By Rebekah Hall
“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 … 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.”
Ruth Ozeki’s words from A Tale for the Time Being are based on teachings of the 13th Century Japanese Zen text Shobogenzo, or Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about time. About how it seems to disappear more quickly—and become more unaccounted for—the older I get. When I was fifteen I wrote three letters to my future self and sealed them in envelopes labeled with the ages at which I was meant to read them. At the time, 25, 30, and 40 felt so far away. The concept of “adulthood” seemed a separate stage of life with a defined arrival rather than part of the journey I was already on. My letters detailed what my life should look like at each age and, apparently, assumed that after 40 I’ll have reached the pinnacle of perfection and will no longer need instructions. Looking back, the most striking thing about the letters was that they left no room for life's uncertainties, let alone the idea that life is nothing but uncertainty.
A Tale for the Time Being begins with the diary of a pensive teenage girl who is uprooted from California to Japan. Her name is Nao, which is aptly pronounced like the English word “now.” She writes in a blank journal bound with the repurposed cover of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), and in it Nao writes extensively about her great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun who is central to the novel’s premise. The point-of-view shifts between Nao’s diary and a third-person narrator focused upon Ruth, a 50-something Canadian woman who finds the journal when it washes up on the shore of a Pacific Northwest beach after Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami. She is frequently agitated as she struggles to finish writing her own book when all she wants to do is learn more about Nao’s whereabouts and Jiko’s history as a feminist writer. She is frustrated by her own habits and inclinations, describing her state as a “temporal stuttering, an urgent lassitude, a feeling of simultaneous rushing and lagging behind.”
Time has accelerated since I hit thirty. Some days I find myself in a mindset of near panic – that I’ve lost too much time, that each passing day in which I don’t write or don’t complete a task I’ve committed to or don’t respond to letters or call my loved ones or have any number of the experiences I hope to have, I’m failing. That I’m letting the finite time I have drop carelessly and irretrievably into a trash heap, wasted.
Ozeki, a Zen Buddhist priest, writes that “we must understand how quickly time flows by if we are to wake up and truly live our lives.”
A Tale for the Time Being is heartbreaking in a lot of ways: Nao is brutally bullied, her father repeatedly attempts suicide, Jiko’s son dies young, and natural disasters destroy entire communities. But I found the book comforting because amid all the suffering, the death, the confusion of life, Ozeki shares a Zen philosophy that is both magical (Jiko calls it a superpower) and entirely within our reach.
In Nao’s journal, we are given instructions for sitting zazen, which is a mindfulness meditation technique focused upon counting each breath, and thereby remaining within the moment, within the body. As Jiko tells Nao, “to do zazen is to enter time completely.”
We are so accustomed to pushing ourselves to get this one chance at existence right, to be productive with our limited time, to accomplish our goals, that we often lose our ability to fully experience anything. But A Tale for the Time Being reminded me that our existence is about something more than doing. It’s about being. Though time continues to pass, by being within each moment we can ensure it is not lost.
Rebekah Hall writes fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, holds an MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is a cofounder and coordinator for HI typ/O Salon, a Chicago-based, multidisciplinary artist collective. She also cofounded Mixer Publishing.