I approached Claire Dederer's new memoir warily. Another unattainably exotic Elizabeth Gilbert-style voyage of self-discovery? Another exquisitely detailed report from inside the head of a flake whose friends think she's funny?
No, happily, not at all. Dederer, a freelance book critic and essayist (who has contributed to Newsday), is in fact the anti-Gilbert: far from eating, praying and loving her way to transcendence in picture-postcard settings, Dederer stays home and struggles toward a less glittering, more sustainable kind of happiness.
Heading each chapter with a pose-as-metaphor, she describes a journey from hippie childhood through hipster youth to organic-perfectionist wife- and motherhood that left her with shaking hands and a lurking dread that surfaced occasionally "like a giant manatee." She writes with a directness that is rarely less than compelling. And she's genuinely funny.
A decade ago, Dederer was struggling to match her milk supply to her infant daughter's voracious appetite when her back went out. "Do yoga," say her neighbors in North Seattle, a liberal enclave of attachment-parenting advocates. Feeling vaguely suspicious of "the notion of white people seeking transformation through the customs of brown-skinned people," she ventures into a yoga studio, hopeful that "somehow yoga was going to make me better."
Being better is a driving force in her world. "We were a generation of hollow-eyed women, chasing virtue," Dederer writes of her fellow moms, whose maternal commandments include Thou Shalt Co-Sleep With Thy Child, Use Cloth Diapers, Buy Expensive Wooden Toys, Agonize About Working. All of which Dederer breaks. Yoga, in addition to easing her back pain, will smooth over her sins: "Others would see me do yoga and would know my superiority."
Dederer was not the original sinner. In the early 1970s, her own mother had tuned in, turned on and traded conventional family life for something fuzzier, leaving her father for a shaggy-haired tugboat captain who became something like a benevolent stepfather, though Dederer's parents never divorced. As children, Dederer and her brother shuttled all over greater Seattle, hostages to their mother's freedom.
In reaction, Dederer seeks to provide the stability her mother destroyed. "We would put our families first and ourselves second," she writes. "We would be good, all the time." It's the familiar arc, the backlash the feminists bemoan. Dederer and her husband, environmental journalist Bruce Barcott, are increasingly trapped in the (mortgaged) home they make together. "He was Earner; I was Mother, like characters in some phenomenally boring Ionesco play."
At first, Dederer finds it impossible to shift into any gear other than full speed ahead. "This was my yoga MO: sheer determination," she remembers. Grim effort would see her through, in yoga, in life. "Somehow I couldn't see the irony of grinding my way toward freedom." "Stop looking in the mirror," a particularly wise yoga teacher tells her. "Try to feel from within, rather than judging." Stop judging? She's a book critic, for heaven's sake.
Gradually, painfully and sometimes reluctantly, Dederer stumbles across the truths yoga has to offer: "submission, trust, transmission from teacher to student, imperfection, the release of the ego." Her mother fled perfection and broke up her family. Dederer will embrace imperfection, too, but without the fireworks. Her hands will shake, her belly will sag, she will wrestle with her children's needs and her husband's recurring depression and her own doubt, and she will stop keeping score. "What if the opposite of good wasn't bad, but real?" she asks at last. You don't do yoga to get better, she realizes, but as a "counterweight" to the messiness of life, an hour in the day to enjoy the simple reality of your body in the moment. If you're lucky, you extend that enjoyment beyond the studio: to a shared meal, a bedtime story, a page well written.
Yoga is a series of poses; yoga strengthens your core. But after years of practice, Dederer has learned to stop posing, to unclench her stomach, to keep her gaze away from the mirror. She is neither a prisoner of her own domestic life nor a fugitive from it. With wry humor and an utter lack of pretense, she navigates a path between and beyond orthodoxies, anchored in love and family, open to possibility. "Poser" will find a devoted following among women weary of pronouncements and prescriptions. "The longer I do yoga, the worse I get at it," Dederer concludes. "I can't tell you what a relief it is."
POSER: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, by Claire Dederer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 332 pp., $26.
AN EXCERPT FROM "POSER: My Life in Twenty-Three Poses"
We lived in Phinney Ridge, a North Seattle neighborhood filled with educated, white, liberal, well-intentioned people. Which pretty much describes all North Seattle neighborhoods. Phinney Ridge is notable for being even more liberal and even better intentioned than most. In Phinney Ridge, people don't have BEWARE OF DOG signs. They have PLEASE BE MINDFUL OF DOG signs.
When I complained about my back, which I did often and with gusto, the people of Phinney Ridge all had the same answer: Do yoga. My doctor said, "There are poses that will strengthen your back." The checker at Ken's Market told me I could buy a good yoga video at a nearby New Age bookstore. The homeless guy selling the homeless-guy newspaper outside Ken's Market said, "Be sure to get a mat! It's really hard to do yoga without a mat."
I had a number of preconceptions about yoga. I thought yoga was done by self-indulgent middle-aged ladies with a lot of time on their hands, or by skinny fanatical 22-year-old vegetarian former gymnasts. I was also unsettled by the notion of white people seeking transformation through the customs of brown-skinned people - basically, to my mind, a suspect dynamic.
Despite these sloppily thought-out but strongly held reservations (my specialty), I had suspected for years that I probably ought to do yoga. I was a nervous kind of person. A self-conscious, hair-adjusting kind of person. A person who practically burned with worried energy. I had a constant tremor in my hands, and the whole world knew how anxious I was. Just a couple of weeks earlier, I had been hanging out at a coffee shop, feeding [my daughter] Lucy bits of cracker and navigating the coffee cup from the saucer to my mouth with trembling hand. A gentleman approached and introduced himself to me as an "energy shaman." Before I could think of a way to get rid of him, he took my shaking hand in his and pronounced gravely, "You could use a lot of work."
"Oh!" I said, grinning nervously. "I'm sorry! I just, I have this tremor that I've had since I was a little kid, and I'm not getting a lot of sleep lately because of the baby. And I guess I've had a lot of coffee," I concluded lamely.
"Do you eat a lot of chicken?" he asked. "That can cause energy problems."
I stood up, spilling my coffee, and swiftly loaded Lucy into her stroller.
"Well, goodbye!" I waved cheerfully, and left the café, fairly thrumming with energy problems.
Yoga seemed like just exactly what I wanted: something to calm me down. It also seemed like just exactly what I didn't want: a place where everyone could see what a mess I was, could see my tremor and my anxiety and my worry. There was something about holding still, about inhabiting a pose, that was scary. What was under all that anxious chatter?
But now things were different. I had a baby. It was imperative that I be able to lift her. I would do anything to be able to lift her. Yoga class, however, was beyond me. Like everyone else, I was terrified of a roomful of people who were good at it. Little did I know then that only very occasionally in yoga do you stumble into an entire roomful of people who are good at it.. . .
I figured a video would be the best approach; maybe I could get the benefits without all the pesky humiliation . . . .I had walked by the New Age bookshop many times but had never gone in. Wrestling the stroller through the door, I was hit with the ecclesiastically grubby smell of incense. Everything in the store was dusty and slightly off plumb. The magazine racks titled; the books were piled haphazardly; the posters of chakras and mushrooms and stars were at various subtle angles.
I found a teetering rack of yoga videos. Some of the people on the covers were orange. Some wore headbands. Some were peeking out from behind swirling, vaguely medieval purple writing. I chose a beginning yoga tape. It looked safe. The woman on the cover was not orange and she wore no headgear. The graphics did not look as if they'd been drawn up in an asylum.
I located a yoga mat, and paid, and then the baby and I got the hell out of there.
That night, Bruce gave her a bottle (to which she adapted nicely, thanks) and I went into the room with the TV, which, like everyone on Phinney Ridge, we refused to call the TV room. I put on my tape. The blond woman gazed into the camera from her serene world, a place where potted orchids thrived. There was some discussion about not overdoing it and going at your own speed, and then the yoga session was under way. The woman sat there with her eyes shut. I sat there looking at her. Apparently we were warming up.
This pleasant state of affairs continued for a while. Unfortunately, soon it was time to do asana. This had a forbidding sound.
"Jump your feet about three feet apart on the mat," said the blond lady. This I did. "Turn your left foot in about forty-five degrees, and your right foot out." Done and done. Check me out! "Extend the right hand over the right foot, and gently rest the hand on the shin, the ankle, or the foot, wherever is most comfortable." Tippy, but I was on it. "Slowly rotate your torso upward, and extend your left arm toward the ceiling." Aaand I'm out. I sat down with a thud and watched the woman with her strangely unshifting expression. She was a puddle on a windless day. In a calm voice, the way you talk to old people when you're convincing them to take a few steps across the hospital room to use the bathroom, she said, "tri-ko-na-sa-na." She lingered on the word, obviously enjoying the sound of the . . . what was it? Sanskrit? "Triangle pose," she translated.
I rewound the tape. I tried again. Right leg out. Feet turned at an angle. Extend the right arm. Drop right hand to right shin. I started to worry. How was I going to get that left arm up? How was I going to turn my torso? Oh . . . now or never. I flung my left arm into the air and twisted my torso maybe a millimeter up. Pinch.
I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in the darkened window. I was hunched up like "It's Pat!" from "Saturday Night Live." I rewound the tape again, and followed the directions again, and ended up, again, bunched in an odd shape. I could feel parts of my body bumping together that had never bumped before. Something hurt. I had a feeling it wasn't supposed to hurt.
Excerpted from "Poser" by Claire Dederer, published in January 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Claire Dederer. All rights reserved.