Book Review: Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro

When I was ten years old, I decided I would no longer eat pork. Partly brought on by the appreciation for the animal itself, I realized that I’d never much liked pork to begin with. Rather than say to people something like, “Well, I hate pork chops, but sometimes I end up eating sausage when my mom makes red beans and rice,” it was easier to eliminate it entirely.

(The exception being pepperoni — which is a magical amalgam of more than one meat and entirely different from its unappetizing cousin salami.)

Now, I don’t even eat turkey versions of typical pork products. To avoid extended “but whhyyyyyy” conversations with strangers (this happened more often than one might think), I would start telling those strangers I was Jewish. It would shut them up. Either they did not want to offend me by pressing further, or their brains hiccupped over whatever preconceived notions about Judaism they had, and how that related to me. I don’t do this anymore — I’m more comfortable now with owning my peculiarities and I don’t want to be disrespectful to actual Jewish people — but I still like having a set of rules for food, some of which happen to be kosher.

Having spent most of my life as a spiritual fence-sitter, falsely claiming Judaism didn’t interfere with any beliefs I had. Apart from the Church of Rock ‘n Roll, I’m rather lazy and non-deistic when it comes to matters of faith. Bits of Judaism make sense to me (Rituals! A drinking holiday! Really having a day of rest!), as do the compassionate parts of Christianity (The Golden Rule! And Christmas presents for everybody!). Even the one-with-nature elements of some pagan religions seem all very well and good, but like a lot of categories in my life, labels do not neatly apply to my beliefs.

I’m married to a Buddhist, and now that I’ve learned about the practice behind it, more closely do I identify with it compared to any other faith. There is incredible solace to be found in its patience and quiet peace. And ever since I’ve been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, its meditative qualities feel more important than ever. In that regard, this is all a very long preamble to tell you that I read Dani Shapiro’s Devotion at the perfect time. It is a fantastic book, worth all the personal introspection it produces as a side effect.

Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro (cover)After growing up with a deeply devout Jewish father and an angrily secular mother, Shapiro’s drift from her faith felt all the more pronounced when confronted with the life-threatening illness of her son. Paired with her unrelenting anxiety and loneliness, despite a happy marriage and eventually healthy son, Devotion traces her journey to discover what beliefs would help her find greater meaning in her day-to-day life. Shapiro writes with a wonderful intimacy and she owns up to her failures. Her process is not so tidy, and she wants others to know that it’s okay; we can all be untidy, and the world will not stop spinning.

Sometimes I want to run away: have a few drinks, take a sleeping pill, buy those overpriced stiletto heels. Anything to sedate myself — to mute the endless loop of stories. And sometimes I give in and do exactly that. The clarity is too painful, and I want to forget. The problem is, it doesn’t work. Not in the long run. There is no permanent forgetting. Though the world of things is persuasive and distracting, the stories always come back, circled in neon. They are all the more alive for having been hidden.

Yes, giving in to sedation is easy and often feels preferable. I don’t know how many different ways I’ve tried to temporarily forget about how much my body hurts. Everyone has their struggles, of course, but as a person with a father who died too soon, as a person who has two mysterious and frustrating chronic illnesses, as a person who wants to be good mother and spouse, despite the often unrelenting anxiety and depression, and as a person who thinks faith must be nice for those who have it — Well, to say I identified with Shapiro’s journey might be underselling it. Though I know logically that I am not alone, I find comfort in the direct reminders.

Deep within my body, the past is still alive. Everything that has ever happened keeps on happening. I might be meditating, and then, suddenly, instead of sitting cross-legged on my bedroom floor in Connecticut, I am standing in a New Jersey hospital room, hearing the news that my father has died.
It’s a seductive idea, closure — but I think it’s a myth.

In multiple interviews, Shapiro has talked about how she used to think that people who took selections from different religions and folded them into a patchwork belief system were somehow inauthentic or “intellectually lazy.” But during her own struggles, she started to wonder what more could she learn. She already practiced yoga — what more from Buddhism could help her? Then, at a meditation retreat, she met Sylvia Boorstein, a Jewish Buddhist teacher. Boorstein talked about how she would always be “complicated with Jewishness” and to deny her heritage was futile. Instead, she turned her attentions elsewhere:

“The whole world is a lesson in what is true,” she said. “Everyone is struggling. Life is difficult for everybody. Once you’re in, there’s no way out. You have to go forward. And we all die in the end. So how to deal with it?”

Yes, how to deal with it? How do we wade through the bittersweet, the debilitating, the heart-wrenching, and the loves so true that they cannot help but ache? For everyone, whether they are aware of it or not, it is a process. Boorstein devised a series of metta phrases (loosely translated as lovingkindness) to guide her. No matter what was going on in her life, she could repeat these words to help bring her back to peace.

May I be safe.
May I be happy.
May I be strong.
May I live with ease.

“I wanted something I would always be able to say — in old age, in sickness — and have it be realistic,” she told Shapiro. “No matter what happens, I can always wish for strength.”

The words are so simple, they can encompass most every healthy wish a person can have. I cannot wish away my medical condition, but I can learn how to take care of myself within that condition in order to feel stronger and happier. I have to learn to do what’s right by me.

Around the same time I stopped eating pork, I started giving myself challenges, little things I could do that were beneficial in some way. For awhile when I was around 11, I decided to see how long I could go without eating fried food. I don’t remember exactly how long I lasted — maybe six months — but post-swimming hunger and french fries made me forget my challenge. But I’d gone for a while, and knew I could, and that was satisfying enough.

The challenges are not all food-related. I’ve completed the 50,000 word National Novel Writing Month challenge six times, just to get my ass in the chair and to make the words fly. Book reviews are their own challenge, to see how well I can keep up with and articulate what I like and dislike about the things that I read. My goals are not of the marathon variety. It’s not really about control or triumph of the human body. For me, any small challenge is more about “What would happen if I tried this? Will I be happier for having done it? How long is enough?

I may never eat ham ever again, but I’m more likely to say that a life without crispy-fried hashbrowns is just not worth living. And I will always write, and if I have to create self-imposed deadlines and arbitrary numbers to keep myself motivated, then so be it. When it comes to my body, I have to keep faith that my efforts will not be wasted, that incrementally I will gather the whispers of wisdom from all over the place, and I will continue to find strength. I’m here, and I’m in it for the long run, so it’s time to cultivate my own peace.

A previous version of this review appeared at Glorified Love Letters.

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Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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