vol. 2 #42, May 30, 1997
I thought of the lamp that was not plugged in to anything;
then of the boy who looked like Pig Pen, blinky and dense,
then of Linus and Schroeder, of the ferocity and poignancy
of our illusions. You think a blanket will protect you?
That you are really making lovely music on a toy piano?
But the blanket did protect Linus; and Schroeder does
play beautifully; and maybe more than anything, they
keep at it. They believe.
Anne Lamott. "The Gospel According to Pigpen", Salon Magazine, May 8, 1997
They say you can tell a lot about somebody by finding out who they admire. I want to tell you about a writer who fills me with admiration and envy, the woman I would like to be when I grow down--Anne Lamott.
I've mentioned her online diary, "Word by Word," in Salon Magazine, which I read without fail. I have now finished reading two of her books, her most recent novel, Crooked Little Heart, and a book about how to write, called Bird by Bird, and I am struck anew by her understanding of our messy lives, our jealousies and spitefulness, our pain, and our moments of startling joy.
I had earlier read her book Operating Instructions, a journal of her son's first year of life, and had been impressed then by how well she captures the mania of new motherhood, that bouncing back and forth between being head-over-heels, dazedly in love with your infant, and wistfully hoping somebody else will strangle him for you because if you did it, you'd feel really bad, at least later on. She talks about all of these things with a staggering openness and irony. Hers is a life more fully lived, more richly sensed than most of us could ever imagine. She seems to be without skin--just raw nerve endings, reacting to everything she sees, hears, smells, tastes and touches. Which is how she wants it, because "being a writer," she says, "is about asking yourself...How alive am I willing to be?"
And I am racked with envy. And with a sense that she is myself, were I younger and more pain-filled, were I an ex-alcoholic, reluctantly converted Christian. Were I more open to every moment of my life. Were I not slogging along, coloring with the starter set of 8 fat clunky crayons while she is using the 64 Crayola set with the little sharpener. Were I not using training wheels while she is doing wheelies on a real bicycle. In every way that matters, she is eternally three years old, reaching out to every bit of the world, perceiving it with every sense and maybe through her pores.
Which one could admire in the abstract and remain unmoved, were it not for her gift for words, the exact, precise, perfect words. Like when she describes her family, for instance, "all as mentally ill and as skittishly self-obsessed as I am. Which I certainly mean in the nicest possible way." Or when she describes a girl's streaky blond hair: "The sun sparkled in all the strands of yellow, like it was dancing with its own family." Or when she speaks about her "crazy pinball-machine mind."
Not the least of her appeal to me is that she is funny. Speaking of her newly acquired religious belief, she says:
I really would have rather died at that point than to have my wonderful brilliant left-wing non-believer friends know that I had begun to love Jesus. I think they would have been less appalled if I had developed a close personal friendship with Strom Thurmond. At least there is some reason to believe that Strom Thurmond is a real person. You know, more or less.
Her perfectly chosen words combine with exquisite comic timing to capture her persistent amusement at life.
You know how when you're ready to paint your living room, you can stare with blank incomprehension at one of those paint charts, with 24 little squares of nearly identical shades of ivory? Not because you can't tell there ARE differences, but because without the words you cannot say what those differences are? Anne Lamott has the words,. And they have her, for she is profoundly captive to the need not just to taste life but to go and write it all down.
Metaphor seems to flow effortlessly from her mind. Describing her reluctant conversion, she says:
But I never felt like I had much choice with Jesus; he was relentless. I didn't experience him so much as the hound of heaven, as the old description has it, as the alley cat of heaven, who seemed to believe that if it just keeps showing up , mewling outside your door, you'd eventually open up and give him a bowl of milk. Of course, as soon as you do, ... he's sleeping on your bed every night, and stepping on your chest at dawn to play a little push-push... I was tired and vulnerable and he won... He started sleeping on my bed that night. It was not so bad. It was even pretty nice. He loved me, he didn't shed or need to have his claws trimmed, and he never needed a flea dip. I mean, what a savior, right?Spiritual Chemotherapy, Salon Magazine, February, 1997
But like anyone who has to sit alone and listen to her mind, the voices she hears are not always the muses. In fact, "the other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys." At Radio Station KFKD, as she calls those voices,
Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn't do well, of all the mistakes one has made today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt,...that one doesn't do relationships well, that one is in every way a fraud...
She and the writers she advises need to fight their way past the drunken monkeys to hear the voices of the characters they've created, as determined as any teenager to become themselves instead of puppets who will dutifully act out their appointed plot lines.
It is difficult to hear their voices past the ugly static. Aimee Mann says, "Why must I take it so hard? Other people get by with either bourbon or God." Lamott has had to lean on both when her radio station blared in her ears 24 hours a day nonstop in stereo. She quotes Geneen Roth: "awareness is learning to keep yourself company," but goes her one better:
"And then learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage. I doubt that you would read a close friend's early efforts and, in his or her presence, roll your eyes and snicker."
Like me, she is a collector of well-chosen language. She has spent her life reading and responding to words, and the exact perfect quote always seems to spring into her mind as needed. She calls up stories and jokes and incidents and turns them into parables--to her, all experience is usable. The story behind her book title is about her brother, who put off until the last minute writing a paper about birds; at last sitting down to write it, he is overwhelmed by how much there is to say, about so many birds, in so little time. And their father drapes his arm around the boy and says, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."
I may be flattering myself in thinking we are, if not sisters under the skin, at least second cousins. But though I have had far less pain to deal with, and am not quite so at home with mental illness as she, I think I share with her a certain quirkiness of outlook. Like me, she finds the world strange and amusing, perhaps to keep from finding it terrifying. Like me, she was driven to humor at an early age, not so much to become popular, which was out of the question, but to become at least marginally acceptable, to deflect the taunts she says "felt like driveby shootings," from the people who were so much surer of themselves and their right to exist and to rule. Like me, she became their storyteller, narrating for them events they had been part of. She says
I could make the story happen. I could make it vivid and funny, and even exaggerate some of it so that the event became almost mythical and the people involved seemed larger, and there was a sense of larger significance, of meaning."
I will read anything this woman writes. I don't care what it is--she can draft municipal zoning ordinances and I will read them, because she is incapable of dullness or of lying. She has the courage to lay herself bare, to question and examine anything no matter how sacred, no matter what the risk of finding it empty. She has the gift of what XTC calls "1,2,3,4,5 senses working overtime." And she has the words, oh, yes, she has the words.
Jealous? You bet I am. But only of what she achieves, not of what she goes through to get there. I am protected by skin, and a lot safer for it.
home to all my
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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