Dani Shapiro, Devotion (2010)

I would so love to say that this book worked for me.

Because I too reach an age where questions about life become more and more important, where I need to find (make?) some peace and find my own answers to the question: “how do I live?”. Because Dani Shapiro’s book come with very high credentials in my mind. She is close to Katrina Kenison and Karen Maezen Miller. Lindsay from A Design So Vast praises this memoir so much that I had to read it too. And because Dani Shapiro seems like a good person, a great woman to get to know.

The religious title made me self-conscious, because I’m not a religious person and don’t feel the need for that type of quest. As a European, I don’t always position myself religiously when it comes to the meaning of life. At least, I don’t think that my own quest is spiritual in the traditional sense of the word. I’d rather use the word “human”, because I believe that we all as human beings (because we have a conscience – what others call a soul) have to reflect on what makes sense for our own life. With God, any god, internal or external power, or without altogether. I’m sorry if I shock some of my American readers, but if I’m not honest here, where else?

Shapiro’s quest, in that sense, seemed too religious to speak to me, because although she is the daughter of a strictly observant Jew and an atheist mother, she speaks more of her father’s religion (that she was brought up into) than her mother’s atheism (indeed, the fact that her mother comes out as a heartless egoist doesn’t contribute to a balanced view of the question). Perhaps I should have left the book altogether and recognize it was not for me. But then I realized Devotion is not only a religious word. Dani Shapiro is also devoted to our son (who was born with a life-threatening disease), her family, her friends. Devotion is like Care (with a big C in my mind). And Dani Shapiro does care a lot.

I was moved by the book and have a great respect for Shapiro’s spiritual quest. The answers she found for herself in Judaism, Buddhism and Yoga are unique to her and very precious. She met wise masters on her way, and I’m curious to learn more about them. Yet her problems are not mine, and her approach is not universal (I would tend to say American-centric, but I don’t know for sure).

Her anxiety is not mine either – or perhaps not mine yet. I couldn’t understand why she was so fretful while she essentially has a good, rather privileged life. I can’t dismiss her son’s dangerous illness, or the fact that 9/11 basically happened next door to her home. I don’t take it lightly, but I sometimes wanted to hug her and shush her to be calm and quiet, not pore over her problems again and again (the fact that the book structure is not linear contributes to the feeling of repetition). Perhaps I’m just lucky, but as a reader her own anxiety was somewhat contagious: I found myself worrying suddenly that perhaps I didn’t worry enough! I felt bad for not being able to relate with her difficulty to sit quietly, to not talk (she tried a silence retreat).

So basically I would still recommend this book if you have anxiety issues, because she is a great writer and the path she makes us take is full of small treasures as she urges us to be more in touch with our emotions and with the beauty of the day. I look forward to reading more of her as a writer, and hope that she will find her peace as a person.

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