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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ocean Tales & Mysteries of the Heart: Ozeki, Dybek and Jules Verne

I am thinking about oceans.  Fathoms deep. Wide as the sky.  Unknowable.  Watery gateways to the deepest mysteries.  I am thinking of pirates and fishermen and tsunamis and sixteen-year-old Japanese girls.  I am thinking of Captain Phillips and Captain Flint and of young Naoko Yasutani and her great grandmother Jiko, the hundred-year-old Buddhist nun.  

I am thinking of floods and earthquakes and the men of Loyalty Island, of moral choices and immoral acts, of diaries that float across oceans to faraway beaches, of the women who find them.  I am thinking of the men who draw their livelihoods from the nets of hard times, betraying their sons with each ocean journey that leaves empty seats at the kitchen table.  I am thinking of my own father and mother.

So powerful are the stories that harbor these images that I no longer care which of them is factual.  I only care that they are true.

When fiction mimics life, and life mimics fiction, and the lines between what is factual and what is make-believe blur, when we turn the last page of a good book and don’t ask ourselves,“Did this really happen?” but warn ourselves instead, “Close this book and you will forever lose your tenuous grasp on a  profound and untouchable truth.”  That’s when we understand that the truth dwells in many waters, and we know it not by what is factual, but by what is felt.

A few nights ago, we went to see Tom Hanks’ starring portrayal on the big screen of Captain Phillips.  According to an article in The New York Post, the movie is less fact than Hollywood fiction.   According to the real Captain Phillips and a USA Today article, it’s a pretty good reenactment of what happened when his cargo ship was accosted by a group of desperate pirates off the Somalia coast.  The truth lies somewhere in between.

I don’t want to know if the diary that Ruth Ozeki discovered in the flotsam that washed up on the shore of the small island off the coast of British Columbia where she lived, really belonged to a sixteen-year-old Japanese girl who died in the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011, or even if the diary actually existed.  The novel, A Tale for the Time Being (shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize,) lives inside of me now.  And that’s the honest truth.

For young Cal, whose father fished the Bering Sea in the Pacific Northwest for king crab, it was the stories of Robert Louis Stevenson that washed ashore on Loyalty Island each time his father returned from the sea—Treasure Island and the characters who lived inside the book, like Blind Pew and Black Dog.  “Years ago,” Cal’s father would begin to read to him, “When Captain Flint was still a good man…”  

It was no coincidence that novelist Nick Dybek chose the landscape of Loyalty Island as the place where his characters would be in dual with choices between betrayal and loyalty.  And no coincidence that Dybek received an Iowa Writers Workshop Maytag Fellowship, Michener-Copernicus Award, and a Granta New Voices Award, for he writes eloquently in his debut novel about the choices between good and evil that we all must make.

Usually, it is not the facts of a situation that guide us, but the things inside our hearts we know to be true.  “My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect,” wrote D.H. Lawrence.  “We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle.”

My father once gave my son a copy of Jules Verne’s Classic Science Fiction.  I remember being irritated by the inappropriate gift. “Why, I wondered, “is my seventy-five-year-old father giving my nine-year-old son a 511-page book?” But when I read the inscription, To Matt, with love, from Grandpa Loren, suddenly the gift made sense.   

Only a few more years of gift-giving stretched before my father. If, in ten years, his grandson was ready to dive twenty thousand leagues beneath the sea, it would be a grandfather's words wishing him bon voyage. 

The gift had come from my father’s heart, a heart that—as it turned out—would go on beating for only six more years, not ten.  How had my father known?  The facts recorded on his medical charts during his annual doctor’s visits stated that his heart was strong.  And so it was, just not in the ways a stethoscope could measure. 

I am still thinking about oceans.  About visiting Japan when I was a teenage girl, like Naoko in Ruth Ozeki's brilliant novel, A Tale for the Time Being, about the last (and only) time that my family sailed across the Pacific Ocean, how my mother looked up at the Golden Gate Bridge as we sailed into San Francisco, how my father wrapped his arm around her.  What truth did she see?  Where would the mysteries of the heart lead her? Where would they lead our family?

NOTES:  Read essay "Confessions of a Zen Novelist" by Ruth Ozeki in Buddhadarma.  Read New York Times review of A Tale for the Time Being.  Read about When Captain Flint was Still a Good Man in Oprah's Fall Reading.