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From the bestselling author of Writing Down the Bones comes a luminous spiritual autobiography for readers of Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul. "Goldberg's writing offers a path, a highway, to that elusive place deep wi thin our own lives where divinity sits."--Thomas Moore.
Now I'm aware that I alone am in the vast
openness of the sea
And cause the sea to be the sea.
Just swim. Just swim. Go on with your story.
Dainin Katagiri Roshi
TAOS HIGH SCHOOL had career day and I was invited to give a talk. My heart goes out to high school kids, so I accepted and drove the hour and a half from Santa Fe. I hadn't been in a high school for years. What surprised me was how scruffy the kids seemed, how much acne they had, how thin and young they were, how uninterested they acted, how much they wanted to know something and be contacted.
I felt like a fool standing in front of them. What could I tell them about "my career"? I told them I'd written some books. The teacher held up the books. I told them I make my living as a writer.
I took a deep breath. Here was something hard and familiar: that time in our lives when we're innocent, tender, and growing, half with our parents and half about to break out, half in pain, half curious, and also scared. I wanted life to make sense for these kids, and even if I didn't believe it did, I wanted them to. Looking at them slouched in their seats, I knew they hurt and were bewildered, but had no context for it. I wanted to give them one.
"You know, I was a nerd in high school," I said. I paused. "Do they use the word 'nerd' now?"
"I didn't know I'd be a writer. I was just bored."
Then I told them about Mr. Clemente, my high school English teacher. One day he switched off the lights above our heads and told us to listen to the rain. My high school had big windows, I told them, and I felt what a blessing it was as I stood in front of this windowless modern classroom. "That's all we had to do—listen to the rain. There wasn't a test or a quiz on rain, on listening, or on cloudy afternoons."
I told the kids in Taos High School that day to trust in what they loved, that you don't know where it will lead you. "The important thing is to love something, even if it's skateboarding or car mechanics or whistling. Let yourself love it completely."
Then I had them do a writing exercise, because how could I keep talking about being a writer? They had to experience it.
"Okay, I'm going to give you a test"—they all moaned—"but the nice thing about this test is that all your answers are right. Each answer begins with 'I remember.'
"I'll give you the first question and then I'll give you an example of what I want. Okay, give me a detailed memory of your mother, an aunt, or your grandmother. And whichever one you pick, be specific. Don't write, I remember her,' but I remember my Aunt Gladys, or my mother, or my grandmother.' Here's an example from my own life: I remember my mother wore Revlon red lipstick and she loved to eat Oreo cookies and the dark crumbs stuck to the corners of her lips.' Okay, now it's your turn. You have three minutes."
When three minutes were up, I gave them the next one. "Give me a memory of sound." And my example: "I remember the refrigerator hummed in the kitchen all summer and was louder than the crickets."
I gave them a third one: "Give me a memory of the color red. You don't necessarily have to mention red in your writing. For instance, if you say tomato, it immediately engenders the color red in the listener's mind."
I gave them a fourth: "Give me a memory, any memory, of last summer." The fifth: "Give me a time when you were lonely."
And for the sixth one, I asked for suggestions. They came up with memories of third grade. They wanted an example from my third grade.
"I remember I sat in front of the class next to Mary Brown, the only black girl in the school. We were whispering to each other and Mrs. Schneider screamed, 'Natalie, would you shut up!' This startled everyone. I remember her big teeth as she screamed this and her red lips and the terror I felt in Mary Brown's body across from me as she tried hard to look like she was doing her math."
The Taos students nodded and then they wrote. Then they read aloud.
We said good-bye to each other, and I wished them well. I left the class and walked down the long corridor lined with gray lockers. Again, I was that sad girl in high school, hair pulled straight back in a pony tail, walking lonesome down those halls, up and down many flights of stairs, going into Latin and algebra classes, passing rest rooms and janitor storage rooms, lost for a whole century of my life.
Thank God for that rain out the window and for Mr. Clemente, who allowed us in ninth grade to listen to it for no reason, in the middle of the day. That one moment carried me a long way into my life.
I didn't know it then. At the time, I think, it made me a little nervous—it was too naked, too uncontrolled, too honest. I thought it odd. In those days I was watching my step, making sure I knew the rules, keeping things in control. I wore the same long, pleated wool skirt every day, blue cardigan sweater, oxford shoes, and carried a brown leather school bag, even while the other girls were wearing makeup, nylons, heels. I never felt that I fit in. I was uncomfortable with the idea of lipstick, mascara, flirting with boys. I hated the idea that I had to have children, that I would be a housewife. Every grown-up female I knew in our neighborhood stayed at home and took care of her family. I thought I had to do that, too. I rebelled, but I turned it in on myself, and instead of feeling the energy that rebellion can produce, I became repressed and felt bland, unemotional inside. For fear that people would think I was weird—I saw no one around me I could identify with—I tried not to be noticed. I became a nerd. And here was Mr. Clemente who asked me to listen to the rain, to connect a sense organ with something natural, neutral, good. He asked me to become alive. I was scared, and I loved it.
I signed up for his class for all four years of high school. We studied Archibald MacLeish, Dylan Thomas, James Joyce. That was good, but it was the moment of rain that mattered. I was in Mr. Clemente's class when it was announced over the loudspeaker that President Kennedy had just been shot. We all held our breath and watched for Mr. Clemente's reaction. He turned off the lights, sat down at his desk, took off his glasses, leaned his head on the crook of his arm on the big yellow blotter of his teacher's desk, and wept. Donald Miller, whom I knew from third grade and who drew ships in combat in the corners of his math papers and later died in Vietnam, yelled, "Far out." I don't think he meant anything about Mr. Clemente or JFK; he was just nervous and didn't know what else to do. Mr. Clemente lifted his head off the desk, pointed to the door, and said, "Get out." And Donald, as cool as he could be, but ashamed, tried to saunter out the door.
After Writing Down the Bones had been out for two years, I called Mr. Clemente on the phone. It was twenty-two years after I'd left that school. Mr. Clemente had left the school, too. He didn't remember me, how could he? He'd taught thousands of kids since my time.
He said, "I know that book, Writing Down the Bones, but I never thought one of my students had written it."
We talked for a while. He had hated Farmingdale, as I had. He said he was protesting Vietnam at the time and the town was full of hawks. I just knew I was unhappy there, that I didn't belong. I didn't know there was any place better; I didn't know why I was not at ease at the school.
I remembered my grandmother making me a chopped liver sandwich on rye for my school lunch and how when I took it out of its aluminum foil in the cafeteria, the kids sitting around me, holding peanut butter and jelly, or Kraft yellow cheese, or baloney sandwiches, yelled, "Ick!" and held their noses. I felt ashamed. That sandwich held my whole heritage. I was a Jew in a school of mostly Irish and Italian Catholics. I put the sandwich back in its foil, stood up, and headed for the girls' room. I was torn between tossing the sandwich in the garbage and purchasing a cellophane-wrapped Drake's crumb cake from the cafeteria woman, who had gray hair in a fine net and wore a white uniform and white sturdy shoes, or going into the bathroom stall and eating my ethnic sandwich, hidden from view. I loved my grandmother's chopped liver, and I chose the stall.
My grandmother also squeezed fresh orange juice for me every morning. I was often late for the bus and ran out of the house toward the bus stop, my jacket open, my grandmother racing after me down the suburban block, clutching her flowered housecoat at the throat, the orange juice precariously balanced in a glass in her outstretched hand, yelling after me, "Natli, drink, drink," and I tried to ignore her and leaped on the yellow bus.
In truth, I adored my fine white-haired grandmother and grandfather, who spoke Yiddish and snored in the bedroom next to mine. Having my grandparents always around gave me a knowledge that things would die. I looked at my grandmother's face. It was wrinkled, and her eyes became rheumy and deeper set as time went on. Her hands were pale, frail, thin. Something I loved would leave me. I knew this and sometimes I wept in my bed at night.
Often I crawled under the covers with my grandmother in the evening and she told me stories about how her family arrived at Ellis Island from Poland when she was three years old and how she hardly had an accent. She told me how she had met my grandfather: Her older sister Dora owned a small delicatessen in Manhattan and a polite, clean, soft-spoken man came in one day. Auntie Dora said to herself, "Now that's the man for Rosie." He took my grandmother on a carriage ride around Central Park. She was married at seventeen.
I asked her to tell this story to me over and over again. Each time she elaborated more. That ordinary moment of man meets woman became mythical to her granddaughter. And indeed it was. It was my lineage. I was the result of that meeting; each time she began the telling with: "Shall I tell you a story? About a glory? How to begin it? There's nothing in it."
As Mr. Clemente and I talked, he suddenly interrupted me. "Wait a minute! I do remember you. You were a thin brown-haired girl. You sat in the third seat, fourth row. Why, Natalie, I had no idea you cared. In all those years you never said a word to me."
"I was unhappy," I told him.
"I understand," he said on the phone and I'm sure he was nodding.
I was like that. I took things in deeply, but no one ever knew. In fifth grade I was mad for my teacher, Mr. Berke. He was an energetic man who wore a brown suit and loved science. He taught us scientific experimentation: hypothesis, procedure, materials, observation, conclusion. The idea of hypothesis drove me wild. Hypothesis was something you intuited, but until it was proven, it had only the shimmering quality of a mirage. It entered the realm of the religious: a presence you could not touch. But I wanted to touch it. I became the little scientist. I moved right in. I experimented. I boiled water. The water evaporated and disappeared. I held a glass plate above the boiling water. Steam collected on the glass. I had made water into air into water again. I was delighted. I created a conclusion from my hypothesis that a liquid can become a gas and then become a liquid again. I proved that things change. I touched the transitory nature of life.
In Mr. Berke's science class we used microscopes, glass slides, test tubes. At home I walked around with slides, sticking them in the toilet water, having my grandfather breathe on one, always looking for specimens to be examined. I was ever present if someone cut themselves; I could then catch a blood sample to examine magnified. I was mad for science, though my father and sister made fun of me for wanting a microscope for Hanukkah and a chemistry set for my birthday. Girls shouldn't want those things.
Mr. Berke didn't know how crazy I was about the class. He was blind to my young heart and to what he had opened in it. When he handed back our big reports on the midwestern states, he came to Carol Heitz's paper and said proudly, "Carol received the highest grade in the class, ninety-seven," and he praised her. Then he continued calling out student names and grades and handing back the reports. Finally, after what seemed an interminable amount of time, he called my name: "Natalie." He opened to the first page of the report to announce my grade. "Oh, you got ninety-nine," and he handed me the paper.
At the end of the year when we were promoted to sixth grade, we were put into tracked classes. I was not in IA, IB, or IC, the top tracks. Mr. Berke placed me in 2A, Mr. Nolan's class, the average group, where we spent the year making Ivory soap sculptures of the Parthenon and Mr. Nolan continually tripped over my school bag as he paced the aisles.
On the last day of Mr. Berke's class when I was handed my fifth-grade report card and the letter saving I was promoted to 2A, I went home weeping. I sat in the sunken living room of our split-level house across from my grandmother and mother on the couch, me on the old, reupholstered stuffed chair, a chasm of brown carpet between us, and cried because I wouldn't be able to learn a foreign language in 2A. My grandmother and mother were bewildered. Why would anyone want to know anything besides English anyway?
The teachers I loved in school were Mr. Clemente, Mr. Berke, and Mr. Cates. Mr. Cates taught a special literature class my junior and senior years of high school. I can't remember what it was called. What I do remember is we read The Ballad of the Sad Café, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment. Mr. Cates sat on top of a student desk, his feet on the attached wooden chair, his chin in his hand, and asked us a "big" question, "Who would you rather be—Dmitri or Alyosha in the Brothers?" and we would discuss this for days. "What is desire?" he asked us after we read a Tennessee Williams play, and my young heart leaped at what I was invited to explore. I jumped from one idea to another, trying to decide what desire was. I thought there was an answer, and that it could be known without experience. I didn't know it then that you only discover desire in the flame of it, only know love when loving.
What I adored in Mr. Cates's class was the opportunity to talk, not just myself, but as a whole class, to have a discussion. Someone said something, another person disagreed or elaborated, and all our minds were free, thoughts were free and equal. You had a mind and you thought. You had a right to form the nebulous energy racing through you into words, to form those words with tongue, teeth, jaws, lips, to move your mouth and speak. This might seem elementary. I'm not talking about high-level debate. I'm talking about a scrawny brown-haired girl whose braces had just been taken off her teeth, who sat in a big public school classroom and was suddenly sprung to life. Her mind and feelings had a voice and she spoke words into the empty space between herself and Mr. Gates, and for her every word—even "the" and "am"—were huge. I'd never had a discussion before, especially about something intangible. At home we discussed what we would have for dinner, or if I was warm enough when I went out in the morning, or what clothing did not fit and would be returned to Abraham and Strauss. My family cared about the given, the concrete: peas, lamb chops, a sale at Macy's, a sore throat, a beautiful face, strong legs, the ring of a phone, the neighbor knocking at our door.
At a large extended family dinner I once asked, hoping to initiate a discussion, "Why did Hitler kill so many Jews? Where was God?" We were studying World War II in history class. My relatives turned to me. They were happy just a moment ago, being together and eating my grandmother's chicken. Why did I have to bring that up? My father, like their great knight, replied, "He hated them and there is no God." That settled it. They all nodded. My grandmother offered me another breast, my favorite, and I accepted it. Meanwhile, I sank into a loneliness that isolated me from words for that loneliness. No God? Hatred? What was hatred? I wanted to examine it, as we did in Mr. Cates's class. Could I hate like that? What caused it? Does my grandmother hate? Does my father, my mother? If someone, an uncle, a cousin, had turned to me, seen into my heart just then, and said, "Whv, Natalie, you're lonely," there would have been a great relief. That nontangible, isolated state would have been named and then my lonely existence would have become conscious. But that didn't happen. On many occasions I was told, "You think too much. It will get you in trouble." Thought was useless. You couldn't eat it or buy it. Finally, it was like God. It didn't really exist.
Excerpted from Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg. Copyright © 1993 Natalie Goldberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted July 11, 2007
This book is not quite like Natalie's other books but it still has all of her heart, more of it, even. You learn so much more about who she is. Reading this book was not necessarily like reading a book, it was like sitting down for a long and quiet conversation. I highly recommend it!
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Posted June 17, 2001
Granted that I may be a young, fourteen year old girl, with a dream to be something new each week, I've kept touch with my basics in life. Being a pianoist and writer. The rawness and cut of truth to every verb and noun in Natalie's book had me tripping over my own stepping blocks, questions such as 'Who am I?' Her struggle, that she shows with such a honest flow, could have any reader in grip with their own emotions. Not only is this book just another way to see one of my favorite authors a little closer, but a guide, a personal guide to any suffering soul to come to terms with their self, their surroundings, and their authority. To hold back, and to see the moment for what it truly is. I'd recommend this book to anyone with an open mind, and a lonely heart.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.