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An Excerpt from Devotion: A Memoir
By Dani Shapiro

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A 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.           

After some moments, she spoke.  “I see some sort of teacher.  Do you have teachers in your life?”           

“Yes.”  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.           

“Do they assume a form?  How do they appear to you?”          

I 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.           

“Your teachers—”  Sandra prodded.          

“Well, sometimes we have coffee,” I said.  “Or we exchange email.”          

“But what do the forms look like?  Do you see a light?  Do they seem…spectral?”          

Ah.  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.            

She sighed again, a bit more loudly.          

“Are you feeling…pushed?” she asked.  “Like someone’s pushing you from behind?”          

That precise feeling had been plaguing me for as long as I could remember.           

“Yes,” I said.  “Exactly.”          

I 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 what?          

Her hands on my neck began to tremble.           

“It’s your father,” she said.  “Your father is pushing you.”          

Had 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?          

“Was your father a religious man?  A man of faith?”          

She said it as if she already knew the answer and was only waiting for my confirmation.  I was suddenly very alert.           

“Yes, he was very religious.”          

“And you have a young son?”          

“I 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.           

The trembling in Sandra’s hands grew more pronounced.          

“Your father apologizes.  He’s a very gentle spirit.”          

A 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?          

“Your 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—”          

She broke off.  Another heaving sigh.          

“Is there anything you want to say to your father?”          

I 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.          

“That 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.           

“He 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.”          

Sandra moved her hands slightly to the left.          

“He acknowledges that,” she said.           

She rocked my head from side to side.          

“Your father is asking you if you want him to stay.”          

“Yes.”  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 minute.              

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 this information.             

“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 anyway.             

“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 us.”             

“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.    


Maybe 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?          

I 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.          

After 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.          

I 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.          

8 a.m.: school drop off.          

9:30 - 11:30: magazine deadline.          

12:00 -3:00:  spiritual awakening.          

3:15: school pick-up.          

3:30-4:30: piano lesson.          

5-7: more deep inquiry.          

7:00: dinner on the table.          

No—I 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?  

Still, 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.          

Who are you kidding? You can’t do this.          

Why not?          

It isn’t you.          

Well, whatever me is, it isn’t working.          

What do you want?          

More. I want more.          

So what you’re saying is—          

I’m not sure. But I want to go deeper.          

Deeper into what?          

But 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. 


Were 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.          

I 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.          

The weather report is a sign that I shouldn’t drive into the city today.          

Running into that editor is a sign that I should write for her magazine.          

That twinge in my side is a sign that I should make a doctor’s appointment.          

As 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.           

One 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?           

The 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.           

When 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.          

I 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.          

I 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.          

“Hi, Steve Cope,” he said.          

Turn 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. 


I 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 taking notes.          

And 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.             

The 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.          

Metta: Lovingkindness          

Maitri:  Friendliness          

Karuna:  Compassion          

Mudita:  Sympathetic joy          

Upekkha:  Equanimity          

I 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.          

Sylvia 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.           

“The 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?”          

The 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.          

“Metta 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.”          

Sylvia then laid out for us her four favorite phrases—variations on the Buddha’s original phrases—to chant silently during Metta:          

May I feel protected and safe          

May I feel contented and pleased          

May my physical body support me with strength          

May my life unfold smoothly with ease.          

The 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, our enemies.           

Sylvia paused, glancing at the large clock hanging on the back wall, behind us.  “Let’s sit for a few minutes.”          

I 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.          

Just 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 her cheeks.          

“What 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.          

I 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.          

“Yes,” Sylvia pointed.  A cordless microphone was passed to me.          

“I 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?”          

Sylvia 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.          

“I don’t think it has to be metaphysical,” she said.  “It’s the expression of a wish, really.”          

A 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, intent.          

As 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.



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