Rest and Restlessness, Faith and How to Live a Meaningful Life: Book Readings & Discussion
Tuesday, May 25 | 7:00PM | 88th Street Sanctuary
Join us as for a spirited conversation between Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion: A Memoir, a spiritual detective story about her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, yoga retreats and her quest to find peace in a chaotic world, and Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, a blend of memoir, philosophy and analysis, as they discuss their lives and values. Moderated by Sandee Brawarsky, book critic of The Jewish Week and editor of Text/Context. The program will be followed by a reception and book signing. Free; R.S.V.P. required to Guy.
B’nai Jeshurun • Synagogue: 257 West 88th Street (between Broadway and West End Avenue)
Office: 2109 Broadway – Suite 203 • New York, NY 10023-2106 • Tel: 212-787-7600 • Fax: 212-496-7600
This weekend I was in Los Angeles for a very quick trip to speak at the LA Times Festival of Books as well as an amazing synagogue/drug and alcohol rehab center called Beit T’Shuvah. I did three events in the span of twenty four hours. I’m not much of a traveler, and though I enjoy speaking I always get nervous before I speak. How was I going to manage to stay centered while on this whirlwind? Particularly while on this whirlwind to talk about Devotion, my book about…well, among other things, about learning how to stay centered?
I packed my yoga mat. I have packed my yoga mat in the past, and it has remained folded up in my suitcase, taking up space. This time, I unrolled my mat each morning and–awake at an ungodly early hour because of jet lag–did an hour long yoga practice that entirely changed my mood, my energy level, my ability to perform at my best. While I was practicing, the second morning, I found myself thinking about alignment. I was in Warrior Two pose, a pose which often gets me thinking about balance. I could hear various teachers’ voice in my head: don’t lean into the future, don’t fall back into the past. I meditated on the idea of just being right here, right now. Aligned. Balanced in the present.
I stopped thinking about what I was going to say that afternoon. Or about what might be happening back home. Or my schedule for the following week, or whether I had my boarding pass for the flight back to New York, or what on earth to wear to give a speech at a synagogue/drug rehab. Instead, I breathed. In, two, three four five. Out, two, three, four, five. I focused on where I was: my friend’s college-age son’s bedroom in the hills of Brentwood. Basketball trophies, high school yearbooks, trees outside the windows. I opened the French doors to the patio. Birds chirping. Sounds of rustling leaves. And suddenly–blissfully–I was in the present. Aligned with myself. Me, reintroduced to me. Ready to face the day.
A line from Devotion keeps running through my mind. I had reached the middle of my life, and knew less than I ever had before. What is it about this passage into midlife that leaves me–that leaves so many of us–feeling like we have more questions than answers? I question virtually every decision I make–particularly when it comes to motherhood. My own mother never doubted herself, I’m quite sure–or if she did, she kept her doubts to herself. Never once in my life (this is no exaggeration) did I ever hear her say the words I’m sorry. I say I’m sorry to Jacob all the time. I’m sorry for yelling. I’m sorry I said I would come “in a sec” when it has indeed been an hour. I’m sorry we ran out of the thin sandwich bread/vitamins/frozen edamame. Sorry is my middle name as a mother–as is a constant attempt, a striving, to do better. Sometimes this doing better takes the form of being a tough-ass. Of saying no. No, you can’t play video games on a school night. No, you can’t eat that chocolate bar five minutes before dinner. At these times, I watch my eleven year old stomp off in a tween-ish fit of pique, and remind myself that part of being the grownup, part of being the parent, sometimes involves being unpopular. I am making mistakes–daily, I make mistakes. No doubt about that. Worse still, I don’t always know I’ve made mistakes, and things I think I’m doing right may turn out, some day, to be the very reasons he’s on some therapist’s couch.
Last night, we went to bed mad. I hate going to bed mad, but it wasn’t going to get any better.
Me: We let you play with your new DS on a school night until 9:20. Now it’s time to go to sleep.
Him: You made me stop in the middle of an inning!
Me: Maybe we shouldn’t have let you play at all.
Him: Grownups get to do whatever they want to do. You can go to bed whenever you want. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want.
Me (aggrieved): No. No we don’t.
Him: It looks that way to me.
I know that it looks that way to him. It looked that way to me, too, at that age. He doesn’t need to know that his mom feels like she doesn’t know much. That she questions herself on an hourly basis. That she hopes and prays for the strength and the clarity to get it right, at least some of the time. In a way, Sylvia’s recent advice — this is what you know now — is a companion piece to that line from Devotion: I had reached the middle of my life and knew less than I ever had before. Perhaps accepting the limits of what we know also allows for the understanding that much more will be revealed.
I miss writing my book. Oh, how I miss writing my book! Because while I was writing Devotion I woke up every morning with a very clear purpose, which was to delve as deeply into spiritual questions as my own personal, intellectual and emotional limits would allow. Each day, after sending Michael off to the office and Jacob off to school, I would settle into the quiet of my house. I would hear the ticking of the clocks, the rustling and thumping of the dogs. I would unroll my yoga mat, or spend an hour reading Thoreau, or Heschel, or Merton, or B.K.S. Iyengar. I was highly sensitized to my environment, and each thought, each action, like beads on a string, led from one to the next, all of them useful–purposeful. I had a job to do, and that job was to think and read and write, and think some more.
Now, I have another job to do, and that is the job of having written the book–rather than writing it. The job of connecting with readers, with the incredible people I’ve met in the least couple of months, who come to my readings and events, who write to me daily, who tell me their stories. My job is to nurture my book, out there in the world, not simply to turn my back on it and hope that it finds its own way–which feels about as responsible as the mother who leaves her toddler in the car as she races into the supermarket. No. I need to hold my book gently by the hand and walk it down the road. In the next few months I have dozens of events to do — the public part of a writing life — though opposite and often in conflict with the private part, the place where the work actually comes from. The other day, I wrote on my Moments of Being blog about my least favorite question these days being what are you working on? One of the reasons this question rankles right now is that the answer is nothing. I’m working on nothing, if you mean setting pen to paper. I’m on planes, trains and automobiles, I’m speaking publicly, which is not my natural habitat, even though I quite enjoy it. I know, I know, it’s work too–but not what I think of when I think of being a writer.
Sylvia Boorstein recently said the following to me, regarding having written Devotion: This is what you know now. Meaning, what I know now is (hopefully) less than I will know tomorrow, and more than I knew last week, month, year. All we know is what we know now. And so, what I know now, about a writing life, is that it is made up of parts. The silence, the movement. The days the words flow, the frustration when they don’t. The elation, the disappointment. The absorption, the distraction. Come to think of it, this is much like Buddhism’s eight vicissitudes: pleasure/pain, gain/loss, praise/blame, fame/disrepute. Why should we–why should I–expect otherwise?
Each year, for the past four years, I have traveled with my family to Positano, a small village on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, where Michael and I run a writers’ conference. We fly to Naples, then drive an hour south, along narrow, winding roads, hairpin turns, one way streets until finally we arrive at our friends’ hotel. We’re shown to our room, and are drawn immediately to the windows. We open the shuttered doors to our terrace, and are greeted with this:
And instantly, I start fighting the feeling–you know that feeling–of the ticking clock. We are only here ten days, a small voice whispers. Ten days! A long time, but already the minutes are slipping away. As I wrote in Devotion, I am longing for the moment I’m in, even as I’m in it. I see this quality in Jacob as well. He is aware of time passing, moving into the future, and too often missing the present. Each day, since arriving here, I have unrolled my yoga mat and moved through an hour’s practice. Be here, I remind myself. I sit cross-legged on the floor and breathe in. I am breathing in. Breathe out. I am breathing out. Right now, the sound of a guitar amplified in the distance. The water is still. A dog barks. The students–thirty of them, from all over the States–are arriving to this same view, this gathering of writers. Some of my favorite people are here, and some new friends as well. The time will pass, but the moment is here–and there really is only one way to live it: right now.
I have been fighting the urge, lately, when asked how I’m doing, to use words like “overwhelmed” or “busy” or “crazed”–even though those are familiar feelings. I’ve been on book tour for a month, and I have learned that anything is possible if, as they say in Twelve Step programs, I take it a day at a time. I don’t need to think about what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or next month–or even in the next hour. If I do what is in front of me, if I focus on it, if I stay in the moment, then the rest of it falls away, and I am no longer overwhelmed, or busy, or crazed.
It so clearly all comes down to mindfulness. To living in the moment, which is perhaps our greatest challenge in life. When I am fully engaged in the moment, the moment expands infinitely. When I am just here, right now, and nowhere else, there is a joy and an aliveness in that–no matter what is going on. In yoga–in a pose called Warrior Two, or Virabhadrasana–it is possible to feel the physical manifestation of this. If I become aware that I am leaning a bit forward (into the future) or backward (into the past) there is the possibility of correcting this, and moving toward proper alignment. Straight up and down, balanced between future and past–right here, only here, in the infinite present.
One of “O” The Oprah Magazine’s must-read picks for February
One of The Today Show’s best books of the Winter.
“Brave, compelling, unexpectedly witty…a stunningly intimate journey. Thanks to Shapiro’s excruciatingly honest self-examination and crystal clear, lyrical writing… the journey is indeed the reward.”
(Four Stars, People Pick)
The Book Trailer for Devotion
What makes Devotion most compelling is its willingness to explore the elusiveness of certainty.
“I was immensely moved by this elegant book, which reminded me all over again that all of us – at some point or another – must buck up our courage and face down the big spiritual questions of life, death, love, loss and surrender. Dani Shapiro probes all those questions gracefully and honestly, avoiding overly simple conclusions, while steadfastly exploring her own complicated relationship to faith and doubt.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert , author of Eat, Pray, Love
I’ve begun to realize that maintaining a spiritual life is a bit like sticking to an exercise regime. Use it or lose it, as they say. The muscles atrophy quickly — though they also retain their memory. It is a paradox of my current life that as I am on the road promoting Devotion, it is hard to find the time — the hour or two or three a day — to maintain the practices I learned and developed during the years spent writing the book. These are practices I fully intend to maintain for the rest of my life — but how to reconcile a fast-pace, overfull life with the rigors of silence and contemplation? Most days, as I prepare for appearances, or travel, I don’t have ninety minutes to do yoga, or a half hour to sit in silent meditation. So what is to be done?
Some of the wisest people around me have suggested that everything is an opportunity to practice. Everything. When I am helping my son with his homework, that is a practice. When I’m stocking up the kitchen cupboards because I’m going to be away for a week, that is a practice. When I’m responding to the beautiful letters I receive every day about Devotion, that is a practice. Recently I was walking down the street in New York City, and I was in a grumpy mood. I began, quite unexpectedly to do a walking Metta meditation. May you be safe, I silently said to the man in the suit walking towards me. May you be happy, to the glamorous woman talking on her cell phone. May you be strong, to the elderly woman. May you live with ease, to the construction worker in the hard hat. Suddenly, walking down the street was a practice. And me? I was no longer grumpy.