The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth, by Natalie Goldberg (LentBook #18)

One of the things I love about my Lenten reading project is the role serendipity plays in it.  Some books I select, because people recommend them or because I’ve meant to get around to reading them for awhile.  Others just fall across my path, like this one, and somehow fit neatly into other things I’m reading and thinking about.

This Thursday I was almost through my pile of nonfiction books, which seemed about right since Lent was almost over. Yet I had the nagging feeling there should be just one more — not anything long or difficult or theological, but a nice memoir I could immerse myself in.  I went to Chapters and looked at several — all interesting, but also ones I could probably get from the library.  None seemed worth the $20+ cover price (and the library was closed for the long weekend by this time).  Then, walking past the bargain rack, I saw a $5 copy of this book by Natalie Goldberg, and picked it up.

I’ve read Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, and Long Quiet Highway by Natalie Goldberg, and enjoyed them all, though she’s sometimes almost too intuitive and unstructured — to the point where she starts sounding scatterbrained.  Still, she has some great thoughts on writing and life.  I knew she grew up Jewish, not particularly observant, and started practicing Zen as an adult — Long Quiet Highway is about her spiritual journey, while the other books I’d read by her were about writing.  This book promised to explore her relationship with the two most important men in her life — her father and her Zen teacher — and how those relationships affected Natalie’s own path.

The two men — Ben Goldberg of Brooklyn and Long Island, retired in Florida, and Katagiri Roshi, Zen master from Japan who opened a Zen centre in Minnesota where Natalie began studying Buddhism.  Yet she loved both men, and both let her down.  Her father was — not directly abusive, but sexually “inappropriate” as Natalie describes it, when she was growing up (walking in on her in the bathroom and bedroom, making sexual comments about her in company).  When she tried to deal with this issues as an adult, her father didn’t want to hear about it or discuss it.  He wanted to maintain a good relationship with his daughter without talking about anything uncomfortable or troubling. 

Natalie turned to Roshi for spiritual guidance and a relationship uncluttered by inappropriate sexuality.  Only after his death did she discover that this man she’d idealized had had sexual relationships with his students — not with Natalie, but with others.  She was shattered and disillusioned.

In this memoir, Natalie Goldberg manages to make peace with her father before his death, and with  Roshi’s memory after his death — not by clearing the air and discussing the issues, but by accepting both men as flawed and fallible, yet valuing the gifts each one gave her.  This was a good book to read right after You’re Wearing THAT?  Deborah Tannen’s book made me think about the importance of accepting our parents as they are (and vice versa, of course); Natalie Goldberg’s provided an illustration of what that looks like in real life.  I think this was my favourite of Goldberg’s books, and I’m glad I noticed it on the bargain shelf!

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1 Comment

Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir

One response to “The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth, by Natalie Goldberg (LentBook #18)

  1. I listened to Natalie Goldberg giving an interview online to Lee Strom, the head of non-fiction writing at a faculty in New Mexico. She said that she was startled at how upset people about the title of the book: the great FAILURE. How dare she talk about Katagiri Roshi as a FAILURE?!
    She thought the reaction was telling.
    I thought her book was loving, compassionate, and honest. It taught me a little bit about how to see a person in his or her entirety, with all the flaws but also all their loveable traits. It’s hard.
    I seem to read her books at periods in my life when reading her really matters: I read Writing Down the Bones when I was a teen, and it helped me to make sense of writing; I read Long Quiet Highway as a young adult, trying to make sense of leaving home and growing up; and I read the Great Failure at a time when I had to make sense of my parent’s failures…so she holds a special place in my heart.

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