Chapter One: Mountain Pose, or Tadasana
I want to begin this story about my life by simply standing still. Standing on our own two feet with stability and awareness is hugely important in all our lives, and it seems easy enough. I stand here, supposedly straight and stable, balanced and awake. But am I really? I rock my weight back and forth on my feet, trying to find my true center. The funny thing is that I am sure that what's center for me today was imbalance yesterday, or will be tomorrow. But forget that. I make a commitment to nothing except my willingness to be present on my own feet, inside my body, today -- right now.
The premise of Mountain pose, like all standing yoga postures, is to stimulate the body and the mind. I tense my thigh muscles and release them, and after that release I seek a comfortable holding position that feels invigorating without tension. Concentrating on the sensation, I try to bring all the muscles in my body into this pleasant state, while standing in this apparently simple posture. I find that it is not at all a simple thing to do. There are complexities to my body even while I am standing still. Am I making a line of my crown, ears, and ankles? Are my sides extended evenly, with the same length, depth, and intensity? I pull my spine up out of my waist, feeling lightness in the intention of a straight body. My neck is long and an extension of my long spine. I spread my toes to find my solid ground. Ah yes! That reminds me of the importance of my feet. Solid contact with the earth is the root of this posture.
As I reflect on Mountain pose and understand the implications of its name, I can begin to understand my great need for stability and groundedness. Something about stability is so appealing to me in a world where I find it very difficult to feel solid on my feet, or even to feel that I'm inside my body! I think this goes way back for me. Probably, like a lot of people, my sense of instability came from a childhood where too many things were turned upside down. Caring for a sick mother in a ravaged family, I became the parent at a time when I needed reassurance and mothering.
My childhood home in Ketchum was across Idaho's Big Wood River and a few miles upstream from the cabin where my grandfather Ernest had lived. He killed himself with a shotgun just four months before I was born -- the fourth suicide in his immediate family. Was it a genetic predisposition to depression and alcoholism, or an unhealthy family environment that produced disastrous emotional habits? Whatever the cause, it's the kind of family album that gets you thinking. Continued tragedies in succeeding generations of our family have left me coping with a full slate of problems and fears every day in my life. Finding my own answers has come to seem like a matter of survival. That struggle has shaped me. It is the story I want to tell.
My heartbreakingly lovely mother, Byra Louise Whittlesey, or Puck, as she was called, had been married once before she met my father, to a handsome aviator who flew off into World War II right after the wedding and never returned. She was left with an unfading fantasy of perfect romance. In contrast, her relationship with my dad quickly became all too real, and dreams of romance faded. That made our house a loveless and unhappy one. My parents met in Sun Valley soon after the end of the war. Mom was working as an administrator for United Airlines, a mourning widow who was too tall to be a stewardess. At the Sun Valley Lodge she ran into a handsome young bellhop named Jack Hemingway. He quickly fell head over heels for the striking, dark-haired guest with the chiseled bone structure and gorgeous legs. She wasn't an easy catch, though. Her heart was broken, and even had she been willing to share it, there were lots of other suitors. Dad pursued her for four years before she broke down, deciding that a life of travel and adventure with him was better than a life in mourning. It might not have been the best basis for a marriage; I think my mother was never in love with Dad, and he never felt loved by her.
Mom never really consented to her marriage -- that reality came out in scores of little ways in our family. Though she was good at domestic affairs, she resented everything she had to do around the house. I can recall her in her old clothes, powering through the chores with a bucket of cleaning products and rags. The vacuum hummed. But if I walked into the house after she mopped the floor, she would scream, "Take off your damn shoes," or simply whack my arm and growl. This was not cleaning with a smile.
Mother was a great cook, but she seemed to cook only to prove how unappreciated she was. Every day, she would plan an exotic meal for dinner, like Cuban-style picadillo or Italian food with handmade pasta. She was an artist, but all during the beautiful process she would be cursing about how her goddamn husband would pour salt all over the food without even tasting, or go off to eat cheese and crackers after dinner was over. She always cooked, and she was always pissed off at my dad about food. Meals at our house were a time for feeling uncomfortable, and we went off separately afterward to nurse our poor digestion. Today, with my own family, I always try to add more love than talent to my cooking, believing that the loving atmosphere at the table is the most important ingredient.
In 1970, when I was eight, our family suffered its first big shock. Dad, the tennis player and outdoorsman, had a severe heart attack in his forties. No doubt, his abuse of cigarettes and alcohol exacted a toll on him, but I've always thought that his heart gave out because it was broken. He couldn't handle constant rejection by the woman he loved. In any case, he landed in the Sun Valley Hospital for a month, heavily dosed with drugs. The drugs seemed to work on him like some kind of evil truth serum, and he became hostile toward Mom, telling her how neglected he felt. He recklessly plunged into a blatant affair with one of the nurses. Mom was suddenly vulnerable and emotional at home. She tried to hide her embarrassment, but that is nearly impossible in a small town, especially when you have a bevy of interested daughters. Everybody seemed to know everything about our little domestic scandal.
Dad came home from the hospital with doctor's marching orders for the lot of us. He was to avoid stress at all costs, so we were warned to be on our best behavior, or we would threaten his health. No more smoking, which meant Mom had to quit, too. And his diet was to be low-fat from now on, a change that replaced butter on our table with the despised margarine. Yuck! Mom rebelled quietly, but resolutely. When Dad was napping in the afternoon and my sisters were off at school, she would disappear into the closet-sized laundry room to "secretly" smoke. Once, I remember rounding the corner looking for her, baby doll in my arms, only to meet her emerging from the bathroom followed by billowing clouds of smoke. She had a matter-of-fact look on being caught, and responded to my wide-eyed disapproval with a simple "What?!" It was clear she wanted no answer when she slapped my bottom and pushed me into the kitchen. There was to be no talk about the foggy bathroom, ever. "The hell with him," she would say under her breath.
Dad quickly got over his affair, but the damage to their marriage mounted daily. We were always tense. Dinners got so bad that we gave up the kitchen altogether and took to eating my mother's gourmet cooking in front of To Tell the Truth or Jeopardy! Life spiraled into a dull hell. The center of my family life at home was the older of my two sisters, Muffet. She was eleven years older than I, and made me feel more loved and cared for than anyone else did. When she was home, she would pick me up from school and drive twisting down the road like a snake. While I shrieked with laughter, she would explain that I should never get sun on my face or squint if I wanted to avoid wrinkles. She would hold her beautiful face exquisitely still to demonstrate. But Muffet disengaged from the awful family dynamic. Off on her own, she developed a dark secret, one that is painfully obvious in hindsight. She escaped to spend a lot of time during the sixties in northern California, hanging out at Grateful Dead concerts. I recall my mother berating her for her velvet capes, dark lipstick, striped bell-bottoms, and bare feet. She was screamed at for her detached attitude and disrespectful behavior. My confusion mounted as this beloved free spirit got into chilling rages aimed at my parents. None of us had any clue that she was often tripping on LSD.
I particularly recall one day when I was eleven. I had come home from school, eaten masses of celery with peanut butter, and gone out to the backyard to jump on my trampoline. I was jumping and back flipping, trying to touch the clouds with my fingertips, when I heard yelling from inside the house. Unlike the usual yelling of a volatile family, this was incredibly urgent -- so urgent that I bounced to the ground and ran for the house. Inside, my mother and Muffet were fighting near the stairway. I could distinguish two different sounds in the ruckus. Mom was trying to calm Muffet down, talking gently and quietly, while my sister was screaming obscenities about a fictitious life as an artist in Paris. She said she needed to get back to her roots there. I didn't know about her roots, but she had just returned from studying at the Sorbonne, where she had perfected her French. She was wildly claiming to be a painter and the lover of Picasso, alternating between English and French, all in a scream. I was surprised that my mother, whose back was toward me, was being so submissive; it was not her style at all to back down when being confronted. But she sounded terrified.
I moved closer to see if I could help break up the fight, and from my new position I could see that Muffet was threatening Mom with a pair of scissors held inches from her face. I didn't know what to do -- scream, grab Muffet, run away, or call the police -- so I stood there motionless. But my mother wasn't so helpless. She said, in a trembling but reasonable voice, "Look, Muffet, Mariel is behind you. You're scaring her." It was completely true. I was terrified. As Muffet turned to look at me, Mom grabbed the scissors from her hand. Disarmed, Muffet melted into tears, as did Mom. I joined them. I didn't understand at all what had happened or why. It later fell to Dad to explain to me that Muffet had taken LSD, and it caused her brain to "get nutty," as he described it.
The acid triggered a chemical imbalance in her. She once claimed that her calling in life was to fly -- actually fly -- and clothes restricted her. She threatened to hurt my mother if she stopped her from expressing her true nature. So, she ran naked through the streets of Ketchum. My parents were at a complete loss and eventually had her sent away to a neural institution for a few months. I didn't know where she had gone, but I missed her terribly. She was the painter, cook, and haircutter who made home seem like home. For my parents, she was not only a problem but an embarrassment within the community. They told me she had some sort of physical illness. It was several years before wiser doctors and loving friends helped Muffet discover that her condition was treatable with a careful regimen of therapeutic drugs and emotional support.
My other sister, Margaux, was seven years older than I, already starting to show her supermodel beauty when the family began to fall apart. Rebelling against Mom and Dad, she became the youngest patron of the Pioneer Bar in town, at the age of fourteen. She was completely wild. School nights were no different from the weekend for her. No curfew, no amount of parental screaming held her back. She partied all weekend on the ski hills, filling her bota bag with wine or tequila and fearlessly bolting down double Black Diamond runs stoned and drunk. Angry resort security people regularly had to escort her off the mountain. She gave up on school and rarely went a whole week without getting into major trouble. The stress on our parents was going through the roof. As soon as Margaux's modeling career took off, she left home to party on the road.
All in all, my mom's attitude and emotional distance left me, as the baby of the family, with no role model to help me understand the feminine side of my personality. This has been a constant problem in my life. What is a woman supposed to do? How is she supposed to act? As a kid, I frantically tried to clean the house, hoping that by being extra good I could somehow heal everything. It didn't work, so I developed my escape routines like everybody else.
I grew up a tomboy, skiing and hiking; so before there was yoga and Mountain pose, there were mountains. The beauty of the Sawtooth Range was a comforting gift to me. When I could drive -- and country kids in Idaho drive at the age of fourteen -- I would head off alone to places where the steep hills came right down near the road. I climbed dusty trails and boulder-filled avalanche chutes up to the high places. The cool mountain air was a blessed contrast to the overheated atmosphere of home. I would propel my body upward, making a mental pact with myself that if I could just get to the top of the ridge or the peak, all the anxiety that consumed me would fall away. It usually worked, too. Arriving at the top, with my lungs and thighs burning, I would look out and feel things start to sort themselves out, fall into perspective. The muscles of the mountains comforted me, literal rocks to hold on to, so unlike the instability of my home. I would run and skip down, smelling the bruised sage and the dying smell of summer gone by. To this day, I look lovingly at the familiar view behind my home, deeply comforted because the mountains never change, no matter how the weather and environment swirl around them.
Eventually, though, I had to come down from the security of the peaks. I had the dubious honor of going to school at Ernest Hemingway Elementary, where the kids called me "rich bitch" and kicked me while we stood in the pay phone line. Many of them believed I owned the school and all were sure I was somehow getting special treatment. I wanted to explain that the only connection we Hemingways had to the school was that my grandmother made a donation for the hardwood floor in the gym, but the words wouldn't come. I just held back my tears and prayed for graduation.
Dad's feelings of being unloved surely got a huge boost when Papa Ernest killed himself. The effect of a suicide is devastating on those left behind. I'm certain Dad felt deeply abandoned and uncared for, but he kept his emotions to himself. It really must have been too much when he couldn't win the love of his wife. He escaped our unhappy home by practically living out of doors, fishing and hunting his way across the world. I cherished the times he took me fishing with him in the northern Rockies, or on Pacific steelhead streams. Through him, I learned to love the outdoors, though our times together weren't overtly emotionally demonstrative. Somehow, he couldn't directly communicate his love for me, so he revealed his feelings through an intense and competitive athletic relationship. When I played soccer or ran to train for ski racing, he would always tell me that he ran farther still. If I hiked, he would say he had hiked and played tennis, too. I always felt that he was proving that he was better than me. I didn't understand until much later that it was his confused way of showing love.
For obvious reasons, Dad almost never mentioned his famous father. I had to discover the writings of Ernest Hemingway by myself. Like most students, I first picked up The Old Man and the Sea. I was eleven and a slow reader, and I was afraid that I wouldn't understand the book; but the deep, simple prose carried me off far into the night, out on the ultramarine waters off Cuba with Santiago. I finished a big-person book in two sittings! I felt that I understood my grandfather, knew for the first time that he really was my family. We shared the same blood. I felt I understood him better than anybody else. It was the beginning of my love of books.
Margaux rarely took time out from her wild life to visit us, but when she did, she left me wide-eyed with her beauty and reckless sense of fun. As soon as I became a teenager she wangled me a part in the movie Lipstick, in which she had the starring role. I was so innocent when the film began that I didn't even understand that my character was raped in the movie. Off the set, though, I was being forced to grow up pretty fast. Mother was diagnosed with cancer that year, 1975, and I truly came to feel that there was nobody who would take care of me if I didn't do it myself. When Lipstick was released, people said I was a star, while Margaux's acting was hurtfully panned. She intensified her self-destructive behavior, and the distance between us began to take on adult dimensions.
Soon after my mother's cancer was diagnosed, the family was shocked when Muffet, who had controlled her illness well enough to fall in love and get married, suffered a series of mental breakdowns. She simply couldn't be persuaded to take her medicine. Her marriage collapsed and she returned home to the care of my mother, who was herself undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. That was when I began a long pattern of living in fear that I would become ill like my mother or go crazy like my sisters.
I choose to believe that many children are put in difficult situations in life so they will be challenged to grow and become stronger. My situation certainly propelled me to search for love and stability in my life, though the propulsion began like a Chinese rocket, shooting all over the place.
I'll get into that wild ride soon enough, but for now let's return to the yoga mat, where I am standing as straight and still and aware as I can be on this day. I have squeezed and maneuvered and played with all my muscles so I can find the solid, peaceful, unscathed mountain that is me. Here I find the silence.
Copyright © 2003 by Fox Creek Productions f/s/o Mariel Hemingway