Saying Goodbye to the Life That Wasn't Mine
My father had recently died, and my mother was alone on the East Coast. I worried about her. We'd been strangers for so long; now, she was an old woman who needed me, and instead of being with her, I was moving to the other side of the country.
I probably shouldn't have gone to the Golden State, but I had promised I would. My partner was living in the heart of Silicon Valley, running a small software startup she and her friend from Sun Microsystems had created. Until then, the computer world had passed me by—I'd put off using email until my early fifties. But in Minnesota, I was lost—stripped of what I thought I wanted—and one place seemed as good as another.
I stopped home in New Mexico for the Christmas holidays, where I came down with a whopping flu that would not go away, and drove across Arizona with my nose stuffed, eyes watery and a chest that felt as if I were transporting the weight of the queen's jewels.
In Palo Alto, we lived in a tiny, three-room apartment for $2,400 a month. Yes, it was that expensive. A Meyer lemon tree was out back. I made sure to use the fruit—I made gallons of lemonade, lemon pie, lemon soup. Longs Drugs on University Avenue was the only whiff I had that this place had once been a locale of some simple dignity, drenched in sun with orchards nearby. The lettering on the outside was in an old script, and the aisles were lazy and sloppy.
A week into the cramped living arrangements, I took a slow walk one early morning, still sick, thinking maybe we could find a junky fixer-upper nearby. Surely, for the rent we were paying we could own a little house. And behold! Down the block I spied a yellow stucco with a "for sale" sign. With its twisted wires jutting out of sockets over the sidewalk and its torn-down awnings, this sad, modest fellow must be aching for love. I jotted down the realtor's phone number. "I'm asking about that rat's nest on Cowper," I said, breathing thickly into the phone, my nose still bountifully stuffed.
"Yes, that property is three million."
The receiver dangled from my hand. I could hear the snap of her cell phone closing. She isn't ashamed to tell me that? I knew I was in strange territory.
Slowly, I walked the dense streets. March in California—no one tells you this—is the most gorgeous of all months. Everything is blooming and opulent. After living so many years in arid New Mexico, how would I take it in? Just one branch of one bush—and there were often hundreds in one yard—held 18 perfect flowers. The pinks, the reds, the yellows. What could root me in this abundance? What had happened to my America, to the small, empty towns I loved?
I wanted to liberate my little, yellow stucco house and its patch of bare yard, the only place in town where weeds were allowed to grow. Mornings I'd sit on its cracked asphalt patio; I was certain no one would buy this house under the cool shade of a hawthorn.
Eventually, I found another refuge, the huge live oaks and white oaks, some of them 300 years old, looming in yards and bursting out of the concrete sidewalks. All of them alive before this town was here. I became friends with eight of them and visited daily, begging for answers. What am I doing in this sanitary white place?
My deepest connection was with an oak that dwarfed a two-story Tudor house on Coleridge. How I loved that the street had the name of a writer. The oak's roots were so big it dominated the lawn. No human could own this wild animal of a tree—or plant flowers around it. Flowers needed surface water, but this white oak, reaching the height of at least a five-story Manhattan building, was drinking from sources deep and unknown, forgotten aquifers way below the earth's surface. Trees of this nature that were watered were known to burst, exploding rooftops and building structures.
One day, I knocked on the door of the house. A blonde woman with a young child hiding in her skirts opened it.
"I wonder if it's okay that I hang out here a bit sometimes? I've fallen in love with your tree."
"Tree?" she asked with an accent. I could see past the door front. They'd just moved in.
"That one," I pointed. I wanted her, too, to love it. Why else could she have bought the house? The mighty branches extended over the entire yard and out into the street.
She glanced at it. "Oh, yes, it cost a lot when we had it pruned. Sure, it's fine she said, and shut the door.
Untold money was made during the nineties. Couples in their twenties were suddenly millionaires many times over. The category of billionaire came into being. I knew this owner was part of the phenomenon. Stunned by the sudden wealth, she had no time left to notice the tree. I worried for these people, but I was in my fifties, old enough to worship the great oak. I would do it for all of them.
Before I became a full-time writer, I was a teacher. My last teaching job was with 25 fifth- and sixth-graders in a private school. I'd never taught a whole group of white, well-to-do kids before. My specialty was ragtag, sometimes hungry, inner-city kids. I developed a writing practice with these young students. Rudely honest and still connected to community and families, however broken, these Chippewa and African American students gave me fresh insights into the writing mind.
But the 10-, 11-, and 12-year-olds in this private setting were a phenomenon I'd never encountered before. They came to school well dressed, with too many snacks, but as soon as they were dropped off, all hell broke loose. I was afraid they'd kill each other—or at least break a few arms, legs and pelvic bones.
"Quick, without thinking, write what your mother was wearing this morning," I said to them in early September.
Most kids don't notice their mothers that much, but their responses gave me some insight.
My mother is in Switzerland. She left two weeks ago, wrote one thin boy. I haven't seen her in a long time.
My stepmother was making me breakfast. I hate her. She's a lousy cook. I poured Coke on my cereal, penned a redheaded fifth grader.
I understood that, in these families, material goods replaced human attention, guidance and touch. Each day, I watched these kids take out their frustration and isolation on each other. The wealth served to create loneliness.
I sensed this same vacancy in the quaint, expensive streets that I walked in Palo Alto. Soul was missing; only commerce was left.
Yet when I attended a luncheon celebrating a big investment in my partner's company by a venture capitalist, I was surprised to meet the software engineers, who turned out to be fresh, idealistic and enthusiastic. They said things we used to say as hippies, only they substituted the word technology for the word love. "This technology program will change the world, will make it a better place," intoned one young man.
I tried to find some common ground for sharing. Zen? Literature? Writing? These topics got me nowhere. I dropped them and finally just listened. The short-haired blond in a striped polo on my right told me about his love of waves and how he had followed the surf all over the world. The one across the table in a yellow T-shirt and thick glasses spoke of the traditional Korean wedding he would have in six months. He had met his fiancée five weeks earlier in LA. The others teased him, but they were all going to attend the ceremonies.
I tried to ask what they were developing for the company, but no one could tell me. It wasn't a secret, they said. It was just that they hadn't gotten far enough.
I was no computer genius, but I didn't quite believe them, even though I knew they weren't lying. I feared a rootlessness at the core of all of this research.
In truth, I was disappointed that all of this technology was discovered in my lifetime. It seemed to make time busier, more complicated, as if the functions of the mind, the beat of thought I'd come to depend on for my years of sitting-and-writing practice, no longer applied. I understood how the brain made poetic leaps, how it could juxtapose seemingly dissimilar objects, people, rivers, fruit, how you could reach into the center of the source and discover a vast emptiness that was full and abundant. But the rhythm of the minds partaking of this Caribbean meal felt jagged, even severed in some places, as though natural mind waves had been broken. Some neuron had gone astray from staring for so long at computer screens. All over this heart of Silicon Valley, I sensed some human channel burned out.
In the afternoons, I took long walks along a creek that wound between Palo Alto and Menlo Park. I sat on a stone bench to meditate as whole families biked by and couples jogged. From a house across the way, I could hear someone practicing the cello. The person was a good musician. These were not beginning chords. I wanted to knock on the door. Take me in, I'd demand.
Eventually, I found an old Chinese restaurant that had let time pass by. The food was good and not fancy. Its gray walls became my refuge. The waiter recognized me each time I came and knew what I would order: shrimp fried rice. Two dollars more for extra shrimp. I sat in the booth at the back. I felt transported out of sunlit, jazzy California to an old place on Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis. Something ordinary and comforting.
My partner and I were growing distant from each other. Where had she brought me? More important, where had I brought myself?
My source of inspiration had been grounded in a solid, rather unquestioning connection to Zen practice. But back in St. Paul the lineage had crumbled for me. I was in the midst of writing a book about betrayal and failure, about the indiscretions of my teacher. A lot of people I knew didn't want me to write this book. I was on my own. How could I tell anyone what was happening? I was falling backward off the diving board.
One noon I found myself on my knees under the tall eucalyptuses on the Stanford campus.
I wanted to hear an epiphany, some grand realization to give meaning and relief. But no understanding shot through my cells to rectify my birth, my family of origin, the life I was living.
I continued to write my book, to have sleepless nights, to feel biologically out of sync with this new, cutting-edge world.
In June, six months after I arrived, I left, driving out through the Sierras, across Utah, dropping down to New Mexico. I remember staying overnight in a barren motel on the California border, sobbing late into the early morning. Nothing was the way I thought. Not a single thing was the way I wanted it.
As I descended into the northwest corner of New Mexico, a single lane of traffic piled up for miles. On all sides was open sage flatland. Nothing broke the horizon. My car inched along. A deep gray began to enfold us. The sky was no longer sky—the smoke from fires hundreds of miles away, burning up thousands of acres of Arizona forest, was coming our way. The air was unbreathable, filled with a suffocating fog. I could almost hear the high-pitched crack of ponderosas exploding in the extreme heat.
All that summer, that dismal cloud hung over Taos. Hands, faces, tables, chairs were gritty from ash. It was also the second year of a severe drought. I put out pans of water for the jackrabbits that usually shot across the mesa, but now even they were drooping. Several times a day I applied lip balm.
I spoke to my partner long distance. The bombing of the twin towers wasn't even a year old. Her company was merging with an older company. It was happening because the venture capitalists were skittish after the terrorist attack. It felt like the beginning of worlds being shattered.
So why, six years later, leaning over the sink, brushing my teeth in a winter month, do those strange streets in another state call me? Why do they feel so strong that I ache to be back? I can see the library down the block with the English ivy at the entranceway; the low, white concrete benches; the librarian who allowed me only 15 minutes at the public computers. I can feel the air conditioner blowing, much too cold.
In Palo Alto I began learning to say goodbye. Layer by layer, I was pulling off the old protections. Nowhere could I find a foothold to drag myself away to some safe cave. Everywhere I turned was confusion and suffering, inside me and outside me. No difference. I was saying goodbye to all of my old recourses—I could name a dozen right off the top—from just feeling the pain, from settling down into its scratchy nest. Finally there was nowhere to go, no more hiding place, not even Zen.
This was groundlessness, no abiding. Supposedly a good thing in Zen practice, where you finally unhinge, admit you know nothing, surrender to the vast unknown.
So many years ago, when I heard my teacher talk about it, it sounded good and true. But actually to experience it was something different. I felt frightened, hopeless, on the edge of depression, but not even able to sink into that hole.
Then one day, in the middle of my muddled mind, back in the dry and barren air of New Mexico, I realized something. That story about Siddhartha sitting under the Bodhi tree—how he made a vow not to budge until he saw clearly into the nature of things. His determination was always touted. But, really, what was happening—all at once it seemed obvious—wasn't determination, a steeling of will that brought him home. It was a total breakdown, a collapse of everything he knew. He'd tried devout training and austerity; nothing worked. It was in his giving up—drained, exhausted, under the big, branched tree—that, with the appearance of the morning star, insight exploded inside him.
For the first time, I felt akin to Buddha, that skinny man in his thirties who had left his wife and child to seek the unknown. I could stop searching for some answer, some way out, some imaginary free land. Because I was so driven to find happiness, I was in the center of suffering.
But now Buddha gave me a hint of a direction. Smack in the middle of being uncomfortable, confused, restless, I could accept this groundlessness, this not knowing, as a new place, as my own country.
This excerpt was taken from The Great Spring, by Natalie Goldberg, © 2016 by Natalie Goldberg. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.