Three Simple Lines: A Writer’s Pilgrimage into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku, by Natalie Goldberg, is a fascinating book for me, for a few different reasons.
The subject of haiku is a poignant one for me, because of something my sister and I did when our mother was in hospice care in 2002. We decided to do some haiku writing, neither of us knowing anything about it, really, except for the 5-7-5 syllable format that I remembered from some brief exercise in grade school. I had read a smattering of haiku recently, so I plunged in, partly because it took my mind off my grief. The hospice where Mom received care, which sadly no longer exists, lay on beautiful grounds, with a garden to walk through, on a hillside overlooking a canyon. It housed some beautiful Zen artwork, and the energy there was incredibly peaceful, the staff kind and supportive. If we hadn’t been there for the reason we were, spending time there would have felt like a vacation at a resort. It seemed a fitting place to write some haiku, regardless of how well we did at producing it. It seemed to be a healing kind of exercise.
Before that, I think my first introduction to haiku had been when my third-grade class studied Japan. Maybe it was fourth grade, but I remember we had brand new textbooks about Japan, and I fell in love with those books. There were color plates of Japanese artwork, and I’m sure that’s when I learned what haiku was. In fact, maybe that was my first experience of falling in love with a book. I even loved its new book smell, and regretted having to turn it back in when we finished and moved on to another subject.
It’s been about 30 years since I first read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, which I own in a well-worn 1991 trade paperback edition that includes both books. I seem to recall that I purchased it through a book club (the mail order type) that specialized in books on writing, but it’s been so long I don’t remember for certain. I used to haunt bookstores too, in those days before the internet and ebooks. Regardless of where I got the book, from the first page, the author carried me away, with her completely freeing method of writing combined with a Zen Buddhist outlook on life.
Three Simple Lines is different from that reading experience, and yet no different in how I felt caught up at once in an open-minded, freeing way of looking at writing, in this case haiku, both in its classic forms and in her account of writing haiku in a modern workshop. Add to that the author’s travels to Japan to walk in the paths of four haiku masters, and this makes for an incredible combination of memoir, travel journal, and exercise in reading and writing haiku, among a few other things, like a glimpse at long-term friendships and forgiveness, and how language can be either a barrier or a portal into new ways of looking at things and understanding each other.
I got all that from this one book, which isn’t even a very long book, and is written in a comfortable, conversational stytle. It left me satisfied, and at the same time yearning for more.