Two old monks who are lost meet a woman standing at a crossroads and ask her, “Do you know the way?” Of course, she replies. “Straight ahead.”
That’s one of the memorable lines from Natalie Goldberg’s “The Great Spring.” And I hate to tell you, but we’re all pretty much the old monks.
What is the way? What is the point of a life? What does it mean to live well? How can writing help us see more clearly?
These are some of the questions Goldberg has worked to answer and illuminate over a long career.
The author, whose groundbreaking bestseller “Writing Down the Bones” is celebrating its 30th year, returns to Minneapolis this week as part of a 12-city tour. It is a return to the wellspring of her career, the city in whose 1980s cafes she conceived the book that “changed the way writing was taught” and in whose Zen Center she practiced and studied.
Her new book is a collection of stories broken down by life’s phases: Searching, Wandering, Zigzagging, Losing and Leaping. It encompasses her stays or treks in Minnesota; New Mexico, where she lives; New York, where she grew up; France, and rural Japan. Like memories, the stories are not chronological, but they build as one reads to a sort of climax of greater understanding.
Minnesota figures prominently, and accounts of Goldberg’s visits to the resting place of her late Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi, and meetings in Hibbing with Bob Dylan’s high school English teacher are among the most touching.
The “Great Spring” is a metaphor for enlightenment in Zen Buddhism, a clarity that comes much the way that Minnesotans “wake up” during their own Great Spring following the cold dormancy of a long winter.
In the book, Goldberg’s lifetime practice of writing, Zen and traveling give birth to insights as she looks back and forward: The obstacles are part of the way; the way is not straight. As the Buddha discovered, surrender illuminates the path to enlightenment. Like blossoms, we are radiant, then fall. We are alive. We will die.
One of Goldberg’s writing mantras is that the secret of writing is this: Write. And in this book, likewise, the discovered secret to life, even in the face of our inevitable death, is to live.
“There is no cure for human life, except to live it, being willing to rip off blinders as we go and let the light in,” she says. And the practice of writing? It is “a training in waking up.”
When she returns to the city where it all began, her talks are sure to enliven and enlighten, and I feel confident that at both events she’ll hear the sound of two hands clapping.
Michiela Thuman is the Star Tribune’s news design director.
The Great Spring: Writing, Zen and This Zigzag Life
By: Natalie Goldberg.
Publisher: Shambhala, 207 pages, $22.95.
Events: 7 p.m. June 14, Grace Trinity Church, 1430 W. 28th St., Mpls., free. 7 p.m. June 15, Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls., $10, sold out. Call 612-215-2575 to be added to waitlist.