The Strange State of Busy Isolation


The Strange State of Busy Isolation


The Strange State of Busy Isolation
New books dissected over email.
Jan. 19 2011 1:23 PM



Poser: My life in twenty-three yoga poses.

Hi Judith,

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

I agree that a book club is the right format for thinking about this unexpectedly winning book. By the end, I felt like Dederer—whom I've never met, but am also tempted to call Claire—might pop into my Sunday yoga class and go out for coffee after. I felt so friendly toward her that when I got home from yoga and read Judith Warner's essay calling Poser the latest entry in the "burgeoning literature of postboomer-female midlife crisis," I stiffened defensively. Warner quotes Dederer saying that she became a 1950s housewife in response to her 1970s mom, but conveys nothing of the wryness of the observation. Dederer is the first to mock herself for buying a set of unrealistic expectations, falling for them because they come in a box with homemade potato-print wrapping paper. The book is about her quest to free herself, not by leaving her husband and unmaking her quotidian existence, the way her mother did by running off with Larry the tugboat operator, but by making space in her marriage for the flaws. It's a smaller but real shift. "We carried Bruce's depression and my anxiety with us, on the roof rack, as it were," Dederer writes in one of the book's many original merry images.


What did you make of Dederer's trajectory? Physically, she moves from Seattle to Boulder, Colo., with her husband and two kids, and then back to the Pacific Northwest—but to an island that's a crucial ferry ride's distance from her old home and ties. Emotionally, she flees to the Rocky Mountains to cut loose from a thick web of family and friends, and when she comes back, it's with the resolution that she belongs in her old life but needs a moat to keep it at bay.

I applaud the moat. She is too nice to say so directly, but her family is unbelievably demanding. In a funny, telling chapter called "Headstand," Dederer recounts her "strange state of busy isolation" as a mother of a baby who writes book reviews from home. A grandparent or three shows up every day. They never offer useful, no-strings-attached child minding of the kind every working mother, however part-time, craves: Oh no, when the extended family arrives, it needs tending. Which Dederer provides. As a child, she intuited that her parents needed her to be happy as proof that her mother was a home wrecker who hadn't done any damage. Dederer is jaw-clenched about shielding her own children from such adult foibles: "I wasn't, wasn't, wasn't going to do to my children what my parents had done to me," she writes. But she is generous to a fault with her mother, reaching back through the decades for understanding.

As Dederer sketches her mother, she is drawn like a match to a roach to the hippie fun she'd missed out on by having kids in the late 1960s. And you're right, Judith, that the book is at its weakest when Dederer poses answers to the big generational questions her childhood raises. In one passage toward the end, she absolves women like her mother this way: "If they had not made new lives, when it was our turn to become young women, we might have found ourselves living ghosts, stuck in the old life they left behind, the life of marriage at 21 and a kid at 22." Sweeping conclusion alert! As you say, there are structural reasons, like increased earning power and access to birth control, for why women Dederer's age, and ours, tend to delay marriage and childbearing. In this book, such larger forces are missing in action.

I don't fault Dederer for trying her hand at the bigger canvas, though. This book is the kind that risks getting dismissed as small, domestic, interior. You didn't want to be seen reading it on the subway, and I refused to open it until the friend I'd given it to sent it back (via our school carpool) with a glowing review. What's the stumbling block to taking a yoga memoir seriously—are we self-hating mommy-critics? Did we subject Dederer to a nonfiction bout of Franzenfreude, making her earn attention we'd have bestowed more easily on a male writer (writing, for example, about his epiphanies playing tennis)?

Actually, I think the writer to blame here is Elizabeth Gilbert. It's impossible to read a book about yoga, much less one Gilbert herself has blurbed, without revisiting the tropes of Eat, Pray, Love. Don't get me wrong—I'm a fan, as far as it goes, but the middle-class-female questing that book embodies has its limitations as a professional identity. When one of Dederer's yoga teachers tells her to keep her gaze inside her mat, she likes the close husbanding of attention the image suggests. But my hope is that Poser's sales will win Dederer another book contract in which she turns her demonstrated powers of acute observation onto some part of the world outside her own doors. Her kids are old enough now: Time to move from interiors to exteriors. I mean that as a compliment, but I wonder if you think I'm off base?

In any case, for now, let's talk about yoga. I started doing it 10 years ago, and I confess there is nothing religious about my practice, which I'm not even sure really deserves that solemn-sounding name. For me, yoga is all muscle and sinew and blood flow. I love my teacher, Peg, because she keeps the spiritual patter to a smart minimum and because she showed me that I could do headstand (like Dederer, I marveled) and jump back from crow to chattarunga, after years of fearful balking. Dederer's book was a perfect yogic fit for me because she gives the poses their physical due instead of dwelling on their ancient Indian lineage, from which I feel respectful distance. Judith, you have written beautifully and wisely about everyday religious practice in your book The Sabbath World: What do you think about the devotional aspect of the American yoga studio? Maybe it's no coincidence that many of us visit it on Saturday and Sunday mornings, when we could be in synagogue or church.

While I'm asking questions, here's one more: Is there any way to collectively let ourselves off the perfectionist hook specific to "liberal bubble towns," as Dederer calls them—Seattle, Brooklyn, etc.? At the risk of sounding terribly judgmental, when I think of all the time that mothers pour into the finer details of co-sleeping and pureeing organic baby food, I want to spit. But of course, these are the easy targets. The harder ones are all the niceties, like PTA committees and thank-you notes and birthday presents and trips to the orthodontist, which are more reasonable features of middle-class life that men often seem happily absolved from. I think of this as the Third Shift and do as little of it as possible. But now am I the one being judgmental?


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