“Life is full of stories. Or maybe life is only stories.”
I may have mentioned that it’s been a difficult couple of weeks, nothing major just a bit of personal disappointment which has caused me to rethink what I’m doing with my life, and against this backdrop of disappointment I’ve struggled to really settle on something to read. I realised I needed comfort reading: a book which could not fail to cheer me up whilst addressing some of the issues I was absorbed with, and whilst I was thinking about it I thought “I could really use the advice of old Jiko right about now,” and of course that meant I had to read A Tale for the Time Being again. Actually I’ve been thinking about it for quite a while, and events simply turned me to it sooner than I had expected. I think this is the third or fourth time I’ve read this book, but it has never yet failed to soothe and console me and it hasn’t failed me this time either.
I suspect it’ll be an unusual reader of this blog who hasn’t read or heard about A Tale for the Time Being before. The book is the story of Naoko (Nao) Yasutani, a Japanese girl who grew up in the US forced to return to Tokyo when her Dad lost his job in Silicon Valley after the dotcom bubble burst. The family lost everything in the financial downturn. Consequently she moved from a comfortable, secure life to one of difficulties and relative poverty. Her Dad makes multiple suicide attempts and her life at her new Japanese school is excruciatingly bad – she suffers from intense bullying, even from her teachers, and fails to make any connections or friends. When the story begins we find Nao has dropped out of school; she’s spending her days in a French style café writing a diary and avoiding ‘dates’ (e.g prostitution), contemplating suicide herself. She’s also trying to write the story of her great-grandmother – Jiko – who is 104 years old, a Buddhist nun and a radical, liberal feminist whose son, Haruki #1, was killed as a kamikaze pilot during the WWII. Haruki #1 is a hero of Nao’s, as is Jiko (who is a hero of mine too, obviously!).
On another thread, we have Ruth (miraculously similar to the Ruth writing this book) who finds Nao’s diary, with some letters, a watch and another diary written in French, one day whilst walking on the beach on the remote Canadian island where she lives with her husband Oliver (perhaps, too, remarkably similar to the Oliver who is the spouse of Ruth Ozeki). Ruth is struggling with her writing, struggling with her memory and struggling with life on a tiny island with a tiny, and quite nosy community in which secrets are all but impossible. Ruth gets drawn into Nao’s world through reading the diary; she increasingly suffers from difficulties in separating the present time from Nao-time, the time Nao was writing and the things she was writing about. So we are all drawn into the story which sits against a backdrop of terrible events: 9/11, the Japanese tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, war, the slow death of Ruth’s mother by Alzheimer’s. Through the smallness of Nao’s troubled world, the troubles of the wider world are revealed as are Ruth’s own troubles. Everything is strangely connected.
A Take for the Time Being is a complex story, and I’m not going to do justice to it here. It is a book with which I feel a deep connection, I feel it because I think it is full of truth wrapped in a story because life is only stories as Jiko so succinctly puts it, but through stories we can learn about ourselves, about others, about what it means to be human, about how to be a human in the world. Everyone in A Tale for the Time Being is suffering. Nao is suffering the loss of the life she knew and its replacement which is full of sadness and loss, anger and cruelty. Her Dad is suffering because his choices led his family to their demise and he felt powerless to do anything about it, feeling that suicide is the ‘honourable’ way out, unable to talk about what he had done or why. Ruth is suffering because she is lost, because she lost her mother, because island life doesn’t suit her yet the world around her is so strange and cruel and misguided, and whilst all these things are going on she feels that she is losing her mind, that she is sliding into Alzheimer’s like her mother did before her. The world is suffering from war, from climate change, from pollution – particularly plastics in the ocean and radioactive fallout – from terrorism. Everywhere you look there is terrible cruelty. Haruki #1 suffered bullying and the imminence of his death being drafted to a suicide squadron when all he wanted was to study philosophy and French and be a decent person in the world. Even old Jiko, 104 years old, suffered the loss of her beloved son, and then her daughters and the sadness and dejection of her grandson and great-granddaughter. How amongst all this suffering do we live at all? It is a question I’ve found myself reflecting on, though my suffering has been small and insignificant but the wider suffering of the world is ever-pressing and there is so little, if not quite nothing, one person can do about it.
Yet this book, largely though the beautiful musings of Jiko and her family, offers a way. The world, it turns out, is a strange and beautiful and complex place and we can choose how we interact with it. Because we are time beings. As Haruki #1 explains:
“Dogen also wrote that a single moment is all we need to establish our human will and attain truth. I never understood this before, because my understanding of time was murky and imprecise, but now that my death is imminent, I can appreciate his meaning. Both life and death manifest in every moment of existence. Our human body appears and disappears moment by moment, without cease, and this ceaseless arising and passing away is what we experience as time and being. They are not separate. They are one thing, and in even a fraction of a second, we have the opportunity to choose, and to turn the course of our action either toward the attainment of truth or away from it. Each instant is utterly critical to the whole world.”
Our time here is comprised of instants and in each instant we can choose how we respond. This is an important aspect of Dogen’s Buddhist philosophy, as Ozeki describes in one of the appendices to the book in an examination of ‘zen moments’ (of which there are, according to Dogen, 6,400,099,980 in a day):
“If you start snapping your fingers now and continue snapping 98,463,077 times without stopping, the sun will rise and the sun will set, and the sky will grow dark and the night will deepen, and everyone will sleep while you are still snapping, until finally, sometime after daybreak, when you finish up your 98,463,077th snap, you will experience the truly intimate awareness of knowing exactly how you spent every single moment of a single day of your life.
She sat back on her heels and nodded. The thought experiment she proposed was certainly odd, but her point was simple. Everything in the universe is constantly changing, and nothing stays the same, and we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.
That’s what it means to be a time being, old Jiko told me, and then she snapped her crooked fingers again.
And just like that, you die.”
Yet it is not just an idea that exists in ancient Buddhist philosophy, it’s also a key principle of quantum physics. Quantum physics posits a strange, incomprehensible universe in which cats can be simultaneously alive and dead, in which there are many worlds – a branching, endlessly complex universe in which every decision, every action, creates a branching storyline – a new universe – in which the story unfolds the same or differently. It’s an interesting concept, but the important point for me was that being reminded that we are time beings is a reminder to wake up and to truly live our lives not in a constant state of input and response – instinct – but in an intentioned and deliberate way. We do not have to react, we do not have to allow events to shape us. We can choose to shape ourselves, our every moment. At any point we can snap our fingers and make a choice, change direction, do things differently. And this applies to everything. We do not need to be angry or hostile, defensive or aggressive. We can choose to love, to forgive, to accept and to learn. And we know, deep down, without the framework of a religion that this is the better way to be. We don’t really need an old Jiko of our own (though I wish, I wish) just a little voice in the back of our heads that points us in the right direction when we feel sad or pressured or even disappointed, so that we do the right thing not just the reactive thing. A Tale for the Time Being was the right direction for me, and thankfully it is both an instructive, fascinating and beautiful read. I am so grateful that it exists. Thank you, Ruth Ozeki.