Anne Lamott "Radical Hope Amidst COVID-19" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the Henri Nouwen Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri to audiences around the world. We invite you to share the daily meditations and these podcasts with your friends and family.
Today, you’re in for a real treat: Award-winning author, Anne Lamott is with us. Anne has written 18 books; 15 are best-sellers. She’s well-loved for her wit, her brave honesty, and her passion for truth. What great timing, as we together all around the world face the storm of this pandemic.
Anne, in the New York Times, you were dubbed “the lefty guru of optimism.” I want to know if hope is still working for you in the midst of COVID-19.
Anne Lamott: You know, mostly like everybody else, I’m just fine most of the time, and I know it will end, all evidence to the contrary. And some days are just too long and I’m just too annoyed for words and impatient and crazy. And then it passes, and then I’m very optimistic that this will turn into something absolutely amazing, because everything always does. And yeah, I’ve just been telling everyone that it’s been like a lazy Susan, where some days it lands on surrendered, faithful, trusting, and then it lands on rage and apoplectic fury at the powers that be. And then it lands on reason, which is just to take care of whoever else I can. And then I know God will take care of me, because he and I have a deal. So, today I feel very surrendered and there’s really not much I can do about changing the reality, but I can change my inside reality to 66 years of having been taken care of perfectly. So yeah, but you asked on the right day. If you’d asked a couple days ago, I would’ve said, “Ha-ha, optimist left-wing guru of hope. Not really.”
Karen Pascal: Well, I know I loved your book, Almost Everything. It is about hope and it’s wonderful. And I thought of all the people that I could talk to at this time, I wanted to talk to you. And I know so many are kind of following you on Facebook and in whatever way they can kind of gain from you what you got, that I think what everybody loves so much is your honesty and that rip-roaring honesty has done you well. It’s well-laced with wit, but I also know that, in a sense, you don’t avoid or dance around the pain. It’s very real, too.
Anne Lamott: Well, it just makes you crazier to try to avoid it, or pour, as Marianne Williamson said 30 years ago, just to try to pour some pink paint over it. But most of my pain and suffering comes from trying to avoid my pain and suffering, and also, pain, suffering and the extreme powerlessness that really is at the center of our lives. So, if I’m just willing to stop and be where my feet and my butt are and notice how miserable or physically or psychologically uncomfortable I am, then I have a chance of it being transformative, and asking God into that discomfort and lost-ness and powerlessness. And then I start to come back home, you know, because home is the truth of my spiritual identity, which is I’m beloved and I’m accepted exactly as-is. This is a come-as-you-are party. And my resistance to the pain of human life and the losses is what makes me edgy and rashy – I call it being crunchy. And so, I was raised to believe that the way to comfort was to just deny, deny, deny that things just weren’t perfect. And I’ve learned through my spiritual life and my recovery life, that the way home is through it and in it. And you know, I mean, I always have understood that Jesus isn’t here with a magic wand to take away our pain, but to enter into it with us. And so that we have a brother sitting next to us, being aware that it can be very, very hard here.
Karen Pascal: You know, I love how you’re so open in your own struggles and vulnerability. And you actually remind me of Henri Nouwen in this. When I read Henri, I say, “Me, too,” as he describes his inner fears or his doubts about himself, or even his self-loathing, which really gets to me. And I hear that in you. I mean, that’s what I connect with in you. I find myself reading your books and going, “Me, too. Me. too. Oh, she found words for it.” And it uncovers something that we’ve often been trying to cover up and find that it’s all right to say, “That’s how I really feel. That’s what’s really going on inside of me.”
Anne Lamott: Yeah, it’s not only all right. The secret is that everybody feels it; it’s the human experience to be here in a lot of confusion, you know? No one got an owner’s manual. And to have been raised in such a way that you were compared to how everybody else seemed to be doing, and everybody else was either on TV or in ads or faking it in high school. And you know, there’s a famous saying in recovery, “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” And the truth is that when I share my insides with somebody who looks like they’re basically having a perfect life, they say, “Me, too,” also. They say, “Oh my God, you know, that’s exactly what it’s like.”
But you know, people are still putting makeup on, some of them. When you have to stay six feet apart with a mask on, what’s the point? Well, the point is that you were raised to get the appearance just right. And when you knew that your inside person was really full of doubt or judgment or hostility or self-loathing, the message from the culture was, you know, correct it. Get it together. But once you’re just sharing truth with someone else, everyone’s just nodding, going, “Oh my God. I know, right?” So, there’s nothing you could tell me about your life or your inside world, where I would recoil and go, “Oh my God, Karen, I can’t believe that a woman so devoted to spiritual, you know, blah, blah, blah.” I would go, “Oh, I know; welcome, as Vonnegut said, welcome to the monkey house.”
Karen Pascal: It’s funny. I think a lot of people have particularly appreciated how you . . . Let me just read from something that’s here, how you’ve written about families: “And then there were our families of origin. Some of us grew up in the alternative universe of unhappy marriages, where we accepted as normal despair, desperate parental need, and bizarre, bizarre sights, just short of a head on a stick.”
I mean, you talk about family, you brought us into your family, because that was probably an awful lot of what you were solving, first through drugs and alcohol and then eventually, really being able to say, “There’s some broken stuff that happened that I tried to solve as a child.” And until you get freed up from that, or maybe we never totally get freed up from that, we could always kind of walk with a bit of a limp, like Jacob walked with a limp, you know, the rest of your life with what are some of the issues. But at least you identify them.
Anne Lamott: Yeah. Well, everybody that I’ve ever felt drawn to and that I could be intimate with emotionally had a family like I did, which is to say, I know some people had really happy childhoods. Their parents were happily married and loved and respected each other. And the man didn’t have a sense of entitlement and domination, and where the children were respected for who they were and who they loved. But I actually have never been close to a person like that, because what would we talk about? Most of us grew up being told that we were not okay, that we should do better. That we were definitely esteemed when we brought home good grades, when we kept our weight down, when all of our parents’ friends were really excited to have us around, because we had become such good conversationalists.
So, it was just so, so conditional, and that just leads to such separation from self, if you’re really esteemed and sought-after, when you are doing your performance art of excellence and high achievements. So, for me, the road to restoration has been finding people for 35 years, just about, since I got sober, who will share their truth with me and say, “Yeah, I absolutely believe I’m a better person when I’m on. And when people are approving of the performance and when I look a certain way and this and that.” And when they with you do the healing work of breaking through that, to our own human is-ness and beingness. And that’s where we are most fully alive – instead of what we were raised to believe, which is that we were most fully alive when we looked good, and when we came across as being really successful.
So, I mean, God, it’s such a long, long journey back home to who we were born to be. But it begins with saying what was true, what is true, what we’re afraid of, what we’ve done, what we hate about everything. I mean, I have a best friend. I call her all the time and she calls me and I’ll say, “I just hate everyone today. And I hate all of life and this doesn’t work for me. And the only thing that I like is Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Chunk Fudge, and I couldn’t just buy a pint. I had to buy two.”
And she will say, “Oh, I’m so glad you called me, too.” And she’ll say, “But my thing is crème brulé. Now I’ve made two crème brulés so far today, and I’m not sharing them. I haven’t even told the other people in my family that I’ve made them.” And then we both get our sense of humor back. And like I’ve said forever, that laughter is carbonated holiness. But it’s hard to get to that laughter when you’re faking it.
Karen Pascal: You know, laughter opens us up to receive truth, which is one of the gifts that you have. You’ve been able to put this on the page and we just love you for it. I mean, here, you’ve written 18 books, as far as I know, and 15 are bestsellers and all of us who are your fans sit there on the sidelines going, “Is there another one coming?” I was wondering about that, because I think what an incredible pressure. You are a beloved person to write to our hearts, and we wait to get those books, because we’re wanting to laugh and cry together. And I think that’s one of the things you bring into our lives. And I just treasure that. But is it an awful pressure? I’m curious. I mean, you are obviously a born writer and you wrote this fabulous book, Bird By Bird. I’m curious if it weighs on you like an incredible pressure, the next book. And at the same time, I think the times we’re going through, they must be birthing in you an awful lot of copy. A lot to talk about and think about.
Anne Lamott: There really isn’t; I really have not written a word in the last two months and I’m really focused, like everyone is, on just keeping the patient comfortable one day at a time, and trying to take care of my community. So, it’s nice of you to say, but it doesn’t really work that way for me. And I finished a book two months ago, right when the epidemic was becoming global or had been global without a lot of help from our personal government. And so, I’ve been just getting to do a copyedit and rewriting and stuff, which is much easier than the creation. And so, but I don’t know anything that I would feel I could write about right now that was helpful.
You know, that piece I had you look up from the National Geographic on hope. I think I’m just going to repost that today on Facebook, because I don’t know what I could add to it. And that was before the pandemic. And that was before even the Australian fires. Remember the fires in Australia last year? And that seemed like the end of the world, but those were child’s play in terms of duration, compared to what we’re going through now and the sheer numbers of people who have died. But back to your original question of, do I feel a lot of pressure. You know, it’s funny. I really don’t. I mean, when I’m not writing and when I’m kind of in “ploppage” right now – I call it the “sacramental plop,” because I’m really just trying to come through, like everyone is.
My grandson’s here half the time. My son’s here all the time. My husband is in here. We’re stuck together. We got married a year ago and I didn’t really plan on being quarantined with him. And so, I’m just kind of dancing with what is now, instead of what I might create from it. But if I go there, the “shoulds,” and the shoulds are S-H-dash-dash, then I go into shame.
And you know, I think I said when I was with you in Toronto, that I quoted my great Jesuit friend, Father Tom Weston, who said the five rules of being an adult are that you must not have anything wrong with you or different about you. Rule two is if you do, you really need to correct it as quickly as possible. Rule three is if you can’t correct it or fix it, then you should just pretend you have, and that it’s not an issue anymore. And the fourth rule is that if you can’t fix it or even pretend that it’s not an issue anymore, you should just not show up, because it’s very painful for the rest of us. And the fifth rule is that if you’re going to insist on the right to show up, you should have the decency to be ashamed.
And as Henri Nouwen knew as well as anyone, shame is the great death knell of sensitive people. That we believed we were defective, because we were told we were defective or we weren’t good enough. We loved the wrong people. Our needs were too great. Our feelings were too big. And I was raised by an Englishwoman, you know, and by the son of missionaries, and feelings weren’t a part of the acceptable realms. And so, for sensitive people, you just live in that shame.
And so, if I live in what I could be doing, should be doing, what other people are doing, comparing my insides to other people’s outsides, I just go down that rabbit hole. And so, just partly to be able to do this radical self-care that I live in, I have to just gently release the ‘shoulds’ and ‘could be doing.’ I mean, I forgot to learn a new language during the pandemic. I forgot to learn piano. I, you know, I forgot to start a food pantry, but I’m doing what I can today. I’m sharing with you. I’m sharing with friends who are struggling. I’m going to take my old dog for a nice, long walk. I’m going to be gentle and loving with my son and grandson and husband.
And it’s really the best I can do today. And I need to return to basic Henri 101, that my name is beloved. And that I can live in my name and my truth just for today. Probably tomorrow I’ll start learning Spanish, but not today.
Karen Pascal: Oh, my goodness. That is so good for my soul. And it’s so good for everybody that’s listening. I have to tell you, because I got beyond the, kind of the first few days into this, I did a lot of cleaning. I got at those drawers and cupboards and everything that really needed. And then I threw in the towel and said, “That is not what I want to do with this time.” But, you know, I get up in the morning. I say, what day is it?
Anne Lamott: I slept little bit today, because I thought, “I don’t think I have anything I have to do.” And I was awake a couple times in the night and then I thought, wait! Little by little, it started to filter back. Oh, it’s Thursday. Oh, Karen’s going to call. Oh, I better have coffee. Oh, I better brush my teeth. You can’t do a podcast if you haven’t brushed your teeth; everyone knows that. And you know, but I’m the same way. And I go around and I’ll say to my grandson, “Do you happen to know what day it is?” He has a watch that tells him. But here’s the thing: We all cleaned like crazy for the first three days. And now it’s been 70 days, and things are, you know, we’ve done the bad kitchen drawer. And now, it’s about resting. It’s about receiving. It’s about being. It’s about praying. It’s about pulling for people. I send money to food pantries almost every day, whatever I can. And I tell people, send $5 to the food pantry in Oakland. Boy, they’re in trouble. And if you ask people to share $5, they might send 20.
Karen Pascal: That’s right.
Anne Lamott: So, you know, it’s all kind of quantum, that I’m in what actually works, which is what I just said. All those things work. The prayer, the sharing, the giving, the being – it’s quantum. And if I share it with you, then you’re going to probably send money to a very desperate food pantry in Toronto later or somewhere, you know, anywhere. And then, you’re going to remember, and I’m going to have just reminded myself, that prayer really works. That we say, “Help. I’m such a disaster.” And God says, “I thought you’d never ask.”
Karen Pascal: Well put! Well put! It’s funny, because I know you have had such a passion. You’re really a fighter for the environment. And in some ways, we have to acknowledge there’s this incredible blessing that’s happening. The environment is getting the chance to take a breath. You know, it’s being relieved of our overuse or of our filling it with constant pollution, for just a little breather. And I think that’s one of the little moments that we’ll look back and say, “Maybe we learned to do less to our environment or to care for it more.” It was a byproduct of this, for sure.
And there was a line I came across and it might have been in the article that you’re going to send out today, from National Geographic. But it said, “We show up in waders and with our checkbooks.” And I think that’s right. I think right now not everybody can show up with their checkbooks. There are people that are really feeling the pain and they are using food banks and they’ve never used them before. But having said that, we can show up and showing up daily, that’s – thank you. That’s a good reminder.
Anne Lamott: Well, that’s what Woody Allen said, before I turned on him 20 years ago, when he said, “80% of life is just showing up.” And I’ve always said that in the work I’ve done on grief and stuff, is that, how can you go to a mother who’s lost a child? Well, everybody’s afraid to go there. It’s just too much pain. There’s nothing. And what can we possibly bring? And God says, Jesus says, just show up. Just go there. Maybe get them a glass of water.
Karen Pascal: Yeah. Be present. Be present. Yeah. Don’t be afraid of pain. Actually, it’s funny, because I did a quick read again of Almost Everything, and there were so many things in it I loved, but I loved that chapter about death, actually, and about how to walk with people there. And clearly, you’ve walked with people right through that whole process and you know it as a privilege and not one to be afraid of, even though we don’t want the people we love to die, but . . .
Anne Lamott: Even though it sucks. You know, there’s a chapter in the new book that all truth is paradox. And what you said is true. It’s a blessing and an honor to be with somebody who’s dying or who’s . . . I’m with a person who’s 22 years old who is dying right now, and it’s an honor. And it just sucks, to use the theological term. It’s awful. It shouldn’t be that kids get sick. I’m sorry. I think it’s something we can all agree on, that children and young people should not get sick. And yet, and yet, and yet, and yet, they do.
And so, what do we do? We show up. We cry with them. We feel awful with them. We don’t give them any Christian bumper stickers that say God doesn’t give us more than we can handle. I think God does all the time, give people more than they could possibly bear. And so, what do we do? We share it. You know, we share the pain, we share the powerlessness and we share the absolute cluelessness, and we just sit there with them, and more than anything, I always say this to Christians and pastors: For the love of God, don’t try to cheer people up. It’s annoying. You know, it’s annoying. I have a friend whose 19-year-old son just overdosed. And all I know to do is to listen and not try to cheer her up. And just to say, “God, oh, I just hear you. I just hear you. And I’m here. I hear you. And I’m here.”
Karen Pascal: You quote a line of Ram Dass. And it’s, “When all is said and done, we are all just walking each other home.” And when we realize that through all our lives, that is a privilege. But you can’t shrink from the moments when you’re needed most. But I love what you’re sharing, because it’s true. Just show up. Don’t cheer them up, but show up.
What keeps you up at night right now? What are you thinking about?
Anne Lamott: Well, I’m a terrible sleeper. I’m a lifelong, terrible sleeper. So, being awake is what keeps me up at night. And my husband literally can’t get his head to the pillow before he is out. It’s so bizarre. I feel like he does it just to hurt me. But he’s asleep by 9:30 and I go to sleep at midnight. I usually read for a couple hours and I mean all of it, but as I said earlier, I’ve just learned how to keep the patient comfortable. I do this radical self-care. I get up, like last night, about 11, I got up and got some popcorn, because I was a little hungry and I can’t sleep if I’m hungry. So, I got a little popcorn. I went and got the cat and made her keep me company. The dog is lying next to the bed. I was warm. I was safe. I know I’m safe.
That’s really what I teach my Sunday school kids. I’ll say, “You are all,” I teach them, “You’re loved and chosen and safe with us.” And with God, always, all evidence to the contrary. So, I really just try to keep myself loving companionship. And so, you know, what keeps me up at night is just really not the pandemic, but how my son is doing, how my grandson’s doing. He has two families, us and his mother’s family, and how they all are. And how . . . and you know I’m kind of a hypochondriac, so I’ll feel a tiny twinge in my ankle. I sprained it three months ago, but I don’t think maybe this is the result of that. Maybe I think, “Oh my God, it’s a blood clot and it’s on the move. It’s going to my heart. I’ll be dead by morning. Poor Neal!”
Karen Pascal: You know something, I am a bit of the same. I’m an insomniac. So, but I have come to value sometimes I realize that some of my bravest and most creative moments do happen in those darkened hours. It’s also the place where fear just thrusts you out of bed, and you’re just, like, I’m ice-cold with fear over whatever – that loses all its potency in the morning. But having said that, I also know it’s a creative time for me. It’s kind of a time where I can think things through that I can’t during the daytime. So, I don’t know if that makes any sense.
Anne Lamott: Yeah. And also, I love quiet and stillness, and I love to be alone and my whole life, I mean, like, so much of Henri’s work is about the connection to the beloved community and also, the profound healing and beingness of being alone. And I wake up in the middle of the night and I might be awake for an hour like you. And I say the Jesus prayer. And I may say the Jesus prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me – a thousand times a day, but I’ll say it in the night. And eventually I fall back to sleep, because I remember what it means is it’s not just the petition to have mercy on me, like, give me a break and make yourself known. But it means you do have mercy on me. Wow. What a concept! How can that be?
So, it comforts me and it also does bring me presence, and it is a beautiful meditation and it quiets my mind and it takes me to my heart. I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “If you lived in your heart, you’d be home now.” And of course, we were in the worst traffic and agitation and ’roid rage. And so, and I thought, yeah, I mean, it’s true. If you live in the heart cave with your higher power and your scared little child, you’re home. And so, to take those two hours while Neal’s asleep as a great blessing. And then when I wake up in the middle of the night to do the Jesus prayer and to get to have that holy sacrament of comfort, whether I comfort you with a cup of tea, or I comfort me with a bag of popcorn, you know, it’s comfort and comfort is sacred.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting. On my car, I have a bumper sticker that says “Love wins.” And my car’s getting really old, but I’m reluctant to trade it in, because I love my bumper sticker, because it constantly speaks to me. I mean, I can be in a ragingly bad mood, and I look at that and I go, “Okay, okay.” It just speaks right into my heart. At some point, when I get a new car, I’ll have to find another love wins bumper sticker, for sure.
Tell me about Neal. This person walked into your life and it sounds like he didn’t walk out once you connected. That’s pretty special. Can you tell me a little bit about how that’s happening in your life?
Anne Lamott: Well, it’s funny because, let’s see, we’ve been together coming up on four years now. We’ve been married just over a year, but the most interesting thing about this is, first of all, I’ve never been married before. I’ve had long relationships, but as I said, I like to be alone and I didn’t live with them. And so, on every level of existence, we’ve lived together three years now. And the most interesting part . . . No kitty, that won’t hold you! Oh God. The kitty’s going to try and jump up onto a music stand because . . . The kitty, I have to go save her.
Karen Pascal: Okay. You go save her.
Anne Lamott: Okay, wait, wait, wait here, see, this is solid, kitty. Look, this is a bench that will hold you. She sees the music and she goes, “Something new to mess with!”
So anyway, about this time . . . what is it, May something? We’ve already discussed that we don’t know what day or date it is. Say hypothetically, it’s mid-May in 2016, I did the deepest grief work I can remember doing. And my older brother was here staying with us. His wife had passed and he was living with us for a bit, and my son was here and my grandchild and I was exhausted and depleted by having only taken care of everybody else and feeling taken for granted, that everybody’s used to me taking care of them and fixing them and supporting them on every level and blah, blah, blah.
And the pain of that existential loneliness . . . You know, you can be at that deep, deep grief-stricken loneliness with a house full of people. And I tried to share it with my brother, John, who’s a fundamentalist Christian. And he started in with the bumper stickers, you know, the Christian bumper stickers. And it was kind of the final straw to not be seen or heard, but to have somebody just try to fix me and on their own terms with their own vocabulary.
And I said, “I have to go right this second and I have to be somewhere,” which was a lie. And I got in my car and I drove out to the country, which is all redwoods and creeks and forest. And I screamed and shouted at them all. And Mom and Dad that made me this way, that I’m a black-belt codependent and that I was depleted and empty and dying. I just felt like I was in full sickness and full death. And I shouted and I raged and I hit the steering wheel. I drove for 20 minutes one way. And then I drove 20 minutes back. And it wasn’t adorable crying. It was, I’m red-faced and swollen, and my nose is swollen and my eyes. And then, I finally pulled over back in my town, but I didn’t come home because it wasn’t safe.
Because they just gave me this happy horse-pucky. And I called my mentor of 30 years, my spiritual mentor, who I always call horrible Bonnie. And she listened. I said, “I am done. I am in complete depletion and grief. I don’t love, I can’t love them. They just suck me,” and on and on and on. And you know, she did the most radical thing we can do. She listened. And when I was done, I had no voice left and I didn’t have a voice for three days. I’d ruined my throat. She said, “Dearest, this is what we paid for.” And she said, “You’re there.” And I was there in the dark night of the soul. I was there in the Abyss, which is as you know, pretty abysmal. And she said, “Thank God.”
And then we started from there and she said, “You feel you’re nobody’s priority because you’re not your own. And we need to do some work now on making you your own priority and doing the self-care and the self-respect and the self-love. That is the only way to become a person for others.”
And we started from there and we talked for an hour about the action we can take and things we stop doing, which is what I said: Stop being there for everybody and getting my self-esteem from being of value to others and taking the leftovers and making sure everybody else was doing okay before I attended to my own human needs and my own spiritual longings. And after about an hour I was back, you know, the princess was back and I drove home.
My brother was there. He hadn’t had a clue because I don’t share that, that I was in desperate need. He had only thought it was like somebody at church is having a bad day, you know? And that you just say what you think is true without hearing how deeply grief-struck and empty they are. And I was fine, and I just blew everyone off internally. I released them all to whoever their higher power, the way they cope, whether that’s just thinking that you know everything and you know, what Paul Tillich said, that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, but certainty. And I let everybody be certain of their own stuff. And I went to people who were safe, who could hear me. And I got this message that I was not my own priority. I did leftovers. And so, I did this work for three months, of becoming my own priority, of falling romantically in love with my own self, with buying myself stuff, what I wanted to eat instead of what made everyone else like me more, because it’s what they like me to bring home from Safeway.
And I did that work and then few months later I met Neal. I met somebody for whom I became the priority, and he became mine. So, it all sprang from becoming my own priority, my own beloved. And so that is, to me, what I most want to communicate with people when they ask about Neal, because it’s funny. I’ve written this new book. I told you, I think it comes out next year, but one story has to do with how, when you’ve just gotten married, all anyone can ever think to ask, because we’re all nervous or shy or, you know, limited people, “How’s married life?” Well, we’d already lived together for two years by that point. So, I’d say, “Well, it’s good.” You know? And then at first, I’d be just enraged, it’s like, God, it’s such a dumb question.
Then I was on stage in front of a thousand people in Southern California, which is 500 miles from here. And the first question the interviewer asked me was, “How’s married life?” And I said, “It’s fine.” And then I told that story, about how I got to be married to a really beautiful and brilliant man for whom I got to be the priority, because I did not run from the pain and the suffering of having been alone for 62 years and alone in more ways than one, not physically alone – all this. And so, that’s the story of how Neal and I came to be, and now we’re in quarantine.
So, how’s married life? It’s like having a man who’s just retired kind of wandering around the house a lot, when I’m used to having the house to myself. But you know, the main thing I had ever sought was someone I felt like talking to all the time. And of course, I didn’t mean in quarantine, in shelter in place. And so, but he’s brilliant spiritually, psychologically. And so, I’ve learned to take time to say, “I have to go into our room now and I’m going to take the cat and close all the doors and I’m going to take two hours and be by myself and read and maybe take a nap.” And he says, “Okay, great.” And then he goes out and gardens. So, you know, I heard when I first got into recovery, 34 years ago, “Ask for what you need and want and celebrate the ‘no.’”
And because I’m the mother and I’m the patriarch of this family, people, not just the dog, will follow me around wanting to be with me. And I have to say, “No, ask for what you need and want and celebrate the no. No, I can’t be with you. I have nothing to give. I have to go read the new issue of People magazine. Do the best you can. I’ll see you later.” Which is what Jesus always says to the disciples, right? They’re just always desperate and whiny and afraid. And he says, “Go down to the beach and wait for the next fish to come in and eat. You’re all just crazy. I’m going to go off; we’ll talk later.” And he does. And then he goes, and he seeks quiet and rest and time with his Father. And then, when he can, he comes back to them.
Karen Pascal: I find all of that just absolutely profound, what you just shared, because it really speaks to my heart about knowing what you need, finding what you need, being real with what you need. That is quite, quite the story. I’m really grateful you shared that. You are a hearty meal, my friend. You are always full of stuff that’s just delicious. And speaking of the delicious in this book, I love the chapter on, was it bittersweet or bitter truth? I was so grateful somebody said that dark chocolate is not, not great. Anyway, I just have to say that because . . .
Anne Lamott: No, there’s a whole chapter, it’s only one sentence, I think, but it says, “But it was never supposed to be considered an edible.” Like people have always giving, because they know I like chocolate – that really is my favorite thing about life after Jesus. It goes Jesus and then chocolate. And then the animals – that they give me, like, 80% cacao chocolate. And I think, oh, I’ll keep it in case one of the tables gets wobbly, because this would fit perfectly under the table. And then you could shore it up. But yeah, I set out to write every single thing I knew to be true, really for my grandson and niece, you know, and you get to say what’s true. And I mean, if people give me this expensive, delicious chocolate, I never say, “Eww, eww, yuck, gross.” But actually, I just put it in the gift shop and I re-gift it to people that do like 75% cacao. I personally like M&Ms. I know I’m a Philistine.
Karen Pascal: And Hershey kisses, as I’ve heard.
Anne Lamott: And Hershey kisses.
Karen Pascal: Yeah. I’m in your camp, I’m in your camp for sure. There’s another little thing that I just find so charming and it is, in a way, your love of children, the way you relate to children. I see it in your Sunday school class, and you shared a little bit about that, but as I was reading this book, I love the fact that you were teaching children how to write. And it was just contagious. It was just, it was darling, quite frankly, it was just darling, as far as I was concerned. There’s something in you – and you know, here we’re going, I may be taking you backwards into, you know, caring for everybody else but yourself – but there is something in you that just seems to awaken to children in a really special way.
Anne Lamott: I really don’t know. It’s funny, because I don’t like to brag about myself, but children have always loved me and gravitated towards me. And when I lived in this funny hippie community – actually my first novel, which is called Hard Laughter, was based in Bolinas, this hippie artist colony on the coast, about half hour from where I am now – I was like the Pied Piper. And it was always so odd and kids would follow me around and want to be with me. And I think it’s partly just because I do believe in doing real. I love real. I love and I listen and it’s mostly because I was such a terrified child. I know what it feels like to be a kid. It’s not like it’s portrayed in the movies or the commercials. It’s not carefree; it’s just the opposite.
My parents had an unhappy marriage and I was very, very strange and different-looking. I had this very, very different, crazy hair and these huge, goggly green eyes. And I was so skinny. And back in the fifties and early sixties it was so weird, because grownups would feel that it was fine to comment on how a child that wasn’t theirs looked, you know, and strangers would say, “Oh, don’t you ever feed her?” You know, like that was comical. It’s like, it’s so bizarre. But so, I understand what it is to feel, you know, the ultimate statement is that it’s a stranger in a strange land. And so, I get it. I don’t pretend, I don’t try to get them to feel more comfortable here than they feel. Which is that everyone feels, I felt and I wonder if you did. I felt like I was the only Earthling and that I was on this Martian test pad, testing lab, where they were watching my every move to see how I reacted. So, I couldn’t make any mistakes. One false move and the jig was up. Or I felt like I was the only Martian and I’d been put . . . but at any rate, I felt like I didn’t have an owner’s manual, and the horrible thing is, I felt like everyone else did. I felt like I must have had the measles that day in second grade when they gave everybody the instructions on how to feel okay here, and part of, and have decent self-esteem. I never did. I spent my childhood dancing as fast as I could to try to fit in and to pass.
And so, with kids, I just am aware of that. I’m aware of just how scary and weird it is here, how desperately they try to help their parents be okay. And, you know, with no hope of that happening with a 50-pound person trying to help two grownups be more decent to each other. And so anyway, when our church – we moved when my son was about five, and I just started this Sunday school so that he would want to be there more, because up until five, I’d always just bring him stuff to do like crayons and markers and little baggies of Cheerios. And then at five, I just decided I would start a little class, for a place for him to be where he would be learning also, and where he would be having fun making crafts, but finding out about Jesus.
And so, I started this Sunday school, and I was good at it. It was so weird. I hadn’t meant to be or planned to be, or I hadn’t even actually planned on teaching it. And I’ve mostly taught it myself for, what’s it been, 31 years now. Not 31, 26 years now. So, I love it and it drives me crazy sometimes. And I try. I have a partner, Bonnie, who I share it with, so that every other week I get to stay in service for the sermon and the rest of the church and the singing and the prayers of the people, because we take the kids out halfway through. Because I think it’s also great for kids to learn to sit there quietly.
And we have a very integrated, intergenerational church of about 30 people. And it’s good for kids to learn to sit quietly, and I want them to learn how great and fun and trippy Sunday school can be. So yeah, I write about them a lot. They just say such incredible things. In fact, I completely plagiarized them. About six months ago, this is one of the chapters in the book, I was trying to write about the center of our being, which is our soul, and why we’re here, you know, like that great Meister Eckhart quote from the 14th century, that if the soul could know God without the world, God would’ve never created the world. You know?
And so, I was talking to them about the soul. I said, “How do you imagine it?” And they said the most beautiful stuff. One of them said – I think a boy, a 14-year-old boy; they’re all different ages. There might be three kids a week. It’s typical. And there might be a 14-year-old and an eight-year-old and my grandson, who’s 10-and-a-half – one of them said, the oldest boy said, “I think it’s like a tiny, silver snow globe inside of us.” I thought that was so beautiful. A silver, glittery, snow globe. And the girl, who was about, not even eight, said, “I think it’s like Pikachu.” You know, from Pokemon. And then she said, “Kind of a kitty bunny, little being.” And I thought that’s the best definition of soul I ever heard. And so, they just blow me away. They make me laugh. They make me cry. I went to them the day after the massacre at Newtown, at Sandy Hook. I go to them after catastrophes now. And I listen. I cry with them. I don’t have answers with them. And I feed them.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because I find that when you share some of those moments that you have with children, it always really touches me. There’s something so breathtakingly honest about it, you know? And there’s something so freeing. I’m glad you don’t make it up, that you understand their fears. I think when you do that, I feel like, oh, you understand my fears, too. And I really appreciate that.
Anne Lamott: Well, thank you. Well, also they’re so exposed. They don’t have all the games and the spackle and the fancy Chanel foundation to cover it all up with, you know. They’re really pretty transparent. And so, you know, one thing I love about them is that love all the cranky, bratty people in the Bible, because they know that’s who we really are and that we’re not all, we’re not Joseph, you know? We’re not.
Karen Pascal: We might be the brothers that actually throw him in the well, because we’re jealous.
Anne Lamott: Right! Exactly. And we’re Benjamin; they know we’re both. We’re the innocent baby in the family, who had something precious torn away from him, including his father’s wholeness when Joseph was stolen from the family. But they also love Jonah, because he’s such a brat and because he only wants him and his people to be taken care of by God. He’s just so livid when it turns out that God has come to actually take care of everyone, to welcome everyone back. The prodigal son, they love the older brother, because he’s such a brat, you know? He’s going to sit there on the step, outside the banquet. He is not going to go in and have food and joy and companionship, because he’s so bitter that he’s been the perfect boy all along and yet here’s the dad feeding the boy, the younger son who wrecked it all, who behaved badly, who abandoned, you know? And the father just says, “This is the happiest day of my life.” And so, the brother just sort of sits out there with – I picture him with his arms crossed, crying, “Oh, this is so unfair!”
And so, my kids love him. And I do, too.
Karen Pascal: Well, you know, I think what we love so much about you is your honesty about who you are and when you feel mad and what’s going on in your head. And it just draws us in. And at the same time, you say, “Grace bats last.” You really have a center in God that just really challenges me. I’m so glad. I remember I reached out to you, way, way back, going, “Has Henri Nouwen ever influenced you?” just because you were such an influence on me. And I thought she’s got to have read Henri Nouwen, just because of the kinds of things I was reading from you. But I will say this right now, I will say, thank you, thank you, thank you for giving me your time today, for everything, for so much good stuff.
Anne Lamott: Oh, Karen, it’s really, really been lovely. I’ve probably got more out of it than you did.
Karen Pascal: You’re sweet to say that. Thank you. We love you. We’re looking forward to the next book, but I go back and I read the treasures that I’ve already got and they are that. I thank you so much.
Anne Lamott: Thank you. Have a beautiful, blessed day and just try to keep the patient comfortable and give her delicious treats. I am about to have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as my sacrament. Okay, Karen, take care. I hope you got it all. Okay. Bye-bye.
Karen Pascal: Bye-bye.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. I hope you got as much out of this chat with Anne Lamott as I did. As well, you’ll find links in the show notes for our website and any content resources or books discussed in this episode. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we’d be so grateful if you’d take time to give it a stellar review or a thumbs-up, or even share it with your friends and family.
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