Ruth Ozeki, who made the incredible short film on her grandmother which I have written about here before (Halvinf the Bones) has come out with a genius short memoir called The Face: A Time Code (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1632060523/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_6PUvxbX216BW2).
This incredible tiny title chronicles her watching her own face in a mirror for three hours. That's it. But it's so profound - her reflections on impermanence, self and lack of self, aging and racism, are all mind-blowingly astute, accurate and poignant.
Eleven years prior to my birth, my two halves had been mortal enemies. My mother’s people were killing my father’s people, and vice versa, and at a very young age, I was aware of this enmity and aware, too, that I embodied it. And yet my face evinced its opposite: the force of the attraction—true love, sex, miscegenation, call it what you will—that brought me into being. With all these primal and contrary passions eddying below the surface of my skin, it’s no wonder people found my face disturbing.
I myself have been pondering the classic Buddhist Koan which asks what your face was before your parents were born. The fact that Ozeki opens with this question drew me in immediately. This question deeply gets at interdependence and the lack of a beginning or ending of a single self. Ozeki, in her prologue:
What did your face look like before your parents were born? I first read this koan when I was eight or maybe nine years old. Someone had given me a little book called Zen Buddhism or perhaps the book had belonged to my parents and I’d taken it from their shelves, thinking it ought to be mine. The book was small and slim, the perfect size for a child to hold, but more importantly, it had a friendly face, which made it stand out from the other duller books on my parents’ shelves.
She even interrogates the face of the book! And wonders about the nature of faces all together:
What makes a face so special? It’s just an organizational device. A planar surface housing a cluster of holes, a convenient gathering place for the sense organs.
Such an intelligent and genuine line of personal questioning from one of my favorite playful zen philosophers.
And, of course, Ozeki also looks at her own process as an author and filmmaker:
It was so hard to put my first film out into the world, to publish my first novel, to break my family’s silence. I suspect all families have this, some code of silence that is absolute and inviolable and yet so omnipresent as to be almost invisible, too. Like God. Or air.
Noh masks, classic films and plays both Japanese and American, a million small moments of irritation and curiousity - this great small experiment is a treasure of a mini memoir. And, as always, her humor:
01:36:41 As a Zen priest, I probably shouldn’t be using makeup at all. Isn’t there a precept against lipstick? If not, shouldn’t there be? Surely I should be a bit less attached to my physical appearance by now, no? Is my lingering attachment a barometer of my unenlightened state? The author in me is apparently still vain. She is still trying. Is there a time when a woman is officially old enough to stop caring?
Yes, even Zen priests still care about their aging faces, at least female Ruth Ozeki ones do.