An Interview with Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion, A Memoir

Interview with Dani Shapiro, author of five novels, about how yoga and meditation helped her reckon with painful questions.

Teresa Burns Gunther
9 March 2010

Interview with Dani Shapiro, author of five novels, about how yoga and meditation helped her reckon with painful questions.

Dani Shapiro is the author of five novels and the bestselling memoir, Slow Motion. In her new memoir, Devotion, Shapiro takes a literary journey into the essential questions of her life. Finding herself at midlife, she was troubled to realized that she still had more questions than answers. Her questions, and those of her young son — tell me about God, tell me what is true, what happens when we die — propelled her on a quest for what she believes.

Through yoga and meditation, Shapiro explored the questions and answers that haunt her. Devotion gives voice to the bewilderment and painful awareness that comes of middle age, losing one’s parents, reconciling one’s past with one’s present, and the terrifying world of parenting a seriously ill child.

Teresa Burns Gunther: You’ve said this book is from your son Jacob, and because of Jacob. You write with such honesty and openness, yet when Jacob was the subject I felt a protective distance between the reader and your son. How much did the idea of an adult or teenaged Jacob reading this book influence your writing?

Dani Shapiro: The idea of an adult or teenaged Jacob reading any of my books always influences my writing. I’m very aware of that right now, he’s still quite young, and he enjoys seeing his name in print. In fact, whenever I do radio or television interviews, he gets mad at me if I don’t mention him by name. But that may not always be the case, and I am sensitive to that. It’s a strange thing, being the child of writers — he gets this from both ends, since my husband Michael is a screenwriter — and I would never want him to feel that he doesn’t have a private life. That said, Jacob is indeed the beating heart of Devotion, and I wouldn’t, couldn’t, have written the book without telling the story of his childhood illness and recovery, and my own responses as they related to my anxiety and the emergence of a spiritual hunger.

Your book speaks to the universality of our existential struggle. Do you think there’s a bias that an affluent, educated, white woman lacks the bona fides to speak of suffering and struggle?

Without a doubt there is a bias! There’s not much I can do about that, since I am an educated, white woman who comes from a certain degree of privilege — but certainly I have had genuine suffering and struggle in my life. No one is exempt from suffering. No one. I remember learning about the eight vicissitudes — a Buddhist concept — from the great teacher Sharon Salzberg, and they are as follows: pain and pleasure, gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame. All lives contain all of these, so goes the teaching.

You wrote, “I had reached the middle of my life and knew less than I ever had before…” Do you think it is only at middle age that we become capable of seeing how finite and vulnerable we are?

I think there are younger people with a heightened awareness of the fragility of life, and middle aged and older people who don’t think about it at all — who avoid thinking about it at all costs, or don’t see the point. But I do think that midlife is when it rears its head for a lot of people. Jung’s phrase, “the afternoon of life” stood out for me when I first read it. “Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life.”

What most changed for you in the writing and completing of this book?

I completed the book, but the journey continues. In delving as deeply as I did, I committed myself to a path of inquiry that now feels essential to me. I felt bereft when I finished writing Devotion, because I just wanted to keep writing it. In fact, on my blog I’ve continued the practice of writing about spiritual life by taking up where Devotion leaves off, with #103, #104… I hope to continue the process. Developing and maintaining a relationship to my spiritual life has been transformational for me. I didn’t embark on this to write a book — the book grew out of it. And it would be foolhardy to think that just because I have written a book about it, I’m done with the inquiry.

Devotion is so personal, so honest; were you worried about sharing such intimate material and having your work judged differently because of it?

If I had thought about that, I never would have been able to write the book. Certainly personal non-fiction is judged differently from fiction. The writer herself is on the line. But that goes with the territory, and to worry about it too much is to create the worst kind of self-censorship.

Judaism is the one religion you can’t quit. One can be a Jack Mormon, an ex-Catholic, but no one stops being a Jew. Did you ever feel saddled with this identity in your quest?

I didn’t feel saddled with my Judaism. What I felt — and these are Sylvia Boorstein’s words — was complicated by it. We are all complicated by where we come from. Someone once asked Sylvia why she complicates her Buddhism with her Judaism, and that was her answer: “Because I am complicated with it.” I could no more reject my Judaism than reject being female, or being a mother, or a wife, or a writer, or any of the things that most define me. What I wanted to do was to work with it. To understand how the religion and culture I was born into could be a part of my spiritual path in a relevant and authentic way.

Before having a child, what sort of spiritual/religious life had you and Michael imagined for your family?

Michael and I spent zero time thinking about what kind of spiritual life our family would have. We were just busy living our lives, and while we were both “culturally” Jewish — in that bagels-and-lox kind of way — we didn’t give much thought to how we were going to raise our children. It wasn’t until Jacob’s impending birth, when we knew we were having a boy, and there was no question in our minds that Jacob would have a bris, that we started to think about what it all meant, why we were doing what we were doing. Suddenly there was the need for that kind of inquiry. How were we going to raise him? How important was our Jewish identity to us? But honestly, after the bris, we opted out of thinking about any of that — again, just busy leading our lives — until he was four or five years old, and started asking spiritual questions. That coincided with our having moved to Northwestern Connecticut, which wasn’t exactly the land of the Jews — and I realized that if we didn’t do something, Jacob would grow up with nothing. And nothing wasn’t acceptable to me any more. I wanted to give my son a sense of his heritage. I knew I owed him that.

How has your searching served your family? What would you most hope to give Jacob for his own spiritual life?

I love this question. Comfort, perspective, solace, truth seeking, something to grasp onto in the middle of the night. It truly doesn’t matter to me what it is — I just want him to have a place inside of himself to go in moments of intense emotion. A bedrock, of sorts.

You write about the role silence plays in creating space for spiritual exploration. How do you think technology affects our spiritual lives?

Oh, I think it’s much harder these days to be alone with our thoughts. There’s always a way to connect — the cell phone, Facebook, Twitter… I fall prey to this myself, constantly. I have been trying to create practices in my life that give me a little distance from the constant hum. For instance, I don’t go on my computer in the morning at all, until after Jacob has left for school. I began to realize how divided my attention was, if the first thing I did in the morning was check email. Then, there was no way for me to be fully present. I’d be packing his lunchbox, but my mind would be miles away. I really try, these days, to be present fully for whatever it is I’m doing. The chatter of technology exerts a gravitational pull.

You describe a brief time in New York, just after 9/11, when people looked at each other with “a recognition…a shared intimacy.” Michael told you this happens in war zones. Would you say there is a similar recognition at a powerful meditation retreat? Each, in its own way is a time of great vulnerability. “We had been through something together, even if we never exchanged a word.”

That’s a lovely parallel. And yes, I do think there’s something about the power of shared experience, whatever the experience. It creates a connection.