Poser: My life in twenty-three yoga poses Claire Dederer (2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
As a snapshot, or time capsule, of late-twentieth-century perfectionist motherhood, you could hardly do better than Claire Dederer’s memoir, Poser. Women who turned to family life after spending their twenties building careers or exercising wanderlust turned to it with a daunting fervor for everything natural and wholesome. “Nursing, at least where we lived in Seattle, was a strange combination of enthusiast’s hobby and moral mandate.” And it didn’t stop there. You had to use cloth diapers, buy wooden toys from Europe, make baby food from scratch.
“These were the rules: Get your thousand words written, cook your organic dinner, call your parents, good, good, good all the time.” If you are wondering whether such a mother ever found the whole business a little overwhelming--yes, Dederer did. “Or maybe I was the only one with the terror. Maybe I was the only one who, grinding steamed organic carrots in the baby-food mill, felt as if turning the mill’s little handle was keeping something awful from happening.”
Yoga was all part of the equation, partly because Claire threw her back out nursing Lucy, her glowingly healthy eleven-month-old baby, and partly because it seemed like something that people did who had it all figured out: “Maybe if I appeared to be serene, I would stop with the existentialist dread, the likes of which I had not felt since my overcoat-wearin’ teenage days.”
It was consuming, having a baby and going to yoga twice a week, and getting some writing done, while her husband, Bruce, tried to write full-time to support the three of them. Claire went for walks with friends-- ”They were all part-time workers with interesting, creative, exhausting jobs. They all wore cute corduroy pants and hipsterish hoodies covered with spit-up.” And she managed the visits of her parents; she had three, inconveniently enough; her mother and father, who are still married, and her mother’s longtime boyfriend, a tugboat captain.
This is the book’s introduction to another time capsule, from 1973, when Claire was six, and her mother entered an extended period of hippie exploration, involving (mostly) leaving her husband, and hanging out with woodcarvers and embroiderers. “That was the kind of profession people had in those days, professions that belonged in fairy tales.” It was also the kind of childhood people had in those days, adventurous and unmoored, in a way that made Claire cling to the books she was always reading, where the characters were not always reinventing themselves, and in which a Mom remained just a Mom.
So Claire worked very hard at being a Mom; she had a second baby, a boy called Willie, by a second C-section; and she kept a cheerful front of denial about her husband’s withdrawal and depression. Her busyness, her perfectionism, and her drive to live, on a writer’s income, like the wealthy Seattleites around them, left Bruce feeling overworked and isolated. One day in a yoga class, with her foot behind her head, she noticed that she was deeply unhappy, and that her cheerful pretense was making it worse. “I was trapped in a misery of expectations, as if in a blizzard. I was afraid that if I stopped, if I said ‘Something is wrong here,’ my family would fall apart. After all, that is what families do.”
Claire and Bruce, by a stroke of well-deserved good fortune, found a way to run away from home and start over again without splitting up: they moved to Boulder, Colorado, on a journalism fellowship that Bruce won. Boulder turned out to be a great place for them, with hiking trails, more sunshine than the Pacific Northwest, and a whole new level of yoga classes in the bargain.
The move was just the push they needed toward putting their own family first, and figuring how to be the kind of grown-ups they really wanted to be. It freed Claire from some of the anxiety that she inhaled in her old neighborhood, and gave her a fresh, inward-looking perspective. “Now my family life was my family life, private, almost secret, a pile of bears in a den, writhing and furry and intimate. I had no public.”
Poser is beautifully written, both in its prose and in its structure, which in addition to braiding together the stories of Claire’s life as a wife and mother, and her life as a child, actually talks about yoga in a comprehensible way, and shows us what changed in Claire’s understanding and practice. On the mat, and in her life, she was able to give up a whole lot of expectations about how things have to be Good, and see that they really are good already. Or, at least, real, and that’s good enough.
Speaking of Faith is the public radio program which has, for the past decade, brought issues of faith, spirituality and religion to public radio. The host, Krista Tippett, interviews all kinds of people, from all walks of religious life. Her guests include theologians, philosophers, environmentalists, physicists, nuns and monks; they speak from Buddhist, humanist and atheist perspectives, well as from within the Abrahamic faiths in all their variety.
Tippett’s book Speaking of Faith provides a valuable introduction to those thinkers and those conversations, in the framework of a memoir, the story of what made her the perfect person for such a job. Like most such stories, it would have been quite unpredictable, yet it makes sense in hindsight: the granddaughter of a Baptist minister, Tippett went to Brown University, then spent her twenties in Germany, in the last decade of the Cold War. She was religiously disengaged in those days, but she was fascinated by the rich spiritual life she found in some of her East German friends, at a time when it was not reasonable for them to have much hope for their futures. “Germany’s division was about the world’s brokenness, and my passion–now secularized and recast in political terms–was for salvation.”
It was a time of high political and diplomatic drama, but Tippett couldn’t help noticing the human element: “...where did the resilience of the human spirit express itself at this level of policy, I wondered, and could this level of policy address the spiritual underpinnings of human experience?” She moved on, to a restorative time on a Mediterranean island, and then to a small village in England, always continuing to contemplate the ironies and paradoxes that arise when finite, mortal humanity tries to confront the infinite and eternal.
The works of Rilke, Bonhoeffer, and T. S. Eliot were among her guides on the way back to the Bible of her youth, with new questions and a more open attitude. Unable to leave the subject alone, she went on to the Yale Divinity School. “The Bible, as I read it now, ... is an ancient record of an ongoing encounter with God in the darkness as well as the light of human experience. Like all sacred texts, it employs multiple forms of language to convey truth: poetry, narrative, legend, parable, echoing imagery, wordplay, prophecy, metaphor, didactics, wisdom saying.”
The Bible is too big, and too important, to be read as literal history, or science. Such readings put religion at odds with history, science, and reason; but, read as story and poetry, the Bible has everything in common with science. Tippett says, “Science like religion is about questions more than answers–questions and more questions that meet every new answer as soon as it is hatched.”
St. John’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, hosted a center for ecumenical conversation and research called the Collegeville Institute. In 1995, Tippett was engaged to conduct an oral history of the Institute, work which set a pattern for the work in radio that would come next. “I did not invite people of faith to pronounce. I asked them to trace the intersection of religious ideas with time and space and the color and complexity of real lives–not just the trajectory of their lives, but what they knew of the world, the work they did, who and what they loved. This both grounded and exalted what they had to say, and it let me in.”
The habit of speaking and listening this way permeates Speaking of Faith; Tippett is both grounded and exalted, and she lets us in. The book has that delightful Pandora’s box quality, of leading on to other books; but Tippett’s life doesn’t let her be purely bookish. She says, “If holiness is happening, it is happening in the thick of reality, not replacing the world we know, not banishing death, but defying its terror as the last word. And here is the task that fills my days: how to speak of this together and make it more visible, audible and tangible in the world.”
Email edition, April 1, 2013
The radio show and affiliated blogs are found at http://www.onbeing.org/
I Thought You Were Dead: A Love Story Pete Nelson (2010, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
It’s 1998. Paul Gustavson is a divorced writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, quietly drinking his life away. His girlfriend, who lives a couple of hours away in Rhode Island, is deciding between him and another man; his devoted dog, Stella, is fifteen years old and failing; and his father, back in Minnesota, has just had a major stroke.
Pete Nelson’s I Thought You Were Dead is about what all this pushes Paul to do. Spurred to thoughts of mortality, he cuts back on doughnuts and takes up jogging. He tries yoga: “He liked the mindful breathing part. The poses hurt like hell, but that seemed to be the idea, learning how to get bent out of shape without getting bent out of shape.”
Because he can’t visit the way his brother and sister can, he takes long-distance care of his father by chatting over the computer; this dates the story, in an agreeable way, because people are still figuring out how to do it. It’s also an effective way of making Paul talk about himself, because his father is not up to much in the way of responses beyond YES and NO.
He takes care of Stella when it thunders, and carries her into the house when her back legs start failing. Stella has, as it happens a gift for conversation and a fundamentally sweet soul. She’s a little dumb about some things, hence the novel’s title–she lives in the moment. But she observes Paul acutely; she tells him the truth; and she makes the call about when it’s time for him to end her suffering.
She’s stoic about it, but Paul’s a mess. “He withdrew, holed up with a bottle of vodka to slow his thoughts. He wasn’t sure when he would be ready to resume his responsibilities in the universe.” He still loves Tamsen, his girlfriend, but he breaks up with her out of depressive inertia.
At last, he puts down the bottle. “He’d expected to have some sort of unbearable craving for a drink, but he didn’t feel any thirstier than usual, and indeed he felt measurably better, more clearheaded. He slept better, and his skull didn’t hurt when he woke up in the morning.” Another visit to Minnesota rearranges his family constellation for Paul, opening lines of communication that had long atrophied.
I Thought You Were Dead is a very fine book about people being able to hear each other. I appreciated the way it maintained a comic view of some complicated lives. The electronic chatting is an interesting touch; I think Nelson gets its strengths and drawbacks right. I also enjoyed the epigraphs, excerpts from the book Paul is working on, Nature for Morons. I’m always up for tidbits about evolution and psychology, anyhow, but of course, these are meant as commentary on Paul’s discoveries, things he learns as research before he knows them as life.
It’s a long time till Spring--treat yourself to a novel.
Left Neglected: a novel Lisa Genova (Gallery Books, 2011)
How does Sarah Nickerson do it? The heroine and narrator of Lisa Genova’s Left Neglected is a modern-day Superwoman. She combines a home in a nice Boston West suburb, a husband, and three small children, with an overwhelmingly demanding job in human resource management at a global consulting company. Her cell phone, her laptop, a nanny (who worked 55-hour weeks till the older children started school) and a giant mountain of debt are all necessary parts of the answer.
It’s a normal life for an ambitious Harvard Business School graduate, and it’s more than a little insane. “I go to Europe once every eight weeks, China once a quarter, and New York for one or two overnights a month, but this kind of travel is all predictable, finite, and manageable.” Manageable. Right. But add to that a broken garage door opener, and a meeting with seven-year-old Charlie’s teacher, strongly hinting that he be tested for an attention deficit problem, and it’s All a Bit Much.
Then Sarah makes the way her life is spinning out of control unexpectedly concrete, by flipping her car in the median of the Mass Pike, and sustaining a traumatic injury to the right side of her brain. She can still talk, because that’s a left-brain function, but she loses all awareness of the left side of anything, including herself. The way the book handles her discovery of this strangeness is marvelously subtle, as is the way that she comes to terms with the fact that her life as an HR VP is not going to be recoverable.
The lightly fictionalized Baldwin Rehabilitation Hospital captivated me in particular, as I’ve done visitor time there--not just the jail on one side, and the beautiful bridge on the other, but the nightly sounds of confusion and suffering; and what the nurses say when you get out of bed and fall down because you don’t really understand that you can’t walk; and how rehab lasts only as long as insurance will pay for it, under criteria established by the kind of person Sarah used to be.
Sarah gathers some of what she knows about her situation from the faces of those who come to see her. Her boss and her assistant come over to the hospital: “The incision scars, the bruising, the overall baldness. I’m a horror movie, and she desperately wants to bury her face in someone’s shoulder.” Why is this woman who looks like a train wreck claiming she could work from her hospital bed? Inevitably, mercifully, her boss’s phone rings, and the visit is cut short.
Having her mother turn up to help is a bit of a shock for Sarah. How can someone who hasn’t driven off of Cape Cod in decades navigate into the darkest heart of Boston traffic, in her son-in-law’s car, after taking the kids to school? “I feel like I missed a meeting,” says Sarah, because she’s had no significant relationship with her mother, Helen, in thirty years. She needs one now, though, and one of Left Neglected’s sweet pleasures is seeing Sarah as both mother and daughter, especially as she has to negotiate both a new connection with her mother, and an new separation. Can Sarah stand her mother’s taste in clothers? Is it cheating if Helen pushes Sarah’s wheelchair down to the gym for therapy? Part of the work is figuring out when to accept help, and when to fight through without it.
Where is fighting going to get her, anyway? The old, competitive straight-A Sarah can’t control how fast her recovery happens, if it happens at all. Her old wardrobe of professional clothing (“Armani, Donna Karan, Grettacole, Ann Taylor”) has buttons on all the blouses, which makes them highly impractical for someone with only one useable hand. “Accept. Adjust. Those words don’t sing to me at all. In fact, I have a hard time even considering those words without hearing Give up. Lose. Fail.”
Well, by this point we know that Sarah is not going to give up, or fail, but her life and her family’s are irrevocably changed. In addition to a handful of very interesting neurological conundrums, Left Neglected brings us the kind of Easter story novels can be very good at. We all need to know what Sarah learns: “Maybe success can be something else, and maybe there’s another way to get there. Maybe there’s a different road for me with a more reasonable speed limit.”
Behind the Scenes at the Museum: A Novel Kate Atkinson (1995, Picador)
To start at the very beginning: Ruby Lennox is conceived, she informs us in the first paragraph, by a drunken father, George, and his wife, Bunty, who is pretending to be asleep. She uses her time in utero to examine the nooks and crannies of Bunty’s unhappiness, which we’ll hear more about throughout the novel, and to establish her cheeky, knowledgeable voice.
Ruby’s life story makes up the main narrative of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but between those chapters, we get extensive historical footnotes: capsule histories of Bunty; her mother, Nell; and Nell’s mother and step-mother, Alice and Rachel, none of whom is particularly blessed with good cheer or good fortune. Generation after generation, these women find their children intolerably burdensome. The husbands in the picture are no prizes either: when they’re not swilling down beer with their mates, they’re having a go at some willing floozy, or gambling away the family estate.
Besides their miserable childhoods, and their own terrible choices, these people are at the mercy of the Twentieth Century. Nell’s marital fortunes are upset by World War I, as Bunty’s are by the second great war. There’s also plenty of poverty and neglect to go around, to say nothing of abuse--people fling things at other people’s heads every fifty pages or so--and all kinds of death.
Yet somehow it’s all very entertaining. Partly it’s the writing, of which I can’t give you a sample because the meaning of each sentence depends so much on its context. It’s fun to follow various motifs as they loop through the family’s tangled history. Old photographs, a locket, a head of blond curls, a gesture, all turning up in new places, with new meanings that don’t erase the old ones: the china Nell’s suitors drink from turns up, two generations later, as a saucer to feed the dog from.
Kate Atkinson’s authorial finesse, and courtesy, permits her to embed these things without drawing too much attention to them. She leaves us a few riddles, too; none of the characters, not even our Ruby, knows all that’s going on. (One of these riddles is what, precisely, the title alludes to, but maybe I’m overthinking it.)
I enjoyed the ground-level tour of York, and the countryside of northern England, and the trenches at Ypres, rats and all. One of the reasons I prefer non-fiction to fiction is that the world it describes continues after I put the book down, and this book contrives to feel like history in that sense. It also feels like capital-L Literature, yet without being precious, or trying too hard to dazzle. Perhaps I just mean to say that you could read it again, the next day or a decade later, and get something rich out of it.
I started reviewing books more than ten years ago for Voices, the newsletter of Emmanuel Church, Boston. To keep my hand in, I try to write something every month whether Voices is published or not. I've shared these with friends by email, and it seems good to post them here as an archive, to see what connections may emerge. Welcome, and happy reading!