Claire Dederer’s memoir, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, is grounded in the fact that she grew up in the 70s. I did too, and I related intensely to both Dederer’s granular details and her overriding tropes. Given that she grew up with separated parents in Seattle and I grew up with married parents in Cambridge and Europe, the fact of this identification speaks both to the power of that heritage, that terroir – little girls in the 70s – and to the compelling beauty of Dederer’s prose.
Dederer’s central them is the ways in which her childhood, particularly her mother’s “flight” as she shed the shackles of expectation with which she had entered into early wife- and motherhood echoes through her own identity as a wife, mother, and woman. The memoir’s chapters are named after yoga poses, and it is through the lens of her midlife discovery of and journey through yoga that Dederer plumbs her history.
Dederer’s mother, in many ways the beating heart of this book, emerges as a vivid character, full of human flaws, her desires often at war with her genuinely good intentions. As Dederer excavates her own history she looks with clear, honest eyes at the ways that her mother’s choices shaped her own, not always for the good. It’s masterful, the way she does this with gentleness and a tangible compassion towards the woman who looms so large over her own personal landscape.
Yoga pushes Dederer towards several uncomfortable truths. One of the most intractable and uncomfortable of these is the futility of her desperate attempts to be in control of that which is fundamentally uncontrollable. Perhaps all along she was compensating for a childhood where she felt out of control, her family configuration morphing like a science class time lapse video of amoebas, an endless series of ferries shuttling her to and from and to and from. While the circumstances of my childhood were different, our moving around every four years left me with a similar inclination towards rigidity, with a familiar set of jaw-clenched attempts at control. As yoga begins to work its magic on Dederer, she realizes the folly of these efforts: “You can’t go deeper and know what you’re doing the whole time.”
Dederer neither expects nor, frankly, asks for the impact that yoga has on her. She describes a long hold in cobbler’s pose where “something was pushing up from below the surface. Before I knew it, I was crying. Tears were streaming silently down my face. I was losing my shit.” I gasped when I read the expression “pushing up from below the surface.” I had an experience that reminds me of this scene, though mine was in pigeon. I was in Montana, on a yoga retreat, and during a 15 or 20 minute hold in pigeon, a pose that has always been hard for me, something nudged loose in my hips and went richocheting through my body. I found myself in floods of tears, overcome with memories of my mother’s best friend, my second mother, who had died three years before. Oh, yes, things push up from below the surface. I can’t think of a better way to express it.
Dederer goes on to talk about meditation, and the ways that she struggles with it. Her words made me think of Elizabeth Gilbert’s passages in Eat, Pray, Love about how she emerges from the meditation cave sometimes looking as though she has been through battle. And her assertion that, in important ways, she has. Dederer describes her default mindset as the opposite of surrender: “constant vigilance was my watchword.” This, for a woman who has more than once woken up to a pillow drenched in blood because of a surprise nosebleed in my sleep (which I interpret as my body finally saying: I cannot hold on anymore), is deeply relatable. Dederer continues to talk about why she thinks meditation, and the surrender it entails, is so difficult:
“But, in truth, I could not lose myself in concentration on an object because my sadness and fear were there lurking beneath the surface. When things got quiet, my fear swam up and made itself known, like a giant manatee. I’ve been here all along! It was shocking to think that this beast was always lurking beneath the surface.”
What Dederer does not explicitly say, but what I read, is that this fear surprises most people. What is she afraid of? This is a woman whose life seems comfortable, almost perfect, on the outside. People do this to me, all the time: what are you sad about? The subtext is clear: what do you have to be sad about? And the answer is: I know I am blessed and privileged. I know that I don’t have the sadness that exists in the lives of many. And yet it’s still there, pushing up from below, nosing at me like a manatee (or something less benign), making all deep water somewhat scary because I don’t know what’s in it.
Dederer finally determines that she is deeply unhappy in her own life. She “was trapped in a misery of expectations, as in a blizzard.” Somehow, when she became a mother she set out to heal what had been missing in her own childhood (security, the sense of being her mother’s absolute priority) and in so doing simply built herself a new prison. The attentiveness to her children (she chooses a co-op preschool and delights in the fact that she can be share this traditional moment of separation) that seemed such an intuitive solution to the loneliness she remembers from her own childhood turns out to be another burden. Dederer’s relationship with her husband also begins to suffer and when the marriage of one of her best friends breaks up she is startled into paying attention.
A growing sense that something has to change propels Dederer and her husband to leave Seattle. In a passage that I love dearly, because the hold of long-known passages is so familiar to me, she remembers lines from a poem by William Stafford she had loved in high school: “A pattern that others made may prevail in the world/and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”
Finally, Dederer realizes, and asserts, “We had followed a pattern that others had made for us.” I read the “us” in the passage as being Dederer and her husband, but I think it can also be read as referring to her (and my) generation of women. Unwittingly, perhaps, we have all been reading from a script that we were handed. And though we may react against the examples our own mothers set, we are still definining ourselves, and our lives, in relation to them. It is still someone else’s pattern.
Dederer and her family move to Colorado. To a mountaintop. What could be further from liminal, coastal Seattle, where both her husband’s family and her own were nearby? She then wins my heart, if she didn’t already have it, by opening chapter 22 with a line from my beloved brain-inhabitant, Willy W, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.”
In the Colorado sections of Poser we see Dederer letting go of her fierce grip on her life and moving towards an acceptance of what is. She asks “What if the whole point of yoga wasn’t getting ready for the future, but was instead finding whatever pleasure we could in the present?” When I read this my eyes filled with tears, a giggle rose in my throat, and I reached quickly for my pen to underline the sentence. And then, when they finally decide to go home to Seattle, Dederer and her family set off to drive halfway across the country, car packed, “carr[ying] Bruce’s depression and my anxiety with us, on the roof rack as it were. They weren’t going to leave us alone. They were just part of the deal.”
And this, ultimately, is what Poser is about. It is about realizing what can be changed and what’s irrevocably part of the deal, about the value of looking understanding the pattern we are following (and who designed it), and about embracing where we came from. That is, after all, an inextricable part of who we are.
In Poser’s epilogue Dederer asks her mother directly about why she almost left. Dederer’s memoir – and, we can extrapolate, her life – is haunted by this almost-leaving, this quasi-flight. When her mother says, “I wanted to start a new life, but I also wanted to take good care of you kids” Dederer’s reaction is outrage, but this is quickly followed by understanding when her mother continues, “Of course I would never .. have left you and your brother.” Dederer suddenly understands the truth. “There it is: Motherhood means always turning back.” She is, like her own mother was before her, a mother, and the universality of that overrides all of the different ways the role has played out in each of their lives.
However we define them, however we choose to grapple with their trade-offs, the tensions between the various strands of our identities are eternal. I closed Poser (am I alone in finding in its final scene a powerful evocation of Gatsby?) and thought: this is about what it is to be a human being. Maybe, specifically, what it means to be a woman (how can I know?). In the couple of weeks since I read Dederer’s memoir I have felt empathy for both she and her mother. Most of all, I keep thinking of Carl Jung’s famous line that “there is no coming to consciousness without pain.”
Each generation grapples with what it means to be an individual, in the midst of a sometimes tangled knot of relationships and responsibilities. As Poser examines the ways this reckoning looks different for each generation it also uncovers the commonality of the quest. Dederer’s memoir contains that magic alchemy between the personal and the universal that defines the best memoirs. I highly recommend it.