Next Avenue

A Permanent Residency by Anne Kreamer

My Midwestern family, vastly more “Leave It to Beaver” than “Addams Family,” enjoyed one notable quirk. We loved cemeteries. While other families visited museums or churches on their summer vacations, when we traveled, we’d seek out the oldest graveyards we could find, wandering happily among the headstones, reading aloud to each other as we went, imagining the lives of the people buried beneath. History was written in those stones: town politics (the fanciest mausoleums or best sites revealed which families were considered important), epidemics (waves of young deaths), wars (generations of boys wiped out; the stark immensity of the cemetery at Omaha Beach in Normandy where my father landed), tragedy (five out of eight children predeceasing the parents)and poignancies (couples entombed together after 60 years of marriage).

Once I had my own family, we embraced my parents' legacy (and my in-laws’ similar graveyard love despite their preference for cremation) with even more gusto: picnicking—off-the-beaten path cemeteries are far less populous and more interesting places to eat than parks—and even going so far as to ritualize a headlights-off-spooky-soundtrack-on nighttime drive through the old cemetery close to our Upstate New York farm.

My husband and I had always thought we’d have our ashes scattered on that farm. But when we sold it, I found myself longing for the green calm of country life and began taking walks in the closest verdant place to my home in Brooklyn: Green-Wood Cemetery.

(MORE: A Guide for Funeral Planning and Expenses)


Green-wood is a 478-acre paradise—a National Historic Monument and part of the Audubon Sanctuary System (home to horned owls and Quaker parrots)—deep in the heart of dense urbanity. And it’s the “permanent residence” for the famous and the infamous: Horace Greeley, “Boss” Tweed, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein, The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, Samuel Morse, Louis Comfort Tiffany and, my personal favorite, “Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets” Montez, the 19th-century adventurer and mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria.

The truly great thing is that it is not a depressing place. Unlike most cemeteries, where people visit only on national holidays, Green-Wood is teeming with life and energy—from its magical-seeming fauna to cemetery-sponsored events like moonlight tours accompanied by accordion players to 1950s-feeling Fourth of July brass bands and picnics to people like me enjoying their daily constitutional. When it was founded in 1838, it was part of a new trend in American cemetery design: to turn them into rural, park-like destinations where people could go on weekends to picnic and stroll.

Although I was raised Catholic and don’t really believe in an afterlife, I have found that as I’ve grown older, the need for some kind of a marker that acknowledges that I lived has begun to insinuate itself into my consciousness. And while my husband and I hope to be above ground for a long time, over the past few years during my walks, I've begun to hear a little whisper in the back of my mind that Green-wood might be a place where we’d want to have an enduring presence.

So when I read a piece in The New York Times that reported that Green-Wood was “close to capacity” and that the president of the “organization” was hoping to “recruit” distinguished literary types, I turned to my husband, an author, and said, “Kurt, I want you to contact that man right now and let him know we’d like to be buried in Green-wood.”

Perhaps that's not the most romantic thing a wife can say to her husband before coffee, but he, too, loves our walks and, like the awesome husband that he is, immediately dashed off a letter. And the president promptly responded, “No introduction necessary, Mr. Andersen, your reputation precedes you.”

It was a classic New York moment. Maybe we aren’t quite A-list enough to score a table at Per Se at the last minute, but as authors we had enough mojo to secure a burial plot at the exclusive Green-Wood Cemetery!

The most amazing thing? Unlike any other piece of real estate I've coveted in New York City, it turns out that cemetery plots are surprisingly, shockingly cheap. Really. You could buy a third of a Kelly bag…or get a magnificent little bit of Brooklyn forever. Seems like a pretty good deal to me.

Last month, we went for an official visit. A sales counselor showed us around, and after much family discussion, we’ve just about settled on a beautiful little wooded depression in the heart of the cemetery where you cannot see a building or hear any traffic. Our daughters, used to picnicking in cemeteries, have come to accept the fact that we’re buying a burial plot. My dream, in fact, is for them to collaborate on a design for a bench they can sit on as our headstone.

(MORE: Family Reactions When a Loved One is Dying)

Interestingly, friends far closer to the horizon line tend to put their fingers in their ears, nah-nah-nah-nah’ing so they can’t hear us, obviously squeamish when we describe our recent adventure in real estate.

None of us wants to think actively about death, but I can honestly report that wandering through the hills and dales of Green-Wood with Kurt on warm spring days, listening to the birds chirp, marveling at the virtuosity of the sculptures adorning the gravesites and contemplating the precise place where we might lie together was impossibly romantic. We held hands, celebrating the life we’ve lived in our chosen city, planning to go gently into the good night.

What I Learned From Giving Up Yoga by Anne Kreamer

My husband and I stumbled into a yoga class in the early 80s, way before it grew into the $6 billion industry it is today. Our instructor held a bi-weekly class for five or 10 of us in the living room of her apartment. She was hands-on and taught us a carefully curated course — a form of Hatha yoga called Iyengar, plus pranayama (the breathing discipline at the heart of yoga) and meditation. The class was transformative for me.

I’d always been athletic, so the physical aspects of yoga were not daunting. It was the mind-emptying, tuning-in parts that felt kind of scary. Although a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, I was also a child of a keep-your-nose-to-the-grindstone-don’t-make-waves-do-what’s-expected-of-you kind of Catholic upbringing that made me skitter away from any sort of reflection on my emotional state. Self-reflection was aggressively not part of my family catechism.

It was through yoga in my 20s that I believe I found the courage to flex the muscles – mental, emotional, philosophical – necessary for self-reflection. My yoga practice delivered on its promise — the integration of mind and body — in spades. The quiet focus during the hours of class helped me through the birth of kids, the building (and perpetual renovation) of a marriage, the death of parents and the vagaries of multiple career zigs and zags. But unfortunately along the way things happened that tempered my love affair: My teacher moved out of town, I got old(er) and yoga got popular.

Losing my beloved first teacher was rough. I was never really able adequately to find a teacher who could replicate her intimate, careful, almost parental instruction. The subsequent classes I attended — and there were myriad ones in different studios over the years — were too loosely supervised, too rigidly doctrinaire, or too competitive to suit my needs. And as more and more people started practicing yoga and as the rooms became filled to capacity, it became impossible for a teacher to notice whether or not I was holding a pose correctly, let alone whether it was appropriate for my aging body.

When the Body Starts Saying 'No'

Yet despite not finding a perfect fit, I kept practicing, because I knew how good even a mediocre class made me feel. Until the day, in my mid-40s, when I glanced in the mirror after a particularly rigorous class in which we’d done lots of handstands and headstands, and discovered that multiple blood vessels in my eyes had burst.

I was horrified. And worried. Google was little help — on community boards and yoga discussion sites, the consensus was that broken blood vessels were no big deal, and that the same kind of thing could happen to a person who sneezed too hard. My physician, on the other hand — having recently diagnosed me with high blood pressure — had no trouble connecting the dots. He was concerned that the upside-down poses increased the flow of blood to my head, which in turn increased pressure on the blood vessels in my eyes, which, when coupled with my increasingly inflexible vascular system and the blood-thinning properties of the diuretic that he'd prescribed as my first course of treatment, put me at too great a risk for blood vessels to rupture. He told me to stop doing inversions.

As it turns out, my post-yoga symptoms are not unique. A recent piece in The New York Times Magazine by William Broad, author of the new book, The Science of Yogaquoted the medical editor of Yoga Journal, Timothy McCall, as saying that the headstand is “too dangerous for general yoga classes." He further elaborated, “the inversion could produce other injuries, including degenerative arthritis of the cervical spine and retinal tears (a result of the increased eye pressure caused by the pose).” As a layperson, I have no idea if the injuries McCall was citing could be caused by inexperience, a lack of proper supervision by an instructor, or a lack of knowledge by most instructors and students about our individual diverse health issues and potential drug interactions that make each of us vulnerable, possibly in different was, to injur while holding various yoga postures. But what I do know is that in my 20 years of practice, prior to developing high blood pressure, I had not experienced broken blood vessels in my eves.

The Brain Rebels

So it should have been easy for me to modify what I was doing, right? For those of you who practice yoga, I’m sure you’re imagining how simple it would have been for me to lie flat on my back with my legs up the wall while everyone else was doing handstands. But peer pressure is a powerful force. As pitiful as it sounds — shouldn’t someone who had practiced yoga for decades be more enlightened? I wasn’t happy being the only person in my large classes who opted for what I considered the sissy pose. Obviously, I have issues with seeming physically weak, but I had loved the feeling of strength I felt when I did my handstands, and it was galling for me to not be able to participate. It felt like an epic fail.

I simply wasn’t emotionally ready to admit that my body was changing. That I was aging. And almost always being the oldest person in my classes, I felt even more vulnerable, exposed, and angry. I wanted to shout out, letting my fellow students know that I’d been doing free-standing handstands before they were born. But instead, I quit yoga.

Maybe I copped out. There’s every reason to believe that I would have benefited from learning to manage my ego in the group classes, and grown emotionally by coming to terms with the limits of my increasingly creaky body. But closing that door opened new ones for me. I’ve continued to explore Eastern mind and body disciplines — learning tai chi and qi gong, and, this past year, working with a teacher trained by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, to develop a sustained (finally!) daily meditation practice. I have learned to listen to my body and to be okay with its limitations, and I’ve found new ways to generate physical well-being without risking blood vessels rupturing.

Here are some tips for exploring mind-body awareness:

  • Listen to your body. If it hurts, stop. Try not to feel embarrassed by it – we’ve all been there. Sit with the awareness.
  • Experiment to find what works for you. If yoga feels too vigorous, speak up and share your concerns with your instructor and, together, devise a practice tailored to your needs. Or explore other disciplines, like some of the less demanding forms of tai chi or qi gong.
  • Learn to let go. Clinging rigidly to “what you’ve always done” isn’t healthy. The cliché is true: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
  • Embrace change. We are different at different times of our lives and what was perfect at 20 might not be perfect at 50.