You Know What to Do

Before I started chemo infusions, in the spring months when I was avoiding my cancer diagnosis, I didn’t pick up a pen. I had no language for what I was going through. In March and April, I painted abstracts. In the silence of paint, color, form, I attempted to express what I didn’t understand, what was way below the level of my conscious mind. When I gave into the infusions, I began writing again.

As I wrote, years of practice kicked in, not with my usual determination and drive, but with something more serene.

I wanted to grab a hunk of living again and hold on tight. But it wouldn’t have been genuine if I skipped over what was raw, dark, and painful. Another adage a writer needs to know: The things we avoid have energy. If I ignored suffering, the life of my writing would die. You can’t hold back, hide, disclaim. You have to bare your teeth and go back into the seething heat. If I didn’t write this book, no other book would ever come.

I was focused on a mission to spread writing practice, to show people they can trust and have a relationship with their own mind, a confidence in their own experience. It was a human right to write, to accept how we see, think, and feel ... I wanted everyone to come alive in this one great life. In my zeal, I ignored the truth of my own mortality. I couldn’t face my own sickness and death, and as a result I became scratchier, tighter, more agitated in some cellular, unconscious way. And also more vulnerable—raw, right at the edge of truth ... Cancer demanded that I let the whole thundering world come home, that I accept the horror and unknown of human life—and death.

But I did notice, when friends visited, subtle differences. Yes, they had more energy, more mobility than I did. They were still busy in the world with the routines—the jobs, workouts, hikes, plans—they had before. No interruption. But there was something much more subtle, something I often didn’t catch until after they left: They don’t know they will die. It was constantly with me now, my mortality. It hung out on my right shoulder like an animal, patient yet hungry. It wanted me, and I knew that eventually it would have me ... I asked myself in the face of it: How do I live?  I recalled the Buddha’s last words: All things that are born must die. In any case continue with vigor.

I also had a two-week retreat scheduled in France for the end of September. All summer I had my fingers crossed that I wouldn’t have to cancel that too. The oncologist said I could go ... I faced 35 students from England, Holland, Germany, Australia, and the US... After an explanation of procedures and safety by the director, it was my turn to speak. I sat quiet for a long moment. The students might have thought I was searching inside for something profound. The truth was, at that moment I had nothing to teach. My mind was like the inside of a ping pong ball. I’d taught for many years. I was sure I could pull out something—ah, writing practice!—but no. It was all far away, in another land, before cancer. Nat, say something, anything. “You have traveled from very far.” Another long wordless moment. “You have pens. That’s good.” I looked around. “Ah, notebooks too.” Remember, Nat, you’re a writer. The pen goes on the page. “You know what to do.”

Find out about upcoming programs with Natalie Goldberg at Kripalu.

From Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, © 2018 by Natalie Goldberg. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.

Natalie Goldberg is an author, poet, teacher, and painter. She has written 13 books including the classic Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.

Full Bio and Programs