A while back Harper-Collins publishers sent me a copy of Dani Shapiro’s new memoir “devotion” to review. I recalled that I had seen the name of the author, Dani Shapiro, before on books and articles I hadn’t read and when I read the cover blurbs of this particular book it was really tempting to skim through and write an obligatory paragraph or two about chick-lit spirituality and be done with it. Then I noticed a blurb by Elizabeth Gilbert, who readers of this blog know is, in my opinion, the diva of self-indulgent chick-lit spirituality. This gave me a bit of a jolt since it meant the possibility of a scathing review. Although that is something I occasionally enjoy writing I prefer to read for new and interesting ideas and viewpoints rather than take in a writer’s insults and disrespect for their audience via platitudes, overweening self-importance and lack of originality, research and writing ability. The mechanics of every type of reading along the spectrum, from pleasure to criticism, are of quite different natures. While scathing criticism is fun now and then it is rather tiring both to write and to read.
So it was with some trepidation that I cracked the cover and started this book one evening. As a fan of the “Zenfessional”, that is biography and particularly autobiography about people’s encounters with Buddhism, as I mentioned a few posts back regarding a couple of other reads, I always have a glimmer of hope that the author is honest in telling their story and outlines what they have learned, for better or worse, and that the story is told in an engaging or at least competent way. If criticism is called for it’s not something I feel guilty about giving since any paid author is writing in a professional capacity even when writing personal memoir.
The author, Dani Shapiro, a Jewish woman in her forties from a conservative background, with a husband and child was uncomfortable with her life. She had been through some serious life situations including the early loss of her father, a problem with alcoholism, alienation from her demanding mother, a long-term life threatening illness of her only son and living in New York City during the 911 crisis. I can relate to some of these situations as she is able to emphasize the emotional sense of the situations even if exact details vary quite distinctly from my own. But in terms of difficult situations, facing crisis and family illness, and that overarching, deeply unsettling feeling of dissatisfaction, disconnectedness and even struggle and alienation, there was a familiar ring to much of what she wrote. She was on a serious search for meaning, and that is something she defines well in the book and something I could relate to. With regard to questions posed to her by her son she wrote:
I was laying out a smorgasbord of options, but I wasn’t telling him what I believe–because I truly didn’t know. Each day, emails I had signed up for kept appearing in my in-box–My Daily Om, Weekly Kabbalah Consciousness Tune-up–like the results of a Rorschach test:spiritually confused wife and mother in midlife, seeking answers. for years, I had dabbled:Little bite-size morsels of Buddhism, the Yoga Sutra, Jewish mysticism. I had a regular yoga practice, but often felt like I was only scratching the surface. My bookshelves ere filled with books I had bought with every good intention, 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. (p. 12)
Fortunately she is not some flaky New-Agey, truth-seeker flitting from one scenario to another even if she describes herself as such. Instead she looked at her life deeply. She felt she was only living on the surface of things and decided to dive in. She took her life seriously rather than trying to run away from it or from herself.
This may all sound rather dour and depressing but she has a sharp wit and a self-deprecating sense of humor as well as a down to earth quality that keeps the story warm and engaging. She was offered a trip to India by a travel editor and she describes her response:
India. My heart sank. How could I tell the travel editor that my interests lay a little closer to home? Say, within a three-hour drive?
She smiled at me from across the table, her eyes twinkling. She knew (and she knew that I knew, and she knew that I knew that she knew) that offering to send a writer to India was a dream assignment. One that most writers would kill for. But not this writer.
I imagined myself on the shores of Kerala, in a beautifully embroidered sari, at the feet of my new guru. It should be mentioned that, in this fantasy, I had a pretty good tan. I would gather shining jewels of wisdom from my guru–truths that could be found in no other way–and carry them home in my pocket.But then the fantasy shattered. I saw those jewels falling out of my pocket, one by one. By the time I got back home, back to my life on top of the hill–to my husband, son, dogs, piles upon piles of mail/laundry/manuscripts–I would have left a glittering mess behind me. No longer available. No longer of use. Once again, I was reminded: truths found out there don’t travel well.
“I think I need to stay close to home,” I told the puzzled editor. “My life is here.” (p.150-2)
She manages to temper romantic fantasy with realism. She has set her direction and wants to learn to live with it, knows she must learn to live with it and cannot escape it. But she questions everything. Relentlessly. From the tradition of the bris for her son to the ridiculousness of chain letters via email to the existence and utility of God there is nothing held too sacred to be questioned.
She does look for spiritual direction and one of the people who makes a deep impact on her is Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein (among others). One can almost feel the wisdom of her teachings taking hold on Dani Shapiro’s life. I have long enjoyed the teachings of Sylvia Boorstein myself. She draws on these Buddhist teachings as well as those of Yoga and her Jewish heritage in order to try to resolve some of the questions in her life.
One thing that struck me was the honesty of her writing as well as her ability. She has written novels in the past and the words flow very nicely. Scenes of her life come and go and are captured with an emotional clarity that is rather striking. And fortunately she is not scared of language and of appearing uncouth or sacrilegious. She even uses the word “fuck” on more than a few occasions.
Not some neat little uptight, all is right with the world now that I’ve found the answer sort of narrative she gets right to the heart of matters.
It’s difficult to sum up such a book. The threads all interwoven, some frayed and others carrying on throughout, their configuration at times knotted and at others a smooth plait is about the only metaphor I can come up with to succinctly encompass the major themes.
No matter how things end there will always be questions. And continuation. I’m not sorry I took the time to really read this book.
Dani Shapiro on Twitter