Readers of my other blog, My Writing Journey, know that I’ve been a longtime fan of Natalie Goldberg, ever since I discovered her first writing book Writing Down the Bones way back in my twenties, and I tentatively thought that maybe, possibly, you know, I could be a writer. She gave me the courage to put words down on paper, to own my mind and my truth, and to keep writing, no matter what.
I’ve followed Natalie over the years through many writing books and memoirs, and though I don’t always follow her prescription of writing in the notebook everyday, I often go back to it when I’m feeling stuck or lost. It’s a baseline, a foundation that holds me up when I’m feeling like I made the biggest mistake of my life by pursuing this course.
In her books, I not only learned about writing and the writing life, but about Natalie herself. Her Jewish upbringing on Long Island, her discovery of writing at the age of 24, her hippie years, her teaching jobs, her lovers and friends, her sense of humor and quirks, and especially her practice of Zen with her beloved teacher, Katagiri Roshi. Her sheer passion for life. I’ve never met her, but I feel like I know the woman, the pulse of her life, because she’s shared so much of it in her writing.
When I learned that this latest memoir was about her struggle with cancer at age 66, I was shocked, saddened, worried. Well, I thought, she’ll face the prospect of Death and tell it where to go, right? After all, she’s spent years facing the void in her Zen practice. That’s what all those hours of meditating is all about when it comes down to it, right? But the truth is, no matter how long or how often you look into the void from a distance, when it comes knocking on your door and calls you by name, you don’t want to answer.
For a while, Nat ignored her diagnosis of leukemia, put it off, didn’t want to face it. When she finally sought treatment, she went about it with determination. She wanted to live. She entered the unfamiliar world of endless doctors, treatments, medications, medical terminology, and just the daily struggle of functioning when Death’s envoy, cancer, was running through her veins. As if this wasn’t bad enough, she found out her girlfriend, Yu Kwan, had breast cancer. Their struggle to keep the relationship alive while on their separate cancer journeys forms the heart of the book.
This is a short, heartfelt book about facing illness and death, holding on to love, and letting go of control in order to find peace. I’m looking forward to her next memoir, and the next, and the next.