I have wanted to meet her for a long time. Natalie Goldberg is the queen bee of memoir, and she taught me everything I know. Or it seems that way. I fell in love with Writing Down the Bones six years ago, and I’ve been carrying some version of her books in my writing bag ever since. She knows what she’s doing. I’ve bought that book so many times for so many people, and more than once for myself.
She is a world renowned writing teacher, and she teaches workshops and retreats all over the place. When I learned that she was teaching one just six hours away from my home, I signed up right quick. Which only meant I was on a waiting list that was several months long. Still, your name can never come to the top of the list if you don’t first put it at the bottom.
When I got word that I had emerged at the top, that my moment had come, I was beside myself. I took money out of savings. I got the green light from Peter (who said, “Why are you even asking me??”). I booked my tickets. And I prepared to go.
It would be a pilgrimage of sorts, deep into a Carmelite convent in the hills of Santa Fe, where they practiced Zen Buddhism. There would be altitude and dry air and the possibility of snakes and the reality of daily silence and guided meditation. Every single thing outside my comfort zone.
She is graceful and peaceful. She speaks slowly and she will not be rushed. She said, “Don’t worry about taking it all in. After all, when you walk in the mist, you will get wet. Just let yourself get wet.” It bothered her that I took notes quite furiously. But I couldn’t stop. It’s how I learn. It’s apparently how I get wet.
I learned that I am not so good at meditation. I mean, I do it on my own terms, almost on a daily basis. But thirty minutes a day was a different thing. And try as I may, I could not become one with the rocks, and I could not feel the curiosity of the trees. But I could anchor my thoughts. I could focus on my breath. I could cut through the busyness of my thoughts and find what was really happening in my head, find what was waiting to be born on the page.
On our second day, as we sat in a silent room, breathing silently together, Natalie said, “Who can remember the verb I used to describe our thoughts?”
It was a vague question. And she knew it. She loves to do things like that, to toss out an obscure question that requires some trust to answer.
“Quiet?” one of my classmates said.
“That’s not a verb,” she said.
“Verb. I said verb.”
“Stop this. You’re jumping and reaching. No more of this nonsense. Be still and let it come to you.”
It came to me. But it didn’t come on the wind or in the trees or through the rocks. It came in the same voice that I’ve known to trust for most of my life. I call him by his name: Holy Spirit. I had brought him with me to this place so different from the spheres I travel in, and it turns out, he could whisper to me here, too. He and I had a very rich dialogue, day in and day out, as I navigated a place where people worship everyone but him.
I thought, I know that’s the word. I know it. But I don’t need to say it. I can let someone else say it. And when they’re right, I’ll know again that that the knowing of that silent voice is right all along.
My classmates tossed out a few other words. We all had our eyes closed, tossing words into the void. Natalie refused them. She balances her life between New York and New Mexico, so while she has the still peace of the desert mountains, she also possesses the gruff voice of a New Yorker.
“No,” she said. “No. Wait for it. Stop guessing.”
Nothing silences a group of students more than the awareness that guesses aren’t safe. They were silent.
“Anchor,” I said.
She opened her eyes. “Who said that?”
I raised my hand. She spotted me. A smile broke across her face, and she said, “Oh, my darling.”
And I was once again every age I’ve ever been when a teacher has smiled on me.
“She has it,” she said. “And she will be high all day from this moment.”
I was waiting for my moment to talk to her. I wanted to give her a copy of my first book, the one where I thanked her in the acknowledgements, for she taught me how to write it. Now that we had had this exchange, now that she knew my face, I felt I could approach this guru without seeming like a groupie.
On a break, I came up to her. She was seated in her chair. She doesn’t do hugs or handshakes, because she is in remission from cancer and she cannot risk a breach of her immune system. I can respect that boundary. I knelt in front of her.
I said, “Can I tell you a story? You’re in it.”
She said, “Yes. Who are you?”
“My name is Tricia. I’m your darling who knew the word Anchor.”
She said, “Oh, I knew that part. I’ll never forget that part. I just wanted to know your name. Hello, Tricia.”
“Hello, Natalie. Here is my story. Seven years ago, the doctors thought my husband had the flu. But they missed a diagnosis, and they sent us home. He died the next day.” I absorbed the shock on her face. I always feel a little bad about leading with sadness, but that’s how it happened.
“Somewhere in that first year, I found your book Writing Down the Bones. And you introduced me to a writing practice, and I’ve read all of your works since then. I wrote through my journey, I’ve published three memoirs, and I’m working on my fourth. I just wanted you to know, you helped to save my life.”
I showed her And Life Comes Back. I opened to the acknowledgements in the back. I had circled her name. After all, this is her copy.
She was incredulous. She said, “My darling, why are you here?”
“For this moment. Right now. I came a long way to say thank you.”
Then she said, “Are you learning anything at all?”
Which showed me that even the greats wonder if they have anything left to say.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “There is always more to learn.”
She knows me now. I belong to her. She belongs to me.
When a teacher shows you the way, you should thank them. Even if it means going to the Carmelite convent and sitting in silence and waiting for your sparkling moment.