Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home
By Natalie Goldberg. (Shambala, 194 pages, $16.95.)
“We write to taste life twice.”
Anais Nin said that, but Buddhist author and noted writing teacher Natalie Goldberg has lived it.
In this short, raw memoir, Goldberg, 70, recounts her cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatments and how writing proved fundamental in helping her process her fear and embrace the reality of the unknown.
Goldberg, who was a longtime student at the Minnesota Zen Center, now lives in New Mexico, and in a Murphy’s Law twist on an already tough situation, her partner was diagnosed with breast cancer at the same time.
As it should, Goldberg’s lifetime of Zen training becomes a useful tool, and along with writing, her salvation as she finds her uneasy footing in this suddenly fragile world where mortality “hung out on my right shoulder like an animal, patient yet hungry.”
Interspersed are flashbacks of odysseys the writer has taken over her lifetime to the graves of those she admires — her Japanese Zen teacher, John Keats, Gregory Corso, Richard Hugo, Carson McCullers — offering them a prayer of gratitude, a stone for remembrance and, after her own diagnosis, a nod of recognition.
How do I live? A person now more intimate with death asks while seeking a way forward. Coming face to face with death, we can truly come to realize how in love with our lives we are, Goldberg finds, and she offers up as wisdom, to each of us, really, the Buddha’s last words on how to proceed and, yes, even bloom: “All things that are born must die. In any case, continue with vigor.”
Natalie Goldberg will be at the Clouds in Water Zen Center, 445 Farrington St., St. Paul, at 7 p.m. Aug. 21. Free, but donations requested.
In Full Flight: A Story of Africa and Atonement
By John Heminway. (Alfred A. Knopf, 316 pages, $27.95.)
In 1948, a young Frenchwoman arrived in Africa and began a remarkable career as a doctor. Settling in Kenya, Anne Spoerry began treating patients at local clinics.
At age 45, she expanded her reach, taking flying lessons, buying a single-engine plane and joining the Flying Doctors Service. Over a span of 50 years, Spoerry is believed to have treated an astounding 1.2 million patients.
Known as Mama Daktari (Mother Doctor), she was the subject of numerous adoring articles and documentaries.
Before moving to Africa, while a medical student in Paris, Spoerry was active in the French Resistance. She was arrested by the occupying Germans and sent to Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women north of Berlin. To journalists, Spoerry angrily refused to talk about her incarceration, but not until after her death at age 80 did the reason became clear.
It wasn’t that she preferred not to revisit the horrors inflicted upon her, but rather because she didn’t want to admit the horrors she inflicted on fellow inmates. Locked in the safe in her home was a copy of war crimes charges against her — including torture and killings.
In Ravensbrück, Spoerry had fallen under the “devilish spell” of a charismatic, amoral fellow inmate, and Spoerry’s own actions and moral failings — driven almost certainly by self-preservation — haunted her for the rest of her life, and no doubt drove her to atone for her sins by spending a lifetime healing on another continent.
John Heminway, a journalist who was friends with Spoerry in Africa, unearthed the details of her past, and in his book “In Full Flight” he writes unflinchingly yet compassionately about how Mama Daktari fled Europe for Africa to avoid a war crimes trial and “rearranged a past of staggering complexity into a future of endless possibilities.”
DENNIS J. MCGRATH