Dani Shapiro

“Every day includes much more non-being than being. This is always so. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; washing; cooking dinner. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.”

– Virginia Woolf

September 22, 2013

On Making Sense

Once, years ago, I spent an hour with one of the smartest people I know, a therapist who had also become a friend.  I had a lot going on.  Work questions.  Personal questions.  Big life questions.  All of it came spilling out in a torrent.  I was at a crossroads.  Confused.  Feeling the whiplash of many different things happening at once –– some of which felt contradictory.  I talked and talked.  He listened and listened.  And then, as they are wont to say, our time was up.

As he walked me to the door, I turned to him, in despair, and asked: “Does any of this make sense?”

And he responded: “Dani, everything about you makes sense.”

What a liberating idea!  That everything that comprised my life — the early screw-ups, the stops and starts, the misguided first career, the ups and downs of my twenties, the poor choices, eventually the good choices, all of it added up to something coherent.  Something that at least one person thought made sense.

As I write this, my life is full of contradictions.  I am feeling them more than ever.  How did I get here?  I have a new book coming out –– my eighth.  This makes me feel about a thousand years old, but in fact, it all comes from putting down one word, than another, than another, over the span of the past twenty years.  I am a novelist who loves nothing more than to live in the world of my imagination, and yet, for the past six years, I have written mostly non-fiction.  I am a teacher who began my teaching career in academia, and now I find myself, more often than not, leading retreats where I am free to experiment and be creative in the ways I help my students approach the page.

We are all in such a hurry to define ourselves and others!  In a well-publicized feud this past week, Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen had some things to say about commercial writers versus literary writers.  I am loathe to jump into any kind of fray, but part of me wants to stand up and shout: why do we care?  We are all a bunch of thin-skinned, rag-tag misfits, overly sensitive, socially-awkward, and our natural habitat is solitude.  Our conducting these kinds of public non-debates –– or even engaging in private snobbery –– calls to mind two enormous, hermetic old tortoises poking their heads out from their shells and staring balefully at each other from opposite sides of a pond.

I am a literary writer in the sense that my sphere of interest, to quote Faulkner, is the human heart in conflict with itself.  I am interested in story only in so much as it illuminates that conflict.  And I am interested, too, in making the reader want to keep breathlessly turning the pages.  It was James Michener who once remarked that he knew nothing about plot, but if asked to describe a chair, he could make a reader want to read to the end of the page.

We diminish ourselves by categorizing ourselves.  I have been called a female writer.  A Jewish writer.  A writers who only writes about mothers and daughters.  A writer who only writes about family.  Or who only writes about herself.  (Ouch.)  I have been taken to task for wearing nice clothes.  Or being blonde.  Or having been a model and actress in my youth.  Or living in Connecticut.  It has taken me a lifetime –– and eight books –– to finally shrug free of the chrysalis of all this and understand that there is beauty in being undefinable.  In defying categorization.  In a refusal to be pigeonholed  In being this and that.


August 5, 2013

On Shining a Light

I’ve been thinking lately about the maxim that we should write the book we want to read.  I’ve always found that very helpful to keep in mind when I’m embarking on a piece of work, or when I’m stuck.  But in the last few years, a wrinkle has developed for me.  What if the kind of book I want to read –– the kind I really want to read –– is changing?  What then?

Samuel Johnson offers this:  “A book should either allow the reader to escape existence or teach him how to endure it.”

Earlier in my life as a reader, I enjoyed a good escape.  Sure, I was mostly interested in a literary escape, which is to say that it was important to me that the work be beautifully made, the sentences crafted, the characters and circumstances rendered in a way that allowed me to suspend my disbelief.  I also wanted to recognize my own internal life on the page –– you know, that sense of identification that so many of us feel when we start reading as children.  That sense of being a little less solitary in our strange, prickly, unique inner lives.  I liked a good story, and that feeling of sinking deep into a world so intricate and well-developed that, for a time, it allowed me to leave the world around me.  I tried to write books like that.  In a couple of cases, I think I succeeded at least a little bit.

But now I find myself gravitating again and again to books that do something else for me.  Books that don’t nudge me toward escape,  but rather, embed me more deeply in my own consciousness by allowing me to  inhabit the consciousness of another.  I find that these books are often hybrids.  They call themselves novels or memoirs –– but really, they inhabit a gray area, the rogue territory of genre-less-ness (a word I’ve just made up) in which questions of fiction and memoir don’t apply so much as whether we are injected, infected, with the consciousness of the writer.

Recently, I re-read Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, a novel that succeeds at this brilliantly.  Renata Adler pulls this off in her novels Speedboat and Pitch Dark.  As does, in ways I haven’t yet been able to sort through, Jess Walter in Beautiful Ruins, which is a novel, certainly, but maintains at its core the consciousness of the writer –– in the case of Walter, one who is able to move the reader in and out of time and place and form with a surety, an acrobatic ease.  And Ruth Ozeki’s new novel, A Tale for the Time Being, also lives in this gray area in ways I found thrilling.  (Side note: I was so pleased to see it long-listed for the Booker Prize.)

As I cast about in the netherworld of pre-publication, reading, thinking, trying to be patient, to live in the in-between, waiting for my next book to announce itself to me, I am noticing the kinds of books that have been exciting me, these past few years.  Books that are puzzles of consciousness.  Books that leave room for the reader to enter.  Books with white space –– calling to mind a park bench where the reader can rest for a while inside the pages themselves.  I’m not focused on whether these books are fiction or non-fiction, but instead, ask of them that they shine a light.  That they open a door.  That they blow my mind.  That they help me endure.

July 10, 2013

On Writing and the Emotional Life

What do we do when we sit down at our desks and we’re angry?  Or sad?  Or full of longing?  Where do those feelings and sensations go when we approach the page?  Can we feel and write at the same time?

One of my favorite quotes about this comes from Edward Albee.  I have carried it with me, tucked into my old-fashioned Filofax, for the past twenty years:  “For the anger and rage to work aesthetically, the writer’s got to distance himself from it and write in what Frank O’Hara referred to in one of his poems as ‘the memory of my feelings.’  Rage is incoherent. Observed range can be coherent.”

Substitute any feeling for rage.  Grief.  Joy.  Panic.  Fear.  All of these, when observed, can become coherent.  None of these –– in the throes of being felt –– can make their way to the page in anything other than what Lorrie Moore once referred to as “narrative slop.”  We don’t want narrative slop.  We writers wish to rise above our own small circumstances, our own petty concerns, our woes, the anxiety that keeps  our hearts thumping in the middle of the night, and craft something beautiful and useful and true about what it is to be human.

So can we do this while we’re in the middle of a meltdown?

No, we can’t.  But I believe we can develop practices that allow us to go where we need to, inside of ourselves, in order to do the work.  We begin by understanding what we’re doing when we sit down to write.  Are we just spewing?  Letting it all hang out?  Hoping for catharsis?  God, I hope not.  We are reaching for something.  For a way to illuminate some of the smallest and biggest, most subtle and most operatic aspects of the inner life.  We seek to entertain, to expand, to explore, to understand.

When  I’m feeling particularly riled up about something (can you tell that today is one of those days?) I know that I need to breathe through it.  I must find a way to make it very small during the hours I’m writing.  Sure it will inform the very sentences I craft.  How can it not?  We’re not robots, after all.  But I don’t have to –– in fact, I musn’t –– write from it.  It doesn’t have to take me over.

The page is our savior.

The page expects nothing from us.

Look at me, the page tells us.  I’m blank.


June 28, 2013

On The All of It

Lately when I attempt to sit down to meditate (notice the word attempt) I am almost instantly filled to the brim with feeling.  This feeling isn’t exactly bad, or exactly painful.  It’s characterized more by a kind of fullness that threatens to overflow.  My throat constricts.  My eyes well with tears.  My heart pounds just a little bit harder, to let me know that it’s there.  Feeling.  Ready or not, seems to be the beat of my heart.  Ready or not.

I am writing this at my kitchen table.  My family is still upstairs asleep.  Even the dogs have left me alone.  This is not the usual shape of things in my house.  Usually I’m the last out of bed.  But rain pounds on the rooftop — our little dog was up all night because he’s terrified of storms — and so we all slept fitfully.  As I look around my dark, solitary kitchen, I take it all in: the bowl of lemons on my kitchen table.  The counter top covered with equipment — coffee maker, cappuccino machine, blender, toaster.  A basket with every kind of vitamin known to man.  Dried peppers from our garden.  Envelopes with galleys of Still Writing waiting to go out in today’s mail.  Behind me, my son’s tennis racket and a new frisbee he just bought that apparently flies lower and faster and farther than any frisbee ever before.

Also on my kitchen table, my well-worn book of Buddhist wisdom.  It’s old now.  Its pages are wavy and stained, it’s spine all but fallen off.  Today’s quote is from Kalu Rinpoche:  “From possession is born need.  From non-attachment, satisfaction.

Oh, but it is hard to be unattached.  Unattached to the people I love most in the world, sleeping upstairs.  Unattached to the health of my body as I sit here writing.  Unattached to the little books in those envelopes.  Unattached to the home around me where I have raised my son.  I glance upward at two pictures hanging on the wall.  They were taken for a magazine five minutes ago — but wait, my son is small.  My husband’s hair is darker.  I am younger.  In one of them, Jacob sits on the kitchen counter and kisses me on the lips.  It has been years since he’s sat on the kitchen counter.  Years since he’s wanted to kiss his mother on the lips.

From non-attachment, satisfaction.

I’m always exhorting my writing students to do the work and then let go.  To do the work, and understand that the rest — the rest is none of our business.  I quote Martha Graham on making dance: “It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions.”  Graham goes on to write to her friend Agnes DeMille that it is only her business to keep it uniquely hers.  She understood that our lives are as individual as snowflakes.  That we must, if we are artists — hell, if we are human beings — be focused only on the work, and letting go.  The work, and letting go.

Ready or not, my heart continues to beat. Ready or not.

My son is going off to boarding school in September.  My husband has made the second massive career switch in his life — from foreign correspondent to screenwriter and now, to filmmaker.  My writing life continues to transform in ways I could never have imagined.  Everywhere I look, life is changing.  Grace Paley once told my friend Amy Bloom that between the ages of fifty and eighty, it’s not minutes, it’s seconds.

And so, at my empty kitchen table, I take a deep breath, past the thickness in my throat.  I let it all in — the all of it — the grief, sadness, joy, exhilaration, anxiety, fear, loss, and triumph of a lifetime.  What other choice do I have?  Upstairs, my family is stirring.  Somewhere, someone is taking a shower.  The dogs stretch and yawn.

Another precious day begins.


June 11, 2013

On Contradictions

This morning I made my son breakfast, as I have every weekday morning since he was in kindergarten.  I have a system.  I take out the bread and cheese and lunch meats for his sandwich; scramble the eggs, toast the english muffin; pour the orange juice.  I make myself a cappuccino while he eats at the kitchen counter.  Then, I arrange his lunch box with military precision, learned over nine years of early morning sandwich-making.  The juice box.  The organic fruit roll-up.  The Entemann’s soft-baked chocolate chip cookies.  Years ago, I used to tuck a note in with his lunch.  Full of x’s and o’s.  Wishing him a great day.  I would draw a little mommy smiley-face. I love you so so so so so so much.

Today I made his early morning breakfast and packed his school lunch for the last time.

He and my husband made their way down the stairs to the car, as I called after them: drive carefully!  Have a great day!  See you later! My husband and I exchanged a glance.  In that marital glance, there was all of it.  The awareness this moment is one of tremendous change.  That we are transitioning from one time in life to another.  Just as the years of baby seats and plastic apparatus and bedtime stories gave way to tennis lessons and homework and class art projects, which in turn gave way to standardized tests and middle school dramas and team victories and defeats and boarding school applications, now we are entering a new phase, one which will reveal itself to us as we enter it.  Our boy, our only boy, is going away to school next year.  There is no road map.

After they left, in the quiet of my kitchen, I glanced down at the book of Buddhist wisdom that I keep on our table, open to today’s offering.  The wisdom of the day was from Pema Chodron:  “Thinking that we can find some lasting pleasure and avoid pain is what in Buddhism is called samsara, a hopeless cycle that goes round and round endlessly and causes us to suffer greatly.”

And then I noticed the date.  And realized that today is my mother’s yahrzeit,  the Hebrew anniversary of her death.  She has been gone for ten years.  I went into our dining room, where in the sideboard I keep a supply of yahrzeit candles.  It is a measure of being at this stage of life — of having lost both of my parents — that I am always sure to have them around.  (Our first year in rural Connecticut, I went out on the day before Yom Kippur to pick up a yahrzeit candle at the market, only to discover that I wasn’t on the Upper West Side any more.)

Alone in the kitchen, having just sent my middle schooler off to his last day of eighth grade, full to the brim with the awareness that he will be going to high school four hours from home come September, I lit the candle for my mother and recited the Mourner’s Kaddish.  I thought of her with sorrow, with fondness, with confusion, with love.  Anyone who has read my work knows that she and I had a complicated relationship.  I wiped away my tears, and climbed the stairs to my office.

As I write these words, I am lying on my chaise longue surrounded by books.  A former student’s galley I intend to blurb, last week’s New Yorker, a book for which I’m writing a literary appreciation, piles of galleys of Still Writing.  My cappuccino has grown cold by my side.  The dogs are curled up in their beds.  The house is silent.  Crows peck at the meadow outside my window.  My boy is spending his last day at the only school he has ever known.  My husband is at his office, digging in to work of his own.  Downstairs, in the kitchen, a candle flickers.

This is it — all of it — a rich, deep, contemplative, paradoxical life — each hour full of the bitter and the sweet, the push and pull.  Pleasure and pain in the same breath.  The love is to risk.  To love is to let go.



June 4, 2013

On All of our Selves

On the list of cocktail party questions that flummox me (among which: What are you working on?  How do you do it, you must be so disciplined?  Don’t you feel exposed?  And of course, my personal favorite, Still Writing?) there is one question for which I have never been able to develop a simple response.

What kind of writer are you?

Over the the course of the last two decades, I have written novels, memoirsstories, essays, book reviews.  I have written a play for a drug company (don’t ask), ghost written a novel for a hair stylist, and collaborated on a few bestsellers.  For years, I wrote the back page of Travel+Leisure, for which I interviewed all sorts of fascinating people on the subject of their favorite places.  I have written more blurbs, more letters of recommendations than I can count.  I have written blog posts.  I have taught all over the world: Alaska, Provincetown, Big Sur, Lenox, New York, Positano, and written comments on the backs of students’ manuscripts.  I have given dozens upon dozens of speeches, in auditoriums, hotels, back yards, churches, synagogues, yoga studios.

What kind of writer am I?

We are, each one of us, singular, but our selves are made up of multiple identities.  We live in a culture that would prefer for us to define ourselves in sound bytes, but it is dangerous, soul-deadening, to succumb to that way of thinking.  I am a mother, wife, daughter, and friend.  I am a writer and a teacher.  A Jew.  A former city dweller.  A country girl.  A yogi.  A dog owner.  A Democrat.  I like to dress up in beautiful clothes and go out to elegant dinners, and my preferred state of being is solitary, in ratty yoga gear, with my hair pulled into a clip and warm socks on my feet, as I am right now.  I am most at home when I am following a line of words on the page.  I am a social creature, but I also–in the words of my friend Sylvia –startle easily.  So what does this make me?

If there are advantages to no longer being very young (or young at all) chief among them is this: I am beginning to become comfortable with all of my selves, and all of those selves’ inherent contradictions.  It is possible to be a yogi and like to drink a few glasses of wine.  It is possible to be a solitary writer living in the country, and also obsess about a pair of Jimmy Choo pumps.  It is a fact that I am a literary novelist, and also get up in front of audiences and talk about meditation, and building a spiritual life.  And that spiritual life is not at odds with the murky, doubting, complicated place inside of me that challenges me with its darkness.

What kind of writer am I?

On a good day, I am a writer who writes.  Who gets out of my own way.  Who feels less of a need to define myself with each passing year.  When we create characters on the page, we try to bring them to life in all of their complexity.  Should we really ask anything less of ourselves?





May 26, 2013

On the Journey

This morning I came upon this quote from Bill Watterson, creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, via one of my favorite blogs:

“You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along.”

My husband has spent a good portion of this holiday weekend down in our very messy basement starting to sort through ten years and several lifetimes’ worth of things that were once important (copies of old contracts and tax returns),  indispensable (high chairs, strollers), or of sentimental value (kindergarten art work, stacks of holiday cards).  He also came across a stash of memorabilia and photographs from my childhood,  which included this photo:

At Thirteen

As soon as I saw it, a particular summer afternoon came flooding back to me.  The backyard of my childhood home.  The “fashion show” that my mother put on for the neighborhood ladies, to introduce them to her new line of tennis towels and tennis jewelry, modeled by her daughter Dani.  The way I felt, circling the swimming pool in a little white tennis dress, wearing a necklace with a gold tennis ball affixed with a sapphire eye (the motto being keep your eye on the ball).  The strange mixture of self-consciousness, embarrassment, and the awareness, lurking somewhere, that something was very wrong with this picture.  That I was being put on display — I was well used to being put on display — and that the whole episode was mortifying.  Did I also feel pride?  Was I enjoying, on some level, being paraded in front of the ladies?  It’s possible.  I don’t remember.  I am only able to touch a vague feeling of unease and numbness.  I didn’t know the first thing about myself.

I am writing this from the chaise lounge in my home office.  My son and his friend are outside, shooting hoops.  My dog is crashed on the rug by my feet.  My husband is  downstairs, still sorting.  It’s a chilly, New England weekend.  I am in mid-life.  A wife.  Mother.  Writer.  Teacher.  Friend.  I have lately been very aware that this journey of mine could not have been mapped out.  That the thirteen year old girl smiling bashfully in that photograph couldn’t in her wildest dreams have imagined the life that would unfold for her.  She didn’t even know to dream it.  Nor could she have imagined it at twenty.  Or even at thirty.

How we spend our days, Annie Dillard once wrote, is, of course, how we spend our lives.  Our lives are a chain of these days.  We grow, or we stagnate.  We form good habits, disciplines, or destructive ones.  Or sometimes both.  We learn from our mistakes, or we keep repeating them until we’re in enough pain to make changes.  I can supply a narrative to my life, shape and carve the story so that it seems to make sense.  But there is no straight arrow pointing from that girl with the tennis racket to the woman on the chaise lounge.  No game of connect-the-dots.  There is only the blessed, hard work of living, and allowing life to shape us, as water shapes rock.

If I could reach back through time and whisper something to that girl, it would simply be this: be patient.  Be kind to yourself.  And wake up.





April 22, 2013

On Getting Out of the Way

This week I have something of a breather.  My son is away on his 8th grade class trip, I’m waiting for notes from various editors, and have a few deadlines, manuscripts to read, nothing pressing.  I’m able to choose how to structure my time.  When I woke up this morning, the hours stretched out before me in all their glory.  It was a beautiful spring day, the house unusually and blissfully quiet.  No sandwiches to pack, no discussion of after-school activities.  As I sipped my cappuccino, I contemplated: yoga? meditation? back to work on an elusive short story? read the novel I’m immersed in? start the essay that’s due next week? or perhaps the one that’s due the week after? write down notes for a new novel, one that has been revealing itself to me in tiny, tantalizing bits and pieces?

It’s now noon and I’m here to say that I have not practiced what I’m pretty good at preaching.  Here is an incomplete list of what I have, in fact, done so far this morning: checked email; answered email; dug up a link to a piece about me and sent it to my U.K. agent who is about to submit Still Writing; Googled myself; searched for an elusive pair of black high-heeled sandals that seem to be sold out all over the United States; ate half a yogurt; deleted emails; checked Twitter; tweeted; tweeted again; went on Facebook and shared a link to my husband’s new movie poster; talked to the housekeeper; planned tonight’s dinner; took a bath; read old notes from a phone session with a psychic.

Okay, this is embarrassing enough.  I think I’ll stop.  But I imagine you get the point.  Sometimes people ask me whether I find it easier, living in the country, than I did back when we lived in New York.  My response is, to quote Jon Kabat-Zinn, wherever you go, there you are.  This is our lot in life — even the most disciplined among us.  Wet get in our own way.  Today — and today isn’t over — I have so far frittered away precious hours.  I have rituals to recalibrate, adjust.  I often tell my son that we can always start our day over again — and after I finish this little post, I intend to attempt to do just that.  I will unroll my yoga mat.  Light a fire in the fireplace.  Do the things that I know will set me up for an afternoon that will be free of the “fleas of life” — Styron‘s wonderful phrase — and allow for spaciousness in my mind.  That kind of spaciousness comes from turning away from the chattering world.  From journeying inward.  From having the simple but oh-so-hard to come by practice of patience, contemplation, quiet.

That practice that can be shattered with the click of a mouse — just checking one more thing.  The internet is the writer’s crack cocaine.  It just is.  At times, I find myself in its thrall.  I long for the movement of a pen across the page, a notebook on my lap.  I long for the capaciousness  and focus that comes from hours of undivided attention.  It is not when I’m at my busiest that I click away the hours.  No.  It’s when the hours seem endless that I squander them.  And we all should know better than that.

April 8, 2013

On Memoir

A few days ago, while looking up a book I was interested in reading on Amazon.com, I suffered a momentary setback and broke one of my own  rules–a rule I keep in place out of self-preservation: I searched my own name, and began to read about myself online.  In this particular case, since I was on Amazon, this involved reading reviews of some of my books.  Amazon has this helpful little sidebar (not) in which someone browsing can see an example of a five star review and an example of a one star review.

Which do you think I was interested in?

Right.  I clicked on the one star review for Slow Motion, the memoir I first published in 1998.  When a writer is in an evil, self-Googling mood, she is not on the hunt for glowing reviews, positive feedback, happy and generous people.  No.  A writer in the midst of self-Googling is stuck in the muck of her own mind.  She is flailing, tumbling head over heels down a slope that can only end in pain and insult.  Pretentious cry baby, one reader offered.  She had read Slow Motion in a women’s lit class.  But it was a review right beneath it that caught my eye: Why did she omit her 1981 marriage?

Someone had done her research.  She had dug up details about my very brief marriage at the age of eighteen–she even knew what the poor, hapless fellow who had the bad sense to marry me had done for a living (he owned an art gallery/clothing store).  She was infuriated that I hadn’t written about that baby marriage in the pages of Slow Motion.  That I had somehow duped the reader by not revealing everything about my  life.

What is the job of the memoirist?  Is it to tell all?  Or is it to carve a story out of memory?

I always begin classes on memoir by discussing with my students  the difference between autobiography and memoir.  Autobiography presumes that the person writing the book is important, and the reader is drawn to the book out of a desire to know more about that person.  It would be unreasonable for Hillary Clinton, say, to omit an early marriage from her autobiography.  But memoir is story-telling.  No one reads Slow Motion or Devotion because they want to know more about Dani Shapiro.  They don’t read This Boy’s Life because they want to know more about Tobias Wolff.  Or Lit because they’re determined to get to the bottom of the question: who is Mary Karr?  No–these memoirs are stories, hewing as closely to the truth of the writer’s memory as possible–but not letting it all hang out.  Part of the art of memoir is seeing, and recognizing the story itself.  Life is messy.  Art takes gathers up the chaos and gives it form.

If I had written about that early, baby-marriage in Slow Motion, the reader would have misunderstood me.  The reader would have imposed certain societal ideas (divorce equals maturity, for instance) onto me, thereby not understanding the extreme childishness, the amoeba-like lack of sense of self, and yes, the innocence, that propelled me into the circumstances I wrote about in my memoir, of a long and garish affair with an older married man.  If I had portrayed myself as a teenaged divorcee, it would have confused the reader.  It would have, in fact, misled the reader, even though it was a fact of my life.  And so I left it out — and wrote about it later, in a piece in The New Yorker, a piece where that information was useful to the narrative.

I am aware that this is incendiary stuff.  That perhaps some people feel that omission is on a par with invention — which is an idea I find infuriating myself.  I wanted to write back to that Amazon reader and say: I don’t owe you my life served up on a platter.  We writers who mine our personal veins, who find the stories in our own lives and dive deep, searching for the ways to make order out of chaos, are not doing so because we want to be reality TV stars, or because we’re exhibitionists, or narcissists.  We are not publishing our journals, or imagining ourselves to be so important that people are actually interested in the details of our lives.  No.  We are taking those details and lining them up, amazed, astonished, rapt the way a child might be, building blocks to form a tower.  We are attempting to make sense out of what we can — to reach out a hand to the reader across a rough sea of isolation and separateness and offer up something that has shape, integrity, even beauty and symmetry.

Just like life?  Hardly.  But that isn’t our job.

March 24, 2013

On Anxiety

As I write this I am lounging on an enormous bed––whatever  size is larger than King––in an antique filled bedroom high above the Amalfi Coast.  It’s mid morning on Palm Sunday in Positano.  The doors to my terrace are flung open.  In the distance, the Le Galli islands rise like humps of a primordial sea creature in the distance.  Bells clang  in the village square.

Morning at Le Sirenuse

It is the end of a week of teaching.  Of spending time with some of my favorite people in the world.  Of making new friends, delving deeply into the work of people who began the week as strangers and ended the week with hugs and tears.  It’s always this way at Sirenland, but somehow this year feels even more poignant to me.  We have been coming here for seven years now.  My son has grown up in this hotel.  The lovely people who work here feel like family when we arrive.  And nowhere in my life do I feel, more acutely, the passage of time.

This morning, when the last of the cars left the hotel’s driveway to make the long, windy trip from Positano to Naples, and the last of our friends waved goodbye — departing for London, Paris, Rome, and eventually for the States, I realized that I have somehow become a person who worries less.  I’m not quite sure how this has happened.  Anxiety has defined my inner landscape for so much of my life.  You might say that it has driven me — as a writer, as a wife and mother.  Certainly it has been central to my subject matter.  But now–in midlife–it has vanished.


Travel safe, I say to my friends.  See you next week in New York.  Or next month, in the Berkshires.  Or over the summer, in Provincetown.  Or next time my husband and I are in Los Angeles.  Or next year, back here in Positano.

Poo, poo, poo, my grandparents and parents used to say.  Or Kain Ayin Hora –a Yiddish expression meant to ward off the evil eye.  The idea was: don’t ask for too much.  Don’t make assumptions about the future — especially not happy assumptions.  A peasant version of God willing, or please God, or any of those other familiar expressions.

But as I said goodbye to my friends this morning, and as I prepare to make the trip home with Michael and Jacob–airports, multiple flights, the kind of thing that used to fill me with paralyzing dread–I search myself for signs of the old terror…and find none.

This is not in any way because I am less aware of life’s fragility.  It may even be because of a heightened awareness that this–this morning, this blue, blue morning, these clanging church bells, my husband standing on the balcony overlooking the sea, my son who I swear has grown an inch on this trip, the friends and their children who have also grown up at Sirenland, the call from my 96 year old uncle about an upcoming birthday celebration for him (his wife called it “wow plus one!”)–this is it.  The whole megillah.  In the human catastrophe, this very moment is one of peace and tranquility and hope.

Will it always be so?

Of course not.

But it is precisely what we have today, at this moment.