A Letter to Ruth Ozeki
I am writing you this letter from a well-lit coffee shop with big chandeliers and tiled floors in terrible, evil, suburban Palo Alto, but that isn’t what’s important. What’s important is this: “You wonder about me. I wonder about you.”
Where are you right now? Are you slurping oysters straight from the shells on a cold and empty beach in an island off of Canada? Are you riding in a subway car that smells like McDonalds and nail polish, lights and noise dancing around you like tiny, fragile bubbles? Or are you sitting in this same coffee shop drinking the same cold brew coffee as me? Do you like the classical music they’re playing?
I think the thing I most love about you is that I really believe you could be in any of those places right now—maybe all of them. Your writing has this quality of at once being all around me while also sliding further and further away, kind of like how a moment feels when you lean in and kiss someone behind a UPS truck overlooking a green field and you want to be there and feel that person’s lips, but in a way you are already gone and running down a hill, hair flying out behind you, untethered from the world.
Even though I am still not very far into this letter, I feel like I should warn you, I will not be able to write all of what I need to. There is too much to say and prose is so human and clumsy. Here is what I want to tell you: you are right that the reader can change the story of the writer. I think every time we pick up a book, we are, in some miniscule way, impacting the life of the author. Lately, I have come to view time as a conversation. I used to desperately wish I had been alive in the 50s or 60s so I could drive across America with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady or run away to San Francisco. Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if it’s really possible for anything to disappear. People are still reading On the Road, I am fairly certain I once heard Neal Cassady speak, so who’s to say these decades, these realities, aren’t still real; even if they’re fully gone, their voices are clearly still reaching us. I think, actually, that all of us are going forward and backwards both at once, accessing the future the way Nao does for the Ruth in your novel, while also changing the past the way Ruth does in the other direction. For me, writing has become an act of spanning this distance, reaching forward and backward and, in a small way, grasping hold of everything and nothing.
One of the many reasons I feel connected to you is that we have both lived in California and Tokyo. Only, unlike you, both of my parents are American and I lived in Tokyo for a year when I was a little kid, the same age you were living in East Palo Alto. While I was in Japan, I felt the same kind of alienation Nao feels in A Tale for the Time Being, as well as what you have described feeling in your own life when you were in East Palo Alto. I remember sitting at a table of boys during lunch—none of the girls had saved me a seat elsewhere—and hearing them saying my name amidst a ceaseless flow of Japanese and knowing, just knowing from their quick glances and close-mouthed laughs, that they were making fun of me. That was the day my quietness rose to the surface and I became really and truly shy. I used to cry a lot as I walked home from school, then wipe my eyes clean under the awning of my apartment building because, like Nao, I wanted to hide my loneliness from my parents. My year in Tokyo isn’t something I talk about all that much at this point—I was ten then and now I’m a teenager—but I can feel it in the back of my mind, a part of the pulse that makes me, well, me. I like to think it is like this for you, too, not that I want you to be sad, but, if two people are sad and alone in the same way, are they really alone at all?
At the end of A Tale for the Time Being, you talk about alternate realities, all the million lives we could be leading elsewhere. Sometimes I think I can feel the pulse of one of those lives. It’ll come at a random part of the day. I want to cry and I’m sure I have just lost something huge and irrecoverable. But, in reality, I am just sitting in math class, and nothing, nothing at all, is changing except the hand on the clock, maybe not even that. But what if you are right and in that elsewhere, I’ve just lost my best friend or I’ve just had sex in a dorm room that smells like pizza, and now I am feeling the ghost of that pain? Maybe next time I should just let go and cry because, in that elsewhere, the other me isn’t and she won’t.
Since I was a little kid, I have felt a deep resentment for every adult in the world. This is because, when you look at them, they are not crying or screaming, even though the planet is heating up, and California’s reservoirs are dwindling, and the homeless man on the street is missing a leg, and the little girl I used to play with has a mom who just committed suicide, and I don’t have any family members left to visit. How do adults smile and bear it and go to work and make dinner? How do they ever laugh about anything? If I could decide what the school system looked like, I would require every single teacher to tell their students their unique reasons for living. I wouldn’t care if those reasons were as miniscule as a pet cat or a postcard or a dream.
How do you fit into this, you may be wondering. Here is how: when I finished A Tale for the Time Being, I felt like I finally understood what makes being alive worth it. It isn’t that before I read your book I was thinking about killing myself, or anything. I’ve always been sure there is something in me, deep and strong like the roots of an ancient tree, that would keep me from flying out in front of a train, emptying a bottle of pills into my stomach. But until I finished your book, I couldn’t be sure of what this thing was exactly, what my exact reason was for breathing. Like you and probably every other writer, I hate uncertainty. I type or scrawl my own versions of reality, of love and friendship and nature, because I want to know. I want to know the earth will survive global warming. I want to know that, at least once, I will fall in love and be loved in return. I want to know I will write a novel capable of changing the world. But I can’t know any of this, just like Ruth in your story who is both you and someone else cannot really know if Nao is alive in this plane of existence. But Ruth decides to believe that she is, and, to me, this choice changes everything.
Some days it feels like, if we know so little about the future, there isn’t really a point to being alive at all. Every day, every second, we could lose everything. But here’s the thing: we haven’t yet. The trees are still growing, even in dry California, and, on your island off of Canada, you can still eat raw oysters straight from the shells without being poisoned by plastic or pollution. The forests have not yet been fully uprooted, but it’s, unfortunately, also true that maybe one day they will be. I haven’t yet written a novel, but it’s also true that maybe one day I will.
One thing I do know for certain is this, though you are far away in Canada or Japan and I am here in California, somewhere, maybe in another time, we are writing from the same place.
By Emma Eisler