An Interview with Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott freely admits that before she said
"Yes" to Jesus, her life was a mess. In some ways it still is.
Her pets keep getting sick and dying. Her home office, where she has just packed up the manuscript of her latest novel -- a two-year project -- and mailed it off to her publisher, looks "kind of like a rummage sale." She is not sure where she stashed the curriculum for the confirmation class she is organizing for her 12-year-old son, Sam, and two other young people in the 100-member Presbyterian church where she is an elder. "I have it in the car, I think," she says, adding ruefully, "That's usually my battle cry -- I have it in the car, I think."
Standing in the back doorway of her cottage nestled among other smallish-size houses on a steep hillside in the San Francisco Bay-area town of Fairfax, California, Lamott greets Saturday afternoon visitors with a plaintive request for help. Her pet kitten died recently, and now Boo-Boots, her 16-year-old cat, is dying of leukemia and kidney failure. The cat needs an injection, and is lying on a towel on an ironing board in the bedroom.
"Do any of you have medical training?" Lamott asks the photographer and two journalists she is meeting for the first time. Of course we do not, but somehow we muddle through the required procedure, and the cat receives temporary relief after an infusion of medicine and saline solution from a plastic IV bag dangling from the ceiling.
"Muddling through" is familiar territory for Lamott, a popular speaker and best-selling author. The essays in her nonfiction books are built around stories and spiritual insights culled from her chaotic life. "You start out where you are," she explains, "and then a problem arises -- the car breaks down, the cat gets sick. Then there's my effort to solve the problem through what I call 'my best thinking' " -- which generally does not work. Finally, she says, "there's the moment when you get a tiny bit of light -- and it's enough."
Lamott, who describes herself as a "left-wing hippie type," does not shy away from using an obscenity in her writing when it seems appropriate to the situation. But she chooses evangelical terms like "born again" to recount her harrowing journey from alcoholism to salvation. "I don't know much," she says, "but I understand how entirely doomed I am without God." Having grown up "in a family that was totally anti-Presbyterian," she declares, "I will go to my grave not understanding why I, of all people, ended up being such a committed Christian, let alone a Presbyterian."
She prefers telling stories to thinking about theological concepts such as predestination, the trademark doctrine of Presbyterianism. But she agrees that in some odd way her life illustrates the glorious mystery of being chosen and redeemed by a sovereign God. She marvels that the very church her father rejected after a strict upbringing by Presbyterian missionary parents in Japan is the church where she discovered God's unconditional love.
Lamott was "raised to be an atheist" by parents who considered themselves too sophisticated to be religious and who equated Christianity with belief in extraterrestrials. She says she believed in God as a child, but had she been asked to choose a denomination in which to come to faith it would never have been the Presbyterian Church. Because of her loyalty to her father, Presbyterians would have ranked "just above snake-handlers" on her list of preferred church families.
Yet in 1984 God used tiny St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City, California, to turn her life around. Lamott tells the story memorably in her book Traveling Mercies. She was 30 years old, living on a houseboat in Sausalito, trying to write in the daytime and drinking herself into oblivion every night. On Sunday mornings, when she was "hungover or coming down off a cocaine binge," she would wander over to the local flea market. One Sunday she noticed gospel music coming from a church across the street -- St. Andrew Presbyterian.
"I began stopping in at St. Andrew from time to time," she writes, "standing in the doorway to listen to the songs." The sanctuary was drab and run-down, but it had "a congregation of 30 people or so, radiating kindness and warmth." The sermons were usually "all about social injustice -- and Jesus, which would be enough to send me running back to the sanctuary of the flea market."
That April she discovered she was pregnant. "The father was someone I had just met, who was married, and no one I wanted a real life with." So she had an abortion, and "was sadder than I'd been since my father died." Drinking and pills helped dull the pain. One night, lying in the darkness, "I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner." She knew it was Jesus. "I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love."
For the next few days she sensed Jesus following her everywhere, "like a little cat." Finally, she writes, "I took a long deep breath and said out loud, 'All right. You can come in.' "
Looking back on the experience, Lamott says, "I was dying, and I got a second chance. I do believe I was saved." But she did not become a new person overnight. It took a year for her to kick her addiction to alcohol and drugs. Now if tempted to take a drink she reminds herself that "everything I have to offer anyone -- Sam, my church, or who I am as a writer -- depends on me staying sober."
She also struggled with eating disorders. "I'm an excellent dieter," she says. "I did it for so long. But I refuse to diet now." She has learned to enjoy eating for nourishment, not just for sensory gratification or escape, and to be comfortable with her body, even if she gains a few extra pounds. And she has adopted a "fabulous" new hairstyle -- dreadlocks -- so that she no longer has to agonize about her perpetually frizzy hair.
The St. Andrew congregation supported her in 1989 when she became pregnant with Sam and helped her survive her first difficult years as a single mother. In her book Operating Instructions Lamott writes that Sam's father "was dramatically less excited than I was to find out I was pregnant, so much so that I have not seen or heard from him in months and don't expect to ever again." But miraculously when Sam was 7 his father had a change of heart, Lamott says, "and we've had five years now of very close, warm friendship."
Now Lamott worries, as many parents do, that her almost-teenage son will leave the church. In a poignant essay in Traveling Mercies called "Why I Make Sam Go to Church," she writes, "The main reason is to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by." She and Sam talk about God and pray together every night, but she is "giving him a lot of space to find out who he is spiritually." She hopes his confirmation classes will give him "an experience of struggling with" the truths the church is asking him to affirm.
Lamott predicts that her son will leave the church in a few years, when she starts letting him decide how to spend his Sunday mornings. "But I believe he will almost certainly come back," she says, "because life will do what life does, which is to become incredibly hard and confusing. There will be losses he barely survives. And at some point someone will say, 'Do you want to come to this funny little church I've found?' "
Meanwhile, Lamott's own church involvement has intensified over the years. When St. Andrew moved into a new building in 1998, Lamott helped organize a church school. "There's often up to 30 kids," she says. "There used to just be Sam." She sits near the front of the sanctuary on Sunday morning and herds the children up for the children's sermon and then off to their classes. She makes sure there is a teacher in each class, often teaching herself or recruiting on the fly on Sunday mornings.
She helps lead Sunday afternoon services at a nearby convalescent home. In 2000 she agreed to serve as an elder, after resisting for several years, because she sensed God telling her, "It's your turn."
"I'm kind of like an awkward-shaped tile for the bathroom," she says, describing her role in the church. "Wherever they need a tile, I can fill in."
Lamott says she may write another nonfiction book, now that she's finished her novel. "I don't think I could get anywhere if I sat down to write a book about God," she says, but God will continue to be a dominant presence in her writing. She writes about faith "anytime I can shoehorn it in," filling her books with what she calls "subversive Christianity," relying on her editors to apply the red pencil to anything they consider too preachy.
"I'm not laying a heavy 'Come to Jesus' trip on my readers," she says, "but I'm hoping to sow a seed." She would like readers to conclude: "Lamott seems pretty awful, she's made some pretty big mistakes -- yet she believes God loves her in exactly the shape she's in."
Reprinted from Presbyterians Today, 100 Witherspoon St., Louisville, KY 40202-1396 (www.pcusa.org/today). Individual subscriptions $15.95 (10 issues/year). To subscribe call 1-800-558-1669.
A Further Conversation with Anne Lamott
Everywhere I travelled in the last five years or so to talk about writing, I
found myself approached by people in the audience who would want to talk to me
about God instead. Rather than wanting to hear about plot or character
development, they wanted to confide that they had a relationship with God, too,
and they wanted to hear stories from my church. Thirteen years ago, I first
lurched--very hung over--into a little church in one of the poorest communities
in California. Without this church, I do not think I would have survived the
last few years of my drinking. But even so, I had written about the people there
only in passing. I did, however, speak about the church whenever I could,
sheepishly shoehorning in a story or two. But it wasn't really until my fifth
book [Operating Instructions], that I came out of the closet as a real believer.
In talking to many many people about this over the years, I found that our one
common denominator was that we were all stunned to discover that faith and
devotion could shimmer big enough to include all of us--even people like me.
I started to realize that there was a great hunger and thirst for regular, cynical, ragbag people to talk about God and goodness and virtue in a tone that didn't frighten and upset you, or make you feel that you were doing even more poorly than you'd thought.
Once I turned my mind to this, all of these stories, moments and connections started appearing to me. When I told them to people--to readers or to friends--they were almost relieved. It was so great to start comparing notes about this faith of ours, to be funny and sarcastic and attitudinally challenged about it, and still be people who could be devoted to God. We no longer had to feel that we were crazy or self-righteous or losers, or pathetic for having that faith. We were just maybe a little different.
Soon all kinds of people starting giving me soul food in the form of stories, insights, feedback, great lines, jokes and bumper stickers, and I started to put that soul food back into circulation. And because a lot of this material we were sharing comes from our most human and private and real and vulnerable places, it turns out to be both unbelievably funny and very, very touching.
So I don't think of Traveling Mercies as a book about religion at all, but rather as a handbook, or maybe a sort of owner's manual, for people who are trying to live faithfully: which is to say, learning to cooperate with grace--even (or especially) when real life rears its very confusing head. It's a book about some of us who--surprising even ourselves--came to believe in a loving God who is with us always--even on bad thigh days, even in the midst of homework wars with our children--a God who does not roll His or Her eyes at us even when we are trying to buy cars, or date, who does not forsake us, even when we whine, or are bad to each other. It is about my experiences with a God who loves me, chooses me, forgives me, every step of the amazing way.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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