“What is time? How do we use it, spend it?” Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei mused in The Atlantic on how the pandemic has changed our perception and relationship with time. Ai wrote “The understanding of time is lost” and that “For so many others, there is no longer a something-to-do-next.”
This got me thinking about time. Or more specifically, Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being.
I read A Tale for the Time Being in college, during my Haruki Murakami phase. The story is told through two interlocking narratives—sixteen-year-old Naoko (Nao) Yasutani’s diary, which is really a protracted suicide note, and Ruth’s story, which began when the Vancouver Island-based writer discovered Nao’s diary (protected by a freezer bag and a Hello Kitty lunchbox) on the shores of British Columbia. Ruth became captivated by Nao’s entries and searched the Internet for the young girl: Has Nao followed through on her suicide? If not, is there still time to save her? Despite the lack of a resolution—Ruth was unable to verify Nao’s story—the novel delivers delicious, pensive, funny, sad, and ethereal morsels of time for thought.
My name is Nao, and I am a time being. Do you know what a time being is? Well, if you give me a moment, I will tell you.
Thus begins Nao’s diary entry.
“Being” is both a noun and a verb. A time being——a creature of time. Being——the present participle of “to be.” And it’s no coincidence that Nao (pronounced “now”) chooses to document her life in writing, because the act offers a way to set down what Ruth’s husband Oliver calls “the eternal now.”
Now can be palpable, like “When you beat a drum, you create NOW, when silence becomes a sound so enormous and alive it feels like you’re breathing in the clouds and the sky, and your heart is the rain and the thunder”; now can also be fleeting, like memory, “like cherry blossoms or ginkgo leaves; for a while they are beautiful, and then they fade and die.”
Now is time being——being in the present, in this moment.
The novel is highly engaged with Buddhist concepts (Ozeki is an ordained Zen Buddhist priest), and the term time being comes from 13th century Japanese Zen Master Eihei Dōgen’s masterwork, the Shōbōgenzō (The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye). His conception of Time-Being (Uji, 有時) states that “time itself is being, and all being is time.”
In the novel, Nao’s 104-year-old great-grandmother Jiko Yasutani, a Buddhist nun, told her in a dream that “you can’t understand what it means to be alive until you understand the time being, and in order to understand the time being… you have to understand what a moment is.”
Here’s how Jiko explains a moment:
A moment is a very small particle of time. It is so small that one day is made of 6,400,099,980 moments.
That’s six billion, four hundred million, ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty, which is how many moments Zen Master Dōgen predicates there are in one day.
Jiko then proposes a thought experiment to Nao. Supposing that snapping your fingers once equals 65 moments, then:
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.
It’s interesting to think about time in granularity, a moment at a time.
The word present means both being here, and a gift. It traces its etymology to Old French, present, Latin praesens “being there.”
It is a gift to be present, to be here and now.
Nao writes that Jiko is “supercareful with her time” and that “she does everything really really slowly in order to spread time out so that she’ll have more of it and live longer.” Turns out Jiko was only joking. But it’s interesting to reconsider time not as 24 hours, 1,440 minutes, or 86,400 seconds, but as more than 6 billion moments.
Each day, you have six billion, four hundred million, ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty moments to be present and engaged. I wonder, what are you doing now?