Reading Dani Shapiro's blogs inspired me to buy her new spiritual memoir, Devotion. In these times we live in, many of us long for meaning and a simpler life. With this intelligent and unpretentious book, the author took me with her on her journey to find meaning and peace.
Her father, a meek Orthodox Jew, died in a car crash which seriously injured her mother, a self-involved and bitter woman with her own emotional wounds. In one of the book's most poignant scenes, a psychiatrist tells Shapiro, after meeting with them both, "...there is no hope for you and your mother. None at all."
The author found herself facing mid-life with a need to connect with her own spirituality, and found she had to create it herself. "I had reached the middle of my life," she writes, "and knew less than I ever had before."
She didn't believe in the strict Judaism of her father's family, and didn't know if she believed in God. But when her infant son battled life-threatening seizures, she found herself saying "Please" and "Thank you" in her mind and wondered if this was prayer and who she was praying to.
In another beautifully written, moving scene, Shapiro writes about living in New York on September 11, 2001. Walking in her neighborhood a few days later, she suddenly realized, "I wanted out...And I wanted out now." She wheeled her son's stroller into the office of a real estate broker. Tears rolled down the broker's cheeks as he begins the paperwork. She was the sixth person he has done this for that day.
The family moved to a small town in Connecticut. Shapiro could not travel to exotic locations to find inner peace, and she didn't seek it alone, either. A yoga center in the nearby Berkshire Mountains, a female rabbi and Buddhist teachers guided her. The story of how she discovered them all is as exciting as any hero's (or heroine's) journey.
The lovingkindness meditation, "May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be strong, may I live with ease," is a wish, a prayer, a chant, that brings her back to center.
No self-help manual of steps to live a happy life, Shapiro's book is about the peace to be found in acceptance. She goes so far as to suggest living with emotional pain as a part of life. As a memoirist myself, with a distant mother, anxiety issues, and no longer believing in the faith of my childhood, I related strongly to this story.
In my local paper, I read an interview with a popular radio psychologist who is, like Shapiro, a fan of teacher Sylvia Boorstein. We are afraid we can't stand pain, he says, but we can. In Devotion, Shapiro tells us how she has sat with pain and unsettling anxiety, calming herself. There are no prescriptions for a quick fix, only what works for her. A simple life. Silence. Action instead of rumination. Meditation. Yoga.
Like many others, I read and write to connect with other people, to make sense of our lives, and to bear witness to what it means to be human. Read this spiritual memoir for the sense of peace we all long for in these crazy, information-saturated times. Then let it all sink in. As my yoga teacher likes to say, "that's an excellent use of your time."
Dani Shapiro is the author of five novels, including Black and White and Family History, and another memoir, Slow Motion. Her short stories and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, Granta, Vogue and Ploughshares among other publications. She lives with her husband and son in Litchfield County Connecticut. Visit her website and blogs.
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