Now, more than ever, the world needs books like This Is How It Always Is, a warm, funny and deeply moving new novel about gender identity, by my good friend Laurie Frankel. The novel tells the story of Claude, the youngest boy in a family of five sons, who, at the age of five, announces that when he grows up he wants to be a girl. Claude’s extraordinary family tries to figure out how best to support their bright, funny and beautiful little boy as he slowly transforms into a bright, funny and beautiful little girl named Poppy, while Poppy tries to grow up in a world that is not quite ready to welcome her.

As has recently become painfully clear, we live in a world that is not ready to welcome many of us, especially those of us who do not conform to its dominant ideological “norms.” Laurie’s book encourages us to look beyond these binary, either/or identities—boy/girl, black/white, us/them—and to embrace and defend the vast all-inclusive spectrum of the in-between, where most of us live.

Laurie writes with great compassion and courage, not to mention great humor! She is an inspiration. We all need friends like her. So read this book. Be inspired. Take back the world. far

It’s been ages since I last posted, and I feel I should apologize, but to whom? To my weblog? To the Internet, for dropping out of touch? To readers, of course, but if you visit this site, you already know I don’t post often, so you have blessedly low expectations, and I’m grateful for that!

But I do feel the need to write about what’s been going on. It’s been an extraordinarily busy, exciting, inspiring, and busy 2015, so far. In February, I’ve traveled from Cortes Island, to Vancouver, to Texas, to Washington D.C., to  Michigan, to California, to Portland, and finally to Berlin. I’ve experienced just about every season and weather condition (which made packing a real challenge) and met so many wonderful people.

I started in Dallas, Texas where I spoke at the 34th Annual First-Year Experience Conference Author Dinner along with three incredibly talented writers: Richard Blanco, Emily St. John Mandel, and Alice Goffman. Here’s a  video of my talk. It was sweet to hear the silencing of forks as Nao and Old Jiko took the stage.

After Dallas, I flew to Washington, DC for the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Foundation Reading Series. The weather was so warm and perfect when I arrived that I rented a bike and headed to the Monument to take a few obligatory selfies (is a shadow a self?). 

In DC, I was invited to visit Megan Besler’s AP Literature class at Columbia Heights Education Campus-Bell Multicultural High School, as part of PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in the School program. The students were wonderful--so smart, engaged, and talented. One of the students, TaQiya Stroman, wrote me this beautiful poem and read it aloud in class.

      Exit Ticket: Ode to Ozeki        The moment my eyes step within the pages/ my body was washed away/ By a beatific wave/ So spectacular were the words/ that shot through my heart/ like giant arrows./ O, ode to Ozeki/ who wrote the tale of two worlds/ who stretched and beautified/ the meaning of time/ whose words manifested/ a new meaning to life.


Exit Ticket: Ode to Ozeki

The moment my eyes step within the pages/ my body was washed away/ By a beatific wave/ So spectacular were the words/ that shot through my heart/ like giant arrows./ O, ode to Ozeki/ who wrote the tale of two worlds/ who stretched and beautified/ the meaning of time/ whose words manifested/ a new meaning to life.

No one has ever written a poem to me before, never mind an ode, so I felt deeply honored. Thank you, TaQiya!

The PEN/Faulkner event, entitled The Imaginary Real, was a reading and conversation with Claire Vaye Watkins, moderated by Nate Brown and held at the magnificent Folger Shakespeare Library. Nate is the most charming and wonderful interlocutor you can imagine, and Claire is, frankly, amazing—funny, brilliant, profound, and a stunningly beautiful writer. If you haven’t read her collection of short stories, Battleborn, you must, immediately. It will blow you away. We had such a fun evening, and there’s even a podcast, which you can find at the link, above. And at the end of the evening, the artist Devin Symons, gave me this sketch. Nice! He made one of Claire, too, which unfortunately I didn’t think to photograph.

The next stop on the map was Ann Arbor, Michigan--not exactly bike-riding weather, but still beautiful. I spent just one day there but was able to visit the fascinating Ann Arbor library (where, in addition to books, you can borrow things like telescopes and toasters and ironing boards and skis and even spinning wheels!). I did an interview for the Ann Arbor District Library podcast, and in the evening took part in their vital community reading program, Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Reads, where A TALE FOR THE TIME BEING was this year’s selection. Here are some pictures from the wonderful event!

And then, in a snap of the finger (65 moments according to Zen Master Dōgen), I was on a plane to California to spend Valentine’s Day with my beloved friends Karen Joy Fowler, Molly Friedrich & her son, Nando, and Lucy Carson, Molly's daughter and heir apparent. Naturally we celebrated with trip to the beach and a round (or two or three or ten) of pirate-themed miniature golf on the boardwalk.

On Valentine’s evening, I made my way over to the Make-Out Room (!) for Charlie Jane Anders’  wild event: Writers with Drinks. Charlie is an impresario like no other, and she had everyone doubled over with her infamous and indescribably hilarious introductions of the all readers, including Kate Willett, Rose Caraway, Nayomi Munaweera, Eve Rickert and David Koehn. It was an unforgettable evening.

After California, I flew to Oregon to spend a week as the first Writer in Residence at Portland Literary Arts. Last year, when I first got the email last year from Andrew Proctor, the executive director, inviting me to come, I was like, Whoa, awesome! Writer in residence in Portland! This should be a good gig, pretty chill, laid back. I mean, it's Portland, right? I can hang out in the Literary Arts Suite at the Heathman Hotel and write a little, maybe watch some TV, get caught up on reading...

Uh...wrong. They kept me very busy, and wonderfully so. My residency was part of the 30th anniversary celebration of Literary Arts, which is truly extraordinary, one of the finest and most vibrant civic literary organizations in the country. They run the thriving Writers in the Schools program, as well as the Portland Arts and Lectures series, the Oregon Book Awards and Fellowships, and do a variety of other seminars and programs devoted to supporting readers, writers, students, and books.

While I was there, I visited six classes at Grant High School, where I talked with students in the Japanese immersion program, and in Dr. Dreyer's excellent Film and Literature classes. I taught two adult master classes in fiction, and another class in meditation and writing. I read manuscripts and gave interviews, including one for this article about Zen by AP reporter Terrence Petty. The week concluded with a lecture at the magnificent Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, for some 2700 members of the large and thriving Portland literary community. We ended with a short meditation, and it was wonderful to feel the silence and stillness in the room. The talk will be broadcast on Oregon Public Radio on April 22nd and will be on their website, too. And after this wonderfully busy week, I see now that my assumptions were very wrong, and this whole image of Portland as a laid back, slacker town is just a cleverly constructed façade! 

After Portland, I met Oliver in Vancouver and we flew to Berlin for a real holiday, the first real holiday we've ever had, with no work commitments whatsoever, just long unstructured days of writing, reading, and walking, walking, walking. So much to see, so much to do, so much to take in. I’ve spent the mornings working on a long essay called Time Code of a Face, which will be part of a series of essays, The Face, published by the very cool Brooklyn-based digital publisher, Restless Books. I think Time Code of a Face can be preordered here. It's been wonderful to have time to write again!

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   Oliver, amidst faces, at the Berlin Museum for Film & Television 

Oliver, amidst faces, at the Berlin Museum for Film & Television 

Now we’re heading back to New York and into April, where I’ll be starting another round of travel, mostly to universities and libraries this time, with stops at Swarthmore, Wesleyan, Yale, The Aspen Institute, Deschutes Library in Bend Oregon, Longwood, and Princeton. You can find more information about these events here.  And I’ll also be teaching a writing and meditation class at Brooklyn Zen Center, which should be a lot of fun. So, if you happen to be in any of these places, please come say hi. I hope to see you down the road...!


On Zen Nuns & Novelists

Setouchi Jakucho in her garden in Kyoto. Photo by Jeremie Souteyrat

"Usually people who do bad things make good writers. I did a lot of bad things, which is why my novels are interesting."

~Jakucho Setouchi, novelist-turned-Buddhist nun

Jakucho Setouchi is one of my heroes, and she made this comment during an interview with Reuters back in 2008, when she was eighty five years old. Here are some of the reasons why I admire her.

She was born in 1922 in Tokushima prefecture. She married and had a child, and then in her mid-twenties, she fell in love with one of her husband's students. She left her husband, lost custody of her daughter, and started writing novels. She wrote about the affair, and later about her relationship with a married man, breaking ground by freely describing sex from a woman's point of view. She was quickly labelled a pornographer by the mostly male Japanese literati, and the publisher of her second novel described her as "a writer who thinks with her womb." Responding to this, Setouchi said, "I was very excited about releasing the book, so I was shocked and flabbergasted when I saw the advertisement copy. Most upsetting was that some male critics reviewed the book and said I must have written it while masturbating."

She fought back and continued to write, but as her success grew, she started to lose what she called her power of judgement. Without hearing the Japanese, it's impossible to know exactly what she meant by the word "judgement," but I can't help feeling she might have been referring to a kind of breakdown of moral or ethical discernment in regard to her fiction, her self, and her voice in the world. She went into psychotherapy, which was very unusual in Japan at the time, and a decade later, at the age of 51, she shaved her head and took vows as a Tendai Buddhist nun, explaining that while she was willing to give up writing completely, she knew that were she to continue, she would need a backbone.


And continue she did. In 1998, she wrote a best-selling modern translation of the classical novel The Tale of Genji, focussing on the experiences of the women characters instead of the prince, and in 2006, she received the Japanese Order of Culture. Now, at the age of 90, she's still writing novels and plays and essays, giving hugely popular public talks, and working a political activist. She's best known for her opposition to the death penalty and to the Gulf Wars and she went to Iraq to distribute medicine. Most recently, at the age of 90, she staged a hunger strike to protest the reopening of Japan's nuclear facilities in the wake of the meltdowns at the Fukushima reactors caused by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Jakucho was an inspiration for the character of Old Jiko in A Tale for the Time Being, and she was an inspiration to me when I was thinking about ordination, too. The comment she made about needing a backbone in order to continue writing resonated strongly, and I wrote about it in an essay for the Spring 2013 issue of Buddhadharma Magazine, exploring the ever-changing relationship—sometimes harmonious and most often confounding—between my two beloved practices of writing and Zen.

I would like to meet Setouchi Jakucho, but I don't think she would like my novels. In another interview she said, "The most important thing to write about in novels is love affairs. Corporations and politics -- none of that is interesting." I disagree with her on this point, although maybe I could convince her to change her mind. She seems willing to admit when she's wrong. In talking about her decision to become a nun, she said that she had no regrets about her ordination, but she might have gotten the timing wrong. "I'm glad I did it, but it was a little bit early. It was a bit of a waste. I had no idea I was going to live so long. I thought it would be 25 years at most."


I just remembered an essay I wrote for the New York Times back in August of 2004, and since it's August all over again, I thought I would repost it here. The memory of this summer when I was seven, visiting my grandmother in Japan for the first time, is the source of the scenes at Old Jiko's mountainside temple. Perhaps it's also the source of my interest in the things that drop out of history, which the BBC's Mariko Oi writes about in her article, What Japanese History Lessons Leave Out. Matsushima

A Vacation with Ghosts, New York Times, August 11, 2004

My first six summers were American suburban, filled with the familiar thrills of Slip 'N Slides and sprinklers, the smell of gasoline lawnmowers and the tickle of grass blades sticking to my skin. Then, the summer I was 7, my mother took me to Japan to visit my grandmother. It was my first trip outside the United States.

My grandmother was very old. She lived by herself in a tiny house, made of paper and wood, that clung to the side of a mountain. A bamboo forest encroached upon it, tall and towering, like some kind of monster lawn grown out of control. The days were humid and hot, and the heat made everything, including time, stand still. It was a complex Asian kind of heat, made of far more than just temperature. It was textured with strange sound and scent: the incessant whine of cicadas; the moist exhalation of forest moss; the hot breeze rattling the bamboo's bladelike leaves; the faint stench of sewage wafting up the mountainside from town.


I was drawn to the forest but scared of it as well, and so I would stand at the edge, looking in. The forest floor was shadowy, but a bright green sunlight filtered through the canopy. There were trees other than bamboo: stout trees, cryptomeria and camphor, with huge wisteria vines looped around their branches that the local children swung from.

I was curious about these Japanese children. While my features showed that I was half-Japanese, in my heart, I was all American, and where I came from - Connecticut - no one else looked like me. Now, here were children whose faces mirrored mine, but who were still not at all like me. Their tongues made high staccato sounds that my ears could not decipher. I recall one little boy calling out to me—taah-zan! taah-zan!—as he swung from his vine. When he landed on the ground, he thumped his chest and yodeled. I ran back into the house.

My mother tried to get me to play with the children, but I didn't exactly trust her. In Japan, she had revealed hidden sides of herself, the existence of which I'd never before suspected. She and I had spoken only English. Now, as I watched her talk to my grandmother in Japanese, switching fluidly from one language to the other, I saw that in this strange new tongue she was a different person-possibly not my mother at all. It made me dizzy, all this switching, but maybe it was the heat.

The heat was relentless, even at night. After dinner we would put on light cotton kimonos called yukata and walk to the public baths, where it was even hotter. Inside the tiled rooms, steam curled from the surface of the large soaking tubs. Pink-fleshed ladies of all sizes and shapes submerged themselves, then slowly rose again from the scalding water. I had never, in all my seven years of living, imagined there could be so many shapes of ladies.

After we came out of the bath, my grandmother would buy me a soda in a thick green refillable bottle that looked as if it was made of sea glass. The stopper was a heavy marble, held in place by a rubber gasket, which popped when you pushed it back inside the bottle. After the scalding heat of the baths, that cold soda was the most delicious thing on earth, and even the warm wind felt cool on my skin as we walked home through clouds of fireflies that lighted the darkness.

In the morning my grandmother would make tea; she always offered a cup to the photograph of my dead grandfather that sat on the altar, talking to him as though he were alive. He had moved to America in 1896, when he was just 16, to build himself a life, but during World War II, he was interned and my grandmother, who had followed him there, was left alone in Hawaii. By the time the United States government released him, at the age of 65, they had lost everything. Disenchanted, he and my grandmother moved back to Japan and he died a few years later. Of course, I didn't know any of this then. I just thought it was strange that my grandmother talked to a dead man.

But she wasn't the only one. For three days in August, my grandmother told me, during Obon the spirits of the dead walked among us and the living raised red lanterns to guide them, first safely back to earth, then home again to their spirit world. The festival of the dead has been celebrated in Japan since the seventh century. In my grandmother's town, in 1964, a bamboo tower was raised in the schoolyard for the festival and the townspeople gathered and danced around it. There were fireworks, and it was fun, but I still found it strange to hang out with ghosts.

And then there were the soldiers. Like living ghosts, they wore green military uniforms under bedraggled white robes, and begged for alms on busy street corners. They leaned on dirty crutches. Many were wounded or disfigured—amputees—missing arms or legs or parts of their faces. The legless, resting on small platforms with wheels, were my height exactly, and I could look into their eyes. What I saw was terrifying and I couldn't help but stare. My mother took my wrist and pulled me away. When I demanded more information, she told me the soldiers were veterans of World War II. She seemed embarrassed. Japan had fought America and lost, she said, as though this explained everything.

Years later, when I went back to Japan as a foreign exchange student, I asked people about the crippled soldiers begging on the street corners, but no one seemed to remember them or be willing to talk about them. Confused, I wrote to my mother, but she said I must have made it up. She said that while there may have been soldiers begging shortly after the war, they would certainly have been gone by the time she and I went to Japan. She didn't actually say I was lying, but since I'd always been a storyteller, she was accustomed to attributing these discrepancies to an overactive imagination.

But the image of the soldiers persists. How could I have made it up? I was only 7, a postwar child who knew nothing of war's mutilations. I remember the hard red sheen of their scars, the brownish scent of the bandages. But when I went back to Japan in 1975, it was as if the clocks had been rewound, and the soldiers had been erased from history.


Now in midsummer, there are days when the air becomes heavy, and time stands still. Of course, in New York there are no forest mosses, no bamboo or eucalyptus trees looped with vines, but in my neighborhood, there are children swinging in the parks and playgrounds. Watching them, I remember how a light bulb went off in my head, when I ran back from the forest to my grandmother's house, and my mother translated the little boy's strange words. Taah-zan, she explained, was Japanese for Tarzan.

I was delighted! I knew all about Tarzan. It was an American film, after all, and, when I was 7, knowing that these Japanese kids had adopted my country's story was hugely comforting to me. So I ran back into the forest. Pushing the little boy out of the way, I grabbed hold of a stout vine, thumped my chest and swung.

On Bookers, Booksellers & The Bookshop Band

IMG_0476 On Tuesday morning, I sat down at my computer to find my inbox flooded with the loveliest messages of congratulations. It took me a while to figure out why. My well-wishers seemed to think that A Tale for the Time Being had been longlisted for the Booker Prize, but I figured it must be a mistake. Only the day before, I'd learned that a kind reader had nominated the book for the Guardian's Not The Booker Prize, and so I assumed that my friends had gotten the two prizes confused. Silly friends. How awkward. But then it occurred to me to check the Man Booker Prize website, and I discovered that in fact they were right, the book had been longlisted, and as usual I was the last to know. This is what happens when you live in Desolation Sound.

Thank you, everyone, for your kind wishes.

I just got back home to Whaletown after a wonderful trip to Spain, France and the UK, doing promotional stuff for the novel. It was fascinating to realize that while I think of the book as A Tale for the Time Being, that's only its English name and identity. In other countries, it has different identities, since each country has its own take on both the title and the cover design.

Here is the French Belfond edition:

Mise en page 1

They're playing with the line from the English translation of Dōgen Zenji's essay, Uji, which reads "For the time being, the entire earth and the boundless sky." The wave and the grey sky reflect this beautifully.



And Planeta has done something entirely different with the Spanish title and cover design:


They're playing off of the notion of the "Butterfly Effect"—the flutter of a butterfly's wing in Japan. It's a lovely image.



Canongate's UK editions have been stunning. The hardcover has an exposed Nepalese binding on the spine, which I love, because of the way it echoes one of the themes of the book, which is the hacking and deconstruction of the book-as-object. The paperback is equally clever, and it has an augmented reality feature which you activate with smart phone app called Blippar. The cover image animates, literally comes to life, and leads you to various online resources, and this again recalls the virtual realities evoked in the story.

Hardcover_UKThere have been several interesting articles written about the design, which you can read here on the website.

The occasion for the UK tour was that A Tale for the Time Being won the 2013 Independent Booksellers Award, which is a special prize given by the UK Indie booksellers during Independent Booksellers Week. I was honored and delighted to receive this award. I love Independent bookstores. They are a lifeline for writers like me, and I doubt I would be publishing books without the support of the booksellers who are so passionate about books and know their customers and can take the time to hand-sell the titles they love. I wrote an essay for The Bookseller weblog, which talks about independent bookstores as the keystone species that determines the health of the cultural ecosystem.


Oh, and here's a picture of me receiving my award from Patrick Neale, at the lovely Jaffe & Neale Bookshop in Chipping Norton.

The UK Indie Bookshop Tour was really wonderful. It seemed to me that although many expressed concern about the sustainability of indie bookstores, the ones I visited were thriving. They'd built devoted communities of readers, were sponsoring all sorts of interesting events and offering a brilliant range of customer services, including book clubs and book spas and personal consultations with bookish professionals. And British bookshops serve wine at author really helps!


One of the highlights of the UK Indie Bookshop Tour was the visit to Bath and my reading at Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights. It's an absolutely lovely bookshop, and they were celebrating its 7th birthday. (Among Mr. B's specialized customer service offerings is a Proust Support Group. They are on Volume III, Chapter 2. How can you not love this? It's enough to make me want to move to Bath.) After the reading, we had sushi and wine and a beautiful birthday book cake (which I'm cutting it here, wearing my "fictional character" shirt from Village Books, in Bellingham, WA).

But the highlight of the evening for me took place before the reading, when The Bookshop Band performed two songs inspired by A Tale for the Time Being. The band is a trio comprised of two guitarists, Poppy Pitt and Ben Please and a cellist, Beth Porter, who write songs based on books they read and then they play them at bookshops before author readings. They started out performing mostly at Mr. B's, but since then they've gotten quite famous and now they travel all over. The two songs they wrote about my book were heartbreakingly beautiful, and as I listened to them sing, big fat tears just kept rolling down my face.

And it seems I'm not the first author to be so moved by their performance, and here's why. To a writer, a book is a gift. It comes to you more or less unbidden. If you're paying attention and you're willing to put in the hard work and the long years, maybe your book will find its way onto the page, into the bookshops, and into readers hands. At that point, your work is done and the book is no longer yours. You've given it away, because that's what you do with gifts. That's the nature of gifts, to be freely given.

But then, by some remarkable serendipity, a lovely trio of musicians reads your book and they are moved by it to write beautiful songs, and these songs are gifts, too, and they are unspeakably precious because rarely do writers get to experience their work so exquisitely received.

Here is The Bookshop Band, performing my two songs: With Words Alone and For The Time Being.



Thank you, Bookshop Band!

Thank you, Booker Prize judges!

Thank you, Independent Bookshops!

Thank you, dear publishers & editors & translators & book designers!

And most of all, thank you, dear Readers, because really, it's all because of you.




London Interactive


Just got back a short five-day visit to London, where I went to support the launch of the UK edition of A Tale for the Time Being. Canongate, my wonderful UK publisher, is doing the most amazing, cutting-edge stuff with the publication and generating all sorts of buzz in the London book world.

Hardcover_UKThe hardcover is a beautiful, deconstructed book with an exposed spine (how I love that metaphor!), which is like a work of art, and the paperback edition has a fully interactive cover. Yes, that's right. A fully interactive cover that you operate with an app called Blippar. You download the app onto your smart phone or tablet, hold your device over the cover, and it comes to life! The red hinomaru peels back and reveals a moving montage and then offers links to areas where you can read excerpts and learn more about the book.

Canongate is releasing all the editions, the hardcover, paperback, ebook and audio book, simultaneously, and they've given me my very own TV channel, too. Amazing!

IMG_0459During the five days in London, I did interviews for BBC's Nightwaves (online now), the Guardian Books podcast (yet to come), and The National (yet to come). I taught a class in "How to Live More Consciously" (aka How to Be a Better Time Being) at Alain de Botton's School of Life, and had a wonderful conversation on stage with author Mary Loudon at the Women of the World Festival at Southbank Centre. And finally, Canongate held a lovely luncheon with the team who has worked so hard on the publication, and I was thrilled to meet authors Philip Pullman and Steven Hall, who took time away from their writing to come celebrate with us. I was moved and honored.

The highlight of the trip was meeting people: the wonderful Canongate editors and designers and marketing and publicity teams; the brilliant authors; the broadcasters and journalists; and most of all, the readers, who took precious time away from their busy lives to come out and to support a book. A book! In this day and age, how amazing is that?


I had a little time to spare, so I went to the British Museum, and as I studied the engravings on fully interactive Rosetta Stone—the real stone, not the language-learning software, which came up #1 in my Google search ranking, listed as "Official Rosetta Stone®"—I couldn't help but marvel at...what? At the power of our ancient desire to communicate. At the ever-evolving nature of text and our expectation of what it can and ought to do. At its increasingly ephemeral nature.

Because even if the Official Rosetta Stone® is #1 in Google ranking now, the real stone has survived for more than two thousand years and will probably outlast both the software and the computers we need to fully interact with it. And this is okay, because humans will always want to talk to each other, and we will always find ways of learning each other's languages and communicating our stories. Whether we're chiseling stone or programming pixels, it's just our nature to be fully interactive.