A Time Code is the first in a series of books called The Face where a writer pens a short memoir about their face. Ruth Ozeki structures A Time Code using an observation method she found in “The Power of Patience,” an essay by Harvard professor of art history and architecture Jennifer L. Roberts.
In her essay, Roberts says she tries to teach her students immersive attention by sending them to a museum or gallery to spend three full hours observing a piece of art and detailing their observations, questions, and speculations. Likewise, Ozeki details her observations, questions, and speculations about her face while looking at it in a mirror for three full hours.
Sounds difficult, doesn’t it? Ozeki is a Zen Buddhist priest but even she began to get fidgety after a while. She records her thoughts by first stating the time and then jotting down her thoughts. For example:
00:13:02 When I look myself in the eye, it’s hard to look away. Eyes define the face. If we were not such visual creatures, it we received our sensory input some other way, maybe we would not need faces. Trees do not need faces. Jellyfish do not need faces. Daisies do, and they don’t have eyes, so perhaps I am wrong about this.
However, passages in the book vary. Interspersed between the time-stamped thoughts are short essays that elaborate on thoughts Ozeki had about her face, or that her face led her to consider. Such essays are about a variety of topics tied to identity but extend to family, spirituality, sculpting, and other things.
It’s a short book at just 140 pages, making it a quick one to read. But it’s also thought-provoking so it will take some readers a while to get through it. A month has passed since I read this book and I can’t recall much that Ozeki made me consider, but one thing remains clear and that is my desire to try this exercise myself. She inspired me to do so.
Though I enjoyed and appreciated the essays throughout the book, I was much more taken in by the time-stamped thoughts because they contain the odd bits that flitted through Ozeki’s mind as she sat considering her face. I also think Ozeki is more playful in these parts as she looks at her features and consider how they’ve changed over the years.
“’Your face before your parents were born’ is your true face, your originally enlightened buddha nature.” — Eihei Dōgen, a 13th-century Zen master
While reading the passages I highlighted, I pondered a couple questions Ozeki asks in one of her essays: “What are you? What is your true self, your undivided nature? What is your identity before and beyond these kinds of dualistic distinctions, like father-mother and good-evil, that define us?
It’s hard to consider oneself separately from one’s family and experiences. When we look at our faces, we see our background and history reflected back at us. Who were we before all these things, before these influences? In observing her face, Ozeki’s thoughts often wandered to her family — parents and grandparents — because she can see them in her features. Scars provoke memories of past experiences and sometimes past experiences make her recall masks she once donned to either hide or protect herself.
I wonder, when I do this exercise and manage to look past all this (if I can) to the face beneath, what will I see? I don’t think I fully know who I am.
Other subjects Ozeki discusses include beauty and standards for beauty, especially for women. She also shares her experience on creating Noh masks in Japan, which I found fascinating because it made me think of time and age. Noh is a form of theater in Japan in which actors wear masks. Ozeki’s description of how the actors prepare to don the mask is also very interesting.
Overall: ★★★★☆ 1/2
This was a good read and I highly recommend it. Ozeki is funny at times but mostly this is a thought-provoking read that might lead you to take a long look in the mirror and observe your face to see what it reveals to you.
Quotes from the book:
- “I understood that identity is fluid, that it exists on a spectrum, and that to some extent, I had a choice about where I fell.”
- “What makes a face so special? It’s just an organizational device. A planar surface hpusing a cluster of holes, a convenient gathering place for the sense organs.”
- “Name is face to all the world.”
- “Making familiar things strange is the job of the artist.”
- “Although lacking the brocade and elements of ancient sacred ritual, a novel can be a kind of mirror room, too. It, too, is a liminal space, silent, bound by certain rituals and full of magic. The writer enters and seats herself in front of her reflection in the mirror. She collects herself and focuses her attention, and then she picks up a mask. She gazes at it and positions it on her face, and at that moment she is transformed into the protagonist of her story, looking out through its eyes at her reflection in the mirror, made strange by the face of another.”
- “This is why we read novels, after all, to see our reflections transformed, to enter another’s subjectivity, to wear another’s face, to live inside another’s skin.”