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Book Review

Achieving balance between life’s pain and humor through yoga

By Buzzy Jackson
January 7, 2011

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This book is going to be big. Claire Dederer manages to pack everything into this personal memoir: childbirth, money, schools, social class, career anxiety, parenting, sex, friendship, marriage, and yes, yoga. And don’t forget Dansko clogs — “always, always, [the] clogs.’’ Thousands of American mothers share Dederer’s experience as they glance up from their darling, maddening new babies to find themselves in a new sphere: hip, progressive, trying-really-hard-to-do-it-right mom-world. “Poser’’ is written for them.

“We were a generation of hollow-eyed women, chasing virtue. We, the mothers of North Seattle, were consumed with trying to do everything right . . . cook organic food, buy expensive wooden toys. . . . Also, don’t forget to recycle.’’ Dederer and her husband are freelance writers trying to make their creative careers mesh with the demands of raising two young children. Despite their creativity they find themselves sinking into traditional roles: “He was Earner, I was Mother, like characters in some phenomenally boring Ionesco play.’’ As a writer, however, Dederer is never boring. “Poser’’ achieves a yoga-like balance between pain and humor. While she may skewer the pretensions of her fellow moms and yoginis, she never lets herself off the hook, either. Her honest descriptions of her own fears and shortcomings as a parent, wife, and daughter are at the center of this book. Dederer first attempts yoga to relieve an aching back (thrown out while breast-feeding) but is soon seduced, despite her skepticism and aversion to Tibetan prayer flags, by the calming effect it has on her mind. “I didn’t think of it as an escape; I just felt the relief of moving and not thinking. There was also this relief: It was a room I didn’t have to clean.’’

Dederer occasionally lapses into Erma-Bombeck-visits-the-ashram mode, but in fact her experience with yoga teaches her something profound: how to recognize and face her own pain. “Discomfort, anxiety, dread — they had been lurking there all along, and I had been avoiding them, rushing away from them.’’ Her acknowledgment of this pain forces her to realize something surprising: “In response to my 1970s mom’’ — who ditched Dederer’s father for a younger, hipper man and joined the counterculture post-divorce — “I had become a 1950s housewife.’’ Dederer’s examination of this paradox is one of the most rewarding sections of the book. Her attitude toward her mother is both compassionate — “To be a young mother at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ’70s was to have missed it. . . . They, like everyone else, wanted fun and freedom and meaning’’ — and angry — “What happens . . . when a generation of children grows up with parents who want to be free, and who think that freedom is movement?’’ For Dederer and her brother, what happened was a desire “to be good, all the time. We would stay married, no matter what, and drink organic milk.’’ But her quest for total control over her family life, for “an uninterrupted story’’ in which “no one leaves . . . [and] everyone sticks together and follows the rules’’ is nearly as destructive as her mother’s desire to have it all, 1970s-style. Yoga helps her recognize, if not solve, this central issue.

From the bendier-than-thou instructors to the more-locavore-than-thou preschool parents, Dederer captures everyone in her world with humanity and gentle wit. So many readers will relate to her story; not just the long minutes spent in downward dog or the hours lost wandering the aisles of Whole Foods, but the years of pondering the mysteries of family relationships, past and present. And the fleeting moments spent staying, as the yogis say, focused on the breath.

Buzzy Jackson is the author of “Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist.’’ E-mail her at AskBuzzy@gmail.com.

POSER: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses By Claire Dederer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

332 pp., $26