A Controlled Pause: Thoughts on Dani Shapiro’s “Devotion”

Projects such as corresponding with book clubs require managing details, and though some claim that God is in the details, I always find myself racing around, yet getting nothing done, when I have lots of things–the domestic mashed up with the professional–clamoring for my attention.  Reading Dani Shapiro’s new memoir, Devotion, was a controlled pause, a deep breath. If you feel as if you’re foundering under a thousand post-it sized to-dos, if you find your mind working like a hamster on a wheel, if you can’t be easy, be quiet, be still, the process of Dani’s own struggle to find a spiritual center and silence will completely engage you. “I was always racing,” she writes on the second page. “I couldn’t settle down. I mean, I was settled down–I was happily married, and then mother of an eight year old boy. But I often felt a tremendous sense of urgency, as if there was a whip at my back.”

Shapiro’s search for peace leads her to revisit the life-threatening illness of her son and to reconsider her mother’s death.  She immerses herself in yoga retreats and follows the sparked trail of coincidence. Along the way, she reconnects with the Orthodox Jewish teachings of her childhood. Yet, rather than providing herself–and her reader–with easy answers, the book unfolds, in short collage pieces, as a series of questions that reveal the beating heart of human nature. Why do things happen? Is there a reason for the way life unfolds? Shapiro writes about being “complicated with Judaism,” a phrase that has helped me understand my own relationship with Catholicism. I wrote about this relationship, and its gradual transformation, in Limbo, and though the experience of illness led me to different conclusions, I loved being witness to Shapiro’s own journey.

“My bookshelves were filled with books I had bought with every good intention,” Shapiro writes, “important books containing serious insights about how to live. Over the years, they remained unopened. Taking up space. What would happen if I opened the books? If I opened myself–as an adventurer, an explorer into the depths of every single day? What if–instead of fleeing–I were to continue to quiver in the darkness? It wasn’t so much that I was in search of answers. In fact, I was wary of the whole idea of answers. I wanted to climb all the way inside the questions and see what was there.”

And so she does with eloquence and grace.