While commuting to work a couple of weeks ago, I had to take a detour that went through the part of the city where I had spent my childhood and teenage years. Passing through the old streets of my early life, I could not help but almost see a little me walking alongside my mother to buy books for a new year at school. There was the teenage me rushing for her math tutorials, and near the street corner was the old haunt where I hung out with my school friends after classes got over. I wonder about those friends who have moved away.
Nostalgia is a charitable deception of memory, Gabriel Garcia Marques had written in his magical masterpiece Love at the Time of Cholera. Nostalgia makes us remember only the good things; the rough parts tucked away to unreachable recesses of our minds. However, the sudden detour through those old places reminded me of the person I was then. If I were to walk up to my old home, would I find her hunched over her study table struggling with calculus? Would she be surprised at the decisions taken that turned our lives around in a way that we did anticipate or dream about at the age of nineteen? I’m sure she would be. She would wonder from where I had the strength to make certain life-changing decisions. And perhaps she would tell me to make peace with myself, because the present me is at a place in her life the nineteen-year old had only imagined being possible in an alternate universe. And she would be indignant she knew I still obsessively hanker after persons and things that are not meant to be in my life. She would remind that the obsessive infatuations were what led to my unbecoming at the age of nineteen. There are some things I’d better let go. Be the person you needed when you were young, Dani Shapiro tells us in Hourglass.
All we need a trigger—for memories and our past selves to come tumbling out. In Hourglass, Shapiro writes how in life, time moves in a non-linear fashion unfolding unto itself. Time is not necessarily a linear progression of events, as I had witnessed with my own timeline warping into itself through the nostalgia evoked by my detour around those old city streets. This essence of nostalgia is not an individual experience, but a very universal human experience. Shapiro recounts driving through the city of New York. She too spots, like I did, younger versions of herself as she makes her way across the city. How often have we looked at old photographs, journals and college certificates and wondered about the person or persons we were? Those tiny little what ifs and could have beens become unfettered from within. As time moves forward, we grow and so does our ideas of the person we are and the relationship ideals become evolved or warped depending on our individual experiences. What would you say to your past self now that you are here? Shapiro has the answer:
Oh child! Somewhere inside you, your future has already has unfurled like one of those coiled-up part 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 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 as you vanish.
…The chance encounters, split-second decisions that make the design—that are the design…Change even one moment, and the whole thing unravels…Come closer and listen now. Be thankful for all of it…There is no other life than this. You would not have stumbled into the vastly imperfect, beautiful, impossible present.
It requires a certain kind of courage to bare your life on pages that will be read by thousands of readers who are unconcerned about you or your life in general. It requires a certain kind brilliance to interweave universal truths in your personal stories and make people interested in reading those stories. Dani Shapiro has shown us, time and again, through her memoirs how to do this with grace and a style that is restrained and yet honest.
After three memoirs (Slow Motion, Still Writing and Devotion: A Memoir) that dwelled on her 20s, her early midlife, and her life as a writer, Hourglass is about the trickle of time and trick of memory. Shapiro’s writes about these two themes through the spectrum of her marriage with M. (as she refers to her husband in the book). D ( Shapiro, annoyed, wonders why she referred to herself in third person in her old journals) and M have been married for eighteen years, D tells us this repeatedly or maybe she reminds herself, over and over again. Over these eighteen years, they have been on each other’s team through personal, professional and financial crisis: “We’ve fought each other’s battles…We have always been on the same side…” But is being on the same team enough to sustain through the years of a shared daily life? Friedrich Nietzsche had said, “It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” Shapiro shares Donald Hall’s insight as he described his twenty-three-year marriage to the late poet Jane Kenyon:
We did not spend our years gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly. For many couples, children are a third thing.
…Sometimes you lose a third thing.
In Hourglass, Shapiro does not write about the whats and whos elements of her marriage. With gentleness and a discerning eye, she inquires into the whys and hows of a life shared with another by examining her own marriage as well as her parents’ and in-laws’ and literary couples who shared partnerships of immeasurable beauty: “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, pulsing thing that is true.” Through her intricate study of “the soft, pulsing thing”, Shapiro gives us a book that is, as she calls it, emotionally instructive.
A luxury of youth is that we have the privilege to think we are just beginning. We go through our younger years thinking we have plenty of time to experiment and to make mistakes—hair colors, tattoos, jobs, relationships. We have the solace of an abundance of time to make up for every wrong decision, action or word. A woodpecker makes periodic appearances at Shapiro’s house in rural Connecticut. The woodpecker’s persistent pecking at the side of the house becomes a metaphor for a period of erosion, and also the cycle of life: things break down and again resurrected. Shapiro is fifty-two and M. is fifty-nine. After eighteen years of marriage, she realizes time is no longer a luxury for them:
There is less elasticity now. Less time to bounce back. And so I heed the urgent whisper and move with greater and greater deliberation. I hold my life with M. carefully in my hands like the faience pottery we brought back from our honeymoon long ago…We must be handled with care.
A writer is fuelled with words by a perpetual habit of reading. Reading, sometimes, brings us face to face with a sparkling quote and we are seized with an urge to record it in our own handwriting, write down the words on paper, in a journal, in a jot book, a record of our own. Shapiro calls this record of quotations commonplace books. She draws from her commonplace books to knit her narrative together with the wisdom of Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, Carl Jung, Adrienne Rich on time, love, marriage, partnerships and life. The interweaving of wisdom from a legacy of writers makes Hourglass an illuminating discourse on marriage—an almost commonplace book on marital life, as Shapiro intended it to be. Hourglass is meant to be absorbed with the pleasure of slowness, a concept espoused by Milan Kundera in his elegant and short fiction Slowness. Read the book in leisure and contemplate Shapiro’s sheer poetic words in your hours of tranquillity.