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Lions Roar : March 2014
“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. Kather- ine 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 Janu- ary. I had brought her bright red, blue, and black striped wool socks. “Katherine,” I said, “we need to jazz you up.” She wore white cot- ton toe-fitted ones for the zendo’s high shined wood floor. Tradi- tional Japanese. “These won’t fit,” she laughed. “I’m size eleven.” We ate at a Japanese restau- rant. 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 doc- tor 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. Kather- ine 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, trans- mitted through great human effort, challenging all adversity. On that last visit, she brought me a gift of not only Oe’s A Per- sonal 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. Above: Natalie and Katherine with a photograph of Katagiri Roshi. PHOTOCOURTESYOFTHEAUTHOR SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2014 26