Dani Shapiro

Devotion: A Memoir

“I needed to place my faith in something... I wasn't exactly a nonbeliever. Nor was I a believer. Where did that leave me? Anxious, fearful, lonely, resentful, depressed - troubled by a powerful and, some would say, deeply irreverent sense of futility.”

In these many winters of discontent, uncertainty and frustrations abound. We tend to lean on the known rather than the new. Ritual and routine thrive. The daily ins and out that creatives like choreographer Twyla Tharp to creative-writing teacher Dorothea Brande writing a century ago, argued stoke both imagination and relaxation. Routine is the opening and closing of one thing after the next, the lining up of things, it is a familiar pattern we clutch.

But there is still a complexity that Erich Fromm noted was our greatest human burden, a separateness from one another. In our waking life that traditionally unconscious crisis manifests as a nudge for something more. To step into the stream, to borrow a fluid metaphor from the late Mary Oliver, and keep our eye on the eternal.

To look for a grander meaning, or as many call it, faith.

Rouen Cathedral Stairs
Rouen Cathedral stairs. Is there a more beautiful journey upwards? Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Faith in something rather than nothing.

This conflict between functionality of quotidian duties and their shallow comforts (or rather, grave discomfort) is the departure point for Dani Shapiro’s (born April 10, 1962) Devotion, a personal journey of faith, longing and religion.

“I needed to place my faith in something…” the author confesses as she reflects on her life.

I didn’t want our family’s life to speed by in a blur of meals, schools, camps, barbeques, picnics, vacations – each indistinguishable from the next. I wanted to slow it down-to find ways to infuse our lives with greater depth and meaning. My own childhood had been spent steeped in religious ritual. There were rules for eating, speaking, sleeping, praying. I never knew why we did what we did it was simply the way it was. I had fled this at the earliest opportunity, but replaced it with nothing. I wasn’t exactly a nonbeliever. Nor was I a believer. Where did that leave me? Anxious, fearful, lonely, resentful, depressed-troubled by a powerful and, some would say, deeply irreverent sense of futility.

Shapiro’s words intimate a longing many know well. Although she doesn’t say these words I will: there must be more than this. Defining an ontological distinction that Margaret Atwood gracefully defines as the part of us that makes the tea.

Shapiro continues:

I was mired in the domesticity that I loved – that same domesticity that kept me on a treadmill from the first sounds of pounding feet in the morning to the last hazy thought – We’re almost out of dog food – that drifted through my mind before passing out at night. Could I find and hold on to a deeper truth than the whir and strum of my daily life, which seemed designed to ensure that some day I would wake up-after the years of packed lunches and piano practice and rushed dinners—and wonder where it all had gone.

Buddhist Monk Thích Nhất Hạnh in Los Angelos, 2007. "You Are Here" is Thích Nhất Hạnh's sympathetic, Buddhist practice of embracing the present as a means to change and correct the past.
Buddhist Monk Thích Nhất Hạnh in Los Angelos, 2007. You Are Here is Thích Nhất Hạnh’s sympathetic, Buddhist practice of embracing the present as a means to change and correct the past.

Crises in our present life will provoke us to sift through past identities, Shapiro remembers and reconciles the Jewish traditions of her childhood.

After he had completed his morning prayers, my father unraveled the leather straps, wound them back into tight coils, and placed them, along with his tallit, back in the blue velvet pouch. Then he took off his yarmulke, put on his suit jacket, and took the train to Wall Street. He worked on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, and he did not wear a yarmulke there. He wore the same tan jacket as all the other traders, crowded around the board to look at the rise and fall of the markets. He ate lunch at the Bull & Bear, rode the commuter train. Our family took trips, went on bike rides, ate dairy and fish in regular restaurants, played tennis.

Shapiro’s father, a seminal figure in her life, married religion and secular functionality.

We did not wear the long dresses, the wigs, the black hats, the long beards or side curls that many of my cousins wear today. But still-thrumming beneath the surface, ever-present-there was the sense that father’s devotion was what allowed our world to my keep turning. If he stopped-if he broke even one of the elaborate set of rules by which our family lived-something terrible might happen. After all, my father had to believe in a mercurial God who could be petitioned. Otherwise, he lived in a brutal and indifferent universe, governed by no entity, no greater being. When my father wore the tefillin, closed his eyes, and davened, he was doing what he could to protect himself and those he loved.

Throughout Devotion there is a gentle but gapping chasm between faith and religion, which I find thought-provoking. We are often quick to sweep them together when really, they can be distinct or even mutually exclusive. One might often carry us over the faults of the other and so on. They work together, but they are not the same.

Although religion was embedded in Shapiro’s Jewish upbringing, it’s merely a memory in her adult life. Partly by choice, partly because that is often the nature of modern adult life. Many of us need an impetus to return to the faith of our childhood, if it was faith. Recalled in adulthood it often feels more like ritual.

The small white leather-bound prayer book is embossed on the inside cover with my parents’ names, along with the date and the place of their marriage. It had been tucked in to the back of a file cabinet drawer for years, along with other mementos of a long-gone life: expired passports, my mother’s change purse, my father’s old wallet, the velvet pouch that contains his tallit and tefillin. I’ve rarely opened the file drawer, much less the prayer book itself. I haven’t wanted to dwell on my parents as young, hopeful, at the beginning of their lives together. Recently I pulled the prayer book-along with a few other items-out of the drawer. It sat on my desk for a while before I actually looked inside. There are prayers for everything. Morning Prayer for Boys. Morning Prayer for Girls. Grace after Meals, of course…

There is a list of “Blessings on Various Occasions”:
Before eating bread.
Before drinking wine.
Before partaking of food, other than bread, prepared from of the five species of grain: wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt.
On partaking of meat, fish, eggs, cheese, etc., or drinking any liquor except wine.
On eating fruit that grows on trees.
On eating fruit that grows on the ground, herbage, etc.
On smelling fragrant woods or barks.
On putting on a new garment.
On placing a mezuzah on the doorpost.

Shapiro is a writer who paves her path into the world by mining and refining elements of herself. Laying them down for stepping, occasionally tripping. Atheist Christopher Hitchens and Catholic convert Simone Weil, though diametrically opposed on their beliefs, differ from Shapiro in that their spiritual portraits remain resolute.

Shapiro, on the other hand, gives us a non-linear, unclear and often unresolved meditation that ultimately holds everything at once in all its messy thingness.

Mad Tree in Kensington Gardens
“I became intimate with strand of trees in our front meadow…” Shapiro finds softness and strength in the shadow of trees Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

What Shapiro walks us through in Devotion is that emptiness or longing that is fundamentally a deep, deep sadness. One that calcifies in the knuckles and bulges under the eyes.

We grow up, then old? … A constant, gnawing sadness that was always with me. This sadness wasn’t a huge part of me – I wasn’t remotely depressed – but still, it was like a stone I carried in my pocket, I always knew it was there. .. ‘The edge of melancholy.'”

Melancholy as a gentle, unrelenting sadness. Patti Smith used the same word in Woolgathering, woven tufts of literary substance written on her 45th birthday and during a time of unrelenting “melancholy.”

The vaulted ceiling of Canterbury Cathedral's tower seems to float on a cushion of light. Centuries of worshipers have passed under this spirited structure, induced to wonder and elation.
The vaulted ceiling of Canterbury Cathedral’s tower seems to float on a cushion of light. Centuries of worshipers have passed under this spirited structure, induced to wonder and elation. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

But Shapiro doesn’t work through the state, because there is no through, no arrival. There is only struggle (made bearable through mind-focusing ritual). But when she articulates her feelings to a friend, she does it in words so clear I swear I said them myself, or at least thought them a million times.

Something that was here before we got here and I will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousness are bound up in that greater consciousness … That was as as good a word as any: presence. As in the opposite of absence. By training my thoughts and daily actions in that direction of an open-minded inquiry, what had emerged was a powerful sense of presence. It couldn’t be touched, or apprehended, but nonetheless, when I released the hold of my mind and all its swirling stories, this is what I felt. Something – rather than nothing.

Frothy yellow and white waves crash ashore in Eastbourne, UK. “Something fashioned this yellow-white lace-mass that the sea has brought to the shore and left.” from Mary Oliver’s poem “Something.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

A few years after Shapiro wrote Devotion, she took a genetic test and found out she and her half-sister were in fact not related. This triggered the question, which one one of them was not related to their father? Shapiro’s bittersweet contemplation of inheritance once again shakes those moorings we take for granted; our parents are our parents and our lived childhood was real.

Pair Shapiro’s exploration of emotional experiences as a means to deepen consciousness with her treatise on the perils and pleasures of the creative life and physicist Alan Lightman’s scrummage through the indelible uncertainties that exist in even the most steadfast tracts of knowledge.