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Another New Year
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.