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Mariel Hemingway Moves Forward By Standing Still

Mariel Hemingway After they filmed Manhattan together, Woody Allen came to visit Mariel Hemingway at her family's home in Idaho. The teenage Oscar nominee immediately took him for a hike with her father, up a mountain, off the trail, in the snow. (Stop for a moment and try to imagine Woody Allen hiking, much less up a snow-covered slope in the Sawtooth Mountains.) Finally, when father and daughter were sufficiently refreshed by the crisp, high-elevation exercise and the hills had begun to turn dark, the threesome turned back toward the Hemingways' house. Mariel writes,

So, down we went through the high, snowy sagebrush, guided into the gloom by the lights below, where my mother was slowly and delicately roasting the dead bird with herbs and potatoes....Thank God nobody got any birdshot in the meat.

From the beginning (or before the beginning, really), there have always been two sides to Mariel Hemingway's life. Four months before she was born, her grandfather Ernest killed himself in his cabin upriver—it was the fourth suicide in his immediate family—and just a few years later, Mariel encountered the first but perhaps underlying mixed message offered to her by the adult world: her grade school in Ketchum was named after the grandfather who had taken his life with a shotgun.

Public acclaim and private pain. Barely out of grade school, Mariel nursed her mother through cancer and her father through his bitter, loveless marriage. Then, when she was just thirteen, her sister Margaux, a model and actress, recommended her for a supporting role in Lipstick. Mariel had never before acted or even entertained the dream. Woody Allen saw the movie. Soon enough he was calling from New York asking her to read for a part in his new fall project—a part he had written expressly for her. As Tracy, she earned an Oscar nomination in what stands as one of the century's best films.

She continued acting. She survived Margaux's chemical abuse and death. She fell in love with documentary filmmaker, Stephen Crisman. They have two wonderful daughters together, Langley and Kree. In late 2000, her father passed away when one of the sutures from his bypass surgery burst. Only a few days later, Stephen was diagnosed with cancer.

"I want to begin this story about my life by simply standing still," Finding My Balance starts. Opposite the text we see a gauzy black and white photo of Hemingway in "Mountain pose." She explains, "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."

More forward thinking than a traditional memoir, more heartfelt than a technical introduction to yoga or meditation, Finding My Balance is the story of a woman learning to balance first on the inside in order to weather the storms from without.

Dave: Finding My Balance isn't a straightforward memoir, nor is it a yoga guide. It's a bit of each. How did you come upon its structure?

Mariel Hemingway: It ended up being this way because memoir on its own seemed sort of silly to me. It didn't make a lot of sense. I'm not that old, and I haven't lived a life so far from the ordinary, really. I wanted to share the experience of how yoga and meditation have transformed my life, how they have enabled me to observe who I am, first in my body, and then emotionally, and on to a kind of spiritual path.

Basically, I came to yoga and meditation so I could undo some of my past, and I believe that you can do that through a combination of things. For me, first, it's finding quiet in my life—and I do that through yoga and meditation. It's also been a matter of changing the way I eat, because I think what we eat can inform who we are; food is a chemical and a drug to a certain extent. I've certainly made bad decisions about food in the past; I thought I was healthy when my diet was actually causing tremendous damage to my body. The other thing is surrounding yourself with people that care for you. These are simple things, but they're powerful, and they've completely transformed who I am and how I perceive myself.

I don't take myself terribly seriously. It's why I can be incredibly honest about my life. My problems aren't so different from anybody else. I believe that everybody comes from pain and a certain amount of dysfunction. Everybody needs a way out of that pain. Many people choose drugs and alcohol. Some people obsessively exercise or develop strange dietary habits, which is what I did. At least it got me toward a path of healthier living.

And I think I'm being successful, but finding my balance is a continuous process. I thought my book was done, then we went to Hawaii and the whole last chapter happened.

Dave: If you could isolate incidents that convinced you that yoga was the right thing to do and not another misstep? Reading Autobiography of a Yogi, for example, was a powerful experience for you.

Hemingway: I think that growth and spiritual awareness come in slow increments. Sometimes you don't know it's happening. When I first read Autobiography of a Yogi, it didn't spark immediately. I was fascinated by it, but it didn't come together until I got the lessons on how to meditate.

I began by doing physical yoga, initially just for the workout, as exercise. I would get peaceful and calm at the end of it, and I was curious about that. I talk about "passionate curiosity" in the book. I think we should be passionately curious about what we do. Well, I was passionately curious about what my body was doing, and when I got the lessons on how to meditate, it seemed really solid to me. It seemed real. It wasn't like, You're going to take a weekend course and you're going to be a psychic or you can do hypnosis on your friends. It was like running a marathon. You have to train for it. You don't just go out and run a marathon or you're going to kill yourself. Life is like that. You go out every day and you put the mileage in.

That's what S. R. F. seemed to be for me. Self-Realization Fellowship seemed like training. It was the training ground for finding a sense of peace in myself. Because that's my job. It's no one else's. I didn't have to give anyone a lot of money. I didn't have to tell anyone about it. I don't have to check in. I don't have to go to church. The church is within me and the experience is my own. It's my life experience.

The experience of getting my Kriya, which is the meditation process that I do, was very powerful for me—though, as I explain in the book, I was really suspect of that kind of thing. Things like that don't happen to me. It's not that I don't believe in miracles, but I never quite trust that they're real. But the experience that I had, which was basically just feeling loved and taken care of in a room full of thousands of people I didn't know, seemed to be a pretty strong sign that what I was doing was a good thing. All those other things like the goofy woman that came to Idaho and was transforming the rocks into all that... I wasn't listening to my intuition, which was saying, "What the hell are you doing?" But I was scared because I was insecure and I was looking for help.

I wanted out of my pain and that silliness, but I wanted an easy out. That's before realizing that there is no easy out. Before accepting that you just have to do the work.

Dave: Your sister Margaux recommended you for a part in Lipstick, your first role. You didn't go out and seek a career in acting. Then just a couple years later, at fifteen, you were nominated for an Oscar.

Have you always enjoyed acting?

Hemingway: I enjoyed doing Lipstick, but it scared me. I was very nervous. I couldn't wait for it to be over. It was very real, and I was just a kid.

When child actors act well they're just reacting to situations, and they're acting very real because their life experience is so short; there's no history to fall back on. What they were giving me seemed incredibly real to me, so I'd react to it in a very real way. That was frightening for me, especially because of the subject.

Manhattan, though, was an entirely different ballgame in a whole different kind of world, with a man who was brilliant and at the same time terribly charismatic. He made me feel as though I was an adult in this very big world of New York City. I was taken by the romanticism of being thought of as an adult and living in a world that was completely new to me. I fell in love with acting then.

It was an incredible experience. Manhattan wasn't a psycho story; it was a love story. And it was New York, and I loved New York. It made me fall in love with New York and with acting. It was kind of the detriment of my career because when you get that kind of experience so young, where do you go from there? I did Star 80, which was a magnificent experience as well, but still, I was at the height of my career at the beginning. Then I had to jump down the ladder and climb back up again, which I didn't understand. That was very hard.

I loved acting when I was doing it, but getting the jobs I didn't understand because I'd never had to do it. That was a difficult lesson for me. It was very humbling and very bizarre. I thought I'd done something wrong. Why aren't they just offering me roles like they used to? I was sad. But that happened to be my road.

Dave: So after you film Manhattan, Woody comes to visit you in Idaho where you immediately proceed to take him for a hike, up a mountain, in the snow, off the trail. He's practically dying while you and your father can't hike far enough. It's a scene straight out of a Woody Allen movie.

Hemingway: It is, absolutely. Sometimes I think about it and I wonder, Did it really happen? It was just so strange, but it was so unique and so much fun. I was so naïve, just this little girl with my dad, taking him for a hike. I was just an idiot. This poor guy! I felt I had to share Idaho with my friend from New York because he'd shared New York with me, so I was going to share the beauty of nature with a man who went to museums and clubs late at night. But there was nothing to do where I lived at night.

Dave: I spent some time in Idaho this summer, near Ketchum.

Hemingway: Where?

Dave: Well, the high point was a hike to Alice Lake.

Hemingway: Beautiful! One of the most beautiful lakes in the world. I can't believe you've been there.

Dave: Well, it was funny how we found it. We went to an outdoors store on the north side of town?

Hemingway: ?Backwoods?

Dave: I'm not sure what it was called. If you're driving toward the Sawtooths from town?

Hemingway: ?and it's on the left?

Dave: Yes.

Hemingway: That's Backwoods.

Dave: We stopped there to get a topo map and to ask for advice about where to go. Immediately, three people unfolded a map—only one of them actually worked at the store—and showed us the Alice Lake hike. They said, "You must do this hike. You may not leave this area until you do this hike."

Hemingway: It's breathtaking. It was hikes like those and lakes like that that kept me alive. If that can be in the world, I figured, we can all exist just fine. I just thought that was a good balance to being screwed up. But there's that! Maybe I hate being at home and maybe cleaning up cat vomit is pretty gross, but, you know what, there's that lake.

Dave: You talk a lot in the book about your father spending time outdoors. Did your mother participate?

Hemingway: No. Sadly, she grew up in Idaho, but in many ways she was like a rebellious teenager who was simply not going to do anything the rest of the family did because she was mad. It was like she was so tied up in her own pain that she couldn't allow herself to reach out to what could be healing to her.

Living in this beautiful place, she kind of walled herself inside her house. She barely went outside. I would see her gardening once in a while, and I would think, Well, at least she's getting in touch with something in the outdoors, but it was a real rebelliousness because my dad was always outdoors. She decided that she didn't do that. Once she broke her leg skiing it seemed that she hibernated for the rest of her life.

Dave: I didn't know until today that you thought you'd finished the book before the events of the last chapter took place.

Hemingway: When you look at it, it's absolutely perfect. Maybe it needed to happen so the book could have a better ending, but I also needed to learn about not saving people. Cancer came back into my life twice in order for me to understand something, and I guess I still wasn't getting it. And my husband wasn't getting it, either. We're taught to take care of people we love, but sometimes you can't.

Dave: What you went through as a child, caring for your mother when she got cancer, certainly helped prepare you for your husband's diagnosis.

Hemingway: It was easier to accept it and hear him say, "I'm going to die." I could tell him to calm down. The hard thing was that my father had just died. I had to change gears immediately. Suddenly I had no time to think about my father.

So in some ways I was prepared. What I wasn't prepared for were the feelings of anxiety that it stirred in me. I wasn't prepared for the initial feeling of I don't want to have to do that again. I was scared. I got back into the position of taking care of my husband, which is what I'd learned that I couldn't really do: you can love and make things okay to a certain extent, but you can't fix. I didn't quite learn that until the kayaking incident. It became so clear then.

Nobody ever talked to me when my mother got cancer. Nobody sat me down to tell me about her condition, that she would be okay or what would happen if she wasn't. I sat my kids down. It was a great time for me to learn how to communicate with them that things would be okay, regardless. "Even if your dad dies, it'll be alright. We'll survive. We'll get through this. We'll send a lot of love and do the best we can to help dad help himself." Of course, inside I'd be frantic, wanting him to take his vitamins or whatever. He did his work, but it was very hard for me not to try to do it for him.

Dave: Was he doing yoga prior to being diagnosed with cancer?

Hemingway: He meditates. He does yoga once every eighteen months, maybe. And he usually sits in the back with some really great yogi, some great teacher like Rodney Yee when he's in town. He's a typical male: "I'm not flexible." I tell him, "It's not just about being flexible," but it's got to be hard when your wife can wind herself up like a pretzel and do all kinds of things. That's not necessarily what yoga is about at all; it just happens to be really fun for me. I can do those things, so I do. For him, it's like, "I'll just leave that to the pretzel wife."

He does meditate, and I think that's far more important, anyway. Finding some quiet time in your life, I think, is hugely important.

Dave: I've done yoga a few times, but sporadically and with very little direction. If someone wants to try yoga, how do you suggest getting started? Is it just a matter of finding the right fit?

Hemingway: It is finding the right fit, and you will if you keep exploring. What's even more important: always go to a beginner class first.

Starting out in a beginner class and really understanding the fundamentals of yoga is really important. People tend to throw themselves into some Power Yoga class that's way above their head—and I was one of those people —then either they run from it and never do it again or they injure themselves. They don't learn body awareness.

Yoga teaches you how to listen to your body. If you can just go in to a beginning class and listen: What's going on here? How do I feel in this posture? You know what, I'm going to bend my knee because that just doesn't feel comfortable. Maybe I'll take a little of the bend out. It's a discipline that's your own. It makes you take responsibility for yourself. A lot of exercise is mindless; you can have music or the radio on and not be aware. But if you're aware in anything you do—and it doesn't have to be yoga—it changes you. Being present changes you.

I find Bikram difficult for beginners because you're so wrapped up in how hot it is. The heat enables your body to get loose faster, but you're doing a lot of really difficult positions, and getting that much heat you can actually injure yourself. So that's not great, though it feels fabulous when you get through because you've just sweat three body sizes off.

If you want more of an active yoga, try Power Ashtanga. If you really want a kind of gentle, inward form, Ananda can be great. Sometimes that's too slow for people, but then there are combinations of the two. You have to ask yourself, "What do I need? How do I live my life?" If you're a runner, do you need that kind of adrenaline? Maybe Ashtanga or Power Yoga is best. But pushing yourself beyond your limit is never a good idea.

Dave: Toward the end of the book you compare life to acting in the way that you shouldn't be thinking about a scene that came earlier in the script or one that comes later, but rather just remain in the scene you're performing. In other words, live life in the moment. And I thought, On the one hand that's the most blatantly obvious advice in the world. On the other hand, it's true, and if it were so obvious more people would actually do it.

Hemingway: It is obvious. Of course it's obvious. But you're right: Who does it? That's the point.

I've known for years that you're supposed to be present. I know that thinking about what's happened or thinking about what I want is not going to get me anywhere, but until I quit doing it I'm not present. How can I sit here and have this conversation with you without having another conversation in my head? It's practice. You're going to get other thoughts, but if I keep reminding myself that this is the only thing I'm doing now and I can't do anything about the kids at home, I can put that aside and try to be present.

It's the most obvious thing in the world, and yet who does it? Nobody. We're not designed to be present in America. We're designed to be successful.

Dave: We're multitasking.

Hemingway: We're all multitasking. We're doing a hundred things at one time, and consequently I don't know that we do any one thing really well.

Dave: Well, that is the lament of the age. We're living through the extinction of expertise and specialization in so many areas. What happened to the neighborhood cobbler or the local butcher?

Hemingway: No, you don't have your butcher or baker. You don't go to the vegetable grocer on the corner. You go to all-in-one stores.

The only thing that should be all-in-one is our belief in something greater than ourselves. That's the only kind of all-in-one thing I'm interested in. We should all give up the idea of "my way."

Dave: You played Tipper Gore recently. Portraying a real-life personality about whom the audience brings preconceived ideas, whether it's Tipper Gore or Dorothy Stratten, would seem to present a different kind of challenge as an actor. Why did you take the role of Tipper?

Hemingway: Certainly when I heard about it I was thinking, "Not the woman who did that horrible thing in the music industry so many years ago?!" But it's a very funny piece. It's like a documentary, but of course it's not. It's an interpretation of what went on.

I saw her as a mother who listened to the lyrics her really small children were singing along to?and I can understand, as a young mother, you want to protect your kids, but she kind of got mixed up with this Washington Wives thing, a bunch of older women who took it on as a badge of honor to go and do this. But I found it fun to play this character that had really bad taste in clothes at the time, and bad hairdos. So for me it was fun.

Playing Dorothy Stratten... God knows I wouldn't want to be that victim. But to relate to it is part of who we are. There's a little bit of everybody in us. There are good people and bad people and evil people and saintly people, and it's just kind of taking the core of what that character is, the small piece of it inside you, and making it bigger. The little seed that you have, you make it grow.

Dave: And now you're working on A Moveable Feast. That must be exciting.

Hemingway: It is. It's very exciting. I've done some documentary stuff, but this is my first real directing job. Billy Bob Thornton is my producer. My husband is also going to produce. It's pretty exciting.

Dave: Will you be in front of the camera at all?

Hemingway: No. I'm going to be behind the camera. I love to act, and I'm sure I will again, but I see my life changing right now. It seems to be. I didn't think I'd be writing a book, and then all of a sudden I did. Now suddenly I really care that it does well.

Dave: How did the Moveable Feast project get started?

Hemingway: I got the rights to it about ten years ago. Maybe five years ago, I started working on the script. It's been a passion of mine forever. I love the book.

My father took me to Paris when I was eleven. He took me through the streets and showed me the different places that he'd lived and the places he'd been shown by his father. He took me to the museums and showed me the Cezannes that you read about. It was so beautiful and romantic to me. I have an innate sense of it. I feel I understand it in a way that I can share on film. Who knows if that will be successful? But I hope so.

Dave: Does the project bring you closer to your family?

Hemingway: I think you understand your heritage more. I think you do. But more than anything, like everyone else, I romanticize the time. There's no other time like it. There's no other Paris of the 20s. The Lost Generation. There's no café or salon society where people get together. I think we try; we try to do it in coffeehouses, but it's a different kind of world. We're multitasking, doing all this stuff. To take time to really explore our creativity amongst other artists is just not done.

I think it was more a fascination with the time than my family, but of course I discover where I get things. It's like, Oh, that makes sense. I see why I have a passion for that. When I read it or I look at locations, I understand why I appreciate things the way I do. I don't know if that was handed down or just because it was a part of me growing up.

Dave: Do you read much? What do you enjoy?

Hemingway: I read fiction, mostly. I read in spurts. Months go by when I read, then months go by when I don't—which is rather sad. I wish I were more consistent.

Dave: Whatever works.

Hemingway: Exactly.

Dave: Any recent favorites? Or not-so-recent?

Hemingway: I reread classics all the time just because I like to make sure that I'm reading something that means something to me. I'll reread my grandfather or reread Steinbeck. I read The Lovely Bones and enjoyed it very much. I loved The Poisonwood Bible. It was an adventure that took you away, and sometimes you need that. It's what movies want to do, and don't often do.

Dave: My favorite anecdote in your book, which I was sharing with some people earlier today, is the story about how Prince Charles wouldn't stop talking at the premiere of Superman IV.

Hemingway: How funny was that? I'm like, The Prince is talking to me! Thank God he was talking because the movie was so poor.

Dave: And yet you said you enjoyed making it.

Hemingway: I've enjoyed being in all the films. Bad or good, I'm always like, "Yay! I'm here! I'm acting!" Maybe it's because it takes me away from my own life, and we all like something new. You can pretend that you have a new, different life each time.

Now, I'm really ensconced in being a mom and a wife, but I've gone off on this book tour and I can pretend I'm an author. But a couple days ago my husband wanted to watch something that was on television, some promotion I'd done for the book, and the kids were like, "Can't we change the channel? We already know about Mom's life." It's a reality check. That's what's real.

Mariel Hemingway visited Powell's City of Books on January 21, 2003. We swooned accordingly. So many people came to her reading—and were thoroughly won over by her —that Finding My Balance became the week's bestseller at Powell's.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Yoga: The Poetry of the Body
    Used Trade Paper $6.50
  2. Hiking Idaho Used Trade Paper $10.95
  3. Autobiography of a Yogi
    Used Mass Market $4.95
  4. A Moveable Feast
    Used Trade Paper $8.00
  5. Finding My Balance: A Memoir with Yoga New Trade Paper $17.95
  6. Finding My Balance Signed Edition Used Hardcover $9.95

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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