You’re getting a two-fer with today’s review, mainly because these books are so connected (and yet, not) and because I read them back to back.
Dani Shapiro has been on my want-to-read list for awhile. She shows up regularly on lists of recommended memoirs and we have slightly more than a baker’s dozen of writing friends in common via Facebook.
I wasn’t sure how to approach Devotion (2010) and Slow Motion (1998), both memoirs. Do I read them chronologically? In the order that they were due back at the library? For whatever reason, Devotion was calling out to me. I’ve become more cognizant of how books choose us at the right time and perhaps for reasons we might not realize (I know that sounds kind of woo-woo and whatever, but I’ve seen this happen in my literary life more times than not). Devotion it was.
Of the two, Devotion turned out to be the book that I related to most closely. In it, Dani is a mother and happily married wife in her mid-40s and struggling to understand the “what’s the meaning of it all?” questions that tend to swaddle us when we hit midlife.
“It wasn’t getting easier because it isn’t supposed to get easier. Midlife was a bitch, and my educated guess was that the climb only got steeper from here. Carl Jung put it perfectly: “Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life,” he wrote. “Worse still, we take this step with the false assumption that our truths and ideals will serve us as hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will by evening have become a lie.” (pg. 182)
As Dani reflects on her son’s rare illness (he had infantile seizures) and the horrific car accident that took the life of her father and left her mother with extensive injuries, Dani writes about exploring aspects of meditation and Buddhism in a quest to find inner peace. combined with her childhood upbringing in an Orthodox Jewish home and how that influence fits with the person she’s grown up to be and come to believe.
“I believe that there is something connecting us … Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone. I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.…An animating presence.” (Devotion, pg. 205-206)
Connection is a strong theme throughout Devotion: connection to one’s faith (both in childhood and as an adult), connection to a place and the symbolism of home, connection to relatives we may have once been close with and now never see or talk to because of physical or emotional distance. Ms. Shapiro writes about getting into a cab in New York and discovering that her driver was a cousin she hadn’t had contact with in many years.
“We lapsed into silence. Small talk seemed out of the question. Our common ground was an empty landscape, littered with misunderstanding and loss that had nothing to do with either of us…I thought about my grandfather – buried along with his two sons in the Brooklyn cemetery – and wondered what he would make of his ten grandchildren, who had scattered far and wide, creating their own tribes like the children of Genesis. Some of us had prospered, and some of were struggling …My grandfather’s patriarchal spell did not extend itself into my generation. There was nothing keeping us together. Had it been inevitable that we lose track of one another? That our children would be strangers?” (pg. 62)
I completely get this. One of my mother’s cousins passed away last week. As I was explaining that branch of the family tree to my children and telling them stories of playing in Philadelphia rowhouse basements with my second cousins during long-ago family gatherings, I felt like I was talking about someone else’s life. I realized that they wouldn’t know these cousins – or the cousins’ kids – if they were playing in our own basement that very minute. Neither would I.
That’s nobody’s fault, of course. No blame cast. It’s the way things are, have been, always will be. My grandfather’s patriarchal spell did not extend itself into my generation.
Still, all kinds of hazy memories have risen to the surface in the past, begging additional questions.
“Why do we remember the particular things we do? Great pain certainly carves its own neurological path. But why random, ordinary moments? …. I knew what all of us were thinking. What would our children remember? The oldest among them – Jacob – was nine. What ordinary moments had imprinted themselves on him at this point? And what painful ones? …. Who the hell knew? It was all in there, conscious or unconscious. What rose to the surface – and why?” (pg. 132)
Great pain and its neurological path. In Dani’s story, it was her tumultuous relationship with a high-profile married lawyer (who also happened to be the stepfather of her college roommate) combined with the aftermath of a car crash that would take the life of her father and leave her mother with 80 broken bones and fractures.
We learn about the fatal crash and the love affair with “Lenny Klein” (an alias) in Devotion, but it is in Slow Motion - an immediate, less introspective memoir than Devotion – where we get the full backstory.
In that sense, Slow Motion serves its purpose. Because Devotion is so reflective and thoughtful and this one has a “just the facts” feel, I’m not sure I would have liked Slow Motion as a stand-alone read (and may not have even read Devotion). Dani comes across as unlikable in Slow Motion‘s pages as she describes her cocaine abuse and jet-setting trips on the Concorde with Lenny (who doesn’t seem to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever) and decision to drop out of college.
The takeaway for me of reading both memoirs back to back was seeing an individual’s growth from one era to another. Most of us have made a bad decision or two, and most of us are different people in our mid-40s than we were at age 20. (Sometimes.) From a literary perspective, it’s also interesting to see the evolution in Dani Shapiro’s writing from 1998 and 2010. In Devotion, it’s much more refined, poetic, and personal; Slow Motion is heavy, cathartic, brash.
‘I feel no connection to the kid I was,’ Michael suddenly said. I had never heard him say anything like this before. ‘I’m a completely different person.’
‘Me too,’ said our friend.
I understood feeling like a completely different person. I had been a late bloomer too, and when I thought back to my teenage self, my twenty-something self, I had a hard time understanding how I had gotten from there to here. But no connection? I looked at my friend across the table. I could still see the seventh grader I had once known, alive inside him. Could he see that in me? Was there – surely there must be – a through line connecting the disparate parts of ourselves? ….
Nope, no connection. Completely different person. I could see that it would be desirable, maybe even preferable, to disavow pieces of the past – all the uncomfortable, unexplainable, embarrassing bits. But I knew better. I had experienced my own memory as a living thing, a palpable presence in my body. I had felt my past unfurl inside me as if it had a mind of its own. These layers of ourselves are always there, waiting for the right moment to emerge. The cooking of an egg. An overheard argument. A walk in the woods. The black-necked cranes of Bhutan. A jumble, perhaps, but nothing is ever missing. Just hidden from view. (Devotion, pg. 132-134)