One woman's midlife search for meaning
A few weeks ago, author Dani Shapiro, her atheist husband and their young son went to hear a children’s choir perform on a village green near their New England home. They listened to hymns and Christmas carols interspersed with readings by Persian poet Rumi and Catholic author Thomas Merton. Then the family went home and lit Hanukkah candles.
“I thought, this is my idea of what it should be like,” Shapiro laughs during a call to her home in Connecticut. “If I hadn’t done the journey, though, all these contradictions would have felt wrong. I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”
“I was looking not so much for religion . . . but a way of life that would allow for greater meaning.”
“The journey,” as Shapiro calls it, is her search to discover a deeper truth about life, which she details in her lovely mosaic of a memoir, Devotion. Courageous, authentic and funny, Devotion is Shapiro’s exploration of her own relationship with faith.
In her mid-40s, Shapiro found herself unsettled and out of balance. What did she truly believe? What kinds of values did she want to instill in her young son? Raised in a deeply religious family with strict rituals, Shapiro was drawn more to the spirituality of yoga and meditation, yet also attended monthly Torah studies. In Devotion, she asks: Is it all right to take a hodge-podge approach to spirituality, or does dabbling in different faiths signal a wishy-washiness, an unwillingness to choose a doctrine and stick with it? And how did her family history feed into her confusion about faith?
“I had reached the middle of my life and knew less than I ever had before,” she writes. “Michael, Jacob and I lived on top of a hill, surrounded by old trees, a vegetable garden, stone walls. From the outside things looked pretty good. But deep inside myself, I had begun to quietly fall apart. Nights, I quivered in the darkness like a wounded animal. Something was very wrong, but I didn’t know what it was.”
Shapiro got serious about meditating (“It’s a struggle for my kinetic, type-A, busy-minded self,” she admits). She went on silent retreats and practiced yoga. She read about spirituality. She talked with friends and relatives, devout and not. She pieced together fragments of her life, both harrowing and beautiful, that shaped who she is.
Raised in an Orthodox Jewish household with a father prone to panic attacks and a supremely difficult mother, Shapiro found her childhood fraught with confusion. By her 30s, she was a recovering drinker, had lost her father to a car accident (which she wrote about in her gritty first memoir, Slow Motion) and had a newborn with a potentially life-threatening seizure disorder. After hearing the planes hit the World Trade Center, Shapiro and her husband, screenwriter Michael Maren, sold their Brooklyn brownstone and headed for Connecticut.
But even in that bucolic setting, even when her son was no longer sick, her anxiety grew and she knew she needed more. “I was looking not so much for a religion—I had one and had mixed feelings about it—but a way of life that would allow for greater meaning, greater depth, greater awareness,” Shapiro says. “I desperately did not want to be 80 years and saying, ‘But I was just getting my life together.’ ”
Those are the words her mother uttered on her deathbed. In Devotion, Shapiro revisits their beyond-rocky relationship.
“I grew up hearing, ‘You made this happen,’ or ‘You poisoned this person against me,’ ” she says. “With my mother, I had to ask myself, is it ever OK to give up on a person?”
The answer, at least for Shapiro, was yes. After attending several therapy sessions with her mother, Shapiro talked with the psychiatrist, who told her something he’d never said to a client in 30 years of practice: She and her mother had no hope of forging a healthy relationship.
“It was such an incredibly intense moment,” Shapiro recalls. “It will remain one of the definitive moments of my life. The feeling of somebody totally unbiased corroborating that or saying, ‘Yeah, this really is impossible.’ It was in equal and opposing measures relief and incredibly painful.”
The relationship she had with her mother hasn’t tainted her own parenting. “I’m very glad I had a boy,” she admits. “During the sonogram, I heard it was a boy and was instantly and profoundly relieved. I think it would have been very complicated for me to have a daughter, and I think I would have been a very self-conscious mother of a daughter.”
Jacob, now a healthy grade-schooler, has adapted to the slower pace of life away from the city—although it took awhile. “When we first moved, there was a sidewalk out here bisecting a huge meadow and Jacob would not step off that sidewalk,” she laughs. “He went from this urban two-and-a-half-year-old to being this total country boy.”
Someday, that boy may read one or both of her incredibly honest memoirs, which yields mixed feelings in Shapiro. “Slow Motion is a book I’m really proud of,” she says. “I’ve often wondered whether I would have written it had I already had a family myself. I dread the day Jacob picks up that book. As a mother, I wouldn’t have written it; as a writer, I’m glad I did.”
Still, she’s learned to live with that, and with other quirky aspects of being a best-selling memoirist. “Nobody ever asks me anything about myself,” Shapiro says. “People say, ‘You must feel like I know everything about you.’ Actually, I don’t! That’s a strange phenomenon. I don’t feel I’ve exposed myself. I’ve written about the part of my life I wanted to write about.”
In one chapter of Devotion, a magazine editor offers to send Shapiro to India to report on yoga and meditation. A dream assignment! But Shapiro turns her down, saying, “My life is here.” And that is the beautiful simplicity of Shapiro’s journey: She doesn’t want to go to exotic, far-flung destinations, Eat, Pray, Love-style. She just wants to look inward. Ultimately, Devotion is the best kind of memoir—although it’s about someone else’s life, it makes you shine a flashlight on your own.