Book Review: Devotion

Dani Shapiro, an essayist and novelist, has been on my radar for a while, but sort of on the back burner. I read her blog now and again, and I've caught her essays in The New Yorker and appearances on Oprah, and her words have always stuck with me due to their emphasis on faith and family. 

Her second memoir, Devotion, is no different. I picked it up during some airport downtime, and while I found myself skimming through sections, I ended up liking a few excerpts quite a bit. Shapiro is reflective, thoughtful, and honest about the difficulty and grace of being at a later stage of her life, and she has one big question: what does she believe?

She writes about having a sick child, and losing her father, and how those experiences led her to this crucial question of faith. She acknowledges that she's not old by any means, but at the same time, she spends more time looking back than forward. Shapiro also explores themes of yoga, body connection, breath and meditation, and I certainly appreciated her insights.

Sometimes it feels as if I’m building a bridge. This act of bridge-building requires stamina, balance, and more strength than I think I possess. What’s more, I have to walk fairly far out onto the bridge as I’m building it.

At this point, I’m way out there — too far to make it back to land if the bridge starts to splinter. Sometimes it sways. Once in a while, I hear it creaking. Below me, a precipitous drop: a rock-filled ravine. Best not to look down. Best to put one foot in front of the other.

Krama akrama, the Sanskrit teaching goes: step by step and all at once.

The text is divided into short sections, so it's really easy to read a little bit here and there. Some critics have stated that Devotion is too navel-gazing, to which I say, uh, it's memoir--but I do get it. It sort of reads like a journal or a diary rather than a collection of short chapters or essays. Shapiro rambles, but she always loops back to her central themes and questions: how do we live a fulfilling life? What does that mean? Why is religious tradition important, and how do we hold onto faith throughout the context of challenges? 

Life was unpredictable, yes. A speeding car, a slip on the ice, a ringing phone, and suddenly everything changes forever. To deny that is to deny life — but to be consumed by it is also to deny life . . . to think: it is true, the speeding car, the slip on the ice, the ringing phone. It is true, and yet here I am listening to my boy sing as we walk down the corridor. Here I am giving him a hug. Here we are — together in this, our only moment.

What Shapiro wants to explore is presence and awareness in the face of our days: the small worries and anxieties, the big fears and doubts, the resentment that scrapes away peace, the envy that creates distance, the sadness of the shortness of life.

Three moments within the memoir stayed with me: first, a mention of a concept I had heard before, but forgotten -- samskara. Shapiro describes it as "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." In teacher training, we certainly talked about this idea, and in class I often hear teachers talk about holding emotions in the body and how we need to release tension that we carry with us. But I think it often doesn't resonate with students, and this description worked a little better for me, so I'm looking forward to using it.

Second, Shapiro discusses ayurveda. Again, a phrase I've read about before. It essentially means that we become what we surround ourselves with, which means we have to be careful about our surroundings -- environment, people, inspiration. Everything matters, because everything has an impact on who we are and who we are trying to be. 

Finally, Shapiro offers a mantra she learned from one of her own spiritual guides, and explains the way its meaning has evolved over the years for her. It started out this way:

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

And slowly, over the course of Shapiro's life, the phrase became more succinct, just as it did for the woman who originally shared it with her. Instead of the verb "feel," it switches to "be." Considering the physical body may fail and disappoint, just as life in general, the entire stanza shifts to this: "May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be strong, may I live with ease."