Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Happy Birthday, Anne Lamott

Today is the birthday of Anne Lamott.  She's become somewhat famous for many reasons, but since this blog focuses on theology, let me think about her as a theological writer in this post.

I first found out about her because of her famous book on writing, Bird by Bird.  The metaphor that gave the book its title comes from an incident where Ann's brother had put off writing his research paper on multiple kinds of birds, and he despaired of being able to do it.  Ann's father said he'd have to do it "bird by bird."  Step by step, that's how anything gets done.  Her book is full of good advice and stories about how to be a writer. 

I remember when Anne Lamott made the talk show rounds to promote her book Traveling Mercies:  Some Thoughts on Faith.  At first, I was horrified.  I was still in a snooty, anti-church stage of my life.  Yet Lamott didn't come across as one of those bigoted, hypocritical Christians that I hated so much.  She was very honest about her struggles, about all the ways she still got things wrong.  The way she talked about her church made me wish I could go there.

Perhaps it's because of her honest writing about her church experiences, along with Kathleen Norris' writing, that led me back to church.  I'm sure it's part of what pulled me back.  Those writers, and so many like them that I was reading in the late 90's and early part of this century, reminded me of the wide variety of faith experiences:  suburban churches, priests of all sorts, monastics, college kids, radicals of all stripes.

And it's Lamott's own writing about faith that gave me the courage to try.  I love her quirky way of looking at the world, of looking at Bible stories, of retelling them and weaving them with her experiences.

Here are some quotes from some of her books.  I highly recommend all of them.

I was looking for the bit in an Anne Lamott book where she talks about a mom being locked out of a bedroom. Behind the door was a screaming toddler. The mom couldn't get the door open and neither could the toddler. While she waited for help to arrive, she stuck her fingers under the door and talked in soothing tones to the toddler. Anne Lamott saw that incident as a metaphor for God's presence in our lives.

I thought the obvious place to look for the source would be Lamott's book Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year.  I couldn't find it, but this metaphor is almost as good as the mom metaphor for which I was hunting: "He said he'd finally figured out a few years ago that his profound sense of control, in the world and over his life, is another addiction and a total illusion. He said that when he sees little kids sitting in the backseat of cars, in those car seats that have steering wheels, with grim expressions of concentration on their faces, clearly convinced that their efforts are causing the car to do whatever it is doing, he thinks of himself and his relationship with God: God who drives along silently, gently amused, in the real driver's seat" (p. 113).
"At some point you pardon the people in your family for being stuck together in all their weirdness, and when you can do that, you can learn to pardon anyone. Even yourself, eventually. It's like learning to drive on an old car with a tricky transmission: if you can master shifting gears on that, you can learn to drive anything" (Traveling Mercies 219-220).
"You've got to love this in a God--consistently assembling the motleyest people to bring, into the lonely and frightening world, a commitment to caring and community" (Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith page 22)
Her quote from her friend John is one I come back to again and again:  ". . . if you have a problem you can solve by throwing money at it, you don't have a very interesting problem" (Traveling Mercies 259).

"If my heart were a garden, it would be in bloom with roses and wrinkly Indian poppies and wild flowers.  There would be two unmarked tracts of scorched earth, and scattered headstones covered with weeds and ivy and moss, a functioning compost pile, grat tangles of blackberry bushes, and some piles of trash I've meant to haul away for years (Grace (Eventually):  Thoughts on Faith, page 107).  She then goes on to write a wonderful essay about what it means to clean up and cultivate our heart's garden, which entails dealing with a lot of our messes, like jealousy-caused meltdowns.

"When God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility" (Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith pages 33-34).

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