Dani Shapiro Seeks Spiritual Meaning through Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

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During her late teens, when Dani Shapiro was attempting to grow up, an older man convinced her to linger in the helplessness of childhood where he would take care of her forever. The memoir “Slow Motion” chronicled the detailed, painful story of her interrupted crossing into adulthood. I appreciated the book because I too suffered a messy launching and her story inspired me to dig deeper into that period in my life.

Now, her second memoir “Devotion,” provides a fascinating sequel. Starting decades after the happy ending of her first, she describes her journey into adulthood. “Devotion” is not so much about becoming an adult as it is about making sense of life’s scary setbacks. How do you find inner peace in a world that crushed your father in a car accident, gave your son a rare neurological disorder that threatens to destroy him, and blew up buildings by using business travelers as weapons? The author’s thirst for answers sends her on a quest for transcendent meaning.

Dani Shapiro’s father was an Orthodox Jew, devoted to the detailed rituals of his religion. As a sophisticated young woman, the daughter rejects his path, instead emulating her mother’s indifference to religion. As a result, whatever comfort he might have derived from his structured beliefs is unavailable to her. Now, in the messy world of adult setbacks, she wonders if she could find strength from her father’s religion. She does an impeccable job, curiously seeking to understand how his rituals anchored him. She continues to investigate, wondering if his path might suit her needs.

Turning to ancient religious ritual is only one of the directions for Dani’s search. What makes this book so intriguing is her willingness to explore other directions as well. In the United States of the twenty-first century, many people look for a more personal version of truth, in an eclectic offering of teachings, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, yoga and Sufism. These studies have amalgamated into a pursuit sometimes dubbed “New Age religion” for want of a better term.

In the ‘60s, when I began my own search beyond the religion of my ancestors, I turned east, and traveled to India. But nowadays, the teachings have been imported to the West, and Dani Shapiro, a mother of a small child in Connecticut, did not have to travel far. As she opened herself to the universe of possibilities, the guiding hand of curiosity and serendipity led her to an ashram within a few hours of her house.

Like her failed launching, her search for spirituality gave me flashbacks. As a teenager, my first effort at finding Truth consisted of expunging all traces of my parents’ Jewish religion from my mind. I assumed that science and common sense would provide all the data I needed. After a few years, my anti-religious approach led me to the brink of despair, where I realized that if I didn’t find some sort of transcendent purpose, I would die. As one of the stops on my quest, in 1975, I visited a small yoga center near my home in southeast Pennsylvania. In a darkened room, with incense burning, I swayed to the melodious chanting of a young, handsome Indian guru named Amrit Desai. I was surrounded by a roomful of seekers who were also looking for meaning in the wake of the ‘60s. I continued my journey onto a different branch of the New Age, and The Kripalu Center moved north to Massachusetts where it grew and thrived. Then, 30 years later, Dani Shapiro turned up at the door. Her memoir reveals much about her own hunger for spirituality and also sheds light on the nature of spiritual seeking in our time.

By the end of her lovely book about a modern American woman seeking answers to the transcendent questions of the universe, I wasn’t sure if she really found what she was looking for. At first this lack of finality unsettled me and I continued to consider its meaning. Then I saw a different message embedded in the story. The memoir was not about finding answers, but about openly, even brazenly, asking questions. On reflection, I love her refusal to declare winners and losers in the search for Truth. By opening herself to all possibilities, she has invited us to do the same.

Notes
Dani Shapiro’s Website

The author is teaching a course called “Devotion: Crafting Your Journey Inward Through Memoir”, September 23-25, 2011, at Kripalu in Massachusetts. Click here for more details
My essay about “Slow Motion.”
More memoirs of emerging into adulthood

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

6 thoughts on “Dani Shapiro Seeks Spiritual Meaning through Memoirs

  1. Thank you for this–I have been meaning to read her work. This was a helpful overview that seems to go to the heart of her writing’s appeal.

  2. For the most part I appreciated Devotion for all the reasons already stated. However, the story flow tends to be disorganized, as if she simply wrote down what she was thinking on any given day and made no further attempt to order her thoughts. I’m lazy. But it is a fine book and I do recommend it.

  3. Hi Sharon. You raise a really important point. The way a memoir is written (what I call language arts) has a huge impact on reading experience. In this case, Dani Shapiro’s intertwined timeline confused me, not because I didn’t like it but because I did. In general, I am a big fan of chronological memoirs, and believe that telling the story in order is the best approach. But for some reason, the miniature essays in Devotion entertained me and kept me engaged, like a well crafted mosaic. But even in those cases when language arts distract me, if the story is told well enough for me to be willing to finish, my main focus in my reviews and essays is about what truths about life I found hidden within the pages. Jerry

  4. I haven’t read this memoir yet, but I keep bumping into the author’s name and the book title. Thanks for the summary, Jerry. I appreciate the tour of yet one more way to structure a memoir.

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