When we meet Elizabeth Gilbert on the first page of Eat, Pray, Love, it's three in the morning, and she's on the bathroom floor of her country house, sobbing. And not for any obvious reason. Career, marriage, health --- she's got it all.
When we meet Dani Shapiro on the first page of Devotion, she's been "waking up in a cold sweat nearly every night, my heart pounding. I paced my house, worried about ...well, about everything."
Like some of you, I am sick to death of the marketing of Elizabeth Gilbert. And, like many of you, I often find myself waking up in the middle of the night, terrified for my child, our country, our planet. So after a page of Dani Shapiro's book, I don't think you can fault my lack of sympathy for this happily married mother with seven books to her credit.
Okay, lady, I think, what's your problem?
Dani Shapiro reveals her issue as a story.
She's doing "Master Level Energy Work" with a woman named Sandra when Sandra asks, "Are you feeling...pushed?"
Just so. "I often felt a sense of tremendous urgency, as if there was a whip at my back. I was fleeing something --- but what?"
"It's your father," Sandra says. "Your father apologizes."
What's happening here defies everything Dani believes, "but I had entered a place beyond belief."
So Dani tells Sandra about her father, who died when she was young: "Everything I am --- everything I've become since that day --- is because of him. Because I had to make his death mean something."
"Your father is asking if you want him to stay," Sandra says.
"Yes," Dani says, weeping. And, so, on page four, was I, because Dani's situation is very close to that of a woman I know well, and suddenly I could see exactly where this memoir was headed, and that my reading of it would be painful, but at the end, I would find "Devotion" to be the one book that anyone over, say, 35, needs to read right now.
I met Dani Shapiro once. She was so blonde I assumed she had been born Dani Wasp and had married a man named Shapiro. Not so. Her father was an old school Orthodox Jew. Her mother, however, was "a brilliant atheist." The mix canceled religion out for Dani: "I had reached the middle of my life and knew less than I ever had before."
Nothing was the matter --- but she often felt "on the verge of tears." She felt her life speeding by, "mired in domesticity," and she wanted to slow it down and find some meaning. She had a glimpse of how that might feel by doing yoga, but those classes merely scratched the surface. She needed a deeper dive.
My antennae go up again. Oh, I think, this is the philosophical version of The Happiness Project. And, again, I come to see I'm wrong; this is a writer's book, artfully constructed. Shapiro doesn't hit the reader over the head with the fact that her son was born with a condition that kills 85% of its victims. Or that her mother was an unhappy, competitive bitch who basically hated her. Or how her post 9/11 move from Brooklyn to rural Connecticut has brought some calm, but at a high price: the recognition of "a deep well of loneliness."
Daily life is one practice. Work with teachers --- a Buddhist, a rabbi, yoga instructors --- is another. The effect of the two as they blend? Shapiro is pushed back into the memory of her family and its traditions, she's freshly curious about Judaism.
I am a lapsed Jew. I fought her here. But I could not deny that her teachers were very wise. (I also know this from personal experience. A decade ago, I had lunch with one of her guides, Sylvia Bornstein, when she was on tour promoting her new book. Ten minutes in, she said, "Something is going on with you," and for the next hour, she held my heart in her hand as I told her about my cratering marriage and seemingly inevitable divorce.) And I couldn't disagree with her conclusion about middle age: "Midlife was a bitch, and my educated guess was that it only got steeper from here."
It may not seem like much to you --- especially if a handy therapist has convinced you that your unhappiness is a "problem" and medicated you against it --- but Dani Shapiro comes to accept that sadness is an integral part of life. She gets that we will lose everything we love. She grasps that "there is value in simply standing there whether the sun is shining, or the wind whipping all around."
Yeah, but does she find an answer? Does her life have meaning? Is there something an intelligent person can believe?
I could tell you the answers she finds. But I promise you: they won't mean much to you unless you read her 243 pages, and live her struggle with her, and --- because how can you not? --- see your own at the same time.