“Do not think that time simply flies away. Do not understand “flying” as the only function of time. If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only passing, then you do not understand the time being.
To grasp this truly, every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.”
—Dōgen Zenji, Uji
It’s a cliche right now to say things like “what even is time” in a sort of sarcastic way that doesn’t appreciate what a truly existential question that is. Yet it’s an unavoidable side effect of living during a pandemic when our new present appeared so suddenly over a 48 hour period in the middle of March. How can you wake up and everything is ostensibly fine and you go to bed with things breaking down around you? But this isn’t even a hard question to answer. This is simply how we process time, there is the before and the after. And often, in fact necessarily, those two realities are very much the same, it is only our awareness of reality that has changed and the feeling of responsibility that comes with that awareness. That also isn’t an unimportant thing either, as perhaps the most valuable thing any of us has is time and and our awareness of it. I go back again and again to The Lord Of The Rings (generally) and for the specific moment in the first book/movie when Frodo laments that this time had to be his time. I can imagine that many of us feel that way about 20202, about the 21st century, about the 20th century, about this reality, why do we have to exist here and now? I find myself feeling this way, maybe less than I use to, but I slip back into those feeling more often than I would like to admit. But this is not just our just our time, it the shared time of those who exist now, those who existed before us and those for who existence is still infinite. A Tale for the Time Being is an empathetic response to those feelings to to wish that now was not our time.
This is the third time I’ve started and finished A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki over the last nine years. I received the book at freshman orIentation of the first day of college and the only reason I kept it and read it then is because the version they gave us said not for individual resale. I don’t remember the second time I read it, and my memories of the third time are fading as I have put off writing this piece for about 3 months now. I do remember the impression this most reading left with me which is something quite radical.
The broad structure of this time and distance spanning novel is a young girl’s secret journal which has been lost at sea and discovered on the other side of the ocean.. The writer, Nao (pronounced “now”), is keeping a journal of her life in Japan after her dad lost his job in the California 90’s dotcom bubble and their family was forced to move back to Tokyo. This journal then becomes lost during the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, and washes up in British Columbia some months/years later. The journal is discovered by Ruth, a writing with writers block who is looking for inspiration and distraction in equal measures as she struggles to determine the the form of her second book. For every chapter we get from Nao’s journal, the following chapter is Ruth’s reaction to what she has just read. The structure connects the lives of these two people and that distance only collapses further as the story goes on and distinction between past and present becomes thinner and thinner until it is nothing. Until Ruth is reading herself into Nao’s journal as part of story that has already happened. But the way it uses quantum mechanics to maybe explain to connect characters acroos time and space is not what is radical about this book. What’s radial is the way it reminds us to be kind to ourselves to have compassion for the time-beings we are in a way that time never is.
The book may spend the majority of its time with Ruth and Nao, but its philosophical heart lies with Nao’s Grandmother Jiko. Jiko is described as a radical, anarchist, feminist, philosopher, Zen Buddhist monk, and it is through here the strongest messages of the book are delivered. Over the middle(ish) part of the story Nao spends a lot of time with Jiko at her monastery. She learns about some of the tenets of Zen Buddhism, about her dad and her uncles, but mostly about the way time works. She learns to sit Zazen, from Jiko which she describes as where observing, but not judging or reacting to her thoughts. It is described in the book as thinking not-thinking, a duality where you practice two competing skills at the same time. This concept of duality, but not duality, more like continuity is at the heart of so many of Jiko’s sayings. The way thinking and not-thinking coexist she also explains how the surfer and the wave are the same. She does not see time as the before and the after, because she sees the continuity that led from one moment to the next, and knows what we do with them is powerful. Her philosophy is reflected by the quote at the top of this piece. Time is not discontinuous. All moments are connected by our awareness of them. They do not fly away from us, because our observance of them is an integral condition of our being. It’s one thing to say or write this but it is an entirely different thing to live it the way Jiko does.
This life, this way of living does not call attention to itself, it does not require solitude, a monastery, religious training, a yoga mat, or stretchy clothes. Its only requirement is compassion for yourself and others. With compassion we can accept where we are in a physical, emotional, and metaphorical sense. And by extending that to others we acknowledge that all beings, living, dead and yet to be are also connected to this moment. Portrayals of buddhism and meditation in popular cultural sometimes trade deeply in moral relativism, focus on the self, and isolation that it ignores the material conditions all other beings connected to this moment. The way Zen Buddhism is present by Jiko and Nao, never ignores those material conditions whether they are discussing Japanese Kamikaze pilots in WWII, teenagers in high school or conservatism and history in modern day Japan. Lines that best encapsulate this philosophy is when Nao is thinking about how to begin her journal. She emails Jiko who tells her “You should start where you are.” This reflects the thinking not-thinking duality, you accept the thoughts you have and the person that you are in this moment. The second comes near the end of the book when Nao and her father are at Jiko’s beside shortly before she passes away. The final thing that Jiko does is to write a single Kanji “Sei. Ikiru. To live.” It is a simple yet powerful message that reinforces the importance and power of being a time-being, of observing this and future moments. This means that you necessarily consider all other time-beings and time beings, and if you truly do this you cannot ignore them and live only for yourself. You cannot live selfishly. It starts though with compassion for yourself, accepting the time-being you and the time being you are in.
As I write this I think it is becoming more obvious to me why this book has resonated with me. I stated before that I don’t now what pulled me back to this book for a second or third time, but I know what might pull me back for a fourth. It’s that message of compassion and how it never forgets the lives that people actually live. In 2020 after pandemic that has killed over a million people around the world, after the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake, and many of Black, Indigenous, and people of color whose stories and names we don’t know, after the Black Lives Matter protests of this summer and fall, and after an election that again showed us how deep the roots of racism and white supremacy run and how unwilling so many people are to give it up we can never forget how our belief and actions, how we choose to spend our time being affect so many other time-beings
“In reality, every reader while he is reading, is the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to permit him to discern what, without the book he would perhaps never have seen in himself. The readers recognition in his own self of what the book says is the proof of its truth.”—Marcel Proust, Le temps retrouvé