Porch presents

Published May 22, 1997 10:19AM (EDT)

i came home for a weekend recently after nearly a month on the road
promoting my new novel, and I was not in good shape. I had one more week
of travel and promotion ahead of me, and I told one of my best friends that
this time I was serious about hanging myself. "That doesn't really
work for me," he said. "I need you still to be around ... at least briefly."

I'm aware that an author on tour has a lot of gold-plated problems -- the
luxury of being sick of room service, for instance, the luxury of bad TV
reception, the luxury of too much attention paid to oneself. But still, I
felt like a miserable little kid at the end of a long, bad day of travel with parents who have
recently decided to get a divorce. My hands were shaky, my mind was paranoid and
delusional, like Chief Broom in his fog machine in "One Flew Over the
Cuckoo's Nest." And I wondered if I had done permanent harm to my central
nervous system.

So there I was, at last able to be at home briefly, trying valiantly
to savor the 48 hours I got to spend at home with Sam. And I was actually
that I was being showered with what my friend Praise-the-Lord-Sarah calls
"porch presents" -- a little something someone slips you on the porch when they
first show up, that's wrapped in newspaper so you'll know it is not a big
deal, and that no thank-you notice is expected. Everywhere I went, I kept
getting these little presents -- tiresome interviews canceled at the last
minute, a baggie of
homemade heart-shaped chocolate chip cookies from a fan in Ann Arbor, Mich.,
someone's 14-year bronze sobriety chip in St. Louis.

The one fly in the ointment about my Mother's Day weekend, though, was
that I had to spend Saturday giving a lecture on writing to a small group
of magazine editors and writers in San Jose, which is two hours away. I
tried to pump myself out of myself and out of my bad mood by remembering
what Breaker
Morant said: "Live each day as if it's your last, because one of these
days, you're bound to be right." Still, I felt a little bitter.

My friend Neshama was going to come along, because it would be her
only chance to see me for another week. But I had to leave Sam behind
with a friend, and I had to leave my house in a shambles, which was further
demoralizing. Of course it would all be there when I got back -- Sam's stuff
all over the place, the dishes in a pan in the sink, breeding malaria. Who
knows, I thought: Maybe God would manage to lure someone inside while I was
gone, some sort of caseworker with cleaning supplies.

Neshama and I got to the hotel in San Jose on time and walked down a
long hallway to our conference room. We passed a very Diane Arbus wedding
reception -- everyone in terrible, bright, lacy clothes, a pile of discarded
shoes at the top of the stairs -- until we located the couple who had put
together the all-day conference at which I was to be the afternoon speaker.
They were hanging out in the lobby near the closed door to the conference
room. I was not due to speak for 10 minutes, so after a moment of small
talk, Neshama and I went looking ... for drugs.

we returned five minutes later with mochas, and found the door open. We peered in. The well-dressed people inside appeared to be in a state of stupefaction. They had been listening to other speakers all day, and there was a stale feeling in the air. Everyone looked tired and uncomfortable, gazing at me with looks on their faces that said, "Oh, great, now what?"

I gamely started talking about writing, began to sing all my tired old songs -- "short assignments, shitty first drafts, there's ecstasy in paying attention" -- and I was dancing as fast as I could. I felt like the court jester, in my floppy old clothes, there to amuse the weary royalty.

After a while I looked at my watch. Only 10 minutes had passed. It was a nightmare. My mind began to wander, even though I was the one talking. Then I noticed that there were heavy drapes over the windows to keep the room dark for some reason. But one was not drawn all the way shut, and you could see one tiny strip of green -- a vibrant stripe of the world outside, of leaves, that was so beautiful, like seeing a patch of sky in prison, that says, This -- Oh this -- is what you're missing.

I closed my eyes. An old quote of someone's floated into my head: that what was missing from a situation was only what you couldn't or wouldn't provide. So I decided I needed to give these people a porch present. I tried to wake up, to spritz myself with some psychic plant mister. All at once, I abandoned my notes, and began to tell them instead how sick I was of the sound of my own voice, how nuts and other I felt. It was definitely a little improvement, and I felt a kind of settling in on the audience's part, a little relief, like I had started out by lecturing them on the Dewey Decimal System, but had decided instead to tell them all a nice bedtime story.

I started talking to their crazy-inside-person. I just assumed, you see, that like the rest of the professional world, they spent most of their time trying to cover up that person, to cover up the cracks, the goofiness. Then I made the mistake of mentioning my mother, who is English. "There ought to be a 12-step group for the children of the English," I said, "because of how frantically they always need to spackle everything," and right that second there was a loud crackling sound, a whiny creak, like that first tiny hint of a problem on the Titanic. And then, a fire alarm that was hanging from the ceiling like a uvula lit up, began to spin, and then to wail.

"I'm sorry, mom," I cried. "I really didn't mean it."

Everyone laughed then, and looked around. No one knew what the alarm meant or what to do, and it was like we were on hold, waiting to see if we should go ahead and panic. But Neshama, who was sitting in the back of the room mending a blue sweater, was smiling. So I smiled too. It was either the caffeine in the mocha or the surprise, but I almost immediately understood how great this interruption was. Neshama said later that the whole conference was a kind of machine, and when any social or conventional machine breaks, you get to see who these people really are inside it all. That it throws us all into the same boat, a boat we didn't even notice we were in before.

The siren kept going, the light kept flashing, Neshama kept smiling and mending her sweater. We didn't smell smoke and so stood in suspended animation; smiling shyly with some embarrassment at each other.

Then a grave -- dast I say it, self-important -- male voice came over the loudspeaker and told us the building was being evacuated. We picked up our things and trooped on out, as if it were a fire drill in third grade. We filed down the stairs alongside people who had been down the hall at the wedding reception. We, the writerly types, in our preppier clothes, smiled at them. Most of them were pale and doughy in a way that I found sort of touching: like they were made of general, sweet people-dough.

Despite the alarms, the evacuation was very discreet. Two women in wheelchairs were carried regally to the elevators, as if on litters. One was old and crabby, one young and full of joy. The rest of us marched along, our two groups merged, all of us finally in the same absurd soup.

We went outside together. We got some fresh air. And we got to see the outside world that we'd glimpsed through the parting in the curtains: the stripe of green trees. And it was so beautiful. People from the two groups started mingling, happy to be outside, happy to see a wonderful little sight gag across the street, where the hotel's 15 cooks stood in a cluster, smoking, their white coats and hats absurdly bright in the early afternoon sun. It was very Fellini: They looked Amish, in their tall hats, or like sufi dancers, or penguins, on their little island of fresh air and smoke.

After a while word spread that there was no fire, and we could go inside. Everyone trooped back in: You go out, you come back, you do what you are told. But here was the difference: The barriers had broken down between us and them, where the us is good and fine and whole, and the them are broken and less-than.

It was as if a film had stopped and then started up again 10 minutes later. But back at the podium, I felt less like a lounge lizard, less like Bobbie Vinton or Eartha Kitt. I felt like me but tired. I started singing my little songs again and the writers and editors nodded. It was like the start-over had reframed everything. Maybe they were rested, revived by the air and all that green outside, all those leaves. Maybe they were people who were always working, had other people working for them, all of them into production; and here I was, speaking of soul stuff instead, but now really feeling it -- writing, softening, the scouring off of dross. Maybe they were used to seeing their work and co-workers as product and means to a product, as human packages that either read and buy their product or help them produce it; so maybe it was good for them to see a human who instead just feels and yearns and is sad and tired but trying to be funny and healing.

But here is God's own truth: I was in an exuberant mood the rest of the day, and all the way back home. After Neshama left, I put Al Green on the stereo and waited for Sam to come home. I began to do some serious putter. First I straightened up the living room, and then I poured out the malarial water in the kitchen sink and filled the plastic tub with hot soap suds. I starting washing dirty dishes, and it felt so great to be in my own home that by the time the last song on the album came on, I was dancing around quietly with a sponge in one hand, a plate in the other. It reminded me of washing Sam in the sink when he was little, how tired but whole I used to feel. It occurred to me that if the magic maids had come while I was gone -- if their coming had been the day's porch present -- I wouldn't have had the other gift, the gift of being able to claim my home, wouldn't have been able to clarify it, tend to it, and be so tended to.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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