Editor’s Note: This is the second and final part of Candace Walsh’s essay on theme and plot in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. Read Part I here.
5) Transportation and Transformation (in which the theme supports the front story)
Consider the word hegira, which comes from Medieval Latin, “to depart,” and Arabic, hijra, “to break with, leave, emigrate.” Homophonically and thematically related to gyre, hegira is also related to the measurement of time, as Anno Hegirae, the year Muhammad left Mecca, is 622 C.E., a measurement of time used in Muslim culture, similar to the way B.C. and A.D. are used in Christian-oriented cultures. The Haj, the hegira to Mecca required of all Muslims once in their lives, involves travel and transformation. In India, where transgender people have been officially recognized as a third gender since 2014, they have been called hijra for centuries, in part because of their identity’s intrinsic relationship to leaving home, often joining a family of other hijras who make a living as sex workers under a guru whose role is similar to that of a pimp. I also think of hijra, and trans people in general, as people who move away from the sexual identities assigned at birth to return to, or discover, their true identities. It’s the journey back to one’s authentic self, and hence a kind of home-leaving. Once an object or being enters a gyre, it also departs from one place and ends up someplace else, undergoing transformation along the way.
The novel’s themes—connected to the gyre as a mode of transportation and transformation—include home-leaving, interconnectedness, everything changes, and growing vs. decaying. These themes support the front story of Ruth and Oliver’s move from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York, to Whaletown, British Columbia, and Nao’s experiences as a genderqueer sex worker in Tokyo’s Akiba Electricity Town. To open up how Ozeki connects the theme with the story, I’ll consider the use of metaphor, character arc, point of view, parallel structures, meta-ness, and alliteration/assonance.
Oliver returns to where he lived before he met Ruth, and Ruth moves from somewhere familiar and supportive to someplace foreign and odd.
That winter, they tried living together in New York, but by spring, she had again yielded to the tug and tide of his mind, allowing its currents to carry her back across the continent and wash them up on the remote shores of his evergreen island. . . . And if she were perfectly honest, she would have to acknowledge the role she played in their drift.
To locate them within the ocean gyre metaphor and to evoke the “everything’s connected” theme, Ozeki uses the language of an ocean gyre—tug, tide, currents, shores, drift—to describe the couple’s relocation. Oliver suffered from chronic illness in the city; the journey back to Whaletown restored him and returned him to a place where he could thrive. But Ruth feels becalmed at best. After fifteen years, “surrounded by all this vegetative rampancy, she was feeling increasingly unsure of herself. . . . It was only in an urban landscape . . . that she could situate herself in human time and history.” Here we see the beginning of Ruth’s character arc. When we meet Ruth, she needs a city to ground her; she is not strong enough to thrive without that exoskeleton. “Maybe it was time to leave this place she’d hoped would be home forever.” The beginning of this character arc sets up the following questions: Will she overcome this weakness over the course of the novel? Will her love for Oliver sufficiently offset the annoyance his quirkiness (and his town) elicits in her? Is the path of Ruth’s growth one that will lead her back to New York, an outer journey paired with an inner journey, or will she achieve enlightenment in Whaletown? This illumination of what Ruth needs to do in order to evolve is paired with her temptation to regress.
In the next paragraph, which is also the next numbered section in the chapter (5.), there’s a point of view shift, from close third to a didactic omniscient. The narrative wave deposits us at the feet of a Buddhist homily. Similar to the Haj, “Home-leaving is a Buddhist euphemism for leaving the secular world and entering the monastic path, which was pretty much the opposite of what Ruth was contemplating when she pondered her return to the city.” The narrator references Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō’s Chapter 86, “The Merits of Home-Leaving” which “praises young monks for their commitment to a path of awakening and explicates the granular nature of time: the 6,400,099,980 moments that constitute a single day.” “A path of awakening” is synonymous with enlightenment and transformation.
The great matter of life and death is the real subject of “The Merits of Home-Leaving.” When Dōgen exhorts his young forest monks to continue, moment by moment, to summon their resolve and stay true to their commitment to enlightenment, what he means is simply this: Life is fleeting! Don’t waste a single moment of your precious life! Wake up now! And now! And now!”
In order to grow, and thus avoid decaying, one must repeatedly “wake up.” Home-leaving is also connected to the “right resolve” spoke of the dharma wheel, “to move away from the ego-related concerns of ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ toward a lifestyle of service where your motivations are . . . more selfless.”
Ozeki creates a parallel between Ruth and the monks with the repetition of the use of the word forest. Ruth feels stifled by her Whaletown forest, and Dōgen exhorts the forest monks to remain focused. The challenge for them both is to “stay true to their commitment.”
This perspective shift from the close third of Ruth the bumbling clod in need of enlightenment, to the omniscient and wise Buddhist expert reminded me that Ozeki, also named Ruth, also married to someone named Oliver, is a Buddhist nun whose dharma (teachings) complements the novel. “There are two types of dharma: that which can be read or heard . . . and that which is realized. Realized dharma is experienced through . . . the realization of the truth, or the awakening.” The Buddhism expert offers that which we can read or hear, and Ruth’s and Nao’s journeys also take the form of realized dharma that we as readers witness throughout the course of the novel. Ozeki’s blurred authorial/narrator/character roles contribute a meta effect here, one of many iterations that make the reader aware that there is a connection between the author and her life and various characteristics and identifications, and the narrator, as well as the character named Ruth. Everything is, after all, connected. Ozeki could, like most novelists, take care to mask her personal connections to the characters, but she plays with transparency, challenges the definition of fiction, and alters the reader’s understanding of what fiction can be. Everything—including our understanding of fiction—changes.
Nao’s home-leaving is traumatic, in great part because it is involuntary. She grows up in Sunnyvale, California during the internet bubble, but her father loses his job and the family of three must move back to Tokyo. When she enters the gyre of Tokyo, it is one of destruction and decay. Not only does she lose her home, but she loses the culture she grew up in. “I, on the other hand, was totally fucked, because I identified as American.” In Tokyo, she is a kikokushijo (repatriated) kid, and doesn’t belong. Her peers physically and mentally torture her every day, pinching her and stabbing her with nail scissors, and calling her names. She begins to deteriorate mentally, and she’s unable to focus on her schoolwork in this hostile learning environment.
She enters a different gyre when she goes to spend the summer in the mountain countryside with her great-grandmother Jiko, the Buddhist nun, at her monastery, Eiheiji, (founded by Dōgen in 1244). Even though the monastery itself is visibly decaying, this is where Nao slowly recovers and begins to thrive, not just because her great-grandmother is kind and nurturing, but because Jiko teaches Nao about Zen Buddhism’s practices, directly and by example, including sitting zazen. On the dharma wheel, sitting zazen is primarily represented by the “right concentration” spoke, but also “right effort,” which guards against distracting thoughts during meditation, and “right mindfulness,” being conscious of what you are doing. Ruth, inspired by Nao’s diary entries about learning how to sit zazen and its benefits, also decides to sit zazen. They each struggle with distractions, but their struggles are instrumental to their transformations.
Ozeki compares and contrasts the ways Ruth and Nao think about home during their parallel transformations, as Ruth and Nao each consider the concept of home in different ways.
Nao writes that sitting zazen “feels like coming home. Maybe this isn’t a big deal for you, because you’ve always had a home, but for me, who never had a home except for Sunnyvale, which I lost, it’s a very big deal. Zazen is better than a home. Zazen is a home that you can’t ever lose, and I keep doing it because I like that feeling.” Buddhism 101 expresses it in different but connected way: “Having a taste of enlightened mind, you will recognize something you have always had, and somehow lost your connection to. Tasting enlightened mind is like going home.”
Nao lost her home in Sunnyvale, but Ruth doesn’t appear to have had a concept of home to lose. We learn this when she says, “I don’t know what home would feel like.” She also doesn’t particularly find the sensation of home comforting, as she observes when sitting zazen. “Nao was right. It also felt like home, and she wasn’t sure she liked it.” This could mean that her dislike of living in Whaletown is because it’s home, not because it’s the wrong type of home for her. In the next scene, after she meditates, she goes with Oliver to the shore to a clam garden to harvest and eat oysters. They eat oysters that have traveled from Miyagi, where Jiko is from, to their area; another symbolic example of the transporting gyre. Her newfound willingness, after sitting zazen earlier that day, to experience the sensation of going home asserts itself at the end of that scene, when she tells Oliver “‘I’m cold,’ she said. ‘Let’s go home.” Sitting zazen transforms Nao into someone who can find home anywhere, and transforms Ruth into someone who has a concept of home, likes it, and wants to return home when she’s cold, or otherwise needs comfort.
As Nina McConigley asserted in her Warren Wilson January 2018 lecture, “New Territories: Migration and Exile,” “Everyone is a refugee from childhood, and it hurts. It’s devastating. . . . Getting older is a migration.” Everyone has lost at least one home, and so everyone can benefit from sitting zazen. Like a gyre, it is transformative, and transports the meditator to a home that can’t be taken away.
Outside of engaging with concepts of home, sitting zazen also leads to the development of Ruth’s and Nao’s specific rewards of this practice, or superpowers. Nao is able to disengage during episodes of peer bullying. She can also blind her enemies with the light shining from her head after she shaves it. Ruth develops a stronger connection with her imagination.
Sitting zazen is not only a mode of transportation and transformation during one’s lifetime. When Jiko dies and is cremated, her friends and family engage in the ritual of moving her bones into an urn. They look for her very significant nodobotoke bone. “Muji said it’s the most important bone, the one we call an Adam’s apple in English, but in Japanese it’s called the Throat Buddha because it’s triangular and looks a little like the shape of a person sitting zazen. If you can find the Throat Buddha, then the dead person will enter nirvana and return to the ocean of eternal tranquility.” The nodobotoke bone that resembles a person sitting zazen is the one that transports the soul into nirvana. This bone is simultaneously a body part, a symbol, and a gyre-like conduit.
After Nao’s transformative summer with Jiko, she thrives emotionally and scholastically for a while back in Tokyo, in part because she’s discovered her purpose: to become a nun like her great-grandmother. Three traumatic events, however, sabotage her progress: 9/11, a physically, mentally, and sexually abusive cyberbullying bathroom assault by her peers, and yet another suicide attempt by her father. Nao is disgusted and demoralized, and thinks, “Maybe I wouldn’t go to Jiko’s temple and become a nun after all. Maybe I would just kill myself, too, and be done with it.” This grave decision has a transcendently transformative effect on her worldview.
Making the decision to end my life really helped me lighten up, and suddenly all the stuff my old Jiko had told me about the time being really kicked into focus. There’s nothing like realizing that you don’t have much time left to stimulate your appreciation for the moments of your life. . . . I started to really experience stuff for the first time, like the beauty of the plum and cherry blossoms along the avenues in Ueno Park, when the trees are in bloom. I spent whole days there, wandering up and down these long, soft tunnels of pink clouds and gazing overhead at the fluffy blossoms, all puffy and pink with little sparkles of sunlight and blue sky glinting between the bright green leaves. Time disappeared and it was like being born into the world all over again.
The time being theme, which includes the belief that humans are made up of a series of moments, supports this suicidal ideation front story. Nao notices that “There’s nothing like realizing that you don’t have much time left to stimulate your appreciation for the moments of your life. . . . I spent whole days there, wandering up and down.” Nao’s decision to commit suicide accentuates her life’s finite number of moments, which heightens the theme of mindfulness (living in the present moment). She also feels one with time, another way Dōgen describes the time being: “Time disappeared and it was like being born into the world all over again.”
Ozeki represents Nao’s transformed worldview in the way she is newly, hallucinogenically mindful of nature. To describe the blossoming plum and cherry trees arching over Nao as “long, soft tunnels of pink clouds,” Ozeki uses alliteration and assonance with fluffy and puffy, alliteration with puffy and pink and sparkles and sunlight, and rhyming and assonance with sunlight and bright. These words evoke cotton candy confections, scratch-and-sniff stickers, sugar and spice, and everything nice: a sweetly naïve way of experiencing the world that harks back to Nao’s blissful Sunnyvale childhood—the opposite of being pinched and tweezer-stabbed by her fellow students in Tokyo. What do a sheltered child and a teen with a suicide plan have in common? No worries about the future. Like Ruth’s wish to return to New York, suicidal Nao’s transformation is not representative of growth, but a regression linked to decay.
The Buddhist themes of non-dualism and home-leaving support the front story of Nao’s foray into prostitution. After the bathroom attack, Nao shaves her head and drops out of school, and her friend Babette entices her into working as a prostitute in theme cafe Fifi’s Lovely Apron. Her transformation and initiation, from a virgin schoolgirl to a sex worker, is intertwined with her discovery of her gender identity.
On their first date, with a wealthy businessman named Ryu, Nao is at first emotionally and physically unable to have sex with him.
Then, because I was shivering, he brought his shirt over and draped it around my shoulders. It was so soft and silky feeling, and before I knew it, I had slipped my arms through the sleeves, so he buttoned it up. The next thing was his pink silk necktie, which he tied in a lovely Windsor knot for me. Then his pants, and then the suit jacket. . . . I was beautiful in his suit. . . . really we weren’t so different. I’d taken off my wig, and under it, my head still looked pretty buzzed, which he said he liked. He said I looked like a bishonen [beautiful boy], but actually I was cuter than any boy. Honest. I swear I could have fallen in love with myself.
She goes back to the bed. “I kept his shirt on while I straddled his hips, and he guided me down, and it hurt, but only for a while.”
As with the plum and cherry blossom tree descriptions, Ozeki uses alliteration and assonance to heighten the magical, transformative power Nao finds in cross-dressing. Ozeki describes the shirt using alliteration as “soft and silky,” the tie using assonance and slant rhyme: “pink silk,” and uses rhyme and assonance in the phrase “beautiful in his suit.” Unlike the preschool, bubble-gum scented language Ozeki used for the blossoming trees, these words are sophisticated, sensual, and glow with the sheen of desire-stoking ad copy. These words evoke the American 1980s soap opera Dynasty’s characters Krystle and Alexis, armored in big-shouldered satin and sequins. They are feminine words successfully describing masculine fashion, without a butch note in the bunch. Nao is not seduced by Ryu; she is seduced by the clothing.
Ozeki also shows a dramatically transformative character arc development in this scene, as the men’s clothes act as a catalyst for Nao to transform from a frightened, crying, frozen schoolgirl into a person who considers herself to be “cuter than any boy”; “I could have fallen on love with myself.” The received story is that a traditional bullied archetypal heroine would find this kind of transformation by putting on a dress, as in the case of Cinderella. But Ozeki embeds a hijra twist in this trope. Instead of Nao losing herself in a fluffy, puffy, sparkly dress, she is transformed inside Ryu’s soigné suit, shirt, and tie. There she experiences a taste of his power and privilege. This leads to Nao exercising a degree of agency (within admittedly disempowered circumstances) as she has sex for the first time, simultaneously entering the gyres of sexual activity and genderqueer identity. Nao finds herself dressing like a man—she both finds herself, existentially, and finds herself in the suit, in that she didn’t plan to put it on.
The Buddhist theme of home-leaving connects with Nao’s change of goals, from agreeing to attend school and be bullied, to shaving her head, dropping out, and working at Fifi’s. Home-leaving is also connected to her leaving her female gender identity—to continue to wear Ryu’s clothes during their dates, and pass as a male. “I kept to the shadows mostly, just slouching around, enjoying being a male. . . . Girls would think I was a host from a host club and try to flirt with me.” And the Buddhist theme of non-dualism supports Nao’s new understanding about gender identity: “It’s not such a big deal, anyway, male, female. As far as I’m concerned, sometimes I feel like one, and sometimes I feel more like the other, and mostly I feel somewhere in-between, especially when my hair was first growing back after I’d shaved it.”
6) Memory/Loss (in which the front story supports the theme)
As Oliver explained early on, drift—what stays in the ocean gyre—is called its memory. Ozeki extends this image beyond the concrete and into the conceptual when Ruth and the omniscient narrator consider the interaction of internet-related technology with human memory in the context of Japan’s Fukushima disaster.
Ozeki uses shifts in point of view, metaphor, alliteration/assonance, synecdoche, and intertextuality in the novel’s front story of the Fukushima earthquake/tsunami/meltdown to support the themes of memory, non-linear time, the quantum mechanics principle of entanglement, right mindfulness, historiography, subjectivity, right view, and right speech.
Ozeki first summarizes video footage through Ruth’s eyes in close third, including an interview of a man who saw his wife and baby swept away by the tsunami and is still looking for his six-year-old daughter.
In the days following the earthquake and tsunami, Ruth sat in front of her computer screen, trawling the Internet for news of friends and family. . . . she couldn’t stop watching. The images pouring in from Japan mesmerized her. . . . She watched whole towns get crushed and swept away in a matter of moments, and she was aware that while these moments were captured online, so many other moments simply vanished.
Because of advances in smartphone technology, the ability to create videos became much more accessible in the last ten years. It’s also easier to upload video to the internet. Instead of relying on the footage of a handful of television camera-people, Ruth, in British Columbia, is able to see the disaster from myriad laypeople’s perspectives. These numerous perspectives funnel into her memory. But Ruth recognizes that what she and viewers around the world are able to remember is primarily curated by chance.
In the chapter’s next numbered section (3.), the point of view shifts from Ruth’s close third point of view to the omniscient narrator, who more expansively considers the nature of information and its relationship to memory.
In the two weeks following the earthquake, tsunami, and meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactors, the global bandwidth was flooded with images and reports from Japan, and for that brief period of time, we were all experts on radiation exposure and microsieverts and plate tectonics and subduction. But then the uprising in Libya and the tornado in Joplin superseded the quake, and the keyword cloud shifted to revolution and drought and unstable air masses as the tide of information from Japan receded. . . . [T]he news barely made the front page anymore.
Mass attention directs the firehose of information, and makes it near-impossible to ignore a particular subject on the internet, even if you want to. But the opposite is obscurity. Attention drives coverage (along with concern, donations, mindfulness, discussion, and accountability) both toward and away from topics. Ozeki uses ocean-related metaphors to describe these internet-attention shifts: “the global bandwidth was flooded,” “the tide of information from Japan receded.”
Information seekers used to have to access hard-copy texts at the library, or pull a volume of Funk & Wagnall’s off the shelf at home. Since the late 1990s, we’ve accessed the internet via computer screens, and via smartphones in the aughts. We take this information access for granted. But Ozeki brings our attention to our overconfidence, and how wrong things can go when we lose information, or stop according it value. Ozeki surveys the various ways humans attempt to share memories in the following passage.
What is the half-life of information? Does its rate of decay correlate with the medium that conveys it? Pixels need power. Paper is unstable in fire and flood. Letters carved in stone are more durable, although not so easily distributed, but inertia can be a good thing. In towns up and down the coast of Japan, stone markers were found on hillsides, engraved with ancient warnings:
Do not build your homes below this point!
Some of the warning stones were more than six centuries old. A few had been shifted by the tsunami, but most had remained safely out of its reach.
They’re the voices of our ancestors,” said the mayor of a town destroyed by the wave. “They were speaking to us across time, but we didn’t listen.”
Ozeki uses assonance of the hard a sound with the words rate, decay, correlate, conveys, paper, and unstable. She uses alliteration with pixels, power, and paper; fire and flood. These hard-sounding, technology- and catastrophe-related words evoke a dire, crisis-soaked reality, in contrast with the lofty, childlike language describing Nao’s experience of strolling up and down blossom-arched avenues, and the sensual descriptions of slipping into Ryu’s expensive clothing.
If Japanese people had heeded the message of the stones, fewer people would have died, and fewer villages would have been destroyed. These stones and their messages endured, but because people did not value their information, they paid a horrific price.
The front story of the message of the stones supports the novel’s Buddhist theme of non-linear time when it echoes Nao’s journal entry to the unknown-to-her person who will eventually read it, Ruth: “It feels like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it, you’re reaching back to touch me!” Like the stones, the things Nao has to tell Ruth will powerfully change her life, if not save it.
The quantum mechanics principle of entanglement is defined as when “two particles can coordinate their properties across space and time and behave like a single system.” The people who carved the warning into the stones hundreds of years ago were trying to coordinate with future generations to pass along vital information, much like Oliver is attempting to use the trees he plants in his Neo-Eocene climate change forest art project to be a force of healing for the environment that will endure centuries after his death. This only works if both parties are engaged. All of the effort Nao put into her diary wouldn’t have come to fruition if it landed in the life of someone who didn’t pay attention to it. The third element of Jane Hirschfield’s summary of Buddhism, “pay attention,” aka the dharmachakra spoke right mindfulness, snaps into focus.
How long did it take the Japanese people who lived along the coastline to forget about the message of the warning stones, compared to how long it will take us, and future generations, to forget about Fukushima? Ozeki infers that technology has increased the pace of forgetting, and will continue to do so. Libya’s and Joplin’s new waves of information usurp the internet real estate that Fukushima held relatively briefly, considering the scale of its catastrophe.
Ozeki deepens the connection of information to gyres with questions that posit the Internet as a metaphorical gyre. “Does the half-life of information correlate with the decay of our attention? Is the Internet a kind of temporal gyre, sucking up stories, like geodrift, into its orbit? What is its gyre memory? How do we measure the half-life of its drift?” It’s difficult to discern the difference between theme and the plot in this passage, because Ozeki is swirling together front story concrete gyre terminology and front story current events into a conceptual, thematic discussion of memory, storytelling, and remembrance—just like wind and the rotation of the earth combine to create ocean gyres and their subsurface spirals. Everything’s connected.
Ozeki continues, “The tidal wave, observed, collapses into tiny particles, each one containing a story.” In this sentence, the tidal wave of information breaks apart into particles that each have the capacity to encapsulate a soon-to-be ineffable story. Using intertextuality, Ozeki lists the germs of four of these stories according to what was seen in video footage, including “a medical worker clad in full radiation hazmat wanding a bare-faced baby who is squirming in his mother’s arms” and “a line of toddlers, waiting quietly for their turn to be tested.” In the next paragraph, Ozeki employs the terminology of plastic decaying in the ocean to metaphorically describe the disintegration of discarded and lost information.
These images, a miniscule few representing the inconceivable many, eddy and grow old, degrading with each orbit around the gyre, slowly breaking down into razor-sharp fragments and brightly colored shards. Like plastic confetti, they’re drawn into the gyre’s becalmed center, the garbage patch of history and time. The gyre’s memory is all the stuff we’ve forgotten.
Ozeki reiterates the idea thought by Ruth: “she was aware that while these moments were captured online, so many other moments simply vanished” with “a miniscule few representing the inconceivable many,” an observation of internet media synecdoche. Images, like pieces of plastic trash, degrade in the internet’s gyre. Ozeki points to the lack of value accorded to these poignant, searing images by collapsing them into the metaphor of trash. History can only hold so much—or that’s the dominant narrative about dominant narratives—so things have to be discarded. By showing the ebbs and flows of internet news in Ruth’s front story obsession, Ozeki questions the role the internet plays in contemporary historiography.
Intertextuality recurs when Professor Leistiko writes back to Ruth with long-awaited information about his friend, Nao’s father Haruki Yasutani. He quotes Haruki as saying,
That is only shame from my history, and history can easily be changed. . . . History is something we Japanese learn about in school. . . . we study about terrible things, like how the atom bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We learn that this is wrong, but that is an easy case because we Japanese people were the victims of it. A harder case is when we study about a terrible Japanese atrocity like Manchu. In this case, we Japanese people committed genocide and torture of the Chinese people, so we learn we must feel great shame to the world. But shame is not a pleasant feeling, and some Japanese politicians are always trying to change our children’s history textbooks so that these genocides are not taught to the next generation. By changing our history and our memory, they try to erase all our shame.
Instead of information forgotten due to competing narratives, this passage offers a historiographic example of purposeful rewriting of history to edit out the ugly parts that make people feel ashamed. This equivocation contrasts with Ruth’s stalwart subjectivity, when she insists on referring to an “old homestead, one of the most beautiful places on the island,” that “had once belonged to a Japanese family, who were forced to sell when they were interned by the war” as “Jap Ranch.” She is refusing to go along with this historiographical instance of a shame-driven redaction of fact. “Once Ruth heard the nickname, she stubbornly persisted in using it. As a person of Japanese ancestry, she said, she had the right, and it was important not to let New Age correctness erase the history of the island.” This corresponds to the dharma wheel spokes “right view,” “to experience things as they are without adding any preconditions, biases, or distortions”; and “right speech,” to “speak the truth.”
And so in the novel’s front story of the Fukushima earthquake/tsunami/meltdown, Ozeki deftly supports a profusion of themes—memory, non-linear time, the quantum mechanics principle of entanglement, right mindfulness, historiography, subjectivity, right view, and right speech—using shifts in point of view, metaphor, alliteration/assonance, synecdoche, and intertextuality.
Oliver and my wife Laura have a lot in common. As Ruth and I jabber on about our preoccupations, Oliver and Laura contribute the brilliant thoughts that cohere our jabberings into something way better than we would have unearthed or synthesized on our own. Ozeki describes Oliver as having “a mind that opened up the world for her, cracking it like a cosmic egg to reveal things she would never have noticed on her own.”
And do we appreciate them to the extent that they deserve? Part of Ruth’s character development seems to be transforming and evolving to the point where she does. That’s my arc, too. I think that’s part of being married for a long time, being distracted and off in my own thoughts, and pulled in lots of clamoring directions. In other words, I can sometimes be an impatient ingrate. All this is to say that I will not be taking credit for the following. She brought it up, and just like Ruth, for a few seconds I was slightly irritated to be pulled out of my writing process before she cracked open my world.
“What causes gyres?” she asked yesterday morning.
“According to National Geographic, global wind currents and the rotation of the earth.”
“But what causes the planets to rotate?”
“Gravity and orbiting and stuff?” I ventured, swallowing my urge to gibe, Ask the Google.
Unasked, she began researching, which is one of her superpowers.
It turns out that after the Big Bang, all of the particles averaged out their individual momentums to synthesize into the solar system. The movement of the rotation of all of the planets, in their galactic . . . wait for it . . . gyres, sprang from individual particles. Planets are the drift in space gyres. The atomic particles that function in quantum mechanics are the same kinds of atomic particles that drove the planets into the orbiting configuration we take for granted, one of those planets being Earth, whose oceanic circulatory system is made up of gyres. We don’t think of the Earth’s orbit length as a tone, but a year—one of those being an Anno Hegirae—a planetary moment. The Earth is a time being. As Buddhism 101 puts it, “The traditional belief, now supported by quantum physics, is that there is an interconnection amongst everything. And what we experience as solid objects are mostly empty space.” The Universe might say, “The scientific reality, now supported by Buddhism . . .”
I thanked Laura profusely, and appreciated anew that she is a space nerd who wrote her dissertation on the Space Age’s relationship with visual culture. I thought that was hot when I met her, but little did I know how much it would impact and connect with my MFA essay ten years later.
Laura also found an unsigned blog post on the site MalagaBay that convincingly argues that Lewis Carroll’s (aka mathematician Charles Dodgson’s) “Jabberwocky” is in fact a very precise and thorough critique of Newtonian gravity’s theory of the Earth’s movement through space, because it doesn’t take into account that the Earth does not move on a single fixed axis.
In other words, the mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson is informing his readers that the miserable, slimy astronomers have shabby arcane theories that are whistling and whining in the dark because they are based upon a gimble that gyres whilst resting upon turtles.
You don’t have to understand what this writer is talking about to get the point of its place in this conclusion—that everything, in a constantly changing, non-linear, non-dualistic, entangled, immeasurable way, really is connected. And so, if I want my novels to feel like real life (and I do), everything within them—especially the front story and themes—needs to be really connected, too. The theme of “the truth, vs. the stories you tell yourself about any given situation” expresses itself in Lana’s need to believe that Veronica and Patrick would not betray her, even though he had a history of cheating, they were all young and full of hormones, and Veronica was an ex-stripper living with them. In the seventies. I could use alliteration and assonance, like Ozeki did with the Ryu scene, to layer a subtext onto Veronica’s seduction scene. And beyond that, I now know that I want to use a gyre-like mother-metaphor to add more dimension and structure. For the last seven years, the working title of my novel has been Cleave, the paradox of splitting and clinging, housed in one word, found in nature, the Bible, in chemistry, in chopping wood, in love, and sex, political alliances, and embryonic development. It comes from Old English’s clēofan, which reminds me of the poetic old New Mexico Hispanic woman’s name Cleofás. One past tense is clove (cigarettes, sweet and dark and potent against teenage lips). And then there’s the diabolical cleft and cloven. Like gyre for Ozeki, cleave gives me a motherlode of metaphors with which to work. I was attracted enough to the word to choose it as my title, but Ozeki taught me how hog-wild I can plausibly go.
To think I used to be content with so much less.