Hourglass: Dani Shapiro on Time, Memory, Marriage, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“There is no other life than this. You would not have stumbled into the vastly imperfect, beautiful, impossible present.”


Hourglass: Dani Shapiro on Time, Memory, Marriage, and What Makes Us Who We Are

“It is the intentions, the capacities for choice rather than the total configuration of traits which defines the person,” philosopher Amelie Rorty concluded in her taxonomy of the seven layers of identity in literature and life. “Time is the substance I am made of,” wrote Borges decades earlier in refuting the most perplexing dimension of existence. “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”

How is it, then, that we live both in time and outside of time, with it and against it, constantly balancing between resistance and surrender as we sculpt ourselves through our choices across life? “If our heart were large enough to love life in all its detail, we would see that every instant is at once a giver and a plunderer,” wrote the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard in contemplating our paradoxical experience of time.

That delicate, ferocious act of unsweeping ourselves from the river of time and unplundering its instants is what Dani Shapiro explores with uncommon elegance in Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage (public library) — at once a memoir and a quiet manifesto for how, despite the cavalcade of losses and the exponential narrowing of possibility marking the passage of the years, it remains possible to have an expansive and creatively invigorating existence. In Shapiro’s virtuosic hands, time compresses and expands — an accordion playing the sorrowful yet redemptive melody that is life.

Dani Shapiro by Kate Uhry
Dani Shapiro by Kate Uhry

Radiating from Shapiro’s particular life-story is a larger inquiry into the universal puzzlement of “the selves we shed and shed — only to have them rise within us once more.” As she leafs through her old journals — her way of ordering the chaos of life, “an attempt to separate the interior from the exterior,” replete with long-ago lists of fossilized intentions — she marvels:

How do you suppose time works? A slippery succession of long hours adding up to ever-shorter days and years that disappear like falling dominoes? Near the end of her life, Grace Paley once remarked that the decades between fifty and eighty feel not like minutes, but seconds. I don’t know yet if this is the case, but I do know this: the decades that separate that young mother making her lists from the middle-aged woman discovering them feel like the membrane of a giant floating bubble. A pinprick and I’m back there. But is she here? How can I tell her that her lists will not protect her?

Shapiro, both a novelist and a masterly memoirist, considers the building blocks of selfhood in literature and life:

In crafting a work of fiction, at least in first draft, a writer’s got to have a kind of willful blindness to her own motivations. Why the knock at the door, the chance meeting, the near miss? The writer may not know, even as she proceeds. But when the self — not a fictional character — is the landscape of the story, we can’t afford to be blind to our own themes and the strands weaving through them. And so we must make a map, even as the ground shifts beneath us.

This is, of course, not only a literary problem.

New York City is particularly fertile territory for the continual mapping and remapping of the self, with its peculiar way of populating the present with every past version of oneself. With wistful wonderment, Shapiro addresses her 22-year-old self vanishing behind a New York street corner, addresses the universal inner child in each of us, in everyone who has ever grown up:

Oh, child! Somewhere inside you, your future has already unfurled like one of those coiled-up party streamers, once shiny, shaken loose, floating gracefully for a brief moment, now trampled underfoot after the party is over. The future you’re capable of imagining is already a thing of the past. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt yourself up. Sit down. Let me tell you everything that’s happened. You can stop running now. You are alive in the woman who watches you as you vanish.

Illustration by Isol from Daytime Visions

Echoing Simone de Beauvoir’s reflections on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, Shapiro writes:

Each fork in the road: the choice to stay home, to go out, to catch the flight, or cancel it, to take the 1 train, to stop at the bar on the corner. The chance encounters, split-second decisions that make the design — that are the design.

[…]

Change even one moment, the whole thing unravels. The narrative thread doesn’t stretch in a line from end to end, but rather, spools and unspools, loops around and returns again and again to the same spot.

In a sentiment that calls to mind astrophysicist Janna Levin’s magnificent Moth story about the Möbius life-paths that lead us back to ourselves, Shapiro adds:

There is no other life than this. You would not have stumbled into the vastly imperfect, beautiful, impossible present.

There is, of course, a powerful meta-truth to such a recognition within a memoir — an almost countercultural willingness to consider the past, that raw material of memoir, not as a predecessor of the present but as its twin of permanent residence. We don’t so much emigrate from the past to the present, Shapiro suggests, as we hold a lifelong dual citizenship that confers upon us as many rights as it does responsibilities, particularly when it comes to the stories we tell about our own lives. With an eye to this meta-dimension of her craft, Shapiro — who has observed that writing memoir “embeds your story deep inside you” — offers:

I used to tell my students that in order to write memoir — or at least good memoir, the kind that will be of value to the disinterested reader — the writer has to have some distance from the material. I was quite certain that we could not write directly from our feelings, but only the memory of our feelings. How else to find the necessary ironic distance, the cool remove? How else to shape a narrative but from the insight and wisdom of retrospect?

But like every fixed idea, this one has lost its hold on me as years have passed and the onrushing present — the only place from which the writer can tell the story — continues to shift along with the sands of time. Our recollections alter as we attempt to gather them. Even retrospect is mutable. Perspective, a momentary figment of consciousness. Memoir freezes a moment like an insect trapped in amber. Me now, me then. This woman, that girl. It all keeps changing. And so: If retrospect is an illusion, then why not attempt to tell the story as I’m inside of it? Which is to say: before the story has become a story?

Then there are the moments of the story, of a life, that stand as what T.S. Eliot so memorably called “the still point of the turning world.” Shapiro relays one particularly poignant touchpoint of past and present — the kind in which the arrow of time pierces the heart of the human experience:

At the end of the first evening at a large retreat, an old man approaches as I’m packing up my books and papers for the night. He looks at me with such warmth and love. Do I know you? Startled, I glance down at his name tag. I raise a hand to my mouth, then stand and hug him hard, wordlessly. He had been my first piano teacher.

“I read a book review of yours in the Times,” he tells me. “Which led me to read all of your work. I had to come see you”

[…]

He has traveled hundreds of miles to see me. He tells me of the loss of one of his adult children, tears standing still in his eyes. What’s left? he wonders aloud. What’s left? He asks the question as if he believes I may know the answer. At first, I feel a wave of fear. What do I know? What can I possibly offer this man who saved me every Wednesday afternoon of my childhood? … I fight back my own tears as the first measures of Mozart’s Sonata no. 11 in A Major begin to play in my head. Be who you needed when you were younger. He reaches out a trembling hand and I take it.

Looking back on the wild mosaic of her life — two catastrophic youthful marriages and one, to the love of her life, that has grown for eighteen years; a life devoted entirely to art and thus bedeviled by the artist’s ongoing struggle for survival; the near-loss of her infant son Jacob, now a handsome teenager, to a rare seizure disorder; 9/11; her father’s death in a car crash; the myriad unpredictable turns in the road that make a person precisely the person they are — Shapiro writes:

Dig deep enough and everything that has ever happened is alive and whole, a world unto itself — scenes, words, images — unspooling in some other dimension. I am not referring to memory, but rather, to a galaxy that exists outside the limited reach of memory. It can be understood, perhaps, as the place where neurobiology ends and physics begins. The law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant — it is said to be conserved over time.

All those selves — that inner crowd — clamor inside me. The girl who believed men would save her. The young woman who made harsh and quick work of herself — savage obstinacy — and nearly succeeded in her blind, flailing quest for self-ruin. The one who said I do, and then didn’t. The one who kept journals despite it all. The one who turned over the shovelful of earth and heard it hit the plain pine box six feet below — once, twice. The one who said I do, then did. The one who wrote books as if her life depended on it. The one who held her baby to her breast and sang Hush little baby don’t you cry. The one who was going to save him or die trying. The one who fled the city after the towers fell. The one who grew up. The one — now — with her boy on the verge of manhood, her man struggling with his own wounded spirit, who is consumed with a sense of urgency. From fifty to eighty.

Somewhere, a clock ticks. Sand pours through the hourglass. I am no longer interested in the stories but rather, what is underneath the stories: the soft, pulsating thing that is true.

Illustration by Harvey Weiss from Time Is When by Beth Youman Gleick, 1960

Shapiro’s 91-year-old aunt pulls into sharp relief the urgency of inhabiting those deeper stories and the timescales on which they unfold:

“You know,” my aunt says, “I once had a terribly difficult period that lasted twenty-four years.” Wait. Twenty-four years? “And it was so important to realize that I didn’t know what was on the other side of the darkness. Every so often there was a sliver of light that shot the whole world through with mystery and wonder, and reminded me: I didn’t have all the information.”

Reflecting on her own glimmers of darkness-dispelling illumination, Shapiro writes:

Sometimes I think I have organized the inner crowd. For a brief, breathtaking moment, I feel completely whole. I understand that I am comprised of many selves that make up a single chorus. To listen to the music this chorus makes, to recognize it as music, as something noble, varied, patterned, beautiful — that is the work of a lifetime.

What makes the book especially powerful is the intrepid rawness with which Shapiro examines the essential counterpart to that inner crowd — her marriage to M., in which their two selves are reoriented and recalibrated so that “suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters.” The treachery of time then becomes double treason, but there is also something deeply redemptive in the presence of the two banks facing each other along the river of time, on which to shore up against the merciless flow.

Pulling out her wedding vows from a yellowed old envelope, Shapiro writes:

I can no longer say to M. that we’re just beginning… That solid yet light thing — our journey — is no longer new. He identified my mother’s body. We took turns holding our seizing child. We have watched his mother disappear in plain sight. We have raised Jacob together. We know each other in a way that young couple couldn’t have fathomed. Our shared vocabulary — our language — will die with us. We are the treasure itself: fathoms deep, in the world we have made and made again.

With an eye to the ongoingness of that making against time’s destruction, which is the ultimate material of life, Shapiro writes:

Years vanish. Months collapse. Time is like a tall building made of playing cards. It seems orderly until a strong gust of wind comes along and blows the whole thing skyward. Imagine it: an entire deck of cards soaring like a flock of birds.

Complement the thoroughly transcendent Hourglass with Bertrand Russell on the nature of time, Virginia Woolf on its elasticity, and Marc Wittmann on the psychology of how we experience it, then revisit Shapiro on writing and vulnerability and why creative work requires leaping into the unknown.


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