I’ve been waiting to write my review of Devotion. Waiting in a state of frank reverence as I feel the book permeating my thoughts, my heart, and, dare I say, my spirit. I’ve also been delaying, I confess, because I know I won’t be able to adequately express how powerfully this book spoke to me. Dani Shapiro has created a cathedral of words: her memoir is both spare and intense, glittering and peaceful, pure and deeply complex. Devotion is both an elegy and a profound expression of hope.
Dani’s voice felt immediately familiar. There are many images and themes in the book that resonate with my own experience. She quotes two of my favorite poets, Anne Sexton and Jane Kenyon. She cites the Buddha’s statements of contrast, reminding me of my musing about the way I hold several contradictions in the palm of my hand. She uses the metaphor of time shaping our lives the way that water carves into stone, both imperceptibly and indelibly. She writes about loneliness, and about the feeling of always being “at the edges of any group.” The way Jacob’s illness marked Dani’s experience of motherhood reminded me of the way that my post partum depression has colored everything about how I see parenting. I could go on: there are literally at least 20 places where I felt like I was talking to myself, albeit a more sophisticated, accomplished, beautiful version.
At the outset of the book, Dani talks about a feeling of being “pushed from behind,” about her middle-of-the-night panic attacks, and about how it was “hard work to try and control the universe.” All of these things are so familiar to me they make me simultaneously laugh out loud and feel my eyes well up with tears. My sense of deep unease, however, manifests differently, most often through tears. I find myself crying often, at the slightest provocation or even for no obvious reason at all. Sometimes I open my mouth planning to speak and find tears streaming from my eyes instead. I’m aware of a snarl of emotion, something complicated and tense inside my chest, and it seems increasingly insistent on making itself known.
Dani describes something similar when she introduces the concept of samskara, which becomes a recurring theme in the book.
Yogis use a beautiful Sanskrit word, samskara, to describe the knots of energy that are locked in the hips, the heart, the jaw, the lungs. Each knot tells a story – a narrative rich with emotional detail. Release a samskara and you release that story. Release your stories and suddenly there is more room to breathe, to feel, to experience the world.
I did not know the word samskara, but I know the theory of emotions held in parts of our bodies. I can also remember one specific moment, at Feathered Pipe Ranch in Montana, when after about 20 minutes in pigeon (a hip opener that is probably the single hardest yoga pose for me) I felt my hips literally liquidate, moved probably about an inch further into the pose than ever before, and found myself in floods of tears and lost in a vivid memory of my mother’s best friend who died tragically at 49. For the first time I understood what my yoga teachers had meant about “holding stuff in our hips,” and it is this memory that surfaced the moment Dani started talking about samskaras.
Dani mentions that certain stories are samskaras inside of her, “at the core of all the other stories that are easier to tell.” The image this brought to my mind is of moving through increasingly tangled knots, into the white-hot core of whatever it is that is she is moving towards. As we learn from Devotion (and from life), asking questions leads only to more questions. This is the true fearlessness of Dani’s memoir: she has the courage to enter a deep well of inquiry knowing that there is likely no neat resolution, no single answer, only more, increasingly difficult questions.
At the Boston reading I attended, Dani mentioned how she had spent years thinking that people who chose certain things from different traditions were “cherry-pickers,” and described a childhood infused with a very all-or-nothing approach to religion. Dani’s father’s Orthodox Judaism haunts both her memoir and her life. One of Devotion’s central stories is the way she carefully, respectfully honors her father’s memory while also shrugging off the yoke of this absolutist Orthodoxy. She explores her Jewish roots while also developing affection for aspects of Buddhism and yoga.
As Dani experiments with meditation, she attends a retreat at Kripalu. At the first session, she seats herself by the door, a choice that evinces a lack of conviction about the experience ahead. This reminded me of some yoga and meditation classes I’ve had (some at Kripalu, even) where I could barely conceal my rolling eyes behind my shut lids. But somehow, in spite of all of these defenses, in many cases the power of the practice came steamrolling through for me, as it does for Dani. When I was 20 weeks pregnant with Grace, I attended a prenatal yoga class that I found very self-conscious and overly “out there” – there was too much breathing through our chakras and not enough asana, for my taste. As we lay in savasana, I was literally plotting ways I could escape without drawing the teacher’s wrath when she asked us to go inside and “communicate with our baby.” Somehow my monkey brain fell silent for a moment and I heard a very clear voice in my head say “grace.” My daughter was always Grace (I did not know I was having a girl at the time).
Meeting Steve Cope is central to Dani’s story. I’ve read his book (Yoga and the Search for the True Self) and agree with Dani that it is powerful and thoughtful. Steve’s example is essential in Dani’s gradual movement from an all-or-nothing philosophy of religion to a more pluralistic one. She even begins to realize that this approach, far from being one of “copping out,” may be the most authentic way of truly believing.
As I sat with my new friend, I realized that perhaps he was doing the hardest thing of all: living inside the contradictions. Buddhism, yoga philosophy, the high Episcopalian tradition in which he had been steeped as a child, were all able to coexist for him and create a greater, richer equilibrium. This wasn’t spiritual laziness. To the contrary, it required even greater effort and clarity.
This is one of the major strands of Devotion: Dani’s growing sense that practicing religion as she had known it as a child is not the only way to have faith. She observes that “doubt isn’t the opposite of faith; it’s an element of faith.” Dani’s father’s religion left no room for doubt, and for her to let this doubt in and still trust that her faith is real is a significant process. Faith, in fact, starts to mean something altogether new and different to Dani. She refers to the Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield’s musing on the possibility of being emptier, more silent, more “in touch with the spaces between words.” Dani says, “The key word was between. When I allowed myself to fearlessly enter that between-place even for a few seconds, I had accomplished faith.”
Another theme that Dani touches on that is close to my heart is of the effort required to truly live in the now. She describes “longing for the moment I was in, even as I was in it.” She recognizes the way that “time can slow to a near standstill simply by existing inside it” and asserts that this is a lesson she “needed to learn over and over again: to stop and simply be.” Yes. It is that for me as well. And, I recognize, probably the most important and urgent lesson of all.
One of the phrases that Dani returns to is the mantra that she learns from Sylvia Boorstein when she is learning metta meditation. It is simple: May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be strong, may I live with ease. This becomes the focal point of her increasingly important meditation practice. Given my very recent reflection on my profound desire to feel safe, this screamed at me. This was yet another way that this book speaks my language.
I am writing a book. It is about how in midlife all of the ways that I understood the world suddenly seemed broken, about how all of the achievements and validation that had given my life meaning up until that point were suddenly void. It is about learning to find out what I want, instead of just doing what the world tells me it wants. It is about tuning in, about trusting that I can learn to hear my own voice again, about faith in myself. I felt like I was listening to a better version of me when I read this:
Once I realized that the things I had habitually used to prop myself up … were as fleeting as a sugar rush, they lost their luster. I had spent years – my whole life! – taping myself together like so many torn bits of paper, bolstering myself up with ephemera. What was I supposed to use to hold myself together, now they were gone?
The conclusion, of course, is ambivalent. There is no single solution. I suppose the key is letting go of the need to be bolstered at all. Letting go, freefalling into the unknown without our usual clearly-articulated identities or firmly-held beliefs, and trusting that we will be caught before we crash. Dani’s exquisite, shining example makes me brave that I might be able to do this.
Devotion is structured as 102 small pieces, and it skips back and forth in the chronology of Dani’s life, telling stories from her childhood, her son’s perilous illness in infancy, her family’s move from New York to rural Connecticut, and the present day. There are searingly vivid images of her father’s devout faith and heartbreaking snapshots of her conflicted, beautiful mother. 9/11 looms over a few of the pieces, as dark and acrid as the clouds that filled the sky for days. This book is very much the story of an entire life, but it is told in a series of circles whose pattern we cannot quite discern. With faith, we simply follow the path, and we follow Dani through her questions, her discovery, her heartache, her truth.
The book’s refusal to close with a neat conclusion or an answer lives vividly in its very last sentence: “Still, we are reaching, reaching.” There are no answers, and Dani’s journey is colored by both the glory of this realization and by its pain. How much simpler would it be to have belief be absolute, utter, final. Of course it is not. But the book does show movement, which we see as a gradual, creeping sense of peace imbues Dani’s words. We sense that Dani has knit together her own personal faith, weaving aspects of different traditions into a singular rope that steadies her. She has accepted her own “samskaras, [her] own contradictions.” This is the faith that I ache for: it is neither simple nor simplistic, but its complexity reflects genuine inquiry, authentic reckoning, and true commitment. The closest thing to a “conclusion” I read in the book is this passage, at the end of piece 90:
Finally, I had my second eureka moment, but this time it didn’t arise from that intense wanting. Instead, it came from a place closer to the core. This is my life, was how it went. My singular, blessed, imperfect, beautiful life.
This kind of eureka moment glows with a surpassing peace, and it is towards that that I am reaching, reaching.