Even though this is my personal blog (as opposed to the blog I share with five writing partners: What Women Write), I typically stick to literary topics and the occasional personal experience that I relate to my writing journey. In other words, I don’t discuss politics or religion. It’s a good rule to live by in general, especially when in unknown circles (or families with mixed beliefs, like mine!).
In early October when I invited Dani Shapiro to share some thoughts in conjunction with her upcoming memoir, Devotion, I knew nothing about the book’s subject. As the date got closer and I read the blurb, I realized it was a book about her search for an understanding of faith. She was on The Today Show recently and has been named one of "O" The Oprah Magazine's must-read picks for February.
From her publisher:
In her mid-forties 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 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 the rituals of her black hat Orthodox Jewish relatives to yoga shalas 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.
I have always struggled with my (lack of) faith, so I was really looking forward to reading this one. I savored Devotion over the course of a few days. As I normally do when reading Dani’s essays, I felt an immediate connection to her words. She and her husband have one boy, she wakes up nights worrying about potential catastrophes, she felt like an outsider in her own religion, she remembered tossing dirt on her father’s casket. And she hates scrapbooking!
Dani’s writing is, as usual, elegant. She concisely captures the essence of a particular issue and every word has a purpose. But what I loved most about this book was that, in the end, she didn’t stand on a mountain and shout down her beliefs, didn’t pronounce those beliefs as truth. She quotes Yogi Stephen Pope, Buddhist Sylvia Boorstein and Catholic monk Thomas Merton, among others, stresses that action replace worry and inaction, suggests we become mindful of the present moment, of rituals, of the truth that we are what we surround ourselves with, things and ideas. But mostly that the not knowing is enough. “Each of us human, full of longing, reaching out with our whole selves for something impossible to touch. Still we are reaching, reaching.”