.
“Katherine,” I said, “we need to jazz you up.” She wore
white cotton toe-fitted ones for the zendo’s high shined wood floor.
“These won’t fit,” she laughed. “I’m size eleven.”
We ate at a Japanese restaurant. For three years, she’d been
on an absolute no-fat diet, not even olive oil. The doctor said it would help
her heart. He also said no one could follow such a stringent protocol. But she
turned her heart around. No open-heart surgery. The doctor was amazed.
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.
On that last visit, she brought me a gift of not only Oe’s A
Personal Matter but also a memoir by Oe’s English translator, John Nathan,
whom she knew. “I wish John had written less about his life and more about what
it’s like to translate,” she tapped the cover. “But interesting just the same.”
It was typical of her, not only the novel but a fresh slant
on the translator. She read widely and it showed in the curious bent of her
I can hear her voice. Whenever she picked up the phone there
was delight in it, ready to take on any person on the other end. No small talk.
She joined you in any challenge, always wanting to understand what it is to be
human. The last time I saw her, she said, “I don’t understand relationships.” A
jaunty sigh and a headshake. Nothing ironic. And then she asked the most
surprising thing: “How do you know love?”
We call the States the first night, the second night.
Katherine is still in the hospital.
We gather wildflowers in the French countryside to make a
fat bouquet, planting it in the middle of the retreat circle with her name on a
Steve tells us, “Aunt Katie sent me Rilke, Charles Olson,
Laurens van der Post, Jack Kornfield, Norman Fischer. My whole childhood she
sent me books. I am a writer today because of that.
“She had a great sense of humor. Just three years ago, I
wanted to see her zendo. She showed me around, then in front of the altar she
jumped up kicking her heels together, ‘I’m the abbot, I’m the abbot,’ she sang
“But,” Steve continues, “she could also be tough. I wore a
weird long multicolored coat and she told me straightaway it looked terrible,
that I didn’t need to freak people out.”
I smile. Katherine had told me in detail about that
conversation and had worried that she hadn’t handled it well.
Three days into the retreat, they take her off life support.
Miraculously, she keeps breathing. Her students convince the hospital to let
her be in hospice at home, surrounded twenty-four hours a day by people who
Each night, after the last class session, Steve and I stand
in the stone courtyard next to plane trees, near tall grass pastures and clumps
of brown Limousin cows in the distance, and we try to call California in its
early morning, almost half a globe away. Often our cellphone can’t make
contact. We stand in the darkening shade, hearing electric noise, clasping the
small metal phone to our ears.
Katherine was the only one in the dharma world, who after
reading my memoir about my Zen teacher’s sexual indiscretions, called me and
directly said that she didn’t like it. After our call, Katherine and I did not
see each other for four years. I was sorely aware of that rift and, from a
distance, calculated her aging. Then one day the phone rang. “Younger students
have been reading your book and telling me, ‘It’s really good.’ I thought: Am
I not a Zen teacher? I must be open-minded. I reread it. I got it all wrong
the first time. I was blinded. When can we see each other?”
Once I asked her to conduct a three-day meditation retreat
in the solar adobe zendo I’d just built in Taos.
Each day she gave a lecture. “I rented a car at the airport
in Albuquerque,” she said. “Getting to Taos was fine—only one highway pointing
north. Then I had to follow Natalie’s directions on these back dirt roads and I
got lost. I realize now that when I’d listened to her over the phone, I
pictured in my mind what she was saying. But when the markers appeared in
actuality—for instance, the right at an abandoned adobe—the markers weren’t how
I pictured them, so I ignored them and went looking for what matched my vision.
Isn’t that how we also work in our life? We don’t see reality.”
The last evening of the retreat, just before the students
break silence, Steve comes up to me and whispers in my ear, “I just spoke to my
brother. Katherine let go.”
I nod and proceed to the zendo in a trance, unable to recall
anything I say or teach that night. So many times this has happened: I am
teaching while something important to me is happening somewhere else. But that
night, after the ending ceremony and festivities, in the long early hours past
midnight, alone in the third story of a French farmhouse, I fall into grief.
The next morning, still in my clothes, I hear a hesitant
knock at my door. “It’s past breakfast and class is in five minutes,” Saundra
says through the crack she opens in the door.
“I can’t do it. You teach,” I growl.
A flicker of hesitation. Then she sees my face. “I couldn’t
be with her,” I cry.
When I leave the retreat, I walk for seven days in the
Dordogne Valley, through fields of corn, walnut trees, sunflowers, and at the
edge of a wide, swollen, meandering river. So much in bloom.
We are no different than a flower, I think. It gives off its
radiance—then dies. We don’t expect that same flower to come back next June.
Another takes its place.
But there must also be something else. My rambunctious
friend, where are you now? Wherever you are, there was still so much to say.
Bright pink zinnia
my friend Katherine
one candle burning
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.