The acclaimed writer describes her latest text, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.
Author Anne Lamott
Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Anne Lamott to this program. The latest project from “The New York Times” best-selling author is called – I love this – “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” I love the title, I love the book, I love the packaging, I love the layout. I just love this little book.
Anne Lamott: Thank you.
Tavis: It packs a powerful punch.
Lamott: Thank you.
Tavis: So how are folks responding to it around the country?
Lamott: Oh, it’s great, but I brought you something, before we go on.
Tavis: Uh-huh, gifts?
Lamott: Okay. I brought you a present.
Tavis: I take presents.
Lamott: For you and your mother, who has no known first name, but I brought a Mrs. Smiley present. (Laughter) This is for you.
Tavis: Oh, thank you.
Lamott: This is a cross that the children at St. Andrew Presbyterian in Marin City made. That is the Star of Bethlehem and the shoot of Jesse, the day spring, right?
Tavis: Yes, absolutely.
Lamott: They make it from Sculpey, if people are wondering, and then we bake them in the oven.
Tavis: And let me see the one for Joyce, for Joyce Smiley.
Lamott: And then this is the one for Joyce Smiley. The girls are, it’s a girly one.
Tavis: Oh, the pink, I like this.
Lamott: Yeah, yeah, the rose is the rose of Sharon.
Tavis: Oh, turn it around.
Lamott: Yeah, the animating love of the universe. So, and sometimes people put it on the walls –
Tavis: Thank you.
Lamott: – and sometimes people put ribbons around them and wear them.
Tavis: Wear the necklace, yeah.
Lamott: Yeah, yeah, so anyway, give that to her.
Tavis: My mother – first of all, my mother watches this show every night.
Lamott: Okay, good.
Tavis: So there’s no way I’d ever receive anything for her that she doesn’t already know –
Lamott: “Hey, where’d you put that cross?”
Tavis: I’ll bring it home for Christmas, Mom. I’ll be home – (singing) I’ll be home for Christmas. And I will take this with me.
Tavis: Thank you.
Lamott: Okay, good.
Tavis: And tell the good folk at church –
Lamott: They’re very fragile, put them here.
Tavis: All right, appreciate – thank you very, very much.
Lamott: In case you become overexcited.
Tavis: (Laughter) You tend to do that to me.
Lamott: I do?
Tavis: Your writing does.
Lamott: I know, I do.
Tavis: I want to jump right into this.
Tavis: I had Stephanie put this on a blue card for me because I wanted to just read a passage and let you take it from there.
Tavis: From each of these three sections – help, thanks, wow. So from the help section – before I do that, first, why these three words?
Lamott: Well, I always used help and thanks after I first got sober in ’86. I just thought everything was either help, because your mind is so crazy after you stop drinking, and it’s help, and it’s all this ticker-tape of thought coming out, all your best ideas, quote, unquote. I would just go, “Help, just help me.”
Then I would always be heard, something would hear, and the phone would ring, the mail would come. Something would shift the plates of the Earth. I’d be okay again. I’d go, “Thank you.” The long form is “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.” (Laughter) Like, I’m back.
Lamott: Yeah, so then about 15 years ago, maybe more, I realized that all you had to do to shift your consciousness was to step outside. Night, day – you don’t go outside and to, “Oh, it’s a medium starry night here tonight.” You step outside, you see the stars, you go, “Wow.”
Lamott: Every time. It’s like being spritzed with a plant mister. You wake back up. You have a little awakening. So you get yourself outside, you take the action and the insight follows. There’s no code you’re going to break in your own head, there’s no thought that’s going to set you free. It’s going to be a spirit of waking back up and going, “Wow.”
Tavis: I love it.
Tavis: It simplifies what so many of us struggle with, which is trying to find a way to have a prayer life, but “Help, Thanks, Wow” pretty much sums it up. I decided, after talking to you so many times over the years, that it is best to just go right to your work, because you write so powerfully and so poignantly and so beautifully, so from the part about – from the help section of the text:
“There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career; relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin, because when you’re still in the state of trying to fix the unfixable, everything bad is engaged.”
Lamott: That’s right, and especially it’s so abusive to try to do that with other people, too. Everybody’s on their own hero’s journey and you can bring them some water, but you can’t – people don’t need to be saved or rescued by some human, especially by some old, tired grandmother who’s trying to nag them into behaving a different way because then I’ll be more comfortable.
But when somebody is vulnerable, when somebody is screwed up sufficiently, when somebody has come up empty enough times, they may be teachable. That’s certainly been my experience. That’s when I’m teachable.
Tavis: Do we have to hit bottom to have this sort of reality check?
Lamott: I don’t think so. I think especially as you get older you just start to catch yourself tipping off into this kind of blame. Usually my first – the default place I go to is who to blame, whose fault is this, how can I change them so I’ll be more comfortable?
But the brace of getting older for me is that you align yourself. It’s like tuning in a radio station a little bit better, because you know it’s there and it’s not off, that you’re off.
But when I was younger I had to hit – the willingness came from the pain for me. When I got to enough pain, I’d finally stop and say to God, sort of bitterly, “What?” Then I’d be teachable. (Laughter)
Tavis: What do you imagine that God, though, must think of us if the only way for us to learn – and I know you said you don’t have to hit rock bottom – but what must he think of those of us who don’t seem to get it until we’ve hit our head against the wall so many times?
Lamott: Well, you see little children all the time trying to break stuff or having tantrums or fits or whatever, and you know that God just looks at them with an absolute preciousness, just in the fullness of their creation. Everybody’s a pain in the neck sometimes. We all fall so short.
So I really think God just sees me like I see my grandson, who’s three and might have an episode sometime or announce that I’m not his big super-Spiderman girl anymore. (Laughter) Because I’m older, I just roll my eyes and I say, “Whatever.” It’s my house, my kitchen, my everything. Come back.”
I think God just kind rolls his or her eyes and goes, “Oh, whatever. I’m right here as soon as you’re ready again.”
Tavis: From the thanks section of the text: “Gratitude begins in our hearts, and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means you are willing to stop being such a jerk when you are aware of all that has been given to you in your lifetime and in the past few days. It is hard not to be humbled and pleased to give back.”
I love that line. “It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides.” It took me a while in my own life to come to that conclusion, that the joy resides in loving and serving other people.
Lamott: We think we’re so hungry for what we haven’t quite got yet, or having amassed, or having achieved, but we get it, and then we’re still Swiss-cheesy in our spirit if it’s not going to fill us. Then you stop the train. That’s what prayer can do, it just stops the runaway train of narcissism and bad self-esteem and everything, and you start to give thirsty people water, which is, like, the big Jesus thing, right?
Go get the thirsty people water. We’re going to pray. I think you need to eat, you’re a little funny. Jesus is always saying, I think you need to eat. Come to the beach, we’ll have some fish later. You’re getting yoo-hoo.
But anyway, stop the train. You get somebody who’s thirsty water. You pray. I wear a gratitude bracelet a lot, because to me, gratitude is the magnetic energy of holy spirit, where somebody’s got it, you are so drawn to them. You think what is it? What have you got? They’ve got their grateful. They are feeling their own blessing, yeah.
Tavis: Two questions now before we move on. What, to your mind, makes it so different for us to live in a place of gratitude? As children we’re all taught to say thank you, to be grateful. We get taught that. But somewhere between childhood and adulthood we get away, we abandon this notion of gratitude.
The older I get, I must honestly tell you, the older I get, the less patience I have for people who don’t show any gratitude. I will cut you off faster than Hannibal crossed the Alps if I spend too much time with you and I realize you just don’t have a spirit of gratitude.
But we live in a world where that is so uncommon these days. Where people – I’m not saying bow down and genuflect, but just the grace note of having that gratitude. How did we get away from that?
Lamott: I think that the speed and the massive quantities of money geared up for us to think that we still need to buy the thing that is going to make us feel blessed. Everything is speeding, racing, it costs a fortune. If you get this, you’re going to be okay, though. If you can just lose a little weight, 10 pounds, you’re going to be happy again.
So to me, it’s kind of how I experience the devil. You know they say the voice of a devil is sweet to hear? It doesn’t tell you you’re garbage, it says, “Oh, yeah, I think it’s okay if you smoke a little bit. I think it’s not a big deal.” So you might start smoking cigarettes again because the voice of the devil is saying it’s not going to make a difference.
Or the devil or the culture will say women need to be a certain way, women need to have this. You should have a certain kind of hair. Your hair should be soft and shiny or it’s not good hair. Work with it, do something.
Everybody has fallen under – it’s like a spell. Finally, that’s why I talk so much about the plant mister, that you wake up. That you realize, like, I’m 58. It took me, like, 50-some years to realize I was a great beauty, because the culture got its hands on me and said, “Buy, shop, achieve, lose some weight, gain some weight, do something with the hair.”
That’s why I got dreadlocks, was because I wanted to look in the mirror every day and go, “You are so beautiful.” Instead of, “How can I fix – we’ve got a situation here on our hands.” (Laughter)
Instead I look in the mirror and go, “God, you are so beautiful today, Princess.” It takes a radical act to stop listening to the voice of the culture and to go, “I have me, I got me back. The women’s movement gave me me back, my church gave me me back. I’m safe, I’m surrounded, I’m chosen. I’m safe, I’m loved.”
And I go, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, God, thank you.” Then I could chase down an airplane, right? I could.
Tavis: See, you make it so difficult. I’m trying to move on to wow.
Lamott: Okay, we’ll go to wow.
Tavis: No, I can’t go yet, because I keep saying wow the more you talk, because I can’t get to your wow because I keep being wowed by you. There are two things now I still want to get – two things I want to go to before I advance.
That beautiful phrase you said a moment ago, that it takes a radical act – it takes a radical act to stop listening to the voice of the culture.
Tavis: Lord. That is the most difficult thing for us to do –
Lamott: It is.
Tavis: – because we are bombarded with all kinds of messages every day. So just before I go on, take a minute to tell me more about how we, in fact, accomplish that, to find a way to stop listening to and being dictated to by the voice of the culture.
Lamott: Well, you start to realize, I think, partly getting older, it’s all a lie. It’s like the fog machine in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It just gets turned on and everybody becomes kind of foggy in it. Partly the willingness does come from the pain. You start to get older and you start to think I may have 20 more years. How much more time am I going to waste on my butt? (Laughter)
When you go to Heaven, it’s going to turn out your butt was 187th on the list of what mattered here. To have a few – like some people don’t live very long because they came and they were somehow in love, they were somehow in union with the, with the creator or with the animating intelligence of the universe, and then they are not here anymore.
Then the rest of us, you and me, exhibit A and B, just kind of slogging along, and we get somewhere spiritually and then I will hear the voice of “The New York Times” is for me the golden calf. I say, “Ooh, ooh.” Then (laughter) I’ll have to have an awakening.
But what will happen is I’ll get to the point of pain that I finally stop hitting the snooze button and I go, “We’re starting over.” That’s what my faith gives me, is that I get to start my new 24 hours as soon as I remember I do. So it’s whatever time it is. I don’t even know what day it is.
But at that time, like right now, this minute, we’re starting over. We’re being people of presence and union. We’re hooking into something so much bigger than our individual egos or destinies or careers. It’s like that stuff, it’s great that we can disseminate information and truth and carry it to people.
That’s the kind of water we give thirsty people sometimes, is what we figured out, what we write. But it’s not going to feed us. Only God is going to fill the god-shaped hole. Only love or only spirit. But you get tired of being half here, and being always in the future, what’s going to happen.
So there’s lots of tools, spiritually, that people can use. If I wear a gratitude bracelet, boy, it busts me, it busts me, and I’ll go, “Anne, stop. Stop the train. Take a breath. We’re just going to start over now.” You kind of do your Le Mans.
Tavis: Yeah, breathe.
Tavis: Before I go on again, one last thing I want to get to under this thanks. Obviously, thanks is so very important. That notion I raised a moment ago, that “It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides.”
We live in a world where people think that joy is found in everything except loving and serving people. In what we possess and who we are with and where we live and where we go to school, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
What say you about how we get to a place of understanding that that’s where the real joy in life really does reside, in serving others?
Lamott: Well, I think you just start to notice over the years. Like I know your mother, because I know she’s a preacher and I would agree that “joy” spells “Jesus, others, and then you.” But the culture says you’ve got to get yours. Pull up the ladder, I’ve got mine.” That’s what the whole election has been about, right?
Lamott: The thing is that it’s just there’s no there there, so you do it enough times, thinking that if you just do this forward thrust of your own ambitiousness and wounded ego that you’re going to fill up and you’re going to get the USDA stamp of approval, and you’re just emptier and crazier than you always were.
You notice when you show up, like Woody Allen used to say before it turned on him, that it was 80 percent of life. You show up and you sit with people. You say, “You need a cup of tea? I can sit with you for as long as you want. I got time,” that you’re filled up from inside with, like, what I would dare to call the holy spirit energy, because it just feels like now we’re one together just for a few minutes, but that’s maybe the best we can hope for here.
One last thing, if I have a minute, is the culture tells you do not be vulnerable, and it takes a long time and a lot of spiritual practice to discover that your vulnerability is where your strength is, because you take off all the false fronts. You take off the armor. You take off the turtle shell and you feel and you understand that you are completely safe.
You’re loved and you’re safer outside. It’s like Jesus and the horrible storm at sea. His point is you are safer in a terrible storm with me than you’re going to be anywhere else in the world ever again – in a castle, in armor. Take it off.
The realness and the vulnerability is where we can be most permeable and where I can take you in, like at times where you can take me in, and then we’re bigger than just two.
Tavis: You mentioned my mother a moment ago and my mother – you’re channeling our conversation. My mother and I literally, literally last night were in a conversation about the fact that love means making yourself vulnerable.
Lamott: Right, right.
Tavis: We had a long, I think it must have been a two-hour conversation on the phone about this notion of vulnerability. I was explaining to her about a situation where something happened and I was kind of hurt by what somebody had said to me. In those instances when people say things that hurt you or do things to you that hurt you, you start to question whether or not you really want to be in that love space.
Whether you want to open yourself up to that, because it does, in fact, mean that you have to be vulnerable. I find that we live in a world, again, where people don’t want to be – they don’t want to be hurt. People are more defensive now than ever; they’re more nativist now, turning inward now more than ever. Who wants to be vulnerable these days?
Lamott: I do. You do.
Tavis: Because when you’re vulnerable, you get hurt.
Lamott: You do, but then when you’re in the love space, you’re like it’s ancient, it’s newborn babies, it’s life. It’s life. And that love space and that sense of wonder because you’re present is why we’re even created.
But the whole culture tells you, put on the armor, get a better car, get a safer car. A safer car, fire, crash tests. Put on more makeup, put on fancier this, burnish the surface. Get the surface right.
But if you’re a seeker, if you’re a person who has a spiritual calling, you want to take off all the false fronts. You want to take off – you want to just be who you are, and then the light from within can shine. That light, it’s like lighthouses running all over the island, looking for boats to see.
We just sit here, we give off a little light because we’re loved, and people say, “Hey, what are you two talking about? The ‘love space?'” Well, all I want is a love space, and it hurts. But that is, I believe, why I was created, to feel it. To feel the wonder, to feel the presence and the awakeness, instead of hit the snooze button, get the surface better.
So I think your mother and I probably agree on more than you and I do. (Laughter) No, I do. No, no.
Tavis: I wouldn’t doubt that.
Lamott: I do. Because we always have, like, a small fight at the end of these talks.
Tavis: No, I wouldn’t doubt that. You and my mother have – you’re both very wise people, and I take that. So let me move on to wow, finally. I’ve been getting so wowed by this conversation.
So from the “Wow” chapter of the text: “What can we say beyond wow in the presence of glorious art, in music so magnificent that it can’t have originated solely on this side of things? Wonder takes our breath away and makes room for new breath. That’s why we call it ‘breathtaking.’ We’re individuals in time and space who are often gravely lost and then miraculously, in art, found.
Lamott: “I once was lost and now I’m found.”
Tavis: “And now I’m found.”
Lamott: I’m here. We do this thing with my kids at Sunday school, and we call it loved and chosen, because the culture doesn’t tell you, especially if you’re not white. Especially if you’re not a white male. The culture doesn’t tell you you are loved and chosen exactly as you are. Nothing more to do, nothing to figure out. No way to become a better believer.
But I’m the teacher, so I’ll say, “Is anyone here wearing a blue tie with black spots?” You know how kids are. They’ll go “Whoa, what are the odds?” I’ll say, “Tavis, you know what? You are loved and chosen. You come over and sit here. Yeah, you, and everybody.”
Lamott: But the culture doesn’t tell us. It tells us if we only can master this, if we can only own this, not lease it – it doesn’t count as much; not rent it – if we can only marry, if we can only achieve, and it’s a complete lie.
But there are times when a child, a very, very, very, very old man, a tree – Ronald Reagan – oh, don’t even get me started (laughter) – said, “Seen one redwood, seen them all, right?”
Lamott: Well, every redwood I see, I say, “Wow. That’s a redwood. That is a tall redwood.” Or I’ll see a baby and I’ll say, “Someone got a redwood here. God planted a sapling here. Somebody brought some -” and I’ll go, “Wow.” So to some degree, it’s a choice. It’s a choice of how alive are you willing to be?
If I’m willing to be alive, maybe it hurts my skin a little bit, kind of knocks me around a little bit, and I’m alive, and I am experiencing life as it breathes through me and goes past me and something catches my eye. Then I’ve been going, “Wow, this is great. I love this.”
Tavis: See, you always make me think. I love that – “How alive are you willing to be?”
Lamott: Yeah, you’ve got to ask yourself –
Tavis: “How alive are you willing to be?”
Lamott: – over and over and over again, and you get to start your new 24 hours. You get to go, “I am willing to be insanely and wildly alive, and I’m starting over again right now.”
Tavis: See, my mother, back to my mother again, because she always factors in these kinds of conversations, my mother, I didn’t get this when I was younger, but I’m getting it now as I’m older. My mother raised 10 kids.
Lamott: I know.
Tavis: My mother and father, as you know, raised 10 kids and has never had any money in her life. No college education, but one of the wisest people I’ve ever known. But what she loves more than anything else, other than serving God, obviously, is traveling the world, and when she’s on the road, traveling, she calls me and the things that make her go “wow” are things now that I’m really finally starting to appreciate – the redwoods, the snow-capped mountains. She just travels and travels.
Lamott: Takes your breath away. Takes your breath away, and it fills you with breath. Fills you with spirit. But it’s a choice. It’s a decision to – people see little gray birds all over where I live, and they go, “Oh, it’s just a little gray.”
But every little gray bird I see, I go, “Whoa, look at that funny little guy,” or I’ll get my grandson, he’ll go “Wow,” and we’ll watch them and we’ll be fully alive in the eternal now for a few moments together. That, to me, is what we’re talking about when we talk about God and prayer.
Tavis: I’m going to close with this, because it’s always important for me, at least, to try to get to where people begin.
Tavis: If this is something, this conversation, this book is something that has impacted you and you want to know where to begin, that’s always a good place to close a conversation, I think.
So this from Anne Lamott in “Help, Thanks, Wow:” “If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: That we are so ruined and so loved and in charge of so little.”
Lamott: So little. (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s a serious place to start.
Lamott: Right, right.
Tavis: “So ruined, so loved, and in charge of so little.”
Lamott: We’re so loved. We’re so ruined, so loved. I am in charge of this side of my palm, and I am not in charge of the whole rest of the world. That’s not very much. If I were God’s West Coast representative, (laughter) I would be in charge of a lot more.
Tavis: But I suspect, though, when you come to terms with that, that we are ruined, that we are loved, and that –
Lamott: We’re in charge of so little?
Tavis: – we’re in charge of almost nothing –
Lamott: That’s your freedom, right?
Lamott: You’re not responsible. You didn’t wreck it all. I don’t think Ronald Reagan wrecked it all, but a lot more than I have, personally. (Laughter)
Lamott: People wreck it, and we are back to bring it back, to bring it up. The Bible says that God will restore what the locusts took away. We’ll show up, we’ll bring some water. We can contribute some good soil, so we will. We’ll show up and it’ll be fun to help restore what has been stolen from us.
Tavis: They are three, powerful, essential prayers, as Anne calls them – “Help, Thanks, Wow.” And I’m going to take with me from this conversation tonight and wrestle with this framework, this formulation, of how alive I am willing to be. Anne, I love you. You are always welcome on this program, as you well know.
Lamott: I love you too.
Tavis: Thank you for the gifts.
Lamott: You’re welcome.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our app in the iTunes app store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
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