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

“Change even one moment, the whole thing unravels… 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.

BP

Nina Simone on Time

A meditation on the one dimension of human existence that “goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflicts.”

Nina Simone on Time

“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 as he contemplated our paradoxical experience of time in the early 1930s just as Einstein, Gödel, and the rise of relativity had begun revolutionizing our understanding of time. “Time is the substance I am made of,” Borges proclaimed a generation later in his exquisite 1944 refutation of time. “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.”

If Borges’s words sound like a song lyric, it is because there is something singularly musical about our perception of time — we speak of our daily rhythms, abide by the metronomic ticking of the clock, and feel the flow of time like one feels the flow of a melody. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the elusive and indomitable nature of time preoccupied not only the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and writers, but also one of its greatest musicians: Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known as Nina Simone (February 21, 1933–April 21, 2003).

Nina Simone, 1969

On October 26, 1969, at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City, Simone performed a version of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” written by the English folk-rock singer-songwriter Sandy Denny and popularized by Judy Collins. The version was released a year later on her live album Black Gold and was later included in The Essential Nina Simone.

Simone, who was at least as devoted to civil rights as she was to music, considered this “a reflective tune” that “goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflicts,” for it deals with the supreme unifying force of all human existence: the shared experience of time’s inescapable flow. She introduced her cover with a beautiful, simple, profound prefatory meditation on time — please enjoy:

Sometime in your life, you will have occasion to say, “What is this thing called time?” What is that, the clock? You go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock and your coffee by the clock, and you have to get on the plane at a certain time, and arrive at a certain time. It goes on and on and on and on.

And time is a dictator, as we know it. Where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch and is it alive? And then, one day, you look in the mirror — you’re old — and you say, “Where does the time go?”

WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES

Across the morning sky, all the birds are leaving
How can they know that it’s time to go?
Before the winter fire, I’ll still be dreaming
I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad, deserted shore, your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, but then you know that it’s time for them to go
But I will still be here, I have no thought of leaving
For I do not count the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

But I am not alone as long as my love is near me
And I know it will be so till it’s time to go
All through the winter, until the birds return in spring again
I do not fear the time

Who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Complement with the psychology of how we experience time, T.S. Eliot’s timeless ode to the nature of time, and James Gleick on how our fascination with time illuminates the central mystery of consciousness.

BP

Time Is When: A Charming Vintage Children’s Book About the Most Perplexing Dimension of Existence

“Time is from before to now; from now to later. Time is when.”

Time Is When: A Charming Vintage Children’s Book About the Most Perplexing Dimension of Existence

“What is time? Things change, and time is how we keep track,” science writer James Gleick wrote in the final pages of his invigorating tour of our temporal imagination. Central to Gleick’s inquiry into our relationship with time is the observation that even humanity’s greatest thinkers, be the scientists or philosophers or poets, have failed to offer an adequate definition of what time actually is, producing instead a variety of aphorisms, wisecracks, and other clever evasions. (Susan Sontag, riffing on John Archibald Wheeler: “Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once.” Richard Feynman: “Time is what happens when nothing else happens.” Augustine: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know. If I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.”)

Perhaps Borges put it best in his exquisite “refutation of time”:

Time is the substance I am made of. 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.

Still, despite how central time is to our experience of reality — it colors our psychology, it makes the fabric of life elastic, and it locates our thinking ego — we have failed to make our language and logic cohere around it.

When Gleick was a boy of six, his mother, Beth Youman Gleick, gave her own answer to this perennially slippery question in Time Is When — a charming children’s book exploring one of the first external experiences of which we are aware: the substance and passage of time.

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The original 1960 edition, now nearly impossible to find, features marvelous vintage artwork by sculptor and illustrator Harvey Weiss, who belonged to the same circle of Connecticut author and artist friends as Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak. In 2008, the book was reprinted in a new edition with different illustrations, but the original — of which I was fortunate enough to track down a surviving copy — remains singularly scrumptious. Weiss’s drawings offer the perfect visual counterpart to the limber curiosity and elegant simplicity with which Gleick tackles one of the greatest complexities of existence by illustrating how the fragments in which we experience time — parts of the moment, parts of the day, parts of the year, parts of a lifetime — shape the nature and texture of our experience.

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For an Eastern counterpart, see this uncommonly beautiful and subtle Japanese pop-up book about time and the cycle of life, then revisit Bertrand Russell on the nature of time, Sarah Manguso on its confounding and comforting ongoingness, and Gaston Bachelard on our paradoxical experience of it.

BP

The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life

“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life

“In the wholeheartedness of concentration,” the poet Jane Hirshfield wrote in her beautiful inquiry into the effortless effort of creativity, “world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.” But concentration is indeed a difficult art, art’s art, and its difficulty lies in the constant conciliation of the dissonance between self and world — a difficulty hardly singular to the particular conditions of our time. Two hundred years before social media, the great French artist Eugène Delacroix lamented the necessary torment of avoiding social distractions in creative work; a century and a half later, Agnes Martin admonished aspiring artists to exercise discernment in the interruptions they allow, or else corrupt the mental, emotional, and spiritual privacy where inspiration arises.

But just as self-criticism is the most merciless kind of criticism and self-compassion the most elusive kind of compassion, self-distraction is the most hazardous kind of distraction, and the most difficult to protect creative work against.

How to hedge against that hazard is what beloved poet Mary Oliver (b. September 10, 1935) explores in a wonderful piece titled “Of Power and Time,” found in the altogether enchanting Upstream: Selected Essays (public library).

Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver

Oliver writes:

It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

Oliver terms this the “intimate interrupter” and cautions that it is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction, adding:

The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.

Echoing Borges’s puzzlement over our divided personhood, Oliver sets out to excavate the building blocks of the self in order to understand its parallel capacities for focused creative flow and merciless interruption. She identifies three primary selves that she inhabits, and that inhabit her, as they do all of us: the childhood self, which we spend our lives trying to weave into the continuity of our personal identity (“The child I was,” she writes, “is with me in the present hour. It will be with me in the grave.”); the social self, “fettered to a thousand notions of obligation”; and a third self, a sort of otherworldly awareness.

The first two selves, she argues, inhabit the ordinary world and are present in all people; the third is of a different order and comes most easily alive in artists — it is where the wellspring of creative energy resides. She writes:

Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.

Art by Maurice Sendak for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Oliver contrasts the existential purpose of the two ordinary selves with that of the creative self:

Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth?

Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.

[…]

In creative work — creative work of all kinds — those who are the world’s working artists are not trying to help the world go around, but forward. Which is something altogether different from the ordinary. Such work does not refute the ordinary. It is, simply, something else. Its labor requires a different outlook — a different set of priorities.

Part of this something-elseness, Oliver argues, is the uncommon integration of the creative self — the artist’s work cannot be separated from the artist’s whole life, nor can its wholeness be broken down into the mechanical bits-and-pieces of specific actions and habits. (Elsewhere, Oliver has written beautifully about how habit gives shape to but must not control our inner lives).

Echoing Keats’s notion of “negative capability,” Dani Shapiro’s insistence that the artist’s task is “to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it,” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s counsel that as an artist you ought to be “keeping the unknown always beyond you,” Oliver considers the central commitment of the creative life — that of making uncertainty and the unknown the raw material of art:

Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Van Gogh’s spirited letter on risk-taking and how inspired mistakes move us forward, Oliver returns to the question of the conditions that coax the creative self into being:

No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.

Above all, Oliver observes from the “fortunate platform” of a long, purposeful, and creatively fertile life, the artist’s task is one of steadfast commitment to the art:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

She returns to the problem of concentration, which for the artist is a form, perhaps the ultimate form, of consecration:

The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.

[…]

It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

Upstream is a tremendously vitalizing read in its totality, grounding and elevating at the same time. Complement it with Oliver on love and its necessary wildness, what attention really means, and the measure of a life well lived, then revisit Jane Hirshfield on the difficult art of concentration.

BP

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