Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg

"'Meetings end in departures....' No matter how long the meeting or what the relationship, we depart from each other." (p. 179)

Goldberg is most famous for writing about writing in Writing Down the Bones, and her words are so poetic that, no doubt, this post will be full of quotes. Long Quiet Highway is the story of her life, a kind of Zen memoir, where you have to keep reading to see the sense in what she's writing, and even then not everything connects as it does in more conventional writing. Last time I picked this up, I read only to a section about a rainy Sunday feeling on a train, which floored me. What I saw then was the concept of surrendering to whatever is the case, whether it's noise or silence, bustle or isolation. Now I see more of what she was saying: "I was excited. I had physically experienced what the Tibetans talked about, the transformation from neurosis to wisdom. I sat in the train and watched my letting go, my opening into an old painful feeling, and I experienced it in a new way, felt another dimension of it--its largeness." (p. 29) I feel certain I didn't understand that the first time I read it, but after this past year, I understand it better.

Goldberg talks about "digesting my own voice," coining phrases for herself (p. 40). She speaks of this as a phase she went through once, though I've noticed I go through this periodically throughout my life. A thought becomes a phrase that turns into a poem or song, a tiny one, that I carry around for awhile. Sometimes they grow into actual poems or songs, other times they just stay little notecard-sized phrases that I carry around.

I appreciate her description of a feminism that didn't limit her into dismissals of male voices but freed her from sexist judgment:
"Before feminism I'd read books written by men and thought the women characters were the way I should be. I wasn't fooled this time, but wow! could he [Hemingway] write about walking through the Luxembourg gardens after working on a short story in a cafe about how it felt to write, about how his belly was hungry. This is what I took from him and thanked him for. I'm sure he suffered plenty for his attitudes about women, but I got what I wanted." (p. 41)
I still find myself wondering if Hemingway suffered enough, but Goldberg's approach is splendid in that it allows her to stay open-eyed, not defensive.

At one point she describes her father's misery that his brother didn't mention him in his will. "Nothing. All that love wasted," she quotes her father as saying. (p. 66) It's a painful passage to imagine. But this time I found myself adamant that no such thing is wasted. Not being loved back is just an experience among other experiences, it need not bind us into tit-for-tat even-steven loving.

I'm not being very literal in my writing about this book, and I'm veering away from being evaluative. Some will complain that it doesn't cohere enough, but I found the many passages that moved me to be worth it. She writes from the body in ways that defy articulation, and yet she captures a lot. I have a host of yellow sticky notes still begging for transcription, from the middle section of the book, and yet I think I'll stop here. Interestingly enough, I don't have many notes on the end of the book. I wonder, if I read it a third time in another ten years, if I'll understand that section in ways I don't know. The end is about her teacher dying, about letting go of even the sense of being valued by that teacher in order to honor his memory. She speaks of learning best from those who are "whole people," who live what they are in life in the classroom and vice versa. I haven't lost my teacher, and really, I don't want the experiences that would make me fully resonate with such a thing. But it seems likely that experiences may come anyway in the next decade or so. Perhaps I'll come back to this book when they do.

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