This passage lies at the very heart of the journey of Devotion. As a mother, a wife, a woman in the middle of my life, I wanted—no, I needed—to learn how to embrace the moment. The deeper I went into this journey, the more I understood time to be something sacred. We let time slip so easily through our fingers—leaning back into the past, or forward into the future—all the while, missing the present moment, which is the only moment we have. I didn't want to look back some day and realize that I'd sped through my life, too busy scrambling, yearning, or worrying. I wanted to be alive to what was happening, right before my very eyes.
We took a drive—the three of us—up north, into the Berkshire Hills on a random Sunday. We like to do this sometimes: drive an hour or two, making stops in Great Barrington at the cheese store, the Japanese restaurant, the candy store. Sometimes we play mini golf. Other times—much to Jacob’s dismay—we pull into an antiques shop to poke around. On this particular Sunday, the leaves had begun to turn.
Autumn has always been my favorite season, and even more so since we’ve moved to a part of the country known for its foliage. As we drove past lakes framed with the fiery mix of color, I had a familiar desire to freeze the moment—to stop time. Stay this way, I silently asked. I wasn’t just asking the leaves to hold on to the trees. I was asking Jacob to stay a little boy, for Michael to remain vital and healthy, for myself to stay a while longer in this chapter of my life.
“Mommy?” Jacob piped up from the back seat. “I’m hungry. Is there anything to eat or drink?”
Even this—even my son calling me Mommy—felt bittersweet. When would I be demoted to just plain Mom? I reached into the back seat and handed Jacob a bag of chips and a milk box. I was longing for the moment I was in, even as I was in it. I was mourning it, as if we were already a yellowed photograph in a family album: my family together on a country drive, young, healthy, happy, whole.
I knew better, of course. I knew that trying to capture time—to hold on to anything at all—was not only useless, but a terrible waste. Time was all we had. I had carried with me Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea of time as a cathedral. It didn’t have to be Sabbath for this moment to be holy. It was holy precisely because there was no other.
We stopped at MASS MoCa, a museum in North Adams, Massachusetts, where we met a couple of friends and sat outside on that glorious fall day. We had brought our new puppy along with us for the ride. Jacob and the pup tromped through the dried leaves together. It was almost too much for me—the crispness of the air, the cloudless sky, our friends, my husband’s hand in mine, the boy and his pup. The impossible bounty, the moment overflowing.
Let me feel this, I found myself thinking—asking, wishing. Or maybe even praying, if this was praying. Let me live inside this cathedral of time. I didn’t want to think about the latest newspaper headlines, or what had happened yesterday, or might happen tomorrow. I just wanted to feel the warmth of Michael’s hand, listen to Jacob shriek with delight.
It was then that I looked above me, and realized that we were sitting in the midst of an art installation. Suspended high overhead were six cylindrical aluminum planters hanging upside down by wires. They hung from an armature made of steel telephone poles. Out of each planter, a tree grew downward. These trees were not small. Their trunks must have been eighteen inches around. They had clearly been growing this way for quite some time—perhaps years. Their leaves were a rich, autumnal red. They hung in what seemed to be a precarious way. It looked, in equal parts, beautiful and wrong. How could the trees continue to thrive? But wait—there was something more. As I adjusted to the sight of the dangling trees, I saw that they had begun to shift shape, their branches bending and twisting, so that they could grow away from the earth and back up toward the sky.
Jacob ran over to us, breathless from his romp with the pup. His sturdy little body leaned into Michael and me. The sight of those strange, displaced trees contorting themselves had forced me fully into the present. I felt it all, all at once—the way that time can slow to a near standstill simply by existing inside it. By not pushing through it, or past it—by not wishing it away, not trying to capture it. It was a lesson I needed to learn over and over again: to stop and simply be. To recognize these moments and enter them—with reverence and an unprotected heart—as if walking into a cathedral.
Excerpted from Devotion by Dani Shapiro, courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.
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