Dani Shapiro, author of two novels and the best-selling memoir Slow Motion, takes on Devotion in her newest memoir. Here’s my interview with her:
Jennifer Haupt: What the difference between devotion and faith?
Dani Shapiro: That's a very interesting and complex question. Devotion, as it relates to the title of my memoir, means fidelity -- as in fidelity to a person or a practice. I think it's certainly possible to feel devotion without having faith, at least in the religious sense of the word. I am devoted to my husband and son. I am devoted to the practices and rituals that imbue our lives with a sense of meaning and purpose, that help me to live my days in the most emotionally and intellectually productive manner. I am devoted to the idea of devotion itself. My faith, on the other hand, is something I grapple with, something that, to paraphrase Thomas Merton, goes hand in hand with doubt.
JH: Did you lose your faith when Jacob was ill, or was that just the catalyst for realizing you didn't have much faith?
DS: I didn't lose my faith when Jacob was sick, because the whole idea of a personal God -- a God paying attention to me and my little family -- was not one I subscribed to. So I didn't believe God had caused Jacob to become ill (therefore I wasn't angry at him) nor did I believe that God would make Jacob better. Still, as I write in my book, I did find myself praying. It was an impulse that came from the deepest parts of my childhood, from having been raised in a religious home. Praying seemed in order. I was aware that I wasn't praying to anyone in particular, but I felt, nonetheless, comforted by having the ritual. Every night, as I rocked Jacob to sleep, not knowing if he would survive the terrible illness that had befallen him, I sang lullabies, I counted up to certain numbers, I recited Hebrew songs I remembered from childhood. It was all a form of prayer. But it didn't come from having or losing faith.
JH: Even though you weren't a practicing Jew as an adult, did you strongly identify with being Jewish?
DS: I do strongly identify with being Jewish. I was raised Orthodox, and had a childhood complicated by the fact that my father was deeply religious and my mother was not. When I was a little girl, I wound up on the Kodak Christmas poster as -- literally -- the Kodak Christmas child of 1965 wishing the whole world a Merry Christmas, and even though my family was amused and treated the whole thing as a big joke, I grew up aware that my blonde hair and blue eyes made me not look typically Jewish, and so, unconsciously, I have always tended to lead with my Jewishness. I care enormously about the cultural history of Judaism. My son Jacob goes to Hebrew School, and he'll have a bar mitzvah.
JH: Why did you decide to start exploring devotion with yoga?
DS: I'd been practicing yoga for many years, but it was largely a physical practice, an asana practice, which means that it was about the poses. I didn't understand or connect to the idea that there is a spiritual dimension to yoga -- that, in fact, the poses are gateways into this more spiritual dimension. I learned that as I immersed myself more deeply in the practice.
JH: You talk about having a "crush" on the Adlers, a perfect family from your childhood. What was that about?
DS: Oh, I think it was pretty simple. My own family life was stultifying--my parents were unhappy, and I was an only child, and my father's religious beliefs ran our lives. The Adlers, on the other hand, appeared to be fun-loving and secure and happy and glamorous to my thirteen-year-old eyes. What I didn't understand at the time, and which is one of the themes running through Devotion, is that difficult things happen to everyone -- no one is exempt.
The reason the Adlers appear in my memoir is because their lives were later shattered by a horrific tragedy. Their seemingly blessed family life did not protect them. Nothing protects any of us. There is a beautiful piece of Buddhist wisdom called "The Eight Vicissitudes" which I write about in Devotion. Pain and Pleasure, Gain and Loss, Fame and Disrepute, Praise and Blame. All lives contain all of these, the teaching goes. So there is no point in comparing, ever.
JH: You say that when you want to feel close to your father you do something Jewish and when you want to feel close to your mother you go shopping. What do you do when you want to feel close to yourself?
DS: Lovely question. I practice yoga. I meditate. I go for a walk. I try to get quiet.
JH: I love your honestly about the difficult you had with meditating. Where did that difficulty come from and what made you stick with meditating anyway?
DS: Ah, the difficulty continues. I think if you were to talk with longtime meditators, they would say the same thing. The mind is a monkey, hopping around from thought to though, image to image. Rarely do more than a few seconds go by in which the mind can remain single-pointed, empty. As for what makes me stick with it, I find it extremely useful to see clearly the contents of my own mind. I've gone on a few meditation retreats, and they are like compressing years of psychoanalysis into just a few days... though I have also come to realize that without my own years of psychoanalysis, I could never have reached the point of learning to meditate.