Sitting in the Moment: A Night with Ruth Ozeki

SittingInTheMoment-Title2by Jocelyn Marshall

“Thank you, Village Books, for allowing me to officially become a fictional character!” the author announced after walking out from behind the podium, pulling off her scarf and jacket, and spinning around to reveal the text printed on the back of the bookstore t-shirt: FICTIONAL CHARACTER.

Ruth Ozeki prefaced this impromptu strip-down by disclosing reservations about the request for an author of fiction to talk about herself for an hour. That is, not character Ruth from her 2013 book A Tale for the Time Being, and not protagonist/narrator Ruth from her 1995 film Halving the Bones—just writer, filmmaker, and Zen Buddhist priest Ruth. So, where to start? Cloaking oneself in a “Fictional Character” t-shirt appears to be step one, and continuing to blur the boundaries of fiction and nonfiction seem to be steps two through ten.

After A Tale for the Time Being was selected as the 2016 book for the countywide Whatcom READS! program, Ozeki was invited to Bellingham, Washington’s Mt. Baker Theatre to speak on March 4th, 2016. Opening her set with this questioning of fictionalization, she implicitly touched on the skepticism that surrounds fiction writing, an author’s authenticity, and “truth.” Capitalizing on fans’ fiction-nonfiction fascination, a topic of interest that later became strikingly apparent during the Q-and-A session, the author exposed “Ruth Ozeki” as merely her penname prompted by the 1998 release of My Year of Meats and a desire to separate herself from her family name. The rustling in the theater ceased for a few seconds of silent tension while some attendees processed this new-to-them information. The moment’s faint uneasiness was similar to how viewers commonly react to Halving the Bones, where narrator Ruth abruptly reveals her grandfather’s featured footage is actually of her own creation. With Ozeki’s works all provoking these continuous moments of surprise and curiosity, the event’s Master of Ceremony might have been more accurate than hyperbolic when describing the author and her 2013 book with words like “mystery” and “magic.”

Within forty-five minutes, the author had pushed everyone out to the abstract world of nonlinear time travel to thoughts of global impact and back down to the space existing within a short, linear time construct.

“So, why don’t I start by talking a little bit about time?” the author declared with a smile. She mentioned one of her first influences for A Tale for the Time Being was the writing of Dōgen Zenji, a 13th-century Japanese Buddhist priest and writer. Revisiting his work prompted her to think about how our “contentious relationship with time” may come from our understanding of it something quantifiable that can be consumed (and the way we talk about time reaffirms this). Interested in the Judeo-Christian linear understanding of time and contrasting it with the temporal gyres, where gyres are jumbled thoughts in the mind, Ozeki explained she wanted to meet Dōgen with filmmaking to explain time, and then change the way time is perceived“Our minds are time-traveling,” she clarified, so “our mapping of time determines the way we experience it.”

This fluidity and general task of trying to define something so large and abstract brought me to Ozeki’s explanation of the novel as a mirror room. In her recent memoir The Face: A Time Code, she reflects on the novel as “a liminal space, silent, bound by certain rituals and full of magic,” where the writer dons masks to transform into protagonists, looking at their reflections in the mirror (133). She concludes that the experience is “a complex sensation, impossible to describe exactly, but, oh, such lingering sweetness! … This is why we read novels, after all, to see our reflections transformed, to enter another’s subjectivity, to wear another’s face, to live inside another’s skin” (133-4). It seems that this complex sensation of simultaneous transformation and reflection is a sort of time traveling, and mapping time in a nonlinear way through temporal gyres seems to be necessary for cultivating such a process. As viewers and readers, we experience a version of this when we listen to the Ruth at author talks, read about the adventures of a questionably fictional Ruth, and actively turn the page to another of Ruth’s footnotes and appendices.

Ozeki further illuminated these concepts as she elaborated on writing A Tale for the Time Being. The published version of the book took six years to write, but she revealed that teenage protagonist Nao popped up as early as 2001, and from then to 2006 Ozeki tried several different novels with the character. At the same time, reading articles from the September 11th, 2001 attacks, where terrorists were being compared to kamikaze pilots, the writer began to create the WWII ghost pilot character Haruki. And, in the spirit of simultaneity, Ozeki started writing a memoir after her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis in September 2001, which prompted the writer to return to Dōgen’s work. Although finally reaching a complete draft in 2011, the earthquake and tsunami in the Tōhoku region of Japan happened on March 11th, 2011. The devastating event induced an intense five-month rewrite, which she explained was because the natural disaster “broke the world” and, consequently, “broke the fictional world.” She paused for a bit after explaining this detail, letting the brokenness settle in for every audience member.

“What time is it? Oh good, I have five minutes left!” After stifling the urge to check the clock, Ozeki suddenly made the audience aware of the hour. Within forty-five minutes, the author had pushed everyone out to the abstract world of nonlinear time travel to thoughts of global impact and back down to the space existing within a short, linear time construct. But she did not stop at that journey, of course; she manifested it further.

To study the self is to forget the self – Dōgen

“I want everyone to sit zazen. Just for a few minutes. It’s probably going to seem like a long time, but we can do it. Everyone sit up, find a position that feels comfortable, and close your eyes.” Murmurs of confusion began, but within a few seconds all audience members were sitting still and listening to Ozeki’s voice as she guided a meditation starting on the head down to the toes. In the middle, she paused, saying, “Sit here with your stomach and breathe. We rarely let our abdomens loose. Do that now.”

After the theater-wide zazen session, some audience members could probably relate to A Tale for the Time Being’s Ruth when she reflects on a Dōgen quote: “zazen seemed like a kind of moment-by-moment observation of the self that apparently led to enlightenment. But what did that even mean?” (398). Ruth goes on to read another Dōgen quote, “to study the self is to forget the self,” and then wonders, “Maybe if you sat enough zazen, your sense of being a solid, singular self would dissolve and you could forget about it” (398).

Although solid, singular selves may have been neither discovered nor forgotten during the Ozeki-led meditation, most audience members seemed to enjoy the spontaneous break. They breathed deeply, they pictured their necks loosening and their chests expanding, and then they left the theater to return to their linear schedules, a small portion of their time dissolved into a mere moment.

JOCELYN MARSHALL is an animal-loving, creative nerd. Sometimes, she reads, teaches, and writes for social justice, with a particular interest in the fields of gender, sexuality, and transnational feminism.