Learning to Breathe

I picked up Learning to Breathe knowing I’d love it.  The topic appealed to me: the author’s yearlong quest to bring calm to her life.  Dani Shapiro, whose opinion I trust implicitly, both blurbed it and personally told me she thought I’d like it.  The description of the author as someone with a “great life” who nonetheless struggled with profound panic resonated somewhere deep inside me.  So, I knew I was going to love it.  But I didn’t know how much.

Priscilla Warner has crafted a universal story out of her very specific circumstance, and in so doing has established a light at the end of what many people experience as a fearful tunnel of darkness, fear, and anxiety.  After a lifetime of serious panic attacks, she makes a decision to actively seek peace.  She begins a regular meditation practice, explores Buddhism and mystic Judaism, and pursues a variety of therapeutic avenues.  Learning to Breathe traces her steps towards peace, which are human in their stumbling and both inspiring and comforting in their success.

Describing her life before beginning her journey towards peace, Warner says that she had “always felt that [her] nervous system operated faster than normal,: for which she has taken Klonopin for years.  Yet, “on the outside [she] was functioning just fine.”  The chasm between outsides and insides, between what appears and what actually is, is a perilous place I know well.

One of the central themes of Learning to Breathe is Warner’s experience of her mother’s gradual but inexorable decline into Alzheimer’s.  As she seeks peace, one thing she specifically wants is help with what is a challenging emotional morass.  Any time studying Buddhism brings you face-to-face, almost immediately, with the central tenet that attachment causes suffering.  But Warner wonders, as I have so often, “how can you love someone and not become attached?”  Lama Tsondru, a teacher of Tibetan painting with whom Warner studies, tells her that if she “opens up [her] heart to others, the weight on [her] shoulders will lessen.”  She begins to move towards acceptance, and at one moment where her mother demonstrates how much she has forgotten, Warner remembers the teachings of Sylvia Boorstein and observes that her “heart quivered in response to pain … Compassion took hold of me.”

Over time Warner leans into a new kind of trusting of her own body and mind.  She “didn’t feel pressured to solve its mysteries” every day, and she “began to accept the unpredictability of [her] own galaxy.”  I love the notion of an internal galaxy; it is a more evocative way to describe my observation that all people have a whole universe glittering inside them.  This was just one of many places where Warner’s words touched something specific I’ve thought and felt, made me feel like I was reading a missive from someone who had been inside my own head.  This is what I mean about the universal power in a particular story: who among us hasn’t felt lost and afraid?  Warner’s story is a message of comfort to us all.

Warner finds teachers all over the place: Tibetan monks, American teachers of Buddhism, specialized therapists, and mystical rabbis.  It is Rabbi Jacobson who teachers her the power of the tears, which she had always felt vaguely ashamed of, viewing them as a manifestation of the keen sensitivity for which she had often been criticized.  To say I relate here is an understatement.  But what Rabbi Jacobson tells her is that “people who cry in healthy ways are doing so because they sense a higher presence.  And that’s beyond us.  So we cry.”  Warner – and I! – finds this logic reassuring, and she stops worrying about the tears that seem ever-present.  I love the messages that this rabbi elucidates in Learning to Breathe.  He also speaks about how life exists in the small, ordinary moments, a message that speaks directly to me:

Some of the greatest things in life don’t have to be so dramatic … It’s in the quiet moments that our lives are shaped.  In homes, in cribs, in bedrooms, in the little things.  That’s where it all happens.

As Warner moves to the end of her year, she begins to fully inhabit her new, hard-won peace.  The universe, and the past, continue to speak to her in a variety of powerful ways.  She witnesses the death of her trusted companion of 14 years, her dog Mickey, and even in the midst of that heartbreaking goodbye she realizes she had “never felt so present in my life.”    She visits with another Zen priest and teacher, Roshi, who suggests that her “frequent tears … simply meant that I was touched by life.”  They discuss impermanence, again, and Roshi comments that part of why cherry blossoms make people cry is “that these blossoms are so ephemeral.”  I guess magnolias are my cherry blossoms: they are stunningly gorgeous, and they make me cry.  During an Ayurvedic massages she experiences her father’s presence, and he tells her firmly that she was loved.

Even in impermanence, in the sea of life’s moments, some things endure.  I highly recommend Learning to Breathe: it made me feel less alone, it taught me a lot about meditation and certain somatic therapies, and it fortified my belief that maybe, just maybe, there is peace out there for me yet.  A message that Warner receives from a friend towards the end of her experiment sums up her book, her experience, and, in fact, nothing less than the human condition:

The convention of panic was just a thin veil for you … It cloaked the stillness and compassion that is you.  It takes great courage to let it all go and to display the unbearableness of so much love.

Planting Dandelions

I read Kyran Pittman’s lovely, funny, wise memoir, Planting Dandelions: Field Notes From a Semi-Domesticated Life, in a single day.  I was smitten by page three:

“‘Look at this,’ I’d say, holding up some fragment of everyday to myself and anyone who happened to be reading, turning it over this way and that.  Look.
People … offer themselves up with a mix of shyness and excitement.  Sometimes they doubt themselves.
I thought maybe it was worth something, but I don’t know …
It’s probably too small to matter …
It’s kind of a mess and it’s broken in places …
“It’s beautiful,” I tell them.  It’s funny.  It’s deep.  It’s extraordinary.

Pittman seems to be speaking in lucid, beautiful sentences that which I’m endlessly circling around here on this blog, stumbling over and bumping into in the dark of my life.  Yes.  It’s extraordinary.  Just look.  A couple of paragraphs later, she says that Planting Dandelions shares her “moments of truth.”  She cites “the power of small things to make a life infinitely vast,” and then invites her reader, at the end of her introduction, to “Look.  Look what I found.  Come see.”  This is on page four, and I was already nodding and crying at the same time.

The chapters of Planting Dandelions are loosely organized by theme or life stage.  Pittman talks about the complicated, “scorched-earth” way she and her husband connected, about her early days as a fierce proponent of attachment parenting, about her gradual movement back into work.  She covers sex, religion, the loss of grandparents, school, female friendships in midlife, and the US South, all in a voice that is by turns laugh-out-loud funny and wipe-tears-away tender.

One theme that I particularly related to in Planting Dandelions is the vague sense of bewilderment that dogs Pittman and her husband no matter how old they and their children become.  I totally share this.  I have often joked that I’m waiting for the real mother to come home, and that’s utterly true.  Sometimes I look across a room at my children, or catch a glimpse of them in the rearview mirror, and am absolutely awestruck, astounded, that I am their parent.  When did this happen?  Wasn’t I just, five minutes ago, a college senior, arms flung around my best friends, staggering across Poe Field on a sunny spring day?  I am conscious, every single day, for example when I go to drop off in my actual pajamas, of all the ways in which I thought I’d be more “grown up” by now.  Pittman describes this feeling, which I feel piercingly, regularly:

“…I wanted to fall to my knees, hold him to my chest and say I’m sorry, I wanted to be better for you.  I thought I might have it together by now, but I don’t, and I don’t thin I will before you figure it out and can see for yourself that other people seem to have the secret to life and we, your parents, don’t have a clue.”

There is another strand in Planting Dandelions I found particularly powerful, which is that our children are not, in fact, ours.  They belong to themselves, not to us.  We are deeply privileged to share these years with them, to shepherd and shelter them, but we are not as mightily responsible for the outcomes of their lives as some believe.  Pittman addresses this:

“I lose sight of that from time to time, and delude myself into thinking I’m the auteur of their experience, when actually, I mainly work in catering.  They don’t need me directing, feeding them their lines.  They get it.  The script of life and death, grief and joy, is written on their DNA.”

Towards the end of Planting Dandelions Pittman talks about her decision, a long time in coming, to become a US Citizen.  At one point during her deliberation, she unearths a box of old visas, medical records, and faxes.  She finds a poem, many years old, that her father had written for her.  It contains this line: Going towards yourself is the longest journey of all.  That sentence, at least for me, is the purest distillation of what Planting Dandelions is about.  It’s about the journey home, the way we build a marriage and a family from myriad small, imperfect moments, decisions, and experiences, about how we eventually figure out who we are.  It’s about the way we can lose ourselves in the desperate love of our children, about aging and wrinkles and sag, and about how a community of women becomes ever more important.  It’s about the many paradoxes and mysteries at the heart of even the most ordinary family life.  It’s about the cracks that let the light in.

And I loved it.  I know you will too.

A Double Life

I suspected I was going to enjoy A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood by Lisa Catherine Harper.  I didn’t, however, imagine that I’d devour it almost in one sitting.  I adored Harper’s book: it is full of careful, scientific details that were new to me, it is written in eloquent, beautiful prose, and more than once it made me gasp with identification.  The terrain of Harper’s memoir – pregnancy, birth, the first months of motherhood – is familiar, but the honest and funny voice in which she tells it, and the nuanced observations with which it is filled, are unique.

The first half of A Double Life is concerned with conception and pregnancy.  Ella, Harper’s daughter, is conceived on 9/11, and Harper describes how that fall there “seemed to be darkness everywhere.” There are fascinating details about the development of a baby from zygote to blastoscyst to fetus, the physiology of pregnancy, and about Harper’s own family history.

The book began to really gather power for me when Harper talks about the first time she felt her baby move inside her.  She hints at what is to come when she says,

But something infinitely more primal and more immediate had happened on the couch, and its aftermath was not unlike the seconds after a small earthquake, when everything you know about the world is cast into doubt, when your own terra firma crumbles beneath you and you are certain only of uncertainty.

A Double Life reaches the crescendo of its impact as it addresses the profound, irrevocable change that motherhood represents.  As Harper describes it – and I agree with this characterization – it is a complete and utter dissolution and then rebuilding of identity.  This begins with a harrowing description of labor, as close to the real experience as I’ve ever read.  I felt like I was back in the room where I had my daughter, during my third hour of transition, begging my midwife to put a bullet in my head and just cut my daughter out (that really happened), when I read this:

In the middle of that pain, at pain’s deep center, it was dark.  In that dark there were no others and there was no language.  It was silent and it was deafening, it was still and it was cyclonic.

Still and deafening, still and cyclonic: I’ve never read labor more viscerally evoked.  At the end of her long and arduous labor, Harper delivers her daughter, Ella.  When they return home she and Ella sink into that otherworld known as the fourth trimester, where the standard demarcations of day and night crumble and life as it has been known fades away entirely.  Harper loves these days, even while acknowledging their stultifying exhaustion.  “The intense passions that I had sought most of my young life seemed shallow in comparison to the deep tides of contentment that pulled at me now,” she writes, and for a period of time she and Ella exist in a world where all they need is each other.  It is a calm and joyful time, a “steady stream of wonder.”

After about nine months, however, Harper’s sense of herself as a mother in the world begins to feel more complicated. At one point, noticing that Ella’s eyes follow her around the room, she “began to understand ‘mother,’ its permanence fixed to me like a shadow” and we intuit that Harper is growing aware of the permanence and immutability of the role.

In the last few chapters of A Double Life Harper grapples with her most complex and ambivalent feelings about motherhood and in so doing begins to face essential questions of personhood.  The nearness – twinned-ness, in fact – of life and death, a theme that surfaces during her pregnancy, recurs in these final chapters.  For Harper, giving birth – giving life – occasioned a reckoning with death.  This awareness also shapes her experience of her young daughter’s life: “Motherhood made me familiar with this mortal creep of time.”  This is of course intensely familiar to me.  In fact it made me consider that my own preoccupation with being present and aware and my profound sadness about time’s passage likely have their roots in my being a mother.  I don’t think these are new wounds for me, but they are certainly rawer now that I watch my own children grow.

It was a sort of miracle to be able to hold these two moments – of life, of death – in mind at once; to be acutely conscious of both the present and of the presence and nearness of loss; to hold in my arms the evidence of life and death, for that is what my daughter was: an inspired, poetic fact.  She gave me an accidental genius, and if it filled me with night terrors, it also filled me with song.

At the end of A Double Life, Harper seems to move into a period of heightened sensitivity, into a porousness that I recognize intimately.  She describes a moment in church as “A pause in my life and something strange possessed me … Something had visited me.  It came, imparted, and was gone. .. I was not so changed so much as infused.”  This reminded me of a moment in my early 20s in the crypt at Assissi, a memory I return to again and again because it was a harbinger of what was to come later in my life.  I’ve had other moments – few, but indelible – like this in my life, too. They remind of the presence of something greater, a design vaster than I can understand, and, as Harper says, infuse me with the current of humanity itself.

In her memoir’s second to last chapter, Harper confronts the twisted world of the mommy wars, and suggests that the essential problem is not, essentially, whether a woman works outside of the home but the fact that the world at large has utterly devalued the work of motherhood and the experience of life inside the home.  She realizes that conversation at her baby group sometimes feels like “a storm of all that nothing,” but simultaneously finds herself deeply interested in the details of domestic life.  Ultimately Harper comes to a conclusion that I identify with strongly:

I felt I belonged in neither world: much of my energy was invested in raising Ella so I couldn’t fully claim my professional identity, but neither could I identify with what seemed to me to be the petty concerns of motherhood.  I loved my daughter and I loved my home.  I did not love the stay-at-home culture of mothering.

I guess this shouldn’t surprise me, given that Lisa and I connected when she read my essay in the Princeton Alumni Weekly called “A Foot in Two Worlds.”  Harper vows to “move between my worlds of teaching, writing, and mothering, and I tried hard to see how each inflected the other,” which reminded of Anne Tyler’s comment that “since I’ve had children I’ve grown richer and deeper.  They may have slowed down my writing for a while, but when I did write, I had more of a self to speak from.”  Perhaps instead of interpreting my life as fractured, and bemoaning the losses in that, I ought to celebrate the ways in which I am a kaleidoscope (one of those recurring tropes in my writing).  Each of the various slices of who I am, of which I inhabit in every single day, can, and should, inform – indeed, enrich – the other.

A Double Life doesn’t reach a single firm conclusion on the work/home tension.  Instead, Harper proposes that mothers ought to feel more united than opposed, and that we should drop the false bifurcation of “working” and “staying at home” identities.  Harper asserts that “what bound us together was the fact that we found our children interesting, that we were inspired by them, that we had allowed our lives to be changed by them.”  I may have initially fought this change with everything I had, but I’ve certainly allowed it now.  The new reality of who I am as a mother – not that new anymore, in fact – floods every cell of my being on a regular basis, bathing me in wonder and gratitude as much as in impatience and sharp sadness at the speed with which it all passes.

The very last scene of A Double Life takes place, tellingly, as Harper sits working at her desk.  Her daughter crawls up to her and commands her attention; there, sitting at her desk, her baby at her feet, we see the disparate strands of identification and person come together in a single compelling image.  Harper reminds us of where she begins her memoir, with researched, scientific awe at conception and pregnancy, and then touches on the various highs and lows we have experienced with her over 232 pages.  And, with the moving honesty and elegant prose that fills A Double Life, Harper concludes:

Out of nothing she had become something, and I had become something more.  If the crushing love that I felt for her made me newly and forever fearful of mortality, and if, on some days, it made me tired and irritable and beside myself with despair and fury, there was something else, too, something with wings rising now like hope, or gratitude, or grace.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter

I have been a Peggy Orenstein fan for a long time.  Years ago I wrote about her now-famous New York Times article called “What’s Wrong With Cinderella?”  I also read and adored both Flux and Waiting for DaisySchoolgirls is next on my list.  I have read several reviews of her new book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and I read it eagerly.  Peggy is a beautiful and articulate writer tackling topics about which I care deeply.  She is also hilariously funny.  Holy Grail.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter addresses the culture in which our daughters are growing up.  It confronts the increasingly urgent sexualization of girls, and identifies that it is happening younger and younger.  The book’s central point is an exploration of how girls these days are “struggling to fulfill all the new expectations we have for them without letting go of the old ones.”

Orenstein explicates a set of new pressures that girls face today: to perform on the field and in the classroom, to demonstrate leadership, and to be involved in philanthropy, a “good person.”  At the same time, girls are still expected to be pretty and thin.  Far from replacing the old expectations, these new ones have simply piled on top, making the burden of perfection on our girls even more stifling.

Every day I am reminded that how a girl looks remains essential to how the world views her.  People seem to constantly comment on how Grace looks.  It is certainly, by a wide margin, the most common thing about her that I get comments about.  It’s true: both of my children are thin.  Bird-like, even.  But it’s totally natural: that’s the kind of kid I am.  The most infuriating comment I get, and I get it all the time, is how “well, you want a girl to be skinny.”  People said this even when Grace was a toddler of 2 or 3.  People also comment on Grace’s face, and I’m often told she is beautiful.  She can frequently overhear this commentary, which worries me, because I don’t want her to internalize that it’s the most important thing about her.  But if I am really honest, my own reaction is more complicated.  I’m simultaneously horrified and proud.  Because, just as Orenstein does, I grudgingly recognize that this is the world we live in.  I wish it were otherwise, I desperately do.  But it’s not.  And I know that being attractive will be an advantage for Grace.  I hate admitting this.

When Grace was five she took her first airplane ride by herself.  She felt incredibly proud of herself, and I did too, which helped ameliorate the shocked, even judgmental, reactions from more than a few people who heard about this.  A few days after the flight I got an email from a very dear friend, telling me that the story of Grace boarding her Delta flight alone with only a quick look over her shoulder reminded her of what I’d always said were my chief goals for Grace: that she be – and know she is – brave and smart.  This was, my friend asserted, the behavior of a brave and smart child.  My eyes filled with tears.  I remember both of those moments viscerally: Grace boarding the plane, and reading my friend’s message.

Still, no matter how brave or smart, or how accomplished girls – or women – are, their looks still matter.  This is a reality that I find both irrefutable and profoundly depressing.  It is deeply, perniciously ingrained in our culture.  Orenstein tells the story of when, while researching Schoolgirls, she followed students in middle school and realized that she was greeting them by commenting in their appearance.  Even she, who knew this wasn’t her priority, or the right thing to do.  She tried to go cold turkey and found it awkward to make conversation.  This story reminded me of when I was pregnant the first time.  I suddenly became blindingly aware that what everybody wanted to tell me was how great I looked.  I used to feel like shouting: I am growing a human being in my body!  Who the hell cares what I look like?  And I swore that I would never comment on another pregnant woman’s looks.  And you know what?  I still do.  Because in many cases my first reaction IS that they look beautiful.  But still, like Orenstein, I know better.

Orenstein also raises the important and complex topic of of body image, sharing scary data that I’ve read before about how early girls become aware of and dissatisfied by their bodies.  Like Orenstein, and many mothers I know, I make a determined effort never to disparage my own physical self in front of Grace.  But I’ve been wondering, lately, do we actually need to go further?  Should we be talking about how beautiful we are?  I don’t do that, and it would be uncomfortable for me to do so (not to mention dishonest), but I do find myself wondering if we need to model self-love.  We don’t want to raise daughters who think their appearance is all, but given the truth of the world out there, ought we demonstrate, actively, appreciation for our own physical bodies?  I suspect that our silence on this topic holds an implicit message for our daughters.

It is inescapable, this fact that our girls’ looks are essential to their sense of themselves.  “Talent?  Effort?  Intelligence?  All are wonderful, yet by middle school, how a girl feels about her appearance – particularly whether she is thin enough, pretty enough, and hot enough – has become the single most important determinant of her self-esteem.”  Even more provocatively, Orenstein challenges: “What is the alternative to thin, pretty, and hot (regardless of other qualities) as the source of feminine power and identity?”  I don’t know the answer.  And I do know that these expectations are real, and that coupled with the emphasis on achievement and success they create for our girls a tangled forest of pressure to be perfect.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter‘s chapter on the child beauty pageant circuit is riveting, and I was particularly impressed by how Orenstein identifies lesser-known, more humanizing aspects of each example of that much-vilified character, the Beauty Pageant Mom.  A chapter on the older Disney “princesses,” Britney, Lindsay, Miley, Selena, and others struck me in particular because that is the phase in which Grace is definitely.  Orenstein asserts that part of the unspoken promise of the Disney Princess brand is that it will keep our daughters safe.  The pink and plastic world of Cinderella and Snow White may be replete with contradictory messages and an overemphasis on appearance, but it is a safe place devoid of sexuality and threat.

This world gives way to that of Hannah Montana and the Wizards of Waverly Place, and the real-life “princesses” take the place of cartoons. What to do, then, when these actresses grow up and the girls who loved them have to interpret images of Miley Cyrus on the cover of Vanity Fair naked in bed with mussed hair.  The natural maturation of the teenage girls whose pre-sexual identities are fused with beloved, role-model characters renders even more complicated the already-rough terrain of adolescence.  “The virgin/whore cycle of pop princesses, like so much of the girlie-girl culture pushes in the opposite direction, encouraging girls to view self-objectification as a feminine rite of passage.”

Orenstein’s last chapter focuses on the increasing power and reach of the internet social media and the ways in which it contributes to the commoditization of girlhood.  In a world where girls think of themselves in terms of their “profile” earlier and earlier, material identifiers like what you were, what movies, songs, and celebrities you like, and what you wear become increasingly important.   Orenstein also points out the ways in which electronic media have raised the stakes enormously on the standard mistakes of adolescence.  Often there is a permanent record of those mistakes now, and one that is easily circulated well beyond a girl’s community.  The power of online networks is seen clearly in some of the recent online bullying stories, and in many of those the push-pull of girl’s sexuality played a key role.  Sexuality has become, Orenstein asserts, a “performance” like femininity itself.  Girls see that “hotness” and being sexy carries power with it, but they also observe the speed with which a girl who uses this can be taken down (as a “slut” or a “whore”).

Orenstein’s final chapter brings this set of discussions of themes of girlhood to an alarming crescendo:

It would be disingenuous to claim that Disney Princess diapers or Ty Girlz or Hannah Montana or Twilight or the latest Shakira video or a Facebook account is inherently harmful.  Each is, however, a cog in the round-the-clock, all-pervasive media machine aimed at our daughters – and at us – from womb to tomb; one that, again and again, presents femininity as performance, sexuality as performance, identity as performance, and each of those traits as available for a price.  It tells girls that how you look is more important than how you feel.  More than that, it tells them that how you look is how you feel, as well as who you are.

There are no conclusions at the end of Orenstein’s book, only a reminder that “our role is not to keep the world at bay but to prepare our daughters so they can thrive within it.”  I closed the book and thought about it, aware of a deep unsettled feeling in my heart.  I find myself reverting back to my college women’s studies courses, becoming angry at that old edifice, The Patriarchy.  As women finally near equality in our culture (Grace simply could not believe how recently women were not allowed to vote in this country), garnering rights and achievements that were unimaginable even recently, the strictures of expectation grow more suffocating.  Is this a way to muffle our power?  A sly, subversive way to keep us secondary?

But then I ask myself: who is responsible for these expectations?  Don’t we, women, the girls of yesterday, have to take some responsibility for them?  Especially as we begin to participate in the discussions that set these kinds of agendas, don’t we start to take some ownership for them?  You can’t tell me that everybody running Disney or childhood beauty pageants or Internet companies is male.  We know that is not true.  Still, most women I know share a deep discomfort with the themes that Orenstein so provocatively explores.  How to determine where these embedded expectations and norms come from, so that we might begin to unseat them?  I don’t have answers, but I do know that awareness and thoughtful exploration such as that in Cinderella Ate My Daughter is the only place to start.


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.