Present Tense with Dani Shapiro

I think anyone who’s been reading this blog knows how profoundly touched I was by Devotion, Dani Shapiro’s memoir that came out this winter. I was very privileged to meet Dani at a couple of her readings this winter; she is everything in person that you’d imagine from her graceful, honest memoir, and more. Devotion has stayed with me months after I finished it, its lines presenting themselves fully-formed in my head, its lessons growing ever more compelling and wise, its elegant language prompting me always to try to write more carefully, more lucidly. Dani also has two fantastic blogs, both of which I now eagerly follow.

One reason I identified so strongly with Dani from the start is because she is clearly interested in the central issue that preoccupies me now: presence. In both her memoir her blogs she wrestles with questions of how to be more engaged in her life, less distracted, better able to live within the shadow of time’s relentless passage. These are all questions I struggle mightily with, daily, and I have already learned so much from Dani’s writing about them.

You can imagine how elated I was when Dani agreed to participate in Present Tense! There aren’t really superlatives strong enough to describe how my I admire Dani, so I’ll just say she’s both a role model and an unwitting teacher. Thank you.

1. When have you felt most present? Are there specific memories that stand out for you?

When I think of when I’ve been most present, I think of silence. Of moments of quiet–when I have been with the people I most love, my son, my husband–not necessarily doing anything, but rather, being. I often feel very present, for instance, when tucking my son in for the night, sitting on the edge of his bed in the darkness. Or with my husband, when we have time together to just be, rather than the constant racing that takes up too much of our lives.
Travel, too, pushes me very much into the present. There’s no greater reminder to “be here, now” then the realization of how fleeting the moment is. My family and I take a trip each year to Positano, Italy (my husband and I direct a writers’ conference there) and when I wake up in our darkened room that first morning, then open the shuttered doors that lead to the patio and the view of the sea, the fleetingness of our time there, the way it marks the years passing each March, the place unchanged, us all a year older… there is something so beautiful, so bittersweet about that awareness that I feel pierced by it.

2. Do you have rituals or patterns that you use to remind you to Be Here Now?

Without a doubt, my yoga and mediation practices are my two greatest reminders. They are also, for me, inextricably linked. I don’t know how to meditate without first spending an hour practicing the physical, asana part of yoga. I wish I were able to just plunk myself down and meditate — but I find that I need the preparation of yoga, my body spent, wrung out, before I have any hopes of sitting for any length of time. Of course this means that I need, like, ninety minutes to do it all — which I don’t have every day. But the days I unroll my mat are far better days than those when I don’t get around to it.
3. Do you have specific places or people that you associate with being particularly present? Who? Where? Any idea why?
I completely relate to what you’re saying here, and I’m also still working out why that is — why some people seem to command my full attention more than others. I am most alive, and most myself, and most present, when I’m engaged in genuine conversation. Intimate, real dialogue. Cocktail party chatter, social banter — these make me flee somewhere deep inside myself, I guess because I feel both bored and uncomfortable. I’d much rather talk about something real — and when I do, my attention does not feel split, and I am fully present.
4. Has having children changed how you think about the effort to be present?

Yes, yes, yes! Since the birth of my son, Jacob (he’s now eleven) I have such a strong feeling of wanting to get it “right” — aware of my failings, wanting to do better, be better. Wanting not to miss a single moment, which is, of course, impossible — but desperate not to look back some day and realize that I was racing from one thing to the next and missing the magnificence of his childhood, and of early motherhood. I heard another mother recently say that she realized that the time in the car — you know, that time when you’re often racing just to get from one thing to the next, late, irritated, attention fragmented — that time actually is the thing. The time in the car. Thinking of the time in the car as sacred has really helped me. I look forward to it now. It’s often where we get our best talking done.
5. And just cause I’m curious, what books and songs do you love?

Oh, where to begin! Books — well, I keep Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary on my desk at all times, which should tell you something about how I feel about Woolf, generally. I read a lot of my friends and peers — Martha McPhee has a wonderful new novel called Dear Money coming out pretty soon. Jennifer GIlmore just brought out Something Red, which is also terrific, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad is a tour du force. I go back often to Annie Dillard’s work. And for spiritual writing, I read anything by Sylvia Boorstein or Jack Kornfield, again and again. Each re-reading bears new fruit.
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There is so much in these answers I relate to, Dani. The time in the car, that is the thing. That is motherhood. That is our life. That resonates so powerfully with me, and I too am so often rushing through it. I remember months ago my son went through a phase where he demanded that I buckle him into his carseat, despite very clearly being able to do it himself. For some reason I had the patience, in that phase, to step back and say: pretty soon he’ll never want me to do this again. Let me enjoy the intimacy of those rote movements, of that buckle, buckle, snap. And that – seeing this mundane reality of every day life as, as you say, sacred – helped me hugely.
Your description of accessing a meditative state only through physical exertion is also keenly familiar. I remember this from when I first stumbled into a yoga practice more than 10 years ago. Somehow the exhaustion of the body paves the way for quiet in the brain; I don’t understand the alchemy, but I recognize it as you talk about it.
Similarly, I totally know what you mean about feeling very present as you sit and tuck him into bed. I know that feeling well; sometimes there’s an awareness of the meaning of the moment as I do that, specifically around bedtime, and I feel cracklingly alive, aware of the seconds as they pass, full with my stroking his hair back from his forehead and kissing his cheeks, smelling his just-tubbed smell. Also, when I read with Grace before bed. It is so routine, so regular, but also I know that in the blink of an eye it will be over. And that’s the essence of all of this: how to live in the moment even as we realize it is already dying to us. This is almost unbearably painful, for me at least, when I stop and think about it. Awakening to that has been the task of the last few years for me, the path that I am clearly walking.
Dani, thank you again for holding a light on this path for me and for so many others. Your example, your honest inquiry and willingness to “live inside the questions” makes me feel less alone and less afraid. Thank you.

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8 Comments

  1. Posted May 19, 2010 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    Lindsey,
    Yay! In avoiding my YES post this morning I clicked on over here and am so glad I did because, well, you know I say YES to Dani Shapiro. In the middle of an earlier memoir now (you know, in between writing mad Five for Ten posts and chasing the boys out of the room). Some days I think I’ll drive over the small mountains and hills that lie between us here in CT and go knocking on her door. But wouldn’t that just be creepy? And creepy I’m not. I just feel connected. To her words and her struggles and her strengths. Thank you for sharing this little piece of Dani’s life and mind here at ADSV.

    And now I have to go say YES to myself and write this damn YES post!!!

  2. Posted May 19, 2010 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    Even at a very public reading in a very busy and chaotic place I was struck by how present Dani is. I want more of that in my life.

  3. Posted May 19, 2010 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    At the risk of sounding redundant I must echo that the time in the car and with my yoga mat are where I can connect if I bring my full self.

    I’ve had conversations with my kids that are forever burned into my memory in the car. And, when they were little it is where we played so many games: the itsy bitsy spider, or we pointed out CCC: cool colored cars.

    Perhaps it is that feeling of being “trapped”. Trapped on my mat, trapped in my car and the universe gets very small and manageble.

    Whatever the reason, I devour these moments.

  4. Posted May 19, 2010 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much for this, Lindsey. I have been moved by your reviews of Dani’s work and have Devotion sitting on my nightstand ready for me to crack open. Especially after this interview, I look forward to reading more of Dani’s thoughts about the challenges and prospects of being more present in our lives.

    Thank you both for sharing this interview with us.

  5. Posted May 19, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Great interview Lindsey. I so agree with the time in the car. We were forced into a new vehicle in Nov of last year, mine finally bit the dust. My kids wanted the video screens and bells and whistles. I wanted to preserve the car time. Yes to being trapped without built in distraction. And I think not being “face to face” also helps facilitate the conversations. Not every conversation is a deep one – but the possibilities of those moments of connection keep me engaged. And tuck them in and sing and read as long as they will let you! Motherhood is all about the moments.

  6. Posted May 19, 2010 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m currently working my way through Devotion, and savoring every last bit of it. I want to gobble it up as fast as I can, but I don’t want it to end.
    So timing is everything – so thrilled to read Dani’s interview over here!
    The bit about cocktail banter and small talk? I can completely related to that. I almost don’t know how to do it, how to chit chat about nothing, because it doesn’t feed my soul in the moment.
    Lovely, lovely words. Thank you both!

  7. Posted May 19, 2010 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Just reading this brought me into fuller presence. A lot of what Dani has cultivated in her life is what I’ve managed to find ways to avoid, and it’s humbling and wonderful to see how she has done it all (with wonderful humility herself.)

    Thanks for this, Lindsey. What a great addition to your series.

  8. Posted May 20, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Can I just say that I LOVE the things, ideas and people you (and many others) are introducing me to in this bloggin world. Really, how is that I’ve been missing all this richness?