An Excerpt from Devotion: A Memoir
By Dani Shapiro
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woman named Sandra was cradling my head in her hands. We were
in a small room—just the two of us—and it was so quiet I could hear
the ticking of her watch. The air smelled faintly of eucalyptus.
A high window overlooked a parking lot, and beyond the parking lot,
mountains. I tried to relax—that was the point, wasn’t it?—
but I wasn’t relaxed at all. I had signed up for something called
Master Level Energy Work, thinking it would be like a massage.
But this was no massage. For one thing, she was sighing a lot.
some moments, she spoke. “I see some sort of teacher.
Do you have teachers in your life?”
A few people came to mind: a man in his seventies who had a shock of
white hair and wore baggy suits; another man, younger, with a closely-trimmed,
dark beard; a tiny, gray-haired woman, also in her seventies.
they assume a form? How do they appear to you?”
hadn’t realized talking would be involved. Had I known, I never
would have made the appointment. I wanted to lie still and be
silent; it was peace I was after. I had been waking up in a cold
sweat nearly every night, my heart pounding. I paced my house,
worried about…well, worried about everything.
teachers—” Sandra prodded.
sometimes we have coffee,” I said. “Or we exchange email.”
what do the forms look like? Do you see a light? Do they
She meant otherworldly teachers. Beneath my closed lids,
I rolled my eyes. This wasn’t going to work for me, this talk
of spirits. I started wondering how long I had been lying there,
and how much longer this process was going to take. Would she
be insulted if I got up and left? I was twitchy, impatient.
Disappointed, too. It was rare that I allowed myself such a self-indulgent,
not to mention expensive hour.
sighed again, a bit more loudly.
you feeling…pushed?” she asked. “Like someone’s pushing
you from behind?”
precise feeling had been plaguing me for as long as I could remember.
I said. “Exactly.”
was always racing. I couldn’t settle down. I mean, I was
settled down—I was happily married and the mother of an eight
year old boy. But I often felt a sense of tremendous urgency,
as if there was a whip at my back. I was fleeing something—but
hands on my neck began to tremble.
your father,” she said. “Your father is pushing you.”
I told her about my father? No. I thought about what she
might have gleaned from looking at me: blonde woman, mid-forties; wedding
band; tank watch; yoga clothes; a necklace dangling with two charms,
M and J. How could she have known that my father was dead?
Did I have a “tell,” like a poker player?
your father a religious man? A man of faith?”
said it as if she already knew the answer and was only waiting for my
confirmation. I was suddenly very alert.
he was very religious.”
you have a young son?”
do.” I mean, she had a fifty-fifty shot of getting that right.
The charm necklace was a giveaway that I probably had at least one child.
I relaxed a little.
trembling in Sandra’s hands grew more pronounced.
father apologizes. He’s a very gentle spirit.”
stillness settled over me, gauzy and soft. I wasn’t frightened,
not exactly. Sandra’s fingers were hot against my neck.
I pictured my father. His sweet round face. His kind, hazel-green
eyes behind rimless glasses. His easy smile. Hiya, darling!
I could summon his voice—always a bit louder than he meant it to be—as
surely as if I just heard it yesterday. How’s my girl?
father is trying to help you,” Sandra said. “That’s why
you feel pushed. He wants you to share with you what he believes.
He didn’t get a chance to—”
broke off. Another heaving sigh.
there anything you want to say to your father?”
tried to remember what Sandra looked like: around sixty, reddish hair,
a weathered face. Ordinary. Like she might be standing in
front of me on line at the supermarket, rather than behind me, her hands
on my skull. What was happening between us defied everything I
believed, but I had entered a place beyond belief. I was here
now. On the other side of logic. In a place that felt true,
if not quite real.
I miss him,” I said. My own voice sounded strange and far away.
I was weightless, tumbling. Tears began to leak from the corners
of my eyes. They soaked my hairline, but I didn’t move an inch.
Even if my father wasn’t in the room, it was the closest I had been
to him in twenty years.
died when I was young, and everything I am—everything I’ve become
since that day—is because of him. Because I had to make his
death mean something.”
moved her hands slightly to the left.
acknowledges that,” she said.
rocked my head from side to side.
father is asking you if you want him to stay.”
I was weeping now. My father didn’t live long enough to know
my husband or son. It was my greatest sorrow. “Yes, I
want him to stay.”
I had reached the middle of my life and knew
less than I ever had before. 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. All I knew was that I felt terribly anxious
and unsteady. Doomed.
Each morning I drove Jacob down a dirt road to his sweet, little school.
We all got yearly physicals. Our well water was tested for contaminants.
Nothing—absolutely nothing I could put my finger on—was that matter.
Except that I was often on the verge of tears. Except that it
seemed that there had to be more than this hodge-podge of the every
day. Inside each joy was a hard kernel of sadness, as if I was
always preparing myself for impending loss.
Beneath the normal routine of my life—the
school functions and lunch boxes and Little League games and family
dinners—all was churning, random, chaos. We’d had a close call when
Jacob was an infant—a scary time—but that was behind us now.
Wasn’t it? Still, I couldn’t stop thinking. What was
going to keep bad things from happening: a tree branch from falling,
an electrical wire from coming loose, a cluster of cells from mutating,
a speeding baseball from slamming into a small, vulnerable head? Was
there no pattern, no wisdom, no plan?
I had put off thinking about this, because it
seemed that there would always be time. Later, in a few years, I would
turn my attention to the big questions—once I had taken care of the
smaller ones. Except the smaller ones just kept coming. And gradually—though
it felt like a split second—I realized that I had reached the still
point at the very top of a curve. I’m not much for roller coasters,
but now I felt like I was on one. It had been so slow, going up. But
the ride from here on in was going to be impossibly fast. Had
I lived half my life? More? Sometimes I looked at Jacob’s lanky legs,
his growing-boy body slung across the sofa, and saw with aching clarity
that eight years had gone by since we’d swaddled him in his infant
seat and brought him home from the hospital. It all goes so quickly,
every parent says. Take in every single minute. This is always
offered as a piece of wistful advice, because of course it’s not possible
to take in every minute. It’s hard to take in even a single
I needed to place my faith in something.
I didn’t want our family’s life to speed by in a blur of meals,
schools, camps, barbecues, picnics, vacations—each indistinguishable
from the next. I wanted to slow it down—to find ways to infuse our
lives with greater depth and meaning. My own childhood had been spent
steeped in religious ritual. There were rules for eating, speaking,
sleeping, praying. I never knew why we did what we did—it was
simply the way it was. I had fled this at the earliest opportunity,
but replaced it with nothing. I wasn’t exactly a non-believer. Nor
was I a believer. Where did that leave me? Anxious, fearful, lonely,
resentful, depressed—troubled by a powerful and, some would say, deeply
irreverent sense of futility.
Most nights, when I stretched out next to Jacob
in his narrow bed with a few books balanced on my stomach, he had other
plans. He wanted to talk about what happens when we die. His questions
had been coming fast and furious. He wanted answers—his voice piercingly
clear and pure. “I don’t want to die,” he’d say. And then: “What
happens? Where do we go?”
“Well…” I played for time. “Some people
believe that we come back in another life. It’s called reincarnation.”
“You mean, I could come back as a dog?”
“No, I don’t think so. Probably not. Probably
as a person.”
I watched his delicate profile as he digested
“And other people believe there’s a heaven.
That we go to heaven when we die.”
I left hell out of it, since I was cherry-picking
“And other people think that the soul continues
to exist,” I went on, feeling his small, beating heart pressed against
my arm as he lay on his side. “That we stay alive when people remember
“Like Grandma?” he asked.
I fought back a wave of sorrow. My mother
had died when Jacob was four. He would have few memories of her.
And none of my father. None at all.
“Yes,” I answered. “Like Grandma. And your
Grandpa, too. I think about them every day.”
But when it came to a deeper response to
Jacob’s questions, I was failing him and I knew it. 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-sized 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 were 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—past my tremendous resistance
—and see what was there.
books weren’t enough. Maybe I needed to travel to some far-flung
place, though it didn’t feel very practical. Thoreau may have
lived in isolation, but I lived in Connecticut. I drove carpool, ordered
socks by the dozen from Land’s End, paid the mortgage, filed health
insurance claims, gave dinner parties, supported my local congressman.
I worried about bills, and was drowning in post-its: Michael, colonoscopy.
J—dentist! The lists fluttered everywhere. They were attached
to the edges of my desk, the pages of my appointment book, the kitchen
counter. I was mired in the domesticity that I loved—that same domesticity
that kept me on a treadmill from the first sounds of pounding feet in
the morning to the last hazy thought—we’re almost out of dog
food—that drifted through my mind before passing out at night.
Could I find and hold onto a deeper truth than the whir and strum of
my daily life that seemed designed to ensure that some day I would wake
up—after the years of packed lunches and piano practice and rushed
dinners— and wonder where it all had gone?
told myself that I could sort this out—right here, from the central
command station of my life. After all, what good would it do me if the
answers ended up being out there? I wasn’t out there! And what’s
more, I knew that anything I might learn by going away would disappear
in a flash, once I was back home, sorting the dry cleaning from the
laundry. I wasn’t in a shala, or a zendo, or a shrine, or temple.
I was here in my house—and I needed to figure out how to work with
what I had.
all, some of my greatest moments of clarity—those little eureka moments
of truth—had happened in unlikely places: wheeling a cart down a supermarket
aisle, driving along an empty stretch of highway, lying in bed next
to Jacob as he drifted off to sleep. And I knew from my yoga practice
that those insights are already fully-formed—they’re literally inside
our bodies, if only we know where to look. Yogis use a beautiful Sanskrit
word, samskara, to describe the knots of energy that are locked
in the hips, the heart, the jaw, the lungs. Each knot tells a story—a
narrative rich with emotional detail. Release a samskara and
you release that story. Release your stories, and suddenly there is
more room to breathe, to feel, to experience the world.
wanted to release my stories and find what was beneath them—I wanted
to work with the raw materials of my life—but I wasn’t sure how
to do it. I felt like I was sweeping these ideas and concerns, like
dust motes, into the corners of my days.
a.m.: school drop off.
- 11:30: magazine deadline.
-3:00: spiritual awakening.
more deep inquiry.
dinner on the table.
quickly realized—I needed help. A jump start. I needed company, fellow
sojourners. I needed teachers. And maybe this was where the shalas,
the zendos, the shrines and temples came in. But I had never been much
of a joiner. At the edges of any group—from the playgrounds of my
childhood to the cocktail parties of my adulthood—I always felt like
an outsider, my nose pressed to the glass. And anyway, where was I supposed
to go? And when? And who would take care of my family? They might go
naked, not-to-mention un-showered, and eventually starve to death without
my constant presence. And besides, I didn’t like groups. And I needed
a private bathroom. And I was afraid I’d be homesick. Did I say I’m
not much of a joiner?
most mornings—between the highly-evolved practice of checking the
Amazon sales ranking of my latest novel and lustfully tracking down
an unaffordable pair of stiletto-heeled Jimmy Choo boots— I found
myself on the website of Kripalu, a yoga and meditation center in the
Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. It was only a ninety minute
drive from my house. I studied Kripalu’s calendar for a retreat that
didn’t strike me as too scary. The Ecstasy of Sound: A Music and
Healing Workshop sounded way too woo-woo. As did The Masks of
the Goddess: Ritual, Theatre and Stories of the Sacred Feminine.
I was highly suspicious of…well, of everything. The smiling people
with their gray, kinky hair, loose yoga pants, Birkenstock sandals.
They looked like they had migrated directly from Woodstock. Who were
they? Could they possibly be as contented as they appeared to be? I
couldn’t imagine what it would be like to join them. I put up all
kinds of road blocks, conducting endless, loopy conversations with myself.
are you kidding? You can’t do this.
whatever me is, it isn’t working.
do you want?
I want more.
what you’re saying is—
not sure. But I want to go deeper.
then something would disrupt the train of thought. A UPS truck heading
up the driveway. The new puppy at the door, scratching to get out.
An urgent email from a student. A phone call from a fact-checker. And
the next thing I knew, I was back in the thick of it. My rich, busy,
over-full life—speeding by.
there signs in the universe? And if so, when did they occur—and why?
I had grown up fluent in the language of biblical metaphor: the snake
in the garden, the parting of the red sea, the burning bush. And more
recently, in adult life, the notion of signs had crept into many of
my conversations with my friends: I knew it was a sign that I should
quit my job. I knew that it was a sign that something was wrong.
How was anybody supposed to know when something was a sign and when
it was just a coincidence? Or maybe “signs” were merely a way of
vesting coincidences with meaning.
had never thought of God as a micro-manager. I didn’t think he was
up there sending secret signals to me and the nearly seven billion other
people who inhabit the planet. As far as I knew, he had never
gotten me a parking space. And so, to the degree that I gave credence
to signs at all, I didn’t think they were coming from God—at least
not in that man-with-a-white-beard-in-the-sky kind of way. So then,
what were these signs—if indeed, they existed? A person could make
herself crazy with this.
weather report is a sign that I shouldn’t drive into the city today.
into that editor is a sign that I should write for her magazine.
twinge in my side is a sign that I should make a doctor’s appointment.
I continued to mull over these ideas, I also continued to peruse Kripalu’s
website, trying to convince myself to go on a meditation retreat. I
did this in the same spirit as I might read a complicated and time-consuming
recipe for black forest cake. It was a nice, even inspired
idea, but when it came to actually doing it…well, it probably wasn’t
going to happen. It was too foreign, too daunting.
afternoon, during this time, a friend took me to a yoga class. It was
a strenuous class, and by the time we lay on our backs in final relaxation,
I was in a highly receptive state. Final relaxation—the Sanskrit word
is shavasana, or corpse pose—is considered by many to be the
most important pose in yoga. In shavasana—lying still, arms
and legs spread slightly apart, breath relaxed, palms facing upward,
eyes closed—everything slows down. The physical body is restored,
the mind released. I have often experienced a freedom from my
usually racing thoughts in shavasana, as well as a kind of openness.
A vulnerability to what is.
As we all lay quietly on our mats, the teacher read a passage from a
poem. Inside and outside her head, a billion, trillion stars,
beyond count, circled and exploded…Songs were heard in spheres within
spheres, electric, crackle, sharp. She heard nothing. How
could she, when not once had she even heard the sound of her own breathing?
words entered my consciousness like a simple, pure strain of music.
It seemed to me that, like the woman in the poem, I wasn’t hearing
my own breath. I was always either stuck in the past, or obsessing about
the future, while the present heaped its gifts on me, screaming for
attention. I wrote down the name of the poet, Duane Michaels,
and as soon as I got home, I looked him up on the internet, along with
the sound of her own breathing. I needed to get my hands on
that poem. I scrolled through the search results and stopped at
a reference to a book, Yoga and the Quest for the True Self by
a writer named Stephen Cope. Who was this Stephen Cope? I had
never heard of him. And besides, I owned too many yoga books that
I hadn’t read. Still, on a whim—there were more sensible,
not to mention less expensive ways to find the poem—I bought his book.
the book arrived, something about it seemed to call out to me.
Unlike the many books that I ordered from Amazon.com, that were driven
up our hill by the UPS truck and left in boxes on our porch, I started
to read this one as soon as I pulled it from its wrapping. How
can I explain this? It was as if the receptive state of shavasana
had propelled me to take one small action. Then another. And another.
I had stepped into a stream and was now being carried along by an unfamiliar,
powerful current. The book was ostensibly about yoga metaphysics.
A deadly subject—worthy of a spot at the far bottom of my pile—but
instead, I couldn’t stop turning the pages. A page-turner of yoga
metaphysics! I carried it with me everywhere, savoring it; I underlined
whole passages, scribbled asterisks and exclamation points in the margins.
brought the book with me, one early evening, as I drove an hour to a
fundraiser for a library in the northern part of my county. I had agreed
to participate in this literary event, even though it was the kind of
thing I often declined. The air was hot and muggy, and as a crowd began
to gather beneath a big tent, I regretted having agreed to come.
I made a mental note to be more careful with my time in the future.
One of the library volunteers led me over to a table where my books
were piled in front of me. I knew these events; guests at the
fundraiser would pick up my books, weigh them in their hands, ask me
if they were good reads. Then they would cross the grass to the other
side of the tent and buy a bestselling cookbook instead.
fanned myself with my program as the other author sharing the table
with me took a seat. He was an elegant man with a kind, chiseled face.
He had bright blue eyes, which he fixed on me with a smile. He
reached over to shake my hand.
Steve Cope,” he said.
right, turn left. Stay home that day. Take a different route.
Cross the street for no apparent reason. Say yes, say no.
Get up from the breakfast table, slip into the elevator just as the
doors are closing. Book the afternoon flight. Drive exactly
sixty-three miles per hour. Flip a coin. Call it coincidence,
luck, fate, destiny, randomness. Some would call it the hand of
God. I wasn’t sure what to call it. What I did know is
that this was a huge, blinking neon sign I couldn’t ignore or dismiss.
All these seemingly disconnected bits—a new yoga class, a teacher’s
particular selection of a poem, the wonders of Google and Amazon, an
impulsive one-click purchase, an agreement to participate in a local
charity event—all these formed a pattern, invisible to see.
Do this, a gentle voice seemed to be saying. Now this.
And now this. All of which had led me to be seated next to Stephen
Cope: author, yogi, scholar—and Director of the Institute for Extraordinary
Living at Kripalu.
These days, when I am in the middle of
my yoga practice—and if I allow it to happen—my jaw will begin to
shake violently. My teeth will chatter. My throat will open up, becoming
almost hollow, as if a scream is trying to escape. In the midst of my
peaceful, contented life, a wave crashes over me. As I lie on the floor,
folded into child’s pose, I try to stay with the physical sensation.
It’s hard, scary, completely out-of-control. Still, I try to let it
come—to welcome it, even. I know it has lessons to teach me. But what
if it doesn’t stop? What if the shaking and chattering go on and on,
and I turn into one of those people you see on the street, talking to
herself? There are stories inside of me, hardened into tight little
knots. Call them anything: Sanskrit samskaras, disturbances in
the field, sediment scraped from the depths. They are at the core of
all the other stories that are easier to tell. My father died sad.
My mother died angry. The family of my childhood has become dust.
sat on a meditation cushion near the back of a vast semi-circle of meditation
cushions, as close to the door as possible. A couple of hundred people
filled the great hall: old, young, thin, fat, in torn sweatshirts and
trendy velour. Lots of tattoos—mandalas, oms, colorful birds, indecipherable
Sanskrit words inscribed on biceps, ankles, sacrums. Bare feet
with overgrown, yellowed toenails, or perfect bright pink pedicures.
Most of the crowd looked like they had been to Kripalu—or to places
like Kripalu—many times before. I could spot the regulars, the ones
who were familiar with the floor plans of Esalen and Spirit Rock, for
whom retreat was more a noun than a verb. They were settled in,
comfortable; water bottles by their sides, special pens and pads for
what about me? Breathe. I felt like I had taken a
wrong turn, gotten off at the wrong exit. I should have been at
the Canyon Ranch Resort down the road, getting a hot stone massage.
I needed to relax—and spa treatments seemed a lot more relaxing than
sitting erect on a meditation cushion with hundreds of strangers.
But I wasn’t here to relax—at least not in that way. I needed
some space in my head. I was practically hyperventilating, taking in
sips of air as I waited for the morning program to start. Instead
of the world opening up to me, it had grown increasingly constricted.
The walls closing in.
morning program was about to begin. Two upholstered chairs were set
up at the front of the great hall, a table with two glasses and a bottle
of water between them. An easel stood next to the chairs, supporting
a large dry erase board, upon which a list was written.
studied the list. Couldn’t argue with any of that, really. I
needed greater doses of all of the above, but perhaps equanimity most
of all. It seemed, after eleven years of marriage, that I had
forgotten how to be on my own. I watched as Steve Cope—the only
reason I had made this trip— approached the front of the great hall
and settled into one of the chairs, then crossed his legs in lotus position.
He was joined by his co-leader of this three day workshop, Sylvia Boorstein,
a well-respected Buddhist teacher whose books, with titles like Don’t
Just Do Something, Sit There, and It’s Easier Than You Think
were featured downstairs in the Kripalu bookstore.
began by slowly gazing around the entire semi-circle. She seemed
to make eye contact with every single person in the room. She
was a diminutive woman, perhaps in her mid-seventies, with short gray
hair and an impish, dare I say Buddha-like face.
whole world is a lesson in what’s true,” she said. “Everyone
is struggling. Life is difficult for everybody. Once you’re
in, there’s no way out. You have to go forward. And we
all die in the end. So how to deal with it?”
words sliced through everything: through my racing mind, my rapid pulse,
my general state of agitation. That was it, wasn’t it?
In a few simple sentences she had addressed the essence of what I felt.
She knew about the roller coaster, the slow ascent, the rapid, downward
plunge. I was here. I had reached my life. I had built it
by decision and by accident—and there would be no other.
So how to deal with it? I fixed all of my attention Sylvia
Boorstein. I had come to Kripalu because of Steve Cope, but here was
a surprise in the form of this little Jewish grandmother. If she
could articulate the questions so succinctly, maybe she had some answers.
meditation,” she went on, “is a concentration practice. It’s
the protection formula that the Buddha taught the monks: one of being
able to depend on your own good heart. So—” she clasped her
hands together— “how do we do this? By tempering one’s own
heart and restoring it to balance. Metta is a practice of inclining
the mind in the direction of good will.”
then laid out for us her four favorite phrases—variations on the Buddha’s
original phrases—to chant silently during Metta:
I feel protected and safe
I feel contented and pleased
my physical body support me with strength
my life unfold smoothly with ease.
idea was to silently repeat the phrases again and again, at first focusing
on ourselves, but then eventually directing the phrases to others: our
closest teachers and benefactors; then our loved ones; our friends;
strangers; and eventually—after much practice—to those with whom
we have difficult relationships, or as it is known in Buddhist scripture,
paused, glancing at the large clock hanging on the back wall, behind
us. “Let’s sit for a few minutes.”
closed my eyes. A few minutes. What was Sylvia Boorstein’s
idea of a few minutes? But despite the difficulty of sitting still,
I felt myself slowing down. The phrases gave my over-active mind
a place to settle, a single point of concentration, a word at a time.
When I felt myself becoming distracted, I pulled myself back to the
repetition. Faces drifted pleasantly through my head: an old college
professor, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law, Michael, Jacob, a succession
of friends. As soon as I finished one round of phrases, another
person seemed to rise into my consciousness, as if waiting on line.
But after a little while, I became troubled by the question of prayer.
Was this a prayer? Who was it directed to? Was I petitioning
some almighty being? The God of my childhood asserted himself:
judging, withholding, all-knowing. In turn, the phrases themselves
became supplication, bargaining, appeasement. My mind was aswirl
once again and I could barely sit still. I wondered if it was
okay to get up to go to the bathroom, or whether I’d disturb everyone
and become the retreat pariah.
when I thought I couldn’t handle another second, Sylvia sounded a
gong, and people opened their eyes, stretched out. I looked around,
from my meditation cushion. Many appeared beatific, even glowing.
A middle-aged woman a few rows in front of me, with a wild mass of salt-and-pepper
hair and a leather ankle bracelet, was smiling as tears poured down
did you all experience?” Sylvia asked after a long pause. Her
voice was so familiar to me: lilting, slightly hoarse, street smart
and kind. A raised-in-Brooklyn-by-Yiddish-speaking-immigrant-parents
voice. She reminded me of my mentor, the writer Grace Paley, who
had recently died. No one had ever reminded me of Grace before.
raised my hand. This was so unlike me that I looked up at my own
hand as if it belonged to someone else. But I really did have
a question. It had been bubbling up inside me and was banging
against my ribcage, my pounding heart, demanding an answer.
Sylvia pointed. A cordless microphone was passed to me.
was raised in a very religious home,” I began, sounding shaky.
“And I’m confused about God. So I found it hard—I mean…to
whom are we speaking?”
tilted her head to the side. A smile played at her lips, as if
she had been expecting this question, and was delighted by it.
don’t think it has to be metaphysical,” she said. “It’s
the expression of a wish, really.”
wish. After the morning session ended, I wandered the halls
of Kripalu lost in thought. I barely registered the lunchtime
crowd of people carrying colorful trays piled high with bowls of salad
and grains. Wishing was something children did—wasn’t it?
I pictured Jacob’s face as he stood in front of a fountain, clutching
a penny (though of course nickels or quarters were far better) in his
fist. Or the way, on the banks of the Shepaug River, he had tossed
his bread during Tashlich. His expression serious, concentrated,
an adult, I had long-since given up on wishing. It seemed the
equivalent of sprinkling magic fairy dust. But really, what did
it mean to fervently, whole-heartedly name a desire? May you
feel protected and safe. To speak out of a deep yearning—to set
that yearning loose in the world. May you feel contented and
pleased. Could it a wish be a less fraught word for a prayer?
May your physical body support you with strength. Maybe it
wasn’t about who, if anyone, was on the other end, listening. Maybe
faith had to do with holding up one end of the dialogue.
May your life unfold smoothly, with ease.
Excerpted with permission from Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro. Copyright ©2010 by Dani Shapiro.
Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of Devotion. Other recent books include the novels Black & White, Family History, and the memoir Slow Motion. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Los Angeles Times, Granta, Vogue, Elle, Granta, and has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She has taught at Columbia, NYU, The New School, and Wesleyan, and is currently the founder and co-director of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. She lives with her family in Connecticut. For more information visit www.danishapiro.com.