On Mentors

This morning I read these words in Terry Tempest Williams’ Introduction to Wallace Stegner‘s novel, Crossing to Safety: “Each time I pick up my pen, I feel the weight of his hand on my shoulder. Be bold, he says. Be brave. Be true to your birthright, what you recognize in your heart.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mentors, about the wise ones who have walked a few paces ahead of me and have had the generosity of spirit to show me the road. I’ve also been thinking about being a mentor, since after twenty-five years of teaching, there is an ever-growing flock who think of me that way.

I’ve certainly been blessed by extraordinary mentors. Some have been hard on me. Some have challenged me to be bold and brave. Others have been cheerleaders. Others have opened doors. Still others have made me feel less alone in the world. They form an inner chorus and are with me when I pick up my pen. But in recent years I’ve been accompanied on the journey by a few writers and artists I have never personally known. I keep their books close to me. I carefully write passages from their work into my commonplace books, committing their thoughts to memory, and when I do this, I feel almost as if our souls might be touching through time.

A writer sits on her chaise in her sunny office on a winter’s morning in 2016 and is transported and ennobled by a profound connection to a writer who filled her overcoat pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse on an early spring day in 1941. A writer checking Instagram during an afternoon break sees that an artist she thinks of as a muse-mentor has “liked” one of her images – but how can it be? That artist has been dead for more than a decade. It turns out her daughter runs her beautiful Instagram account (I can think of no better purpose for this form of social media) but the feeling is one of communion.

We need those who are able to remind us to become who we are. “Largeness is a lifelong matter,” Stegner writes. “You grow because you are not content not to…you grow because you’re a grower.” But we don’t grow in a vacuum. Nor do we necessarily know how or when or for whom our words and the actions of our lives will have meaning. We do our work – hewing steadfastly along the edge of our most intimate sensitivity – and we protect our gifts in order to best do that work. We nod to the past, and look to the future. And then – then we find the quiet courage to let it go.

  • lemead

    Oh, yes. This gives me goosebumps. I’m privileged to be among the large group who considers you a mentor, and thank you for that. I’ll never be able to properly thank you for all the ways you’ve helped and shaped me. xox

    • Danishapiro

      It’s a privilege, Lindsey. xxx

  • katrinakenison

    “We need those who are able to remind us to become who we are.” These words move me to inexplicable tears. Perhaps because, alone in the wilderness of our own uncertain souls, we forget that our task is simply to keep becoming. Thank you for this beautiful post. And congratulations on finishing your new book — and on letting it go. Can’t wait.

    • Danishapiro

      Oh, Katrina. Thanks for this. Wishing you such a good upcoming year…

  • Wonderful piece–thank you. As you know, Crossing to Safety is my favorite novel — I can quote chunks of it off the top of my head; Larry, Charity, Sally, and Sid are as alive to me as my neighbors. I have copies of the book in every room of my house and regularly give them away. But by far, my favorite edition is the one with Terry’s introduction, for reasons you show, above. Thank you for this beautiful piece on nodding to the past and looking to the future. xxx

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, my dear friend. xxx

  • Hillary Johnson-Writer

    Dani, This is so beautiful. It truly feels like a brush with grace when we find someone who steps into the shoes of mentorship. Some stay for a long time, others come and go more briefly. And then as you say, there are those others, whom we have never met either because of time or circumstances, but we encounter them through their books and feel that deep sense of communion. Their words like a balm on our skin and down further into the marrow of our bones giving us what we need at the time, perhaps courage, or maybe relieving a sense of aloneness. Sometimes it feels like the zing of eye contact, recognition of like spirits, across a crowded room at a party I’m not I want to be at. But that contact once made, tells me it’s okay to be here and not to worry about all those other people. The eyes say, we got this. And I have to say, it’s no wonder people feel that way about you through reading your work. Of course they do. I’m pretty sure a lot of writers out here feel you work does so much to help hold us all up. Namaste, Hillary

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks for these beautiful words, Hillary. And for that reminder about “the zing of eye contact” too. So true. We do recognize one another, when we become very clear and quiet inside.

  • Sue LeBreton

    Love this sentence. Makes me hopeful for future growth. Largeness is a lifelong matter,

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Sue.

  • ayala

    Yes! Beautiful and thoughtful post! Love this.

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, Ayala!

  • Raymond Cothern

    Yes, you are a mentor to many of us who have only met you through your writing. At the risk of quoting an earlier post of mine, this is what I wrote and what the beginning of your mentorship for me was. “Aaahh, SLOW MOTION, one of my favorite books. I kept a copy close by when I was writing SWIMMING UNDERWATER, about my daughter’s illness and growing up in Louisiana, discovering theatre as a youth, love, marriage, fatherhood, sex, adultery, reconciliation, rock ‘n roll, and the true meaning of Christmas. I mention all that unabashedly because seeing SLOW MOTION close at hand constantly reminded me that writing truthfully about those things would take courage.”

    • Danishapiro

      Oh, Raymond, this means so much to me. Thank you. Sending you every good wish for 2016.

  • ‘Crossing to Safety’ was the first novel my mother insisted I read after I’d finished university. And YOU are an invaluable mentor to me… already were, from the time I met you online, through your audio of ‘Devotion’ and your other books, and then in person… and now all the more so. Thank you, Dani, for this beautiful post. TRUE: “we don’t grow in a vacuum. Nor do we necessarily know how or when or for whom our words and the actions of our lives will have meaning. “

    • Danishapiro

      Thanks, and Happy New Year, Nancy! I’m so glad to know you.

  • Patricia Battaglia

    Lovely words! I manage a peer mentoring program for breast cancer survivors and have witnessed many instances of hope ignited, daunting obstacles faced with renewed courage, and growth fostered because a mentor reached out to someone in need. Every word of your post rings true for me. I am in the midst of planning a training session for a new group of mentors and would like your permission to use the quotes, “We need those who are able to remind us who we are,” and “…we don’t grow in a vacuum. Nor do we necessarily know how or when or for whom our words and the actions of our lives will have meaning,” for my training materials – with attribution to you and reference to your blog, of course. Thank you for this and for all the words you’ve written that have added meaning to my life.

    • Danishapiro

      Oh, this is so meaningful to me, Patricia. Thank you.

  • Weeping at the truth and beauty in this thanks that you give here. You may not be my mentor, but you are a light. Having listened to you from just a few feet away at Kripalu as you tenderly scooped sentences from books you’ve read, turns of phrase that tickled you, and memories from your life to lay before us like petals or seeds as we tiptoed toward dreams, I cannot nod deeply enough in agreement. Thank you, your voice and your voyage through all of the twists and turns of memoir and life are a beyond compare.

    • Danishapiro

      I love hearing this, Amanda. What a beautiful image. When I’m back at Kripalu next month I will think of it:)

  • Kathryn Parmeter

    We also need those who remind us that we are become who we are already. That who we are now, is enough, is more than enough. And it’s simply a matter of settling into that and really, really understanding it. And moving in the world from there.