After two days in Paris, still jet-lagged, we rent a car to drive down to the retreat center where I will teach. The estimated travel time is two and a half hours. But at the Orléans exit an hour south of Paris, I veer off the highway. I want to see the town whose name is referred to so often in Paris, as in: Porte d’Orléans, a subway stop; Velodrome d’Orléans, for cycling races; the clock at the Musée d’Orsey inscribed Paris-Orléans; and the dock called Quai d’Orléans.
I and my assistant, Saundra, who is a longtime student, the wife of a rabbi, and a Ph.D. in art history, will have some fun. I keep repeating that word, strange to a Jew, but I consider it important. This is it. This one great life. Let’s take some pleasure, even when we discover that this Orléans turns out not to be much of anything—bland streets, one cathedral, and a nasty tea shop, the only one open at 3 p.m. But we make the most of it: we go to their one musée des beaux-arts that has a Gauguin, a slab of raw animal meat painted by Soutine, and a quiet Corot we forget as soon as we pass it. But still, name a town in North Dakota that has anything equal. And there are fresh peaches in the market, not to be seen till August at home in New Mexico.
The problem is that we can’t manage to drive out of the town. Around and around we go with no map. Forget the GPS on Saundra’s iPhone. You are here, a metallic female voice repeats when we face a dead-end street at the edge of a river bluff. You have arrived. Very Zen of her but not helpful.
At least I am relieved of the burden of planning—this retreat has been in the works for almost two years. Justine, a longtime student, has a French grandmother who has a retreat center, which her uncle, a conductor in Paris, developed for musicians. They’ve taken a barn and made it acoustically perfect for concerts. We will use it as a zendo. Justine’s father was a serious Zen practitioner under the famous teacher Taisen Deshimaru, and he is delighted this is happening on his mother’s farm.
Saundra and I manage to arrive at Villefavard twelve hours late, just before the nearby Protestant church clangs out twelve midnight gongs. The lights are out and we tramp up the steps, dropping into a sleep disconnected from country or the twirling Earth.
Two nights later, about to begin the course, I am met at the bottom of the steps by a burly, ponytailed man who has studied with me before. His name is Steve and he’s the nephew of a dear friend of mine, Katherine Thanas. The twilight is casting a yellow glow on his face and on everything around us.
“I just spoke to my brother back in California. Aunt Katie is in the hospital,” Steve blurts out. “She hit her head and lay unconscious for eight hours before they found her. Her blood was thinned by the pills she took for her heart condition and it seeped into her brain.”
I grab the front of his shirt and lean into his chest. Katherine is eighty-five, insistently independent, and lives alone in her own apartment. Bloody tissues were found upstairs—it seems she tried to administer to herself. When she came downstairs, she blacked out.
A black chasm opens in front of me: we are losing her. Through sobs, I muffle out, “Any chance?”
“None,” her nephew chokes on that single word.
I’d seen her last in early January. I had brought her bright red, blue, and black striped wool socks.
“Katherine,” I said, “we need to jazz you up.” She wore white cotton toe-fitted ones for the zendo’s high shined wood floor. Traditional Japanese.
“These won’t fit,” she laughed. “I’m size eleven.”
We ate at a Japanese restaurant. For three years, she’d been on an absolute no-fat diet, not even olive oil. The doctor said it would help her heart. He also said no one could follow such a stringent protocol. But she turned her heart around. No open-heart surgery. The doctor was amazed.
I think the first time I met Katherine was in the late eighties, around the time my Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi, was dying. She visited him in Minneapolis because he’d been one of her teachers when he first came to America to help Suzuki Roshi in the early years of the San Francisco Zen Center.
“He was not a good example. He was too perfect.” She lifted her elbows to show how erect his gassho was.
Or maybe I met her first after Katagiri Roshi died and she asked me to do a benefit for her small community. The money they made from the writing workshop would build a bathroom for the zendo, previously a Chinese laundry. She picked me up in her Honda and we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge en route to her shoulder of the Peninsula. My only memory of the drive is of her energetic foot pouncing on the shift pedal.
Five years later was my true meeting with her. I had taught writing for a week at Tassajara Zen Monastery and was given a week on my own in exchange, to soak in the hot springs and stay in a new stone guesthouse. I was teaching myself to do abstract paintings. Form detached from meaning, meaning expressed in color. I had six cheap oil pastels and an even cheaper packet of
8″ x 11″ sheets of paper.
Katherine was there that week leading a Zen and yoga retreat. She had lived at Tassajara for many winters, after the summer guests had left. Winter was when Zen students faced the wall for long hours far away from city distractions, settling deep into remote silence.
She leaned over my shoulder as I sat on the dirt path looking up at the waterfall. “Not quite abstract, not realistic, either.” She pointed her index finger along the blue line.
“What was it like to study with Diebenkorn?” I asked her. Richard Diebenkorn was a preeminent Californian ab-stract painter.
“I knew I couldn’t be great. I was pulled to Zen,” she answered.
That week I sought her out. I practiced Zen with all my heart but loved writing and painting. At that time, Zen and creativity were still opposing each other. Katherine knew about both.
“I like this line.” She came up behind me on the third day. “But you don’t have it yet.”
“Why don’t you paint anymore?” I asked her.
She laughed and said nothing.
A year ago she visited me in Santa Fe and popped up after each meal to clear her plate.
“Don’t wash the dishes,” I told her. “You’ll make more of a mess. You can relax and let me do the work.”
“I want to be useful,” she said, always the Zen practitioner: when you can no longer work, you can no longer eat. We were brought up on the raw edge of ancient Japanese teachings, transmitted through great human effort, challenging all adversity.
On that last visit, she brought me a gift of not only Oe’s A Personal Matter but also a memoir by Oe’s English translator, John Nathan, whom she knew. “I wish John had written less about his life and more about what it’s like to translate,” she tapped the cover. “But interesting just the same.”
It was typical of her, not only the novel but a fresh slant on the translator. She read widely and it showed in the curious bent of her mind.
I can hear her voice. Whenever she picked up the phone there was delight in it, ready to take on any person on the other end. No small talk. She joined you in any challenge, always wanting to understand what it is to be human. The last time I saw her, she said, “I don’t understand relationships.” A jaunty sigh and a headshake. Nothing ironic. And then she asked the most surprising thing: “How do you know love?”
We call the States the first night, the second night. Katherine is still in the hospital.
We gather wildflowers in the French countryside to make a fat bouquet, planting it in the middle of the retreat circle with her name on a placard.
Steve tells us, “Aunt Katie sent me Rilke, Charles Olson, Laurens van der Post, Jack Kornfield, Norman Fischer. My whole childhood she sent me books. I am a writer today because of that.
“She had a great sense of humor. Just three years ago, I wanted to see her zendo. She showed me around, then in front of the altar she jumped up kicking her heels together, ‘I’m the abbot, I’m the abbot,’ she sang out.
“But,” Steve continues, “she could also be tough. I wore a weird long multicolored coat and she told me straightaway it looked terrible, that I didn’t need to freak people out.”
I smile. Katherine had told me in detail about that conversation and had worried that she hadn’t handled it well.
Three days into the retreat, they take her off life support. Miraculously, she keeps breathing. Her students convince the hospital to let her be in hospice at home, surrounded twenty-four hours a day by people who love her.
Each night, after the last class session, Steve and I stand in the stone courtyard next to plane trees, near tall grass pastures and clumps of brown Limousin cows in the distance, and we try to call California in its early morning, almost half a globe away. Often our cellphone can’t make contact. We stand in the darkening shade, hearing electric noise, clasping the small metal phone to our ears.
Katherine was the only one in the dharma world, who after reading my memoir about my Zen teacher’s sexual indiscretions, called me and directly said that she didn’t like it. After our call, Katherine and I did not see each other for four years. I was sorely aware of that rift and, from a distance, calculated her aging. Then one day the phone rang. “Younger students have been reading your book and telling me, ‘It’s really good.’ I thought: Am I not a Zen teacher? I must be open-minded. I reread it. I got it all wrong the first time. I was blinded. When can we see each other?”
Once I asked her to conduct a three-day meditation retreat in the solar adobe zendo I’d just built in Taos.
Each day she gave a lecture. “I rented a car at the airport in Albuquerque,” she said. “Getting to Taos was fine—only one highway pointing north. Then I had to follow Natalie’s directions on these back dirt roads and I got lost. I realize now that when I’d listened to her over the phone, I pictured in my mind what she was saying. But when the markers appeared in actuality—for instance, the right at an abandoned adobe—the markers weren’t how I pictured them, so I ignored them and went looking for what matched my vision. Isn’t that how we also work in our life? We don’t see reality.”
The last evening of the retreat, just before the students break silence, Steve comes up to me and whispers in my ear, “I just spoke to my brother. Katherine let go.”
I nod and proceed to the zendo in a trance, unable to recall anything I say or teach that night. So many times this has happened: I am teaching while something important to me is happening somewhere else. But that night, after the ending ceremony and festivities, in the long early hours past midnight, alone in the third story of a French farmhouse, I fall into grief.
The next morning, still in my clothes, I hear a hesitant knock at my door. “It’s past breakfast and class is in five minutes,” Saundra says through the crack she opens in the door.
“I can’t do it. You teach,” I growl.
A flicker of hesitation. Then she sees my face. “I couldn’t be with her,” I cry.
When I leave the retreat, I walk for seven days in the Dordogne Valley, through fields of corn, walnut trees, sunflowers, and at the edge of a wide, swollen, meandering river. So much in bloom.
We are no different than a flower, I think. It gives off its radiance—then dies. We don’t expect that same flower to come back next June. Another takes its place.
But there must also be something else. My rambunctious friend, where are you now? Wherever you are, there was still so much to say.
Bright pink zinnia
my friend Katherine
one candle burning
This essay was included in The Great Spring: Writing, Zen and This Zigzag Life by Natalie Goldberg (Shambhala 2016).