Dani Shapiro on Time, Memory & Marriage

In a voice that’s as lucid as it’s restrainedly elegant, critically-acclaimed memoirist Dani Shapiro contemplates the enigma of time, memory and identity: how do the passing of years transform us and our most cherished bonds?  how is it possible to commit to one person for the whole of our lives when the self is so often in flux?  what makes matrimony possible?  and how do we reconcile our past and present selves- the people we wanted to be with the people we’ve become?  Both an intimate look into her eighteen year marriage and a graceful meditation on the ever-shifting fluidity of the self, Hourglass: Time, Memory & Marriage is like no other book on the memoir shelf.

As she reflects on the relationship between time and identity, Shapiro comes to realize the self is a configuration of memory and history- not continuously reborn anew but indissolubly linked to past versions of itself:

“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.”

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Later, in a moment recalling both Faulkner’s conviction that “the past is never really past” and Whitman’s affirming belief that the individual is large and contains “multitudes,” Shapiro recognizes she is not one but many selves:

“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.”

In much the same way human consciousness is non-linear, Shapiro’s gorgeous memoir is non-sequential, shifting effortlessly from past to present to future.  One moment Shapiro will be reminiscing about her romantic Provence honeymoon with her husband Michael, whom she affectionately refers to only as M., the next, pondering the many ways they’ve- like all couples- inevitably disappointed each other.  

Hourglass is most poignant when it wonders if marriage requires too much compromise of self.  A former war correspondent, Michael is now a screenwriter who, like most in Hollywood, struggles with the unpredictability of his profession.  Months, years can be spent on a script that never sells.  A project can appear promising until the lead actor pulls out.  Wistfully, Shapiro wonders if Michael would have been happier roaming Africa than living a precarious artist’s life in their quiet country house:

“Michael is injured and I can’t fix things for him.  No, it’s more than that.  I am part of his injury, a perpetrator of it.  Sometimes it feels like his leg is caught in a trap.  If he hadn’t left Africa.  If he hadn’t become a filmmaker.  If he hadn’t met me.  I’m sure he wonders every single day whether-in the end-he will have missed the mark.  But the infinitely more troubling question is whether-having missed the mark-he will have also lost himself.”  

“Maybe I should have kept doing it,” M. recently said to me, in a rare moment of looking backward….What would have happened if he had taken the assignment, gone to Baghdad, chosen to write the book?  Instead, he has walked a long way down this road with me.  The house, the yard, the wife, the boy, the dogs, the schools, the quiet countryside.  I believe he doesn’t regret it.  But still, has being with me stopped him from being him?”  

Is their union shattered?  Do they sleep in separate beds?  Are most nights either an explosive argument of hurtful words and smashed dishes or a silence strained with things left unsaid?  No, Hourglass isn’t a dramatic account of a disintegrating marriage, but a raw glimpse into the lives of an ordinary couple, a couple whose relationship has been tested by the simple slings and arrows of time.  The lost mother.  The son diagnosed with a rare, near-fatal seizure disorder.  The non-existent retirement plan and empty savings.  The falling of the Twin Towers.  Shapiro exposes the fissures in their marriage-the regrets, the worries, the disappointments- with tenderness and lyricism.  Most often she ponders questions but refrains from answers.  The effect is a memoir that is at once poetic and insightful.

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