Interview with Naome Rader Dragstedt
by DC at the April 2012 SFZC alumni retreat at Tassajara
to interview index
Shunryu Suzuki memories from SFZC Alumni retreat of April 2012
I remember he pointed to the Agapanthus and say, "That is you."
|DC: Here we are. So, just... what...
when did you first come to Zen Center?
Naome: Oh, gosh. I first was exposed to it, I think... it must have been December of... maybe 1967. My friend Cam?? Holmquist??, my college friend, married Richard Burack, and was married by Suzuki Roshi. I came to her wedding, which I think was at.. at... perhaps at the Berkeley zendo, or at Sokoji? I can't even remember. But, that's the first time I saw Suzuki Roshi. And I began sitting with Richard and Cam, and with Mel Weitsman at the Berkeley zendo; just when I came down to Berkeley to visit, and I would come to the... Berkeley to visit, especially, my friend Cam. And then I became friends with Mel. And... and I would go back to Portland where I was, then, teaching; and I think I was working, actually, for the American Friends Service Committee. And I'd begun sitting in Portland, then, with a group who... with Vic?? ???, Richard Levine??, and... I think that was his name, and various people. We sat at a house, near Reed, with a lot of other Reed graduates and students, or small handful of them. A house called the?? "Cosmos" [laughs]! And we sat together...
DC: You what?
N: The house was called the?? "Cosmos"...
N: ...where we sat. And, we had our first sesshin there. When Chino Sensei, and Tim Buckley, and Emma... Emily Bragdon came up on the train. Tim was just telling me about that today, coming up on the train with Chino Sensei...
N: ...and how Chino Sensei talked for hours [laughs] in English they could hardly understand!
N: And I was very impressed with Chino Sensei. So, after many months of sitting, you know, sporadically, and my life was changing, and it was... I guess it was 1969, or '70, and I'm... I'm frankly a little unclear about the exact year, but it would've been four years after I graduated from college, and I graduated from college in 1965. So, I attended Reed and got a degree there in 1966, and then I taught high school for a year. Then I helped start a... a school for a year, and I then I worked for the American Friends Service Committee. So it was four years after that, so it had to be 1969. I came back to Berkeley and I begged Mel to let me go to Tassajara. And he said, "Yes," I could go, so I went to Tassajara. I believe it was 1969, it may have been 1970...
DC: And.. and what was your last name?
N: Rader??. Naome Rader??.
DC: Oh... oh yeah! Yeah.
N: And... I was at Tassajara for the summer, and then I left Tassajara and I was extremely ill. I had a... a giant ovarian cyst. And had emergency surgery and almost died, in September of that year.
DC: Wow! The same thing happened to Dianne Goldschlag back then at Tassajara.
N: Yeah. And... so... I was recovering, I recovered at Zen Center, and I sat... I lived at Zen Center and sat there. And, I developed another ovarian cyst!
N: Very, very sick. Well, I wasn't so sick with that one, I was just very anxious. So I... at the end of that year, I decided to go to New York to see a famous T'ai chi master named Professor Cheng. And... I think Jane (Snyder) W(maiden name?) told me he was a great healer. He was THE famous T'ai chi master, who taught many, many of the current teachers of T'ai chi. And I went to see him, and he treated me for my cysts, and... because I was supposed to have surgery, and I refused to have surgery.
N: And... I came back and the cyst was gone.
DC: How do you know you had one?
N: Well, I'd been examined, I had one. I'd had been struggling with it for months - and it never got as big as the first one, the first one was the size of a grapefruit, this one was smaller and it didn't get infected The first one had gotten involved with, you know, my intestines because it was so big, and it was bad. But, anyway, I lived, and... so, but I sat hard, and... but it was very painful sometimes to sit. And...
DC: And you're back at the Berkeley zendo.
N: And I was back at the Berkeley zendo - and... well, and in City Center, I lived in City Center...
DC: Where were you living?
N: In City Center. I lived over on Bush Street for awhile. I had a boyfriend. And then I can't remember. Then, I asked to go back to Tassajara that next summer. And I think I worked... did the summer work period, and a Fall work period. And I'm actually a little unclear on whether I did the spring practice period. I remember doing a practice period in the Fall where I chopped wood, and I lived with Susan Isaacson. She had been a student at Reed, I think.
DC: And this is the Fall of...?
N: I think it was '69. It may have been '70, because Jake (Fishman) says it was '70 because he was here in '70. But I... and I remember Jake very well. Tatsugami Roshi was here when I was here.
DC: Well, he was only here in the Fall of '70...
N: So, it must've been...
DC: ...not in the Fall of '69.
N: So it could've been I was... I've got the year a little wrong. I just don't remember. And then I remember someone very well, and I... when I looked through those books up there; if I'll look through the photograph books I'll see... I rather think I was here in the spring, and that I was keeper of the baths. Because I remember the...
DC: In the spring of '71?
DC: That was Tatsugami Roshi, too.
N: Yeah. But I... I remember one practice period being... chopping wood, and I remember another time being keeper of the baths; it might have been the summer, but I kind of think it was that spring. But anyway, it was... both experiences were quite remarkable for you. And... But eventually I returned to the city. And I remember Mel helped me, pointed me in the direction of a little house that... a little apartment that I could rent; somebody was leaving town. In the basement of a house in the hills, I had a wonderful view and a beautiful garden...
DC: You're talking about Berkeley, now?
N: In Berkeley, yeah. And I had... I was interested in teaching Montessori to children, ??? children. I knew that I was confronting a life of infertility, because of my illnesses.
N: So, I was interested in working with children; I had been a high school teacher. And I... I was sort of at a point where I, you know, was thinking about being a priest; I really loved practice, but I was kind of intimidated, and appalled, and... a lot of feelings about the whole Zen patriarchal scene. So, I found my world... I kind of withdrew from it a little, and even though I remained somewhat... well ???... very interested, and I... I took Montessori training, and I worked... actually, I was very involved in the San Francisco School while I lived, you know, around Zen Center and on Bush Street because my neighbors were the people that ran the school, and I would ride to school with them and I worked there as an assistant...
DC: And when you say "around the Zen Center and on Bush Street," are you talking about Sokoji?
N: Yeah, I lived across the street from Sokoji for...
N: ...awhile, and then I lived at Zen Center.
DC: Well?? when you say Zen Center you mean Page Street.
N: Page Street, yes.
N: But, Sokoji was the temple for awhile.
DC: Yeah, right.
N: ...Over on Bush Street.
DC: But once Zen Center moved to Page Street you moved from Bush Street?
N: Yes, I think I did, and I lived at Zen Center for awhile, and then... that was the year between my... when I first... when I was sick I was living at Zen Center, and then.... Following year... I can't quite remember all that, but... before... when... when I moved to Portland-- to Berkeley, I got a job working at the San Francisco School, and I started Montessori training shortly thereafter. Actually, I worked in a restaurant, too, I was... really got involved in cooking bread [laughs], and I remember this... what was his name?... his... Mark?... remember Mark who was here when we were here? What was his last name?
DC: Mark Harris.
N: Mark Harris. He cooked bread in the same restaurant, and I was the head cook, called "New... New Age Natural Foods Restaurant" on Lombard Street. And we had quite a little... little scene going there...
DC??: With?? ?
N: Healthy food. And I loved that... I loved that job. And then I got... I finished my Montessori training, and I bought a ???...
DC: You said "New Age Natural Foods" on Lombard?
N: On Lombard Street, in San Francisco. ??? a restaurant there. That was about the time Greens was starting but I was doing my own little thing on Lombard Street [laughs] with some strange people. And then...
DC: Greens started in '79.
N: That late...
N: Well, then it was long before then, because this was like early 70s. This would've been the early 70s, before 1973. And in 1973 I started working at a Montessori school.
DC: Which one?
N: In Orinda.... It was called Fountainhead Montessori.
N: Run by these extreme right-wing ideologues. Anyway, I wasn't terribly happy, but I learned my craft and I loved Montessori, and to me it was a Zen practice, and I loved everything about it, I was fascinated by it. And then I met my husband, I was introduced to him by a... parents of one of the children in the school who were professors... he was a professor at Saint Mary's, and his father was a professor at Saint Mary's, so I... I met him. He was 41, I was 31. And we married. About nine months later, in the summer of 1975, and we started a school in our honeymoon cottage in Lafayette, we.... No, we lived in Walnut Creek for the first month, and then we rented a house in Lafayette, and I started my school there. Ten children, from eight in the morning [laughs] until six at night! And... and that school grew to fifty children and... several teachers in a nearby church... and I taught for... I taught out there for many years.
DC: Mm-hmm. Did you... did you have any contact with the Zen Center, then, or Zen, or practice, or anything?
N: Oh, I'd occasionally go in to sit, and I think I did a sesshin or two, but I really, really withdrew for a long time, but I kind of thought of myself as... as my... my school was my little temple... I was the priestess. [Laughs]. Arranging the toys for the children every morning, everything in its meticulous order, and... and I had a harpsichord, I was playing the harpsichord then. And I had a harpsichord in my living room. And Albert learned to play the harpsichord, and he was... play for the children as they came to school. And...
DC: Was... in terms of, like, your spiritual practice, let's say, was... up to now, from then to now, what... have you continued have involvement with the Zen Center?
N: Oh yeah, yeah, I... and Berkeley. Not so much the San Francisco, one.
DC: As Berkeley?
N: I felt... I felt kind of alienated from San Francisco, for some reason. But I... I've always had a close relationship with... with Mel, and I've always loved Mel...
N: ...so I've had dokusan with him, and I've... and he... I... we would run into him, sometimes, in restaurants, Albert and I, and he'd encourage me to come and told me about the new temple, and I checked it out and I sat a few sesshins, but I didn't get really involved again because I got... I was so involved in my school and then I went back and got a PhD in psychology and I had a psychology practice and I... we adopted a child. And I was very, very busy for many, many years, and then about the time my son was an adolescent, I started going back more regularly. And sitting... often sitting sesshin.
DC: And about what time would that be?
N: Well that would have been maybe fifteen... ten/fifteen years ago. And then I started taking positions in the zendo and was for a couple of years, and sitting longer sesshins. And... and that's kind of where I am now, still doing that and just sitting, and... and having my life which has been very busy, although I'm now... I'm thinking about retiring, so I'm more able to do things like this.
DC: So do you remember your first impression of meeting Suzuki Roshi?
N: Well, a first impression was when I went to the wedding that my friend had, and I was very struck by how... how present he was and how.... But, you know, I was always very... what can I say? Well, you know, I thought he was a very interesting, fascinating, wonderful individual, but I... I never felt like I got so into ... I've never been good at idolizing people, you know? I didn't sort of idolize him.
DC: Well, why do you think that has...
N: ...real person, and... and, well, I feel like a lot of people kind of idolized him, even then.
DC: Yeah, your reaction wasn't to idolize him...
N: It wasn't. I was just fascinated by him and interested in what he had to say. I remember I would lead him to the baths, you know, when he... when I was keeper of the baths, and we'd have these sweet conversations and... he was very helpful to me, it was hard to describe. The way he would say things was very... I still remember some of the thing he said. And...
DC: You do?
DC: Like what?
N: [Laughs]. Oh, I remember, you know, I was... one particularly poignant one was walking past these Agapanthus, you know, and I was grieving a lot of the time because, you know, I was struggling with this female crisis...
N: ...and I remember he pointed to the Agapanthus and say, "That is you." [Laughs]. "That is you," that beautiful, flowering [laughs] fruit of the earth, you know, and.... It was very beautiful his... just his was of reaching people was. He was very empathic. Deeply empathic. And he... he hit it on the head, you know? But there were many conversations, and it also was Chino Sensei, I felt close to him. And is it... Yoshimura?
DC: Oh, yeah.
N: An amazing experience with Yoshimura, here. And... so all those things have stayed with me. I remember... I remember once having a particularly wonderful experience in... in zazen. One afternoon, quite unexpectedly, you know? Just... [laughs] had this particularly wonderful experience. And I remember walking out of the zendo and Yoshimura came up to me and he said, "You sat zazen today!"
DC: Oh, that's great.
N: [Laughs]. And I thought, "What," you know, "How did he know," you know, he was just sitting over there, you know, how did he know? [Laughs]. It was quite... it made a huge impression on me...
N: ...that he would of perceived it. And so it was things like that. They stayed with me. You can't kind of forget things like that, they stayed with me
DC: You... you remember any other specific memories of Suzuki Roshi?
N: Well I... gosh. Not a lot, to be honest. I wasn't... I always felt kind of intimidated, a little bit, by him, I think. I wasn't kind of in the inner circle... there was this kind of inner circle and then there was... and I always thought like I didn't quite... it was just my life story. I never quite belonged, so I... I always felt like I was on the outside watching this drama of people surrounding Suzuki Roshi...
DC: Hmm! Hmm.
N: ...and I was not one of the.... So there was that, and yet I did have a relationship with him, it wasn't quite like... I imagined it wasn't quite like everyone else's. It was just my alienation, perhaps. But I remember the zendo and remember the long, you know, wonderful conversations. I remember Ruthie (Discoe) once saying... we were supposed to ask a question with?? Suzuki Roshi and I remember Ruthie asking, "What do you... what question can you ask a sweet potato?" [Laughs]. Do you remember that? It was sweet.
DC: No, I don't.
N: She meant, you know, what... what... "You're a sweet potato, Suzuki Roshi!" [Laughs]. "I don't know what question to ask you!" Very sweet.
DC: And what... do you remember what he said?
N: No, I don't [laughs]...
DC: No. [Laughs].
N: ...I don't remember a lot. [Laughs].
DC: Yeah. Well, that's good!
N: But it made a huge... well, you know... I don't... you must have some interesting stories you've collected over the years about Suzuki.
DC: Yeah! Yeah.
N: And I don't have, you know, anything terribly dramatic.
DC: No. I thought your... your... that flower... what the...?
N: The Agapantha.
DC: The Agapantha story was great.
N: They used to grow around the baths, you know, around one of those trees. They were beautiful...
N: ...beautiful Agapanthus. And, yeah, that was kind of the way he taught, isn't it? Just...
DC: Now, you said you felt intimidated by him, because you weren't part of the inner circle, but did you feel like he cared about that?
DC: [Laughs]. No. Right [laughs].
N: No, I didn't think he really did.
N: I thought the other students did. It was important to them, you know, there was this kind of weirdness that was going on. But, that was just people, you know?
DC: Yeah. It's normal, isn't it?
N: And... and... yeah.
N: And... yeah. So, it was a really.... And I was thinking about coming to this reunion, and I thought, and?? ??? meant much more to me than any of my high-school or college reunions, or anything. Just coming back here. It was like, was the most formative time, for me, in my life.
N: The year I spent here and at Zen Center. It was an incredibly rich and crucial time of change in my life, it's hard to say, and then it seems like after that my life purpose unfolded and I sort of knew what I wanted to do, and I did it. And always with this kind of sense of practice about it. So, I was very grateful for that. So now, you know, that kind of ending that part of my life and moving on, it sort of feels good to come back and revisit this.
DC: Yeah, yeah. Well, very good, very good.
N: Did I help you enough?
DC: Yeah! Anything else you want to say before we turn it off?
N: Nope! [Laughs].
N: You're got me on tape!
DC: Yeah. Well, there's no tape, anymore, but....
Transcription by CM beginning of November 2012.
??? denotes at least one muddled word, or just a
stretch of bad audio. ?? denotes a guessed word, with an added open
bracket meaning a guessed phrase or sentence. Ambiguous words (such as
homonyms or where an "a" might be an "un-") stated in closed brackets.