Asking Yourself the Great Questions: A Conversation with Dani Shapiro
Dani Shapiro is the best-selling author of five memoirs, Inheritance, Hourglass, Still Writing, Devotion, and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has been published in the New Yorker, Salon, n+1, Tin House, and Elle, and she has appeared on Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday. A regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler, Dani is a sought-after speaker who teaches writing workshops around the world.
1440: You spent recent time at 1440 co-teaching a workshop about the joys of midlife. What does 50 look like for you?
Dani Shapiro: There’s a tremendous liberation in caring a whole lot less what people think. I would say that is one of the great gifts of midlife. I don’t feel anymore that everybody has to like me or that I have to please everybody. In fact, if I even try to please everybody then what I’m actually doing is diminishing myself. Midlife brings with it an embracing of my own specificity and an understanding of it too.
Fifty is a moment of having, hopefully, a lot of time left in the world but not a lot of time to waste.
I think I’m more discerning about how I spend my time. I want to have fun. I want to have meaningful conversations. I want to have meaningful connections with the people in my life. It’s a moment of asking myself those great questions all over again: How shall I live? How do I want to live?
The infinity of time—like the horizon—is different now, and I think that does something. It exerts a kind of really good pressure to make days count, to make time count.
1440: What most excites you about midlife?
Dani Shapiro: I think what feels exciting is my relationship to my own power—it’s almost hard to say that—but it is true. Stepping into the fullness of myself, embracing that, not feeling apologetic for it. That feels really exciting to me because it feels like so much can happen out of that place.
1440: A central theme in your book Devotion is the interplay between the cultural identity you were born with (Orthodox Jewish) and the spiritual quest (via yoga and meditation) you initiated as an adult. How and where do these influences collide in your self-understanding?
Dani Shapiro: It has definitely been a journey for me. The impetus for Devotion arose when my son was little and would ask me some of the big spiritual questions. I was taken aback at the awareness that I had really opted out of thinking about all that in my adult life until that point.
I wanted to live inside of spiritual questions, yet I didn’t know how.
I was raised with so many conflicting and complicated messages about religion. My father was religious, and my mother was not religious but agreed to become religious, which is its own kind of complicated surrender. That got in the way of me integrating aspects of my Jewish heritage because it felt to me like the only choice was the super-intense observant mode of my father and anything else was watered down and didn’t count.
It left me between a rock and a hard place. I didn’t have any interest in observing God the way that I’d been raised. Nor did I feel like the language of those prayers resonated with me.
As I wrote Devotion, I spent my days reading great wisdom and practicing yoga and meditating for hours. I wanted to do that for the rest of my life. But it was very clear to me that the book, as a literary endeavor, needed to end. I was then faced with how to continue to evolve in the ways that I was growing.
1440: Your writing reveals a strong appetite for ritual. How has ritual played a role in weaving together your spiritual fabric?
Dani Shapiro: One of the very first things I do when I meditate every day is offer up a prayer. It is a Hebrew word. But then it morphs into a mantra by the end of the twenty minutes. I don’t feel a sense of judgment about that anymore.
I don’t regard the blending as spiritual-lite.
I let it be what it is.
As my son approached the age when he would become a bar mitzvah, I didn’t know what to do about that. I kept trying to figure it out. Everywhere I went in search of religious community, I felt like I didn’t belong. And then finally one day (and I don’t think this ever would have come to me had I not written Devotion) I thought, “Well, you can keep on moaning and groaning about how it doesn’t exist, or you can build it because it doesn’t exist.”
It felt important to me for Jacob to go through that ritual, and yet I had so much resistance to it and a feeling of, “Oh my God, this is overwhelming to me.” And then one day I reached out to a rabbi friend and asked, “Do you happen to know anybody who may be a rabbi who could come to my house once a month or so if I brought together kids who were interested in learning?”
And she said, “Well, yeah, my wife Suri is a rabbi, and she was a middle school drama teacher, and she really knows how to deal with young people.” Long story short, once a month for a couple of years this group of people would gather in my home.
Suri made the material and the experience very alive for the kids.
And when my son did eventually achieve that rite of passage, we did it in the local meeting house on the village green in my little New England town. A priest friend read a Coleridge poem. Another friend read a Hannah Arendt poem.
I played the piano. Jacob played the ukulele. Everybody sang Leonard Cohen.
And Jacob read his portion of the Torah with absolute rigor.
It was deeply eclectic but not one single thing was not intentional. We made our own prayer book and Jacob wore my father’s tallit. None of my religious relatives came. They couldn’t possibly have come, it was against their beliefs. But my aunt sent me a pair of tallit clips for Jacob that were my grandfather’s. I gave a talk, and I basically brought it all into the room. It was one of the happiest days of my life.