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Anne Lamott Extended Interview

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I don’t think of myself as a spiritual writer. I think of myself as someone who writes a lot about faith and spiritual issues, but I really actually think of myself as a novelist. The last several novels I’ve done have also concerned people of faith, but I guess I just need to be clear that I know that I really don’t understand very much of these matters, and I don’t want to sound like somebody who has an interesting theological understanding of the world, because I don’t. I think of myself as someone who can be really funny on the page and can make people laugh, sometimes about very serious matters like God and faith and whatnot, and I do believe that laughter really is carbonated holiness. I think it’s a form of spirituality, so I think I’m good at humor and not so good at making sense of this whole spiritual mystery.

A lot of people who come hear me at readings or at lectures or who buy my books — I’d say that 94 percent are Democrats or progressives, and many, many of them are people who were raised in spiritual, religious, often fundamentalist households who just ran screaming for their cute little lives the second that they could, when they were old enough to, and never really thought they would go back to a church or back to the path, or any path. And somehow in me they are able to find some sense of play or spaciousness, where the spirituality inside them doesn’t feel so frightened to come forth.

A lot of people told me I’m the only Christian that they can stand in the world, because Christians have such a bad reputation, which I think they deserve and I deserve also as one of them, for terrible judgmental behavior, terrible hypocrisy. There’s a great line that my friend Tom, who’s a Jesuit, said — that you can tell that you created God in your own image when he hates all the same people that you do. I think that most people who are not part of a spiritual community see those of us who are believers, who are very plugged in, as thinking we have the answer, we have the right God; you really need to sign on the dotted line and really understand this stuff before you can be welcomed into the fold.

Most of my friends are secular, and most of them think I’m a little crazy. But almost all of them, almost everyone I know does have a spiritual part of their being, and whether it comes to find an organization or a way of living out that spirituality or not, everyone has a human spirit, everybody has a soul, I believe; everyone has a part inside of them that is not available for rational thinking or for understanding much of anything. But for instance, can’t this part of the spirit, or the soul, or whatever is touched so often by music or by the tragedies, say, in New Orleans, where people’s hearts are broken — and that’s a good thing because because the culture is so adamant that you keep your act together. And people grow up and find that what they are left with is an act, and then something happens like a tragedy or just a piercingly beautiful piece of music, and something inside them comes fully to life. It’s sort of a relief for somebody like me who’s not so strict, let’s say, in her beliefs to say that’s what we are talking about. We are talking about feeding and nurturing the human spirit and bringing that forth into a world that is so thirsty and starving to death and so battered.

A lot of people at my readings have told me that it’s just a relief to have someone tell the truth about being a mother, about being a daughter. I had an aged mother who had Alzheimer’s. It’s such a relief when people tell the truth. I know it is for me in that when I read a book, when somebody is really just putting their cards on the table, and especially if they can make me laugh about it, I feel grateful in the same way I am grateful for the ocean. I’m so relieved when people will tell me about what a mixed grill parenthood is and how sometimes — like this morning Sam and I had a terrible fight, you know, and some days go better than others in that you act like somebody — you start channeling your own mother, for instance — who is just disgusting to you because they’re so crazy and out of control and yet somehow the feeling of not being totally alone helps you do something alchemical with that, and whether you don’t feel alone because another mother or father is telling the truth or because you feel God is a sort of birth coach saying it’s still okay, you’re still okay. Whatever it is that can decrease that terrible isolation is a blessing, and somehow my readers have found that in me.

I hear from people that they thought they were the only one who ever really blows it and the only person who thinks incredible hateful, judgmental thoughts. I hear a lot that they never told anybody else some of the stuff I write about and that now they feel very free with that because they understand that it’s pretty universal, that we are all really in the same soup — as parents, as the children of older parents, as people in this country living under what I consider a despotic administration, that we are all in it together, we are doing the best we can. Some days go better than others, and the bad days are awful. And it’s hard to think of yourself [as] anyone God could love, no matter how low God’s standards are. Some people tell me that it’s a relief to know that someone they admire is like that a lot.

When PLAN B came out, people kept asking, “How does Sam feel being written about?” So I just had him come upstairs and had the interviewer who was there ask him, and he said, “I have always been used to being sort of public.” He said, “I probably thought about it twice in my life.” So if that’s still true, I felt when he became 15 that it was no longer appropriate for me to make him go to church. I felt that it was time to offer him the choice of coming or not and, of course, he doesn’t come. But I felt that it was time to release him to his own authentic spirituality instead of my own. I also felt at that point that it was time to stop writing about him except in passing. I’ve never told any of his big secrets, I’ve never discussed the really private parts of his life. I don’t discuss the private aspects of being an adolescent, of being a teenager. I don’t write about his heart, about girls, drugs, anything like that. I don’t write about my friends’ private lives. But I’m really honest, and if you are close to me, you probably know that if we are in a great story together, I’m going to want to write about it, and I’m going to try to protect the people from feeling exposed in any way at all. I don’t tell many stories about my church, and every one of them I clear with my pastor. Every story I write about Sam I clear with Sam, since he’s been 10 or so. I ask myself, will people be really, really glad that I commemorated this event or this year? And I absolutely know within my heart everything I’ve written about the church, everything I’ve written about Sam is stuff that they’ll look back and go, “God, I’m so glad she got that down on paper.”

I don’t find spiritual insight sitting around thinking “thinky” thoughts about what it all means and who God is and who shot the Holy Ghost, and I find God in the utter dailyness and mess of it all. I wrote a piece in PLAN B about the exquisite pun of the word “holiness” and the holes in which we often find out who we really are, and at least we find out who we really aren’t, which is a big part of the journey. So I write almost exclusively about my own challenges and madness, but in the bigger world, in the world of America and the Bush years and in the era of my church under [my pastor] Veronica’s direction. All I know is that these stories come to me, and they sort of tug on the sleeves of my shirt, and they say, “Pay attention.” Jesus said, “Watch.”

I was a very, very worried child. I’m a very worried 51-year-old now with a lot of faith. I was a very watchful child in a typically screwed-up family, and I’ll tell you I paid attention, and my heart was always a big, open heart, and the world and my parents and my teachers and the culture didn’t succeed in closing that, for which I am deeply grateful. And the places that were closed off were cracked back open by hardship and loss and grief, and for that I’m deeply grateful. I love and often quote that wonderful Leonard Cohen song that says, “There are cracks, cracks in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Any light that has come through me that I feel like communicating to my readers came through me in spite of everybody’s efforts to keep you quiet and looking good and achieving more. And, in fact, that happens to be one of the messages that I carry, which is “Fail more, mess up more, screw up more, blow it, fall down more often.” You usually fall about 18 inches, and then you discover that there is someone nearby who is going to help you get up to your feet and dust off your butt and get you a glass of water and help you start walking again.

My faith … is not a white paper — “I have a position paper on what it means to be a Christian” — and, in fact, my faith has been so challenged by having George Bush be our president and having America be under the thumb of fundamentalist Christians who, I believe, in my loving Christian and paranoid way, would love to see America be a theocracy, who think of America as a Christian nation. My faith has been so challenged because I feel such a deep hatred and sense of betrayal as a American by the Bush administration, and yet Jesus said about four things that are absolutely the core of Christianity, and one of them is you really don’t get to hate anyone. It doesn’t say you don’t get to hate anybody unless it’s Dick Cheney. It’s absolute that you break through this thing inside of yourself that thinks somebody is not welcomed at the table because you consider their behavior so reprehensible, so brutal. There’s a piece in PLAN B called “Loving Bush, Day 2.” I went to church on a Sunday in this state of such discouragement and such rage, and we had a beautiful, beautiful sermon, and Martin Luther King was brought up and how he was adamant that you love the sinner as we ourselves are loved, and that you can hate the sin, and do everything you can to overturn the people in charge of things if you believe their behavior is destructive, but you have to love them. That Sunday I happened to have a very spiritually evolved day, and I just felt like I could see who he [President Bush] was as a young boy and as a man — he’s been a total screwup as everything — a first-term president, and I had this feeling of tenderness for him. Maybe “tenderness” is stretching it a bit, but I had this feeling of not-hate for him, of softening, let’s say. But the piece is really about Day 2, when I woke up and I was okay more or less, and I had a cup of coffee, still fine, and then read the paper and just went “God! What are we doing?” Or, rather, “What are we going to do?”

I’m an abject political animal. I’m politically very plugged in. I do a lot of activism, I do a lot of benefits, I do a lot of marches, sort of freelance protest. And I’m also a person of very, very deep religious faith, and it’s not my business to separate them out so that my political readers will feel more comfortable and my readers who are more spiritual and creative won’t feel uncomfortable because it’s so political. I can’t start to censor myself to make anybody more comfortable.

I heard a critic, who was very important in the life of a writer, told somebody privately that he hated my simplistic faith, and it pierced me to the core. And I thought for part of a day that I really had to either stop talking about it so much or come up with a more sophisticated, maybe a more East Coast kind of happening, intellectual faith. And then, I don’t know, I took a nap or something, and that passed. And I thought, all I can do is really share what I think are the important stories of my life, and my times are so — there are a lot of Christians that can’t stand me, which is just part of the territory because I am so left-wing, and thanks for sharing. I always apologize at lectures, and I say, “If you don’t know where I stand politically and you’re here anyway, I’m really sorry but it’s not my fault. No one has been more out front, and I say if someone brought you here and you’re a hostage and they didn’t happen to mention what you could expect, then that’s not my fault or my problem,” so — and I know I don’t have an interesting theology, and I mean I, basically — my faith in one way, in answer to your earlier question, hasn’t changed much in 20 years. Twenty years ago, I was still drinking. So I was a drunk new Christian, and I saw Jesus as sort of my friend and companion whose presence I could feel all the time, much to my own horror in the beginning. I didn’t want that to be the truth. I didn’t want to be a Christian. I was raised to think Christians are idiots, and it’s sort of like believing in pyramid power, and I mean no offense to the many pyramid power people who may hear this, but … I was raised to think it was the opiate of people. I was raised by parents who were atheists, who worshiped at the temple of Miles Davis and who were very culturally hip, bohemian types, and so this would have been horrifying to my father if he was still alive. He was raised by Presbyterian missionaries in Japan and just hated Christians, especially Presbyterians, which is who I turned out to be, and he always called them God’s frozen people, and I turned out to be one of them. So I just have to release them — my parents, any critics. People have always said when you have a book out, critics are people who come onto the battlefield after the war is over, and they shoot all the living. It’s sometimes easy not to be stung, and other times it just hurts like hell, and I just have to keep saying, “I know what feels true to me, and that’s all I have to offer.”

My understanding of the kingdom of heaven, both as it is inside my heart, as Jesus said, and in the bigger world, is that it’s a come-as-you-are party and that you are welcome to come to the table — people who are hungry and thirsty and needing rest. I understand that I’m welcomed, and I’m accepted exactly the way I am. It’s like that dumb bumper sticker that says, “You are loved exactly the way you are by God, but God loves you too much to let you stay like this.” And I’m definitely a work in progress, and I have a terrible time with Christian fundamentalists, and I would lay a great deal of blame at their feet for the state this country is in, which is that we are almost universally loathed. We are an embarrassment now. Evangelical Christians and I can sit down and talk one on one about how much we love Jesus and how great it is to find this secret insider, our own heart of being cherished, and it not being a God of castigation and kicking you out, but a God of welcoming you and caring for you and nurturing you, and yet I’m not carried in Christian bookstores. A typical Christian bookstore would not carry TRAVELING MERCIES or PLAN B because I’m irreverent, I have a very dark sense of humor, I swear, I have a very playful relationship with Jesus, I imagine — if Jesus doesn’t have a sense of humor, I am so doomed — that none of this matters anyway. But assuming that Jesus does and God does, that he or she does, my relationship is reflective of that, that I feel that presence of goodness, of holiness, and just deep, sweet dearness kind of rolling its eyes.

Sometimes I can imagine God shaking his or her head going, “Oh, Annie, whatever.” Other times, I just feel even at my most — when I have been at my most awful, like I was this morning, most feeling cast out and lost and it’s all hopeless, I feel the love of a mother-father God; I feel loved like a baby would be. So evangelicals — we can talk one on one, but then, it’s like that Dylan song “With God on Our Side” — if you are not careful, you think you are right, and you are sure that your beliefs are the true beliefs. And the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty. I’m not certain about a lot, and I hope that gets me a partial credit in heaven.

[Asking me about keeping my spirituality alive] is partly, for me, I think, like asking a fish how it stays wet, because I’m so surrounded by love. I was born and raised in this county. I’ve lived here for 51 years. I go to church every Sunday, which is like going to the gas station once a week and really, really filling up. I have a number of friends in recovery who are not Christians but are on profound spiritual paths, and so our conversations are a lot about the restoration of ourselves from the kind of ruins of the children that we were and the people we always tried to be. We thought the world would give us the stamp of approval if we just were good enough, or charming enough, or achieved enough, and it turned out it didn’t. It turned out that it just left more holes than you had already managed to bear. Sam built this little cabin that I bought from him for a very good price in this county, Marin, I think, and I use it as a meditation room. It’s very quiet, it’s very peaceful. As you can tell, this house is very, very quiet. A lot of light flows through the windows, and I find that as spiritual as it gets. A lot of light and freshness and fresh air and silence, to me, are the components which go hand and hand with community and fellowship.

I do a lot of activism, and some of it is church-based and some is just ecumenical, community-based, and that is very, very restorative. And my work is spiritual. I’m trying to write about what I have discovered along the way. It’s sort of like a guidebook that you might write about Italy, or the wine country in Northern California, but instead I’m writing about one middle-aged human woman’s life in the 21st century.

Writing itself is not really a very spiritual experience for me, except in the sense that I get a great deal of guidance and help from forces that you wouldn’t be able to see, because they come from the deepest part of me and from some sort of field around me of spiritual companionship. I don’t actually like to write that much; I would really rather be doing almost anything. Luckily, if you’re a writer you also get credit if you’re reading stuff — that counts for study, and if you go someplace where there is either material or details that are useful, or if you’re talking to people on the phone in a way that might throw a little light on the material that you’re working on right then. So for me I go into my office every morning at the same time, I’m usually there by 9:00 or 9:15, and I sit down. I think it helps the Dr. Seuss character inside you who’s so creative know that it’s time to get to work. If you start at the same time, it goes, “Oh, for God’s sake,” and it looks at its little watch and pushes back its sleeve, and I sit down and I’ve usually left something to begin with from the night before. I usually have some notes to myself about what’s up next, and I start writing and just like I was talking about earlier, it goes badly, it’s a mess, it’s taking — I might be writing a piece that needs to be about 2,000 words, and it ends up being about 3,500 or 4,000.

I write terrible first drafts. If you’ve read BIRD BY BIRD, I write a lot about really short assignments and really terrible first drafts. I have to write things over and over and over again, and people say, “You write just like you talk.” I write four or five drafts of everything I write, everything. I give up hope a lot. But I have a number of spiritual tools, and they are not dazzling, beautiful things to look at. It’s a kind of cruddy old wooden toolbox with these slightly bent or rusty tools in [it], and they are the wisdom to just stop sometimes, just stop when all else fails; follow instructions, and for me the instructions are just stop. Do something else, take the dog for a walk, breathe, go outside to the little shed. I’ll say also no matter what I do, I do carry a pen with me, although I will say I don’t have one with me right this very second, but I carry a pen. My skin is very fair and I can write notes if I have to. I usually have index cards with me. I know to watch, I know to pay attention, which is also another thing which is as spiritual as you can get. Anything that can bring you into the now and into the breath and into the present moment — I mean, that’s why they call it a present, ’cause it’s the present. And so I will be able to kind of rein myself back in from kind of tripping out on how poorly the story’s going, or maybe I’ll finally be able to sell something to THE NEW YORKER, or how much the NEW YORK TIMES reviewer is going to love something, and I’ll be on page three of a first draft.

But my writing problems are not particularly different than my problems of being a human and a mother and a member of community. They are about living in the past, living in the present; they are about having equal proportions of terrible self-esteem and grandiosity, being a raging narcissist who really isn’t sure if my voice is an interesting voice or if my talent is a particularly big one. So the struggles of being a Sunday school teacher are not all that different from being a writer. I know that before I turned on Woody Allen, I used to love his line that said 80 percent of life is just showing up, and I do show up at my desk, and I know that another part of life is that you get to ask people for help.

I think that the American way of doing things is that you should do it alone and not enjoy it very much, but be sure you’re doing the right thing like, i.e., not to name names, but Bush and Iraq — that we can go it alone. But the truth is that we are people of community, we are tribal people. And I have people who help me with my work, who read it, and who listen to me. And there are a lot of people, writers I will help with their work, and I’ll listen to them.

It’s the same thing I do at my Sunday school. I listen. It’s the same thing when I’m in a bad mood. I’ll go out and I will flirt with old people at the health food store, and if people need me I will listen. I will bring them water, and I will listen, and that’s basically what Jesus did. Jesus didn’t say, “I’m going to take away your problems,” or “I’m just going to fill your head with a Dictaphone recording of your next spiritual peace.” But Jesus said, “I will keep you company, and I will be here if you need me.” That’s what I try to be in the world, and some days go better than others.

I wrote about all of my jewelry — I wrote about this in PLAN B, because I do wear stuff to remind me not about who I am but whose I am, because I have really turned my will and my life and my days over to the care of God, whether that’s goodness or good, orderly direction or Jesus. I’m a Protestant, and Protestants are not that big on Mary. It’s always surprising to people that I wear a Mary, but I wrote a whole piece on this. I just love Mary; she’s been so sweet and good to me my whole life. I always found religious friends when I was little, because we weren’t religious, and my first friends were Catholic and, of course, Catholics always tell Protestants, “You know you’re going to rot in hell for all eternity if you don’t convert,” and it turned out not to be true. When I was in the worst of my drug days and alcohol days, I would sing the Beatles song “Let It Be,” where “Mother Mary comes to me speaking words of wisdom” and just says the greatest spiritual advice anyone has every given another, which is just “let it be.” And so I love Mary and, like, in the midst of this terrible, terrible hurricane and flooding and aftermath in New Orleans, I know exactly what Mary would do, which is that she’d cry, and she would bring people water, and she would sit with people, and Mary would see the world in that shape, whether or not there’s a specific catastrophe to be addressed. That’s how Mary sees all of us, I know, as AIDS babies. So when I don’t know what to do I just touch this [necklace of Mary]. It’s my touchstone, and I remember we are all AIDS babies, we are all going to die, and it’s all very scary. It’s a very dramatic thing to have to live with. All the people we love most, without whom we can’t go on living, are going to die, too. And I need to live like that.

This red cord — I wrote a piece in PLAN B called “Red Cords,” because my very cherished friend, Jack Kornfield, gave it to me. He’s the founder and director of Spirit Rock, and it’s blessed by the Dalai Lama, who I think is just utterly one of the most fabulous people on earth, and he blesses it before he ties it around my wrist. And you’ll see or you’ll notice that Sam is wearing one also that Jack has also blessed, and he blesses them with the courage to be who we are and the courage to be honest and to remember that we are made up of kindness and love and compassion and to act that way. And that surprises people, and then they think it’s Kabbalah, or then they think it’s Buddhist, but I think there is only one God and that we can’t really know very much about that God. For me, that God came and presented himself to me in the form of Jesus, who literally was about eighth on the list of spiritual deities that I had wanted to hear from. If you’ve read TRAVELING MERCIES, I just said, “I give up” finally when Jesus came to me. But I love, love the path of Buddhism on this earth, and I’m proud to wear something from a very beloved, cherished Buddhist teacher. It reminds me, “Oh, right, breathe. Oh, right, now I remember, breathe.”