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Do you know how sometimes the perfect quote comes along at just the moment you need to read it? This happened to me last week when I opened an email from a friend who shared a piece of wisdom from the Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bikkhu:

“Do what you can to help the living, and dedicate the merit of your practice to the dead. We may be powerless to change the past, but we do have the power to shape the present and the future by what we do, moment to moment, right now.”

The words stopped me. Especially as they found their way to me during the Days of Awe, as the ten-day span between the Jewish High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known. Though I am not an observant Jew, I was raised observant and find the Days of Awe to be a contemplative time, an emotionally raw time, whether I like it or not.

It is the time of year when I miss my father most.

Dedicate the merit of your practice to the dead.

My father died when I was twenty-three. His death was horrific and sudden, as the result of a car accident that nearly took my mother’s life as well. I was a mess of a girl, lost in a haze of stupid, stupid choices, and the moment of my parents’ car crash became a point of demarcation, as if a line had been drawn down the center of my life as I knew it.

Sink or swim.
Live or die.
Succumb to dismay or forge a new path.

Since that time, before I even knew what I was doing, I dedicated my practice to the merit of the dead. Before I even had a practice, I began to dedicate my life to the act of making meaning out of whatever came my way.

We have the power to shape the present and future by what we do moment to moment.

Even though my father was no longer around to see me make better choices and turn myself from a lost and pathetic girl into a caring, responsible, and accomplished woman, I did it for him. Moment to moment. One small action linked to the next. He has been gone more than half my life now, but he has shaped me. He didn’t have to still be living in order to become my moral compass. He guided me until I was able to begin to guide myself.

I do have practices now. I practice yoga. I practice mindfulness. I practice loving-kindness. I practice motherhood. Friendship. I practice writing. I practice embracing everything I experience because I can. Just for today, we are here. We are alive. And with that aliveness comes a profound responsibility to do what we can. To make meaning and beauty out of what is.


Dani Shapiro’s most recent books include the bestselling memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion and the novels Black & White and Family History. She teaches writing workshops nationally and internationally. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, O The Oprah Magazine, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications, and have been broadcast on NPR’s “This American Life.” She lives with her family in Connecticut. You can also follow Dani on Twitter and Facebook.

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