“Lately I’ve been hearing a whispered admonition in my ear as I go about my business. Or perhaps admonition isn’t quite right. It seems more of a quiet, urgent instruction issued from a place in the deep anterior that holds within it everything I still need to know… Be careful, the voice says.” ~from Hourglass, by Dani Shapiro
Hourglass, Dani Shapiro’s elegant new memoir about her marriage, arrived in my mailbox early last week. The timing was perfect – my own wedding anniversary is tomorrow, and reading this book provoked much thought about the nature of long term relationships, the role of memory, and how our expectations change.
The book’s structure mirrors thought, so it feels as if we’re inside Shapiro’s head as her thoughts bounce back and forth between the present and various memories of her 17 year marriage to film-maker Michael Maren (whom she refers to only as M. throughout that book). She quotes from her own journals, the ones written on their honeymoon and in the early days of the marriage. She recalls events in their lives that illustrate the complexity and steadfastness of their relationship. She interjects pertinent quotes from writers and philosophers that illustrate her thinking, like this one from philosopher William James that stands alone in the middle of a page: “The constitutional disease from which I suffer is what the Germans call Zerrissenheit, or torn-to-pieces-hood. The days are broken in pure zig-zag and interruption.”
Looking back over the course of a long-term marriage – and mine spans 41 years tomorrow – it does seem marked by thousands of zig-zags and interruptions, any of which could be altered and the course of life changed forever. What if – we had moved from our old neighborhood a long time ago? What if we had had more children? What if one of us had taken a different job?
But it’s useless to dwell in the land of might-have-been. What concerns me at this stage of the game is the what-will-be. At 61, there isn’t nearly as much of it left as there once was. It’s important to handle it carefully and thoughtfully. Shapiro seems to be coming to that conclusion herself. That whispered admonition she writes about, the one that hold within it everything she needs to know. “Be careful,” it says.
“I’ve become convinced that our lives are shaped less by the mistakes we make than when we make them,” she writes. “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 are delicate. We are beautiful. We are not new. We must be handled with care.”
After 41 years, a marriage is, in many ways, a sturdy old thing, more like a strong wood box than a delicate piece of pottery. But lately I too feel that whispered admonition. Be careful. I want to shield our time together from outside intrusion. I want to protect us from the stumbles and falls that would have quickly healed in our younger selves, but that could be disastrous at this stage of life. I want to hoard every moment of tenderness and passion against the time when one of us might be left alone.
Time. Memory. Like sand shifting through the narrow passage of an hourglass, piling at the bottom of the glass. I look back and see the kaleidoscope of years: the white wedding dress, the chapel filled with people, countless dinners cooked, holding hands on the sofa watching endless television programs, pushing a stroller and walking our dog, being separated with traveling for work and long days and nights alone. One parent dead, then two, then all four, gone. The loneliness of a child moved far away, the joy of a grandchild’s arms around your neck.
Four decades of marriage. A lot of sand in the depth of that hourglass.
Time to turn it over now, let the new memories begin.
About the Author: Becca Rowan
Becca Rowan lives in Northville, Michigan with her husband and their two dogs. She is the author of Life in General, a book of personal and inspirational essays about the ways women navigate the passage into midlife. She is also a musician, and performs as a pianist and as a member of Classical Bells, a professional handbell ensemble. If she’s not writing or playing music you’ll likely find her out walking with the dogs or curled up on the couch reading with a cup of coffee (or glass of wine) close at hand. She loves to connect with readers at her blog, or on Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads.