In an essay on anger which Anne Lamott wrote for Salon.com about her son, Sam, she says: “I gave birth to him; I figure if I kill him it’s a wash.” I have quoted that line perhaps 3,472 times to just about every parent I know. It is a tiny but huge, perfectly encapsulated observation about this thing we call life. Every person I tell it to yelps in recognition, “Yes, yes, yes, that’s how it is!”
My grandfather liked to quote T.S. Eliot’s line, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Lamott, the New York Times bestselling essayist, novelist, and former Salon.com columnist, picks up where Eliot left off, but adds her own signature black humor. She knows that each of us walks out into the world each day, trying our damnedest to move our pawn just one space further on the board, maybe two spaces on a really good day. But underneath the mask of OK-ness most of us put on, there are dozens of messes — big sloppy ones and little thorny ones born of jealousy, anger, worry, frustration, temptation, sorrow, fatigue, regret, and fear. They poke at us all day long, haunting, taunting, in a you-can-run-but-you-can’t hide sort of way. We feel like nobody has a clue about the quiet desperation we feel. Lamott has a clue. She gets it.
Lamott, a single mother and northern California native, has used her own life experiences as a kind of goldfish bowl to examine the very core of what it means to be human and to realize that while we may never know why shit happens, it happens, and we can deal with it and even laugh some of the time. Her most recent book, “Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith,” was issued earlier this week in paperback. She will speak and have a signing on Thursday, February 28, at Barnes & Noble MarketFair.
Here’s the rub. Lamott, 53, is kind of like a literary rock star and Barnes & Noble knows it; they are handing out wristbands to the 7:30 p.m. event starting at 2 p.m. If you know Lamott’s work you’ll take your lunch at 2 p.m. on Thursday. If you don’t know her work let me tell you why you’ll take your lunch at 2 p.m. on Thursday.
First off, don’t be fooled by the subtitle “Thoughts on Faith.” This is not a “God” book. “Grace (Eventually)” follows two previous books of essays of Lamott’s particular brand of faith, “Traveling Mercies” and “Plan B.” All three take readers on a journey through some of her darkest experiences — her recovery from alcohol and drug abuse; the death of her mother from Alzheimer’s, her father from brain cancer, and her best friend from breast cancer; her struggles with eating disorders, men, and self-loathing; her dreadlocked hair. But stirred into the mix are some of her most euphoric and bittersweet experiences: the joys of raising her son, the kindness of strangers and true-blue friends. And also some of her most profound experiences: discovering that although she’d tried to hide it her whole life she really does believe in God; helping a dying friend end his life with dignity; or realizing that a really creepy cab driver wasn’t going to cut her up into a million pieces.
Heavy stuff, sure, but not in Lamott’s hands; she somehow manages to never lose hope or her searing, irreverent sense of humor. She has described herself as a left-wing born again Christian with a bad attitude. I have been a fan of Lamott’s work for about 13 years, ever since my father gave me a copy of her first work of nonfiction, “Operating Instructions,” which recounts her pregnancy and first year of her son’s life, when I was pregnant with my son. Faced with a choice between “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” which chastised me for wanting to create a new food group for walnut brownies, and “Operating Instructions,” I chose Lamott.
“Operating Instructions” became my bible as my abdomen grew and my husband started saying “beep, beep, beep” when I backed into the passenger seat. Annie, as her readers and friends call her, knew what I was up against. In the preface she writes: “I woke up with a start at 4 one morning and realized that I was very, very pregnant. Since I had conceived six months earlier, one might have thought the news would have sunk in before then, and in many ways it had, but it was on that early morning in May that I first realized how severely pregnant I was. What tipped me off was that, lying on my side and needing to turn over, I found myself unable to move. My first thought was that I had had a stroke.”
A friend of mine says “Operating Instructions” basically saved her life. When her first child was born and she was so wild with exhaustion she could hardly breathe and the baby wouldn’t stop crying and she felt like just throwing him out the window, she says she read “Operating Instructions” and felt so relieved that there was someone else out there who wanted to drop-kick their newborn. She loves the part where Lamott and Sam are sleeping on the futon on the living room floor.
“I heard him begin to whimper, and I thought, ‘Go back to sleep, you little shit.’. . . Finally at least ten minutes later, with total hostility and resentment, I roused myself enough to reach over to rub his back, which sometimes helps him a little — and he wasn’t there! I turned on the light, and he wasn’t anywhere on the bed! I actually thought he’d been kidnapped; or left. It turns out he had somehow scooted off the bed and landed on the floor between the head of the futon and the wall and had just lain there whimpering. I don’t think I can capture in words how I felt at that moment.”
But of course that’s exactly what Lamott does — capture in words life’s best and ugliest moments. She is brutally honest in her books about her struggle with alcohol and drugs and being totally broke and how she came to believe in God even though every fiber of her conscious being begged her not to. A Lutheran church in Lawrenceville, where I live, has a sign on the lawn that says “Come as you are; leave changed.” That’s what happened to Lamott.
She grew up in Tiburon, CA, a middle child with an older and younger brother. Her father, Kenneth Lamott, himself raised by Presbyterian missionaries. was a writer who also taught English and mathematics for a time at San Quentin prison. In “Traveling Mercies,” Lamott writes: “My father despised Christianity. He called the Presbyterians ‘God’s frozen people.’” Her mother was raised by Episcopalians in England and though she went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve she did not believe in God. “It was like we’d all signed some sort of loyalty oath early on, agreeing not to believe in God in deference to the pain of my father’s cold Christian childhood.”
Lamott writes that her parents and their friends “were ’50s Cheever people, with their cocktails and affairs. They thought practicing Catholics insane.” Lamott’s mother, Dorothy, put herself through law school when Lamott was 16 and a few years later left her husband to start the first women’s law practice in Honolulu. Her father died of a brain tumor when Lamott was 25, which became the basis of her first novel, “Hard Laughter.”
Lamott came by her alcoholism honestly. She writes that her father’s friends would come over and regularly pass out at the dinner table. “At Christmas there were Fishhouse punches so alcoholic you could have sterilized needles in them and on hot summer nights, blenders full of frappeed whiskey sours. The kids were given sips or short glasses, and we helped ourselves to more.”
She spent two years at Goucher College in Baltimore but dropped out in 1971 “because I was 3,000 miles away (from home) and everyone I loved, and I wanted to write,” she says in a phone interview from her home in the Bay Area. She adored her father and he was her greatest inspiration to become a writer. She read voraciously as a child and says she was also inspired by her favorite children’s books. “I loved ‘Pippi Longstocking,’ ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’ ‘Little Women,’ ‘Little Men.’ My very first influential books were Seuss, who I think was the single most amazing, joyful, wild, silly, marvelous, deep writer. Thank God he came along to wake everyone up.”
In the mid-’80s she found herself living close to the poverty line on a houseboat at the north end of Sausalito in San Francisco Bay. Shaky and hungover she would go on Sundays to the flea market in Marin City and was gradually drawn to the sounds of gospel singing emerging from the tiny little St. Andrews Baptist Church on the other side of the old bus depot lot where the flea market was. Eventually she made her way inside. But still, she writes, “To me, Jesus made about as much sense as Scientology, or dowsing. But the church smelled wonderful, like the air had nourishment in it, or like it was composed of these people’s exhalations, of warmth and faith and peace.”
Shortly after, Lamott became pregnant and had an abortion. Seven nights later, lying in the houseboat, she began to bleed heavily for hours but was too embarrassed that she was so doped up on alcohol and pot to call a friend for help. That’s when she felt a presence “hunkered down in a corner,” she writes in “Traveling Mercies.” At first she thought it was her father, “whose presence I had felt over the years when I was alone. The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there — of course, there wasn’t. But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus. . . And I was appalled. . . I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.”
The seed of this conversion was planted, believe it or not, in a class at Goucher, where Lamott first read Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Loathing,” the retelling of the story of Abraham’s taking his beloved son Isaac to the mountain as a sacrifice to God, telling young Isaac they are going to sacrifice a lamb. “Now, this was exactly the sort of Old Testament behavior I had trouble with,” she writes. But when the angel tells Abraham he has successfully shown his devotion to God, who has in actuality provided a lamb, in the thicket nearby, Lamott writes, “In the interior silence that followed my understanding of this scene, I held my breath for as long as I could, sitting there under the fluorescent lights — and then I crossed over.”
In a follow-up E-mail to our phone interview, Lamott says, “With Kierkegaard, I crossed into being a spiritual seeker, being a believer without knowing what I believed in. It was that experience on the houseboat when I decided I would cast my lot with Jesus.”
I tell Lamott that I am confounded by the fact that I, an agnostic at best, lap up her stories about faith like a kitten in a pool of cream. It’s like the Annie Testament. “A lot of people who read my books say they are agnostics, they don’t buy Christianity at all. Mostly what I’m writing about is spiritual and very much about human life and hearts and minds. There’s no Christian doctrine in my work. I’m certainly not trying to convert anyone, just share my walk of faith, a middle-aged woman in the new millennium — what works and what helps.”
In “Grace (Eventually)” she continues to look for the ever elusive presence of grace in her life, even in the “deeply distressing” situation of her middle-aged neck or the fact that her teenage son now “seems to care only about his friends, computers, music, and most hideously, his cell phone — the adolescent’s pacemaker.”
But bad things are happening all around Lamott, things that make the “neckage” and the teenage boy stuff pale in comparison. Take Bush for instance. Lamott finally comes to terms with her strangling ire with the incompetence of the present administration. “I don’t hate anyone right now,” she writes, “not even George W. Bush. This may seem an impossibility, but it is true, and indicates the presence of grace, dementia, or both. . . Not hating Bush has brought with it several astonishingly scary gifts. One is that the less I am consumed by him, the more I can be consumed by, well, myself, and those things I love about life. Another is that I can model genuine forgiveness for Sam, and demonstrate that in this cold, scary world, whenever possible, we pick up after ourselves and turn up the flame on our lanterns just a smidge.”
And in Lamott’s life, as in all our lives, people die too soon from cancer. And kids get sick, some really sick. People get old and decrepit. The war in Iraq is still going on. And the list goes on and on. I seize the moment and ask Lamott, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” “Because I think it’s a very precarious situation to be a human being,” she says. “There are no promises. It’s very hard having a body, having to go through junior high, so I just experience over and over what I would call the presence of God or people of inherent goodness; this too shall pass. Things are just so changeable.
“I have had the usual amounts of loss and devastation and hard times. I’ve been very, very broke most of my life, up until about 10 years ago so I’ve had it. But I never felt alone. I so much felt a force of spiritual nature in the incredible generosity of my friends. You might call it good, orderly direction [Lamott’s acronym for G.O.D.]. The reason I have such a deep faith is because of the incredible generosity of my friends. I know when I’m very afraid I can experience connection. I just watch people come through things that no human power could ever have figured out.”
It seems every single day Lamott’s faith is tested, yet grace always emerges. Is it because grace is really there or because her life perspective reveals it? Is grace like the tree falling in the woods, which is only heard by someone who’s present? Lamott once said in an interview that every morning she gets up and says, “Whatever,” and when she goes to bed at night, she says, “Oh, well.” Is that true? Yes, she says. “You start out each day with this deep openness and however that wants to present itself. You will be learning that day either through wonder or doubt. I can have this beautiful day but not if I stay in my head. I pray for a number of people who I love very much. I hope for certain outcomes. Then the day arrives, and it’s inconvenient, or the shop has run out of what I want, or something goes wrong with my teeth, something I didn’t plan for, or the dog gets a foxtail stuck up her nose.
“You’re not always in a state of spirituality. Real life is filled with foxtails and kind of annoying people. At the end of the day, though, when you’re in bed, you can see there are just tons of blessings. For example, we’ve had tons of rain this past month and it’s sunny today. But you might also think you were going to have a breakthrough today and that didn’t happen or you’re worried about someone and you think, I really don’t know how this person’s gonna be.”
Lamott “refuels” every Sunday at church but she also spends time daily (except in winter when it’s too cold) in a meditation shed in her backyard that Sam and some of his friends built. “It is small and lovely and feels very spiritual and womblike, with lots of pillows, candles, hangings,” says Lamott. “I sit very quietly on a big pillow and have quiet time with God, either saying a prayers or just being in that small chamber away from all the hubbub.”
Like a friend I haven’t spoken to for some time, I need an update. After all, it’s been a year since “Grace (Eventually)” was published, and I have figuratively sat in Lamott’s kitchen since Sam was born, reading about her crazy, wonderful family and friends, Lake Woebegone on Lexapro. What’s Sam been up to? Does she still have her wonderful dog, Lily?
Lamott assures me she still has Lily, a 60-pound black and tan mix of German shepherd, Rottweiler, and Lab, who she takes for frequent hikes on the trails in the hills near her home. “She’s sitting right here next to me.” When I tell her I have a beagle puppy named Lily, she says, “Lily is the perfect name for a dog.”
Lamott is used to people asking “How is Sam?” and says that’s mostly what people want to know when she gives speaking engagements. She tells me Sam graduated from high school early and is now 18 and living with his girlfriend about 15 minutes away, working in construction and on his art. In a follow-up E-mail she writes, “He is a drawer, inventor, designer — unbelievable imagination, since he was about two. Currently he mostly does pictures, websites, inventions, the nature of which I cannot divulge.”
Lamott is working on the third novel in her trilogy about a young tennis star (Lamott herself was a junior doubles champion in California from ages 10 to 16) that began with “Rosie” and “Crooked Little Heart.” “It’s about Rosie at 17 and 18, where they are four years later,” she says. On a more personal note, Lamott’s readers, who have seen her cope with her share of unfortunate men, will be happy to learn that she has been in a relationship for six years with a South African artist who works in advertising, who she calls “the kindest man ever,” and that she is “very happy.”
One of my favorite Lamott essays appears in “Traveling Mercies,” in which she struggles with her venomous feelings about the “perfect” mother of a child in Sam’s first grade class. “I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud,” she writes, “because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish. It drove me to my knees. I prayed about it. . . I wrote her name down on a slip of paper, folded it up, and put it in the box that I use as God’s In box ‘Help,’ I said to God.”
I ask Lamott if she were to stick a message in God’s In box today, what would it say? “Sam’s name, both of my brothers’ names, the name of a boy who is healing up from a brain tumor. I just pray for God’s healing tender touch on their health and their minds, and the minds of the people who love them most.”
She says she does not prepare at all for her readings like the one she’ll give February 28 at Barnes & Noble. “I never know what I’m going to read that day. I might have something on my heart that I want to share, because it seems medicinal.” Call it medicinal. Call it spiritual. It doesn’t matter. Reading anything Lamott has written is like having the cleaning lady come and tidy up all those dust bunny messes that roll around in the corners of our lives, even though we both know we’ll be messy again in a week, or a nurse who will at least dress the wounds and make the ouch go away so that we can get up again tomorrow and do it all over again.
None of the parenting advice I have received from others or read has had the particular impact upon my relationship with my own son as have Lamott’s essays about her experiences parenting Sam. Since Sam was born about six years before my son, I feel like I’ve got the advantage — watching what’s to come up ahead.
From Lamott’s example I learned that there’s almost nothing better to do with an infant than to just get down on the floor and hang with him. I learned that the best thing the mom of a son can do is talk with him all the time about everything. And when he talks, really listen; don’t “correct” his feelings. Let him see you founder; let him see you fail; and let him see that life can suck but it can also be very funny. Let him know you are far from perfect and that that’s OK. Don’t rush around so much. Let him see you making difficult decisions and if he says I hate you at least once you’re being a good parent.
And whether you’re a writer or not, write down all the fabulous things your child says. In “Bird by Bird: Some Thoughts on Writing and Life,” Lamott suggests stashing index cards everywhere, including your glove compartment. I have been doing this for years. My son is now 12 and when we’re in the car and he says something pithy I just open up the glove compartment and hand an index card and a pen back to him.
One of Lamott’s index cards, quoting Sam when he was about seven, hits the mark: “I think I already understand about life: pretty good, some problems.” Amen.
Anne Lamott, Thursday, February 28, 7:30 p.m. Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, West Windsor. Lamott, a northern California native, single mother, former columnist with Salon.com, and author of “Grace (Eventually),” speaks and gives a signing. Note: Seating is limited. Wristbands will be distributed starting at 2 p.m. 609-716-1570.