Devotion is a paean to those who no longer embrace the doctrines of their ancestors, but find themselves incapable of discarding them and replacing them with something "new". Sound familiar? The knowledge of what the old beliefs sustained and made possible is powerful, and the role they played will not die. In Ms. Shapiro's case, those images were Jewish, but they could belong to any of the great traditions and some not so great.
Born and raised in the all encompassing envelope of Orthodox Judaism, watching her father begin his day with the prayers and rituals of that community, Ms. Shapiro portrays herself as a person on a life long search for answers to questions she fears may never be fully answered. She basically reconciles herself to that past during the course of the book in front of the readers' eyes. It is a harrowing and exemplary journey.
She never mentions the debacle in human history that almost led to the demise of what she deems precious. It is perhaps a kind omission, leaving behind the cruelties that place all of organized religion on the block of a more enlightened and retrospective consciousness. The question: how did it happen? is not asked. That may be the greatest form of forgiveness--the acceptance that we do not know everything and are better off working on ourselves and finding our own peace without proselytizing.
Instead, she begs the question: Is the fate of the writer to have their own faith? She declares herself an outsider, a sojourner, initiated in the traditions of the 12 Steps, Yoga, Buddhism, the consciousness raising of the "new age," and an education that clearly took her a long way from the settlements in Eastern Europe from which her people came. Hers is not the structured, ritualized life of her extended family and yet she endures, adding on rather than taking away--forming her own answers in her own way in spite of all the suffering that has been thrown at her.
I especially enjoyed how she avoids many of the cliches of contemporary narrative and its insistent reductionism into psychologizing. Instead of portraying her mother as an unabashed narcissist, for which there is substantial evidence, she is simply descriptive, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. What else can be said of a therapist who "was only able to talk about themselves." And whose high profile "therapist" in turn was more concerned about her looks?
It is startling and revelatory when someone has the courage to reveal so much about themselves in a memoir--though we know--as Twain taught that autobiography is necessarily a lie--it is a matter of how much we can see before the lies begin that makes a difference. The French philosopher Jacques Lacan said "We are always limited by imperfect knowledge of ourselves." It is humbling and common sense to know we are "as sick as our secrets," and the person supposedly without secrets is the one we have to worry about.
A book can't end human suffering nor can a practice despite how faithfully it is carried out. As the Buddha said, suffering is endemic to the species. (No, those are not his exact words, I made them up like everybody else for the last 2,500 years.) But a story can provide comfort when told with precision and thoroughness. It is fun to see the truths and platitudes of the West and the East so well embedded in a personal narrative and no easy feat to stay out of the way for so long.
Dani Shapiro's book made me think that gratitude is hard even if we know it's a curative for suffering. She often repeats the expression that it is important to surround ourselves with the right people. Yes, we have to do it alone, but there is help if we reach out for it. The message is clear.
If it is true, and we are all the Buddha, the only difference is that some realize it and some do not. We wake in the morning to the same possibility and make our decisions to create not only our own life but what all lives can be. This is the conversation Devotion contributes too--the greatest conversation of all.