Some books cast a repelling effect on me especially when they start waxing fundamentalism. Their audacity to assure me of a successful life through a handful of Bible verses and telling me ‘it’s all in the mind’ unwittingly implies that my feelings of emptiness are invalid. When a writer refuses to descend from his/her ivory tower, the precepts shoved by self-help and books on faith hurt more than they help. It’s easier to identify steps to a healthier and happier life when one writer holds a privileged position and healthy mental state and body, alienating his/her reader questioning why depression seems to be chronic. Besides, I also find it uncreative for one to only cite Bible to exemplify hope, when out there, in the real world, hope is found in morbid encounters and poverty, poetry, and politics.
I am a Catholic man who is fascinated by Neil Gaiman’s gods. Jesus as a human being is an important figure to me because His activism aspires to eradicate inequalities. With this, I aggressively support marriage equality, women, Duterte’s ouster, and a humane society. My type of God is not a bearded old man sitting on white clouds. God is in the things that enthrall me: smiles of children, weird stray cats, deadline extensions, learning events, the alarm ringing reminding me that I lasted another day, and redemption after brokenness. With the time and thinking that has produced me, some inspirational books failed to inspire. Until Anne Lamott.
Much as I find Anne Lamott a fine writer, I would not change my life and take hers. Lamott’s success was preceded by ennui, deaths, drug abuse, alcoholism, abortion, eating disorders, and toxic relationships. It took her tragedies after tragedies before holding on to her faith found in Christianity, and the authenticity of her narratives resonates to me, comforts me. It’s refreshing to me reading someone who drew me near Christ by lifting words from Rumi, Samuel Beckett, E. E. Cummings, and Shakespeare. She also is not afraid to assert her positions on several issues, like immigration, environmental decay, and Donald Trump.
After reading her book Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers last month, I became an instant fan. I moved on and read Ocean Vuong and Jonathan Franzen. Then I returned to her and found her four books. In a span of one week, I hooked up with her and only her. I mean literarily.
From personal experiences to the story of Job, Anne Lamott demonstrates how life can shatter us: the utter bullshit we experience from accidents we do not deserve, people who wreck us. We will never understand life, which is why we pray.
She borrows from Rumi’s mysticism, writing that “all words are fingers pointing to the moon, and we think the words are the moon.” In other words, to pray means entering into a sacred relationship with God, letting the light come in. It is engaging into an honest conversation with the unseen, and therefore it can be in any form. But according to her, prayer can be simplified into this: Help. Thanks. Wow.
“When my son, Sam, was seven and discovered that he and I would probably not die at exactly the same moment, he began to weep and said, “If I had known that, I wouldn’t have agreed to be born.” This one truth, that the few people you adore will die, is plenty difficult to absorb. But on top of it, someone’s brakes fail, or someone pulls the trigger or snatches the kid, or someone deeply trusted succumbs to temptation, and everything falls apart. We are hurt beyond any reasonable chance of healing. We are haunted by our failures and mortality. And yet the world keeps on spinning, and in our grief, rage, and fear a few people keep on loving us and showing up. It’s all motion and stasis, change and stagnation. Awful stuff happens and beautiful stuff happens, and it’s all part of the big picture.”Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott
Among the books I’ve read from her, this is the least tight. It reads more as a collection of essays than a handbook. However, she employs the routine of stitching to represent how we repair the fabrics we intentionally or unintentionally tear down—the mistakes we committed, the dreams undone.
She writes, “You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next./ Without stitches, you just have rags./ And we are not rags.”
“Here’s the true secret of life: We mostly do everything over and over. In the morning, we let the dogs out, make coffee, read the paper, help whoever is around get ready for the day. We do our work. In the afternoon, if we have left, we come home, put down our keys and satchels, let the dogs out, take off constrictive clothing, make a drink or put water on for tea, toast the leftover bit of scone. I love ritual and repetition. Without them, I would be a balloon with a slow leak.”Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair by Anne Lamott
And you are still here, reading, searching, alive. And you have done this yesterday. You have done this last week. You will do this next week.
One would get to know Anne Lamott best in this book, the most intense and irreverent among them all. She was born and raised in a home with atheist parents. Growing up, she felt different from her playmates and cousins. She came of age in the hippie generation—bumming drugs and booze and experimenting with her sexuality. Freedom was the virtue she pursued, but she had to pay a price. And when she sank rock bottom, she converted into Christianity, looked up, and said, “Fuck it. I quit. All right, Jesus, You can come in.”
Of course, her decision to be a Christian did not warrant her an immunity from a lot of trials. She raised her son alone, dealt with deaths around her, and got engaged with a lot of problematic affairs. Who says life is easy?
“The road to enlightenment is long and difficult, and you should try not to forget snacks and magazines.”Traveling Mercies: Book on Faith by Anne Lamott
If you aspire to be a writer (especially in fiction), this book is ideal for you.
Anne Lamott remembers the moment her older brother sought help from his father. He was struggling to write a report on bird, and his father said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
She prescribes several rules on having to get that masterpiece done by making short assignments and making shitty drafts. Speaking from experience, I get intimidated with many books on writing except this. Anne Lamott—while discussing plot, character, and dialogue—still draws layers of her writing experiences, all nice and terrible.
She even came in full circle as she stresses the necessity and at the same time, needlessness of writing communities and publication.
My laughter came to the ceiling when she gives a tip on how to avoid being sued with libel: “Change everything that would point to him specifically. Leave out his kleptomaniac leanings. Leave out the kind of car he really drove and the fact that he hated smokers so much that he planted a tiny tree in the ashtray. Make yourself the first wife or the girlfriend, instead of the third wife, and do not include his offensive children, especially the red-haired twins. If you disguise this person carefully so that he cannot be recognized by the physical or professional facts of his life, you can use him in your work. And the best advice I can give you is to give him a teenie little penis so he will be less likely to come forth.”
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
In her most recent book Almost Everything, you pick up a mouthful of quotations to live by. Weirdly, what stung me most is when she conjures the image of a “cosmic banana peel,” the reason of the existence of fundamentalism, rejection, suicides, wars, famines, cancer, death, forest fires. We may not understand this, but certainly, there is no way we can avoid stepping on it and landing on a pile of cow dung, face first.
But with all these occurrences we instinctively get back up the next day, wash ourselves, and ask help from our friends.
Then again, we will encounter hell without getting in there. Sartre says this already, that hell is other people—those annoying pricks inside your room or mind who will never leave you. Yet I also believe that love is other people. Between the two, love is more powerful.
“Maybe more than ever before in my lifetime, my friends and I are aware of our brokenness and the deep crazy, desperation for light, hope, food, and medicine for the poor. What helps is that we are not all crazy and hopeless on the same day. One of us remembers and reminds the rest of us that when it is really dark you can see the stars. We believe grace is stronger than evil and sin. We believe love is stronger than hate, that the divine is bigger than all huge egos simmered together in a bloviation stew, and this makes us laugh. And laughter is hope. We believe and hope that we will get through these terrifying times.”Almost Everything: Notes on Hope
Here are narratives we may never hear in the pulpit, and radical stances our fellow churchmates may never share. She never says you agree with her; she never claims to be a woman worthy of emulation. But for me, her voice is enough. With all the sob stories she has collected through the years, Anne Lamott converses with laughter and lyricism. Maybe we can smile too?