Examining How Years Slip Away in 'Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage'

Detail from 'Hourglass,' by Dani Shapiro.

My 15th wedding anniversary is in June. It seems impossible that my husband and I have been together for that long. The first 10 years of our marriage galloped by, or so it seems to me, before we finally had a child. Now my son is turning 5, my parents are elderly, and I’ve been married 15 years. These facts don’t feel real to me, but I guess they are anyway.

My experience of marriage goes like this: You fall in love and “start your life together.” In the constancy of marriage, your perception of the self rests in stasis. Which is to say, you somehow believe you’re in a permanent state of being a young person who’s building something with your partner. Then life events happen—you buy a house, someone dies, your child goes to kindergarten—and you realize that whoops, time has been passing all along. You’re no longer as young, or maybe no longer young at all. Before you can adjust to this new version of yourself, you learn that it too has passed away and you’re something else yet again. You’re shedding selves left and right, and you keep forgetting to notice. Then you’re shocked all over again when you do.

At least, that’s what happens to me.

Dani Shapiro.
Dani Shapiro.

Dani Shapiro’s lovely memoir Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage examines this passing of time within the confines of matrimony. Shifting deftly between domestic experiences and the journals she kept on her honeymoon, Shapiro explores aging, love, family, career, and most of all, our concept of time. Now in her 50s, she’s both looking back at the woman who got married 18 years ago, and forward to the future.

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 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.

I think about time constantly -- how I should spend it, how much of it has passed, and what I should do with the rest of it. I’m not sure if this obsession is healthy, but it drives me to get things done. Time, after all, is the ultimate precious resource. So it’s necessary to limit social media, for example. No one wants “Checked Twitter A Lot” on her gravestone. My goal is to focus on the things that matter, but it can be hard to define what that is sometimes. There’s always the danger that you’ll invest your time in the wrong thing. You might choose option A when option B may have given you a happier, better life. Who can say?

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Shapiro’s book is haunted by a sense of what if. What if her husband, M., hadn’t given up his job as a war correspondent to become a screenwriter? What if they don’t have enough money for old age and retirement? What if he’s not quite the person she thinks he is? What if they had never married at all?

“We have formed ourselves over the years as two branches form, twisting, rooting, growing, stunting, pushing, budding, stagnating, reaching ever further, together,” she writes. “Who would I have become without him?”

There’s disappointment here as well. Despite considerable success, Shapiro feels she and M. haven’t quite lived up to the “grand ambitions” of their youth. M. gave up the dangerous life of a war correspondent at Shapiro’s request, and now chases success in Hollywood. Where once he was a regular guest on CNN, now “he is no longer in anyone’s Rolodex.” Meanwhile, things are slipping away—her parents die, his mother has Alzheimer’s, friendships end, their child is a teenager who doesn’t need her as much anymore. Financial pressures are continuous.

After 18 years of marriage, Shapiro can read her husband’s every expression. She knows how he’s feeling based on the sound of his tread in the hallway. Yet she has begun to question M.’s continuous assurance, “I’ll take care of it.” Her anxiety about the future, about whether he can take care of it, is increasing.

“His body is my home,” she writes. “Yet lately, I have had flashes, unbidden moments in which I wonder who the hell he is. I secretly fear I’ve been wrong about him.”

We can never know another person completely. You are both in and outside of time. You both do and don’t know your spouse.

In Bjork’s song “Notget,” off of Vulnicura, an album about her divorce, she sings, “Our love couldn't carry you / And I didn't even notice / For our love / Kept me safe from death.” Marriage tends to trick the mind. For years, you may bask in the security that’s supposed to come from a legal contract and an overpriced party, but of course that’s not enough. My marriage works because, as corny as it sounds, we believe we are each other’s “match,” as my husband likes to say. Shapiro writes that when she met M., “our eyes met and—neither years nor memory have altered this fact—I thought: There you are.” These more mysterious connections sustain relationships for the long term. Marriage just solidifies and makes the existing bond public.

But, as Shapiro suggests, you can’t build a barrier from time, and you can’t stop the flow of life. Marriage cannot save you from death.

At one point, Shapiro lists the things she brought back from her honeymoon in France. She explains how all these things are gone now, except for the faience pottery they’d purchased. It's still in perfect condition, for now. “Someday—perhaps late at night, tired, washing dishes—one will slip through my soapy fingers and shatter,” Shapiro writes. “It’s only a matter of time.”

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