Last week I had a nice visit with an old friend who's never met me. You read that right. See, Natalie Goldberg's Long Quiet Highway is my favorite book. Yep, it even beats out On The Road. I try to reread it at least once of year. The story resonated with me so much during the first read that I thought she had written it for me.
Near the end of an almost 10 year marriage that was beyond the help of life support, I happened upon Goldberg's memoir in a book club catalog. I don't remember exactly what the blurb said, but the themes of Buddhism and writing appealed to me. Note that at that point, I was neither a writer nor a Buddhist. The book ended up being more than I bargained for. Goldberg told the story of finding her way through life by employing writing as both vocation and therapy. In parallel, she related her journeys through Buddhism and her relationship with her teacher, Dainin Katagiri Roshi.
Goldberg found a physical home in New Mexico and, for a time, a spiritual home in Minnesota. Her story both inspired and depressed me. I felt a certain energy build inside myself while reading of her long-term commitment to the written word. It wasn't so much that I wanted to be a writer since at the time I really only had vague notions. No, it was more that I sat there in my own endlessly static state reading about a person who seemed to be solving their life. It was actually possible! On the other hand, I found Roshi's decline and eventual death very difficult to take. Maybe it was my fragile emotional state, or maybe it was just a sympathetic response to my new found friend's shattering circumstance — whatever the reason, I remember sitting up very late at night, crying silently as my eyes floated over those words describing that man's passing.
On subsequent readings of Long Quiet Highway, I found myself rooting for Goldberg. My own life had changed for the better (after getting much worse), so the book was not the reminder of my sad circumstance that it had been. Goldberg's determination in her writing, and her joyous immersion in the creative world were all the more inspiring. It did indeed feel like we were friends. But still, Roshi always died. I was always sad.
Like a lot of things that happen so slowly that we barely notice, we change too. Certainly our bodies change, and that might be the most obvious marker of the passage of time. A little more subtle — or more hidden — are the changes in how we think. Our perspective on things.
During my most recent reread, there was a new passage that resonated. Natalie's beloved grandmother was spending her final days in a nursing home. Natalie feels compelled to visit. Though senility has robbed her grandmother of the knowledge of her granddaughter, they share a moment of intimacy that's almost too much to take. When Natalie was a young girl, she would often ask her grandmother to repeat the story of how she met her grandfather. She would begin by saying "Shall I tell you a story? About a glory? How to begin it? There's nothing in it." All of these years later, lying next to her in a nursing home bed:
"Grandma, tell me a story," I beseeched her.
She answered, "About a glory?"
I said, "How to begin it?"
"There's nothing in it, she said.
I am not surprised that this passage hit me so hard this time around, because things have definitely changed in my life. Things that make this account so much more real. No, the big surprise is how I missed it all of those other times. Was I that different back then. Apparently so.
All of this serves as a confirmation that I have places to go and that time might be short. You just never know. In Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Late For Your Life," the chorus brings up the idea that our search can often be full of both right and wrong turns, the point being that we shouldn't let it stop us: "Call it chance or call it fate/Either one is cause to celebrate/Still the question begs why would you wait/And be late for your life."
Thank you, old friend. I hope we meet some day.