In many neighborhoods and social circles, having a baby is an exercise in perfection. It requires manuals and a bevy of prescribed (and expensive) equipment, not to mention strictly organic homemade baby food, lovingly prepared by a mother who is most likely exhausted, though she won't dare admit it.
In the late 1990s, Claire Dederer was part of this crowd of perfection-seeking mothers. As she writes, her North Seattle neighborhood "was filled with educated, white, liberal, well-intentioned people. ... In Phinney Ridge, people don't have BEWARE OF DOG signs. They have PLEASE BE MINDFUL OF DOG signs."
"Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 352 pages, $25), Dederer's warm and funny memoir, softly floats between recollections of her childhood and reflections on her marriage, between discovering her place in the world and the world's place in her life. She is -- in an ever-changing, random order -- a woman, a mother, a wife, a writer, a daughter. This memoir hints at familiar themes (a parental split in childhood, a rebellious young adulthood, a wish to make a different life for her kids), but refreshingly turns them on their head, yoga pun intended. Dederer shows us how yoga, with its twisting and holding and contorting and stretching and breathing, brings her clarity. How when she opened herself up, literally, she received more than she could ever have imagined.
This isn't a new-agey story, however. It starts when nursing her very hungry infant daughter causes Dederer severe back pain. Everyone from her doctor to the checker at her local grocery store recommends she take up yoga. Even "the homeless guy selling the homeless-guy newspaper outside Ken's Market said, 'Be sure to get a mat! It's really hard to do yoga without a mat.'"
After a failed dalliance with a yoga tape, Dederer seeks out a yoga class, the first in what would become an evolving, yet constant practice in her life. In the beginning, "There was this idea in my mind that yoga would make me better. Better than I'd been, better than everyone else. More virtuous. I liked the idea of myself as a yoga person."
What she has found in the past 10 years of yoga practice, however, is the ability to embrace imperfection. "I thought that I would do yoga all my life, and I thought that I would continue to improve at it, that I would penetrate its deepest mysteries. ... But here's the truth: The longer I do yoga, the worse I get at it. I can't tell you what a relief it is."
Dederer is a gifted storyteller, not just for her turns of phrase or her ubiquitous humor. Her memoir reads like a rich conversation with a friend, moving from laughter to quiet reflection and back again. She remains utterly relatable and real, and to that I say, Namaste.
Kim Schmidt has reviewed books for American Way Magazine, the Chicago Sun Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. She lives in Illinois.