Ruth Ozeki on Making Peace With the Mirror

What did her face look like before her parents were born? Ruth Ozeki decided to find out.

What did your face look like before your parents were born? Ruth Ozeki’s attempt to parse this Zen koan is recorded in The Face: A Time Code: three hours spent before a mirror, studying her 59-year-old face, the relatives whose features haunt it, and what lies beneath.

Ozeki learned of the mirror exercise from Harvard Art History and Architecture professor Jennifer Roberts, whose students must spend three hours at a museum, looking at a single painting. (See “The Power of Patience“). Through this challenging assignment, Roberts hopes to cultivate her students’ atrophied attention skills. Writing about the assignment in Harvard Magazine, Roberts quotes art historian David Joselit, who calls paintings “time batteries”: “…exorbitant stockpiles of temporal experience and information that can only be tapped and unpacked using the skills of slow processing and strategic patience.”

The definition struck a nerve with Ozeki. The author and ordained Buddhist priest feels faces are also time batteries. Placing her laptop and a timer before a mirror, she sat down.

Like many women in late middle age, Ozeki wasn’t thrilled with the view. Ozeki’s relationship with her reflection had traveled from childhood indifference through adolescent vanity to an uneasy middle age. Midlife and then menopause commenced a period characterized by rapid, often unwelcome physical changes. The hours spent gazing into mirrors dwindled; now Ozeki looks at her reflection only when necessary, and those quick glimpses are shocking:

It’s not that I don’t like what I see, although that’s often a part of it. Rather, it’s more that I don’t quite recognize myself in my refection anymore, and so I’m always startled.

Yet this three-hour exercise isn’t about accepting her aging face or delving into the meaning of life. Rather, “I’m not looking for liberation or enlightenment. I’m just trying to write this essay about my face, and making a time log seemed like a good place to start.”

Ozeki’s scrutiny of her eyes leads to discussing her mixed heritage. Born to a Caucasian father and a Japanese mother, Ozeki grew up thinking herself “half” Japanese. Yet the terminology confused her. “Half of what? Which half was which, and how was I divided? Was Japanese the top half or the bottom? Or did the dividing line run diagonally?”

As she contemplates her eyes, Ozeki realizes the bags beneath them, once reason for dismay, no longer trouble her. This “baggage from my dad”, appeared when Ozeki was in her 30s. Now, 15 years after his death, the old angers have faded. Seeing her father’s features reflected in hers isn’t so distressing. In fact: “It’s kind of nice. Hey, Dad. How are you doing?”

Ozeki’s father was a deeply private man. He asked Ozeki to refrain from making films or writing about his family. He even asked Ozeki’s mother, a frequent corresponder to magazines, to cease her letter-writing. Ozeki is unable to explain her father’s reticence; his family had no skeletons or dark secrets that she knows of. Yet instead of taking umbrage at his censure, Ozeki, who writes under a pen name, says, “I do try to be mindful of his feelings. When I write about him in an autobiographical context like this one, I try to be fair, to tell the truth as best I can, and to avoid cheap shots and rhetorical hyperbole. Increasingly, this applies to everything I write.”

Gazing at her thinning eyebrows, Ozeki is amazed she has any left at all. As a child, she developed trichotillomania, or hair-pulling disorder. Eventually Ozeki managed to stop pulling out her eyebrows and lashes, favoring a complex hairsplitting system, instead. In time, she replaced hair-splitting with drinking and smoking.

At the one-hour mark, Ozeki turns to masks and their analogies to faces. After college, Ozeki did graduate work at Japan’s Nara Women’s University, studying Noh mask carving with a famed practitioner. Fashioning Noh masks is a painstaking, time-consuming process that culminates in aging the mask. This step asks the mask-maker to take a small knife and etch trails in the mask’s painted finish, essentially undoing months of careful work. As Ozeki’s student colleagues balked, she found herself expert at handling the knife, a patience perversely borne from years of hairsplitting.

Ozeki wasn’t immune from the sexualization Asian women endure. Forty-one when her first novel was published, she sat for a portrait with famed photographer Marion Ettlinger. Once Ettlinger finished the book shot, she asked Ozeki to sit for a few private shots. One of those photographs, of Ozeki in a faux-Persian wrap, was selected by her publishers for the promotion of All Over Creation. Ozeki was displeased: a book is about potato farming merited a different author photograph. Further, at that point, the photograph was six years old. Ozeki had aged, and wanted an accurate photograph.

In the end, Ozeki allowed the Ettlinger photo to run. As a woman’s face constantly changes, she can either spend all her time at photo shoots, or she can spend it writing. “Who can be bothered? Any serious writer is writing.” (italics author’s)

Nearing the three-hour mark, Ozeki begins speaking of her mother who, at 90 had Alzheimer’s disease. Remarkably, her sense of humor remained intact. Asked how having Alzheimer’s felt, her mother responded, “There’s not a single thing I can do about it. If there was something I could do and I wasn’t doing it, then I could feel sad or depressed. But as it is. I don’t have much choice. I may as well be happy.”

As the hours pass, Ozeki realizes there are many people in her face; it is both her face and not, and then it is, prosaically enough, time to get a latte and a lemon bar, sit on bench, and look at other people’s faces as they stare, heedless, into their devices. Ozeki, for her part, is left with a lingering sense of peace and kindliness that leaves readers thinking that they, too, should be gentler with their own aging faces, and perhaps, be setting up mirrors of their own.

RATING 7 / 10