I am a Time Being. I suspect we've met in an earlier lifeTime but am not sure. Not yet, at least. Our encounter the other day was brief. Hi, we haven't met! you said as you sat at our table at the hotel dining room where a high tea in your honor was being held.
I went out of my way to see you that day. Paid $50 which I thought there wasn't much of a high to the tea but it was worth it anyway just to meet you. The tea sandwiches were mediocre and so was the service. The salad was wilted and I never understand the thin cucumber sandwich, potato salad sandwich, and egg salad sandwich - carbs on top of carbs. I didn't eat the bread. Instead I scraped the spoonful of filling and ate it with my fork. So indelicate of me when I am supposed to eat it with my fingers with my pinky raised just like those ladies who love high tea know how to do. When the dessert plate came, I ate the chocolate almond biscotti and took a bite out of the dry tasteless scones that were supposed to taste better with the raspberry sauce but there wasn't much of it to go around in a table for eight. They then served additional plates of more sweets -- chocolate truffles, chocolate wafers, chocolate drizzled sugar cookies and chocolate mints -- all from Trader Joes. They were hardly touched but I thought that maybe the high in tea meant high on sugar.
Anyway, I didn't mean to complain about the food. But I do want to write about the women on my table. Did you notice that we were the only Asians in the room? They were mostly white women in their fifties or older and I suspect most are JewBus. I'm only noticing the racial difference because every time I find myself in situations where I am the only brown face in a sea of white faces, I find myself feeling invisible.
I introduced myself to the women on my left and right. I asked them the usual polite questions. Have you read the book yet? How did you hear about her novels? But nothing ever came back to me. No one asked me my name nor where I'm from or what I do...anything that would signal an interest; even a feigned one would have been welcome.
When you said hello to me as you sat at our table, I said I have your book but haven't had it signed because I didn't want to line up. Then you asked for it. I said my name is L-e-n-y. You signed it with a Japanese symbol that I was sure I'd figure out as I read the book.
A woman at our table asked you about being a Buddhist nun and you were glad to talk about that part of your life which I really appreciated. I didn't know whether it was proper to ask what your Buddhist name is and you said Generous Heart either in Chinese or Japanese - I couldn't quite guess by the sound of it. But how appropriate, I thought, because here you are with your open heart spilling over to mine.
Shortly after, the book event manager tapped you on the shoulder signaling that it was time for you to move to the next table. I'll never forget what you said about book tours being very much like Zen -- lots of sitting, waiting, leaving, going. Breathe in, breathe out. All the same.
The women at my table started talking about yoga as if it was a natural segue from Soto Zen. The two ladies traded remarks about the type of yoga they're into, how early they wake up in the morning to go to class. Yawn.
You made the rounds of four tables and then it was time for you to take the podium to read from Tale for a Time Being. I enjoyed the parts you read especially the voice of old Jiko speaking in Japanese. After reading for about fifteen minutes you took questions from the audience including mine asking about the footnotes and appendices as part of the novel's structure. Ah, a frustrated academic. I can relate to that. You also talked about doing research for the book which I also thought was a fascinating process.
At half past eight, it was time again for folks to buy the books and get them signed. I would have waited to say a few more words to you but instead I slipped through an exit and walked out into the crisp cold night air feeling relieved as if I had just escaped a suffocating room of strangers.
I know I shouldn't see it this way. I could if I choose to, write a different script in my head about these circumstances. But it merely confirmed yet again why I don't have much of a social life. You said the same thing but you said it in the context of writing your novel. And here, I'm not even writing one and I say it because it is what it is and I wish it were otherwise.
At our table someone brought up writing fellowships (I think you did). Oh yes, you mentioned you met one of the women at our table at a master class at Hedgebrook. I said I had applied and never made it. You were so kind to say I shouldn't feel bad because Karen Jay Fowler didn't make it either. I don't know who she is but she must be well known, not just to me. I actually looked up Hedgebrook when I got home and looked up the master class workshops. Should I go? Do I dare call myself a writer? If I go, will it release the self-censoring voicee in my head? Will the ancestors visit me and give me dreams to guide me?
That night I finished the last 200 pages of the novel and turned off the lights at three in the morning. I probably sped read some parts but I slowed down to take in the lines that unravelled the plot in the most unexpected ways.
Oh, how I admire your ability to tell stories. I like the intersections of various themes from Buddhist teachings to transnationalism to critique of capitalism to looming enviromental disasters to the psychic violence of modernity to the trauma of war to the wisdom of old women to the angst or youth to those who abuse the weak to the power within that rises when coaxed by the sage of Time. Whew! that was a lot of ground to cover!
I've been thinking that the novel will never end if every reader writes a letter to an unknown reader and sends it out to the world. Except I am choosing to write to you. What if the millions of people who read your novel end up writing to you? For sure you will never read them all. Maybe the publisher will hire a reader and send out polite letters of acknowledgement and then that would be it.
But what if you had the superpower to reply to each letter. To this one? What would our book look like?
A sixty year old Filipina American at the crossroads searching for a clearer compass. An academic who has published three books on decolonization, indigenization and created a Center for Babaylan Studies, organized and directed Fulbright grants and conferences on indigenous spirituality -- now seeking clarity on how to become an elder. Yup, that's me.
I suppose I could have been my other sister who just turned 69 and decided to get a face lift as a birthday gift to herself. Vanity, thy name is woman, she says. She didn't want me to tell the other siblings in the Philippines because there's a bit of guilt perhaps when the other sibling is scraping the bottom of the pot to feed her large family. No, that's not me.
I stopped coloring my hair a year ago. I notice you don't color yours either. I like my salt and pepper hair now. The older sister didn't approve but we just let each other be pretty much otherwise sisterhood will be too cumbersome.
Anyway, as I was saying at the beginning about this high tea event - this was the highlight of my spring break, you know. I doubt that I would have made it during teaching days because am usually too tired by Wednesday night and it takes all of Thursday and Friday to recover form the grind of teaching. So be lucky that you are not an academic with tenure because you could be saddled with department chair duties like I am and checking seventy three-page papers over the weekend. These are undergrads taking their required ethnic studies course and believe me, many of them don't know how to read a text closely anymore. They try to wing it by using a lot of what I call fluffy sentences - the kind that you can fill a paragraph or two without saying anything substantial. How can that be? How did we lose these kids to an American education?
I am thinking of assigning your novel as a text but am afraid they can't handle 400 pages. This semester they are reading two short memoirs and a book of short essays and not all of them bought the books. They take notes in class during lecture and discussion and take just enough information to use in their papers. I could go on and on about how I have dumbed down my syllabus since the start of my teaching fifteen years ago but that would bore you to tears. And you probably already know the story.
I have to stop writing now. Maybe I'll post this somewhere where it might reach you. I don't know.