Title: Devotion: A Memoir
Author: Dani Shapiro
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“Settling 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 her repeated attempts to create a connection to something greater. Set adrift by loss—her father’s early death, the life-threatening illness of her infant son, her troubled relationship with her mother—she recognized the challenge at the heart of her anxiety: What did she believe?”
Thoughts: I’ve mentioned this before – and the more I experience the life of a book reviewer/blogger, the more I firmly believe this to be true – books have a way of coming across our path when they are most needed, when they will speak to us the most. Over the past two-plus years, as I have finally started paying attention, I have read many a novel or memoir that resonated with me specifically because they touched on something for which I too was searching. Dani Shapiro’s Devotion is yet another example of this phenomenon.
Ms. Shapiro is facing what most of us without deep faith end up questioning – is this all there is to life? How many of us have sat in an endless meeting and wondered the same thing? How many of us have actually done something about it, whether it is searching out a like-minded group, starting a daily meditation practice, taking up yoga, attending a church group, or some other search for something larger than the mundane? When facing the rest of her life, at a personal crossroads and searching for peace of mind and a greater purpose, Ms Shapiro actively sought out these practices and shares her experiences with readers. Deeply personal, incredibly poignant, her soul-searching takes her on a roller coaster of a journey, through which the reader can glean his or her own key points to adapt to his or her own life.
One’s search for greater meaning is personal, as is Ms. Shapiro’s. Yet, there is much a reader can learn from Ms. Shapiro’s journey. Having faith, of any sort, means standing on the edge of a precipice and not fretting about the fall, or the potential to fall. It means living in the moment. This, to me, is the greatest gift and most meaningful lesson to be learned in this day and age of multi-tasking and constant connection to the world.
“One afternoon at Garrison, Sharon Salzberg spoke about a Buddhist teach in India, a widowed woman with many, many children who had no time to sit on a cushion, meditating. How had she done it then? Sharon had once asked her. How had she achieved her remarkable ability to live in the present?
The answer was simply this: she stirred the rice mindfully.” (pg. 211)
To focus only on the task at hand means to live in the moment, to learn to put aside the fears and concerns, the demands and constant pulls we feel in our lives. It allows us to be still and be calm, whether we are driving, writing, sitting in meetings, running errands or stirring the rice. Something so simple has the ability to change so much.
Devotion is not for everyone, although I do feel there is much that everyone could learn from Ms. Shapiro’s journey. She goes into detail about her Jewish heritage, her religious upbringing and the conflicts that resulted as she grew older, rebelled, and started her own family. She spends a lot of time discussing her yoga and meditation. In addition, her writing style is very journalistic. Each chapter is relatively short and discusses whatever happened to be on her mind at the time of writing. This means that the story of her son’s illness is explained slowly throughout the story, popping up on one page and not mentioned again for another 20 or 30 pages. This modified stream-of-consciousness adds an air of poignancy and intimacy to the entire memoir, as the reader catches more than a glimpse of Ms. Shapiro’s inner yearnings and struggles. The result is a beautiful reminder that wanting more is okay, but we also need to be willing to put forth the effort to finding more to life. For those who have ever questioned, Devotion is a great start to one’s own search for more.