Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro
Nonfiction - Memoir
Finished on December 3, 2019
Rating: 4.5/5 (Very Good)
I was a yeshiva-educated, overly assimilated Jew who still dreamed and prayed in Hebrew but could no longer speak a word of it. My desire to belong to a shul was all tied up with my love of my father--but he was long gone. I was a yogi, a tentative Buddhist, a meditator, a mom searching for meaning.
In her midforties and settled into the responsibilities and routines of adulthood, Dani Shapiro found herself with more questions than answers. Was this all life was--a hodgepodge of errands, dinner dates, e-mails, meetings, to-do lists? What did it all mean?
Having grown up in a deeply religious and traditional family, Shapiro had no personal sense of faith, despite repeated attempts to create a connection to something greater. Feeling as if she was plunging headlong into what Carl Jung termed "the afternoon of life," she wrestled with her self-doubt and a searing disquietude that would awaken her in the middle of the night. Set adrift by loss-her father's early death; the life-threatening illness of her infant son; her troubled relationship with her mother--she had become edgy and uncertain. At the heart of this anxiety, she realized, was a challenge: What did she believe? Spurred on by the big questions her young son began to raise, Shapiro embarked upon a surprisingly joyful quest to find meaning in a constantly changing world. The result is Devotion: a literary excavation to the core of a life.
In this spiritual detective story, Shapiro explores the varieties of experience she has pursued--from rituals of her black hat Orthodox Jewish relatives to yoga shala and meditation retreats. A reckoning of the choices she has made and the knowledge she has gained, Devotion is the story of a woman whose search for meaning ultimately leads her home. Her journey is at once poignant and funny, intensely personal--and completely universal.
It's been at least a dozen years since I read Dani Shapiro's novel, Family History, and sadly, I don't remember anything about the book other than I liked it enough keep an eye out for more by this author. I picked up one of her memoirs (Slow Motion) earlier this year, but found it too depressing and gave up after 60 pages. I've had a copy of Devotion on my shelf for several years and decided to give it a try for Nonfiction November and am happy to say that I loved it! This beautifully written memoir spoke to me on several levels and while some might disparage Shapiro's navel-gazing, I was inspired by her honesty and desire to rediscover her spirituality, not only through the traditions of her Jewish faith, but with the incorporation of yoga and meditation, as well.
Passages of Note:
I had reached the middle of my life and knew less than I ever had. Michael, Jacob, and I lived on top of a hill, surrounded by old trees, a vegetable garden, stone walls. From the outside, things looked pretty good. But deep inside myself, I had begun to quietly fall apart. Nights, I quivered in the darkness like a wounded animal. Something was very wrong, but I didn't know what it was. All I knew was that I felt terribly anxious and unsteady. Doomed. Each morning I drove Jacob down a dirt road to his sweet little school. We all got yearly physicals. Our well water was tested for contaminants. Nothing--absolutely nothing I could put my finger on--was the matter. Except that I was often on the verge of tears. Except that it seemed that there had to be more than this hodgepodge of the everyday. Inside each joy was a hard kernel of sadness, as if I was always preparing myself for impending loss.and
Turn right, turn left. Stay home that day. Take a different route. Cross the street for no apparent reason. Say yes, say no. Get up from the breakfast table, slip into the elevator just as the doors are closing. Book the afternoon flight. Drive exactly sixty-three miles per hour. Flip a coin. Call it coincidence, luck, fate, destiny, randomness. Some would call it the hand of God. I was sure what to call it. What I did know is that this was a huge, blinking neon sign I couldn't ignore or dismiss. All these seemingly disconnected bits--a new yoga class, a teacher's particular selection of a poem, the wonders of Google and Amazon, an impulsive one-click purchase, an agreement to participate in a local charity event--all these formed a pattern, invisible to see. Do this, a gentle voice seemed to be saying. Now this. And now this. All of which had led me to be seated next to Stephen Cope: author, yogi, scholar--and director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living at Kripalu.and
"Metta meditation," she went on, "is a concentration practice. It's the protection formula that the Buddha taught the monks: one of being able to depend on your own good heart. So"--she clasped her hands together--"how do we do this? By tempering one's own heart and restoring it to balance. Metta is a practice of inclining the mind in the direction of good will."
Sylvia [Boorstein] then laid out for us her four favorite phrases--variations on the Buddha's original phrases--to chant silently during metta:
May I feel protected and safe.
May I feel contented and pleased.
May my physical body support me with strength.
May my life unfold smoothly with ease.
The idea was to silently repeat the phrases again and again, at first focusing on ourselves, but then eventually directing the phrases to others: our closest teachers and benefactors; then our loved ones; our friends; strangers; and eventually--after much practice--to those with whom we have difficult relationships, or as it is known in Buddhist scripture, our enemies.and
Writers often say that the hardest part of writing isn't the writing itself; it's the sitting down to write. The same is true of yoga, meditation, and prayer. The sitting down, the making space. The doing. It sounds so simple, doesn't it? Unroll the mat. Sit cross-legged on the floor. Just do it. Close your eyes and express a silent need, a wish, a moment of gratitude. What's so hard about that? Except--it is hard. The usual distractions--the clutter and piles of life--are suddenly, unusually enticing. The worst of it, I've come to realize, is that the thing that stops me--the shadow that casts a cold darkness across the best of my intentions--isn't the puppy, the e-mail, the UPS truck, the school conference, the phone, the laundry, the to-do lists. It's me that stops me. Things get stuck, the osteopath once said with a shrug. He gestured to the area where the neck meets the head. The place where the body ends and the mind begins. Things get stuck. It sounded so simple when he said it. It's me, and the things that are stuck. Standing in my way.and
May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be strong.
May I live with ease.
I recently asked Sylvia why she had simplified the metta phrases. I knew there had to be a reason. She smiled at me, then beyond me, as if looking over my shoulder into the distance. She nodded, as she often did before formulating a response.
"I wanted something I would always be able to say--in old age, in sickness--and have it be realistic," she said. "No matter what happens, I can always wish for strength."I'm glad I didn't let my disappointment in Slow Motion sway my decision to skip reading Devotion. This inspiring memoir is one I plan to share with my yogi friends and return to in the future. I'm eager to read Shapiro's most recent memoir, Inheritance, and may even give Slow Motion another try.