The grace of klutz

The night I humiliated myself onstage with Grace Paley.


Anne Lamott
December 4, 1997 2:57PM (UTC)

There's something so graceful in a huge unwieldy person finding a way to
glide. I remember Marlon Brando ice skating a few years ago in "The
Freshman," so massive and shy and full of grace out there on the rink;
Jackie Gleason shooting such great stick at the pool table in "The Hustler,"
actually strolling around the table to take each new shot, in total presence,
total command. And there's also something so graceful in a skinny little kid
with poor coordination, who's running in a gangly goony way, arms akimbo,
knees knocking, this hopeless little kid who will always be picked last in
schoolyard games, who's just so happy to be running so fast, running the
exact way she's running.

I know more about grace than I did two weeks ago. A poet -- maybe
Auden -- said, "I know nothing but what everyone knows, that if there when
Grace dances, I should dance."

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I was with the incomparable Grace Paley, onstage, and I danced. The
thing is, I didn't dance beautifully. I danced like Peter Boyle did as the
monster in "Young Frankenstein," doing the soft-shoe in tuxedo with Gene
Wilder -- bellowing "Putting on the Ritz" like a wounded water
buffalo. But I did the best I could do; I did it with great passion. I got
bad reviews. But because when all else fails, you have to follow directions,
I did just that. I danced. I danced because I was there with Grace.

Grace in the theological sense is that force that infuses our lives,
that keeps letting us off the hook. It is unearned and gratuitous love; the
love that goes before, that greets us on the way. It's the help you receive
when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have
discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you;
grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that
isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed
and eventually grateful as you are to be there.

And in a literary sense, there's Grace Paley. In 1970, when I was 16,
the women's movement had just burst into the general public awareness. Now,
I am a person who can say in all sincerity that she owes her life to the
movement, but as it first emerged from New York, it was defined by grown-up
daughters who did not want to risk having anything in common with what had
been their mothers' entrapment. As a result, some of the language of the
early movement contained an ugly rejection of mothers, of motherhood, of
softness, of wanting to be in deep relationships with men. But also,
blossoming out of New York, from the tenements and the Village and the
anti-war movement, was a short story writer so wise and funny, whose work
taught me that you could be all the traditional feminine things, a mother, a
lover, a listener, a nurturer, and you could also be critically astute and
radical and have a minority opinion that was moral. You could escape the
fate of your mother, become who you were born to be and succeed in the
world without having to participate in traditionally male terms -- without
hardness, coldness, one-upmanship, without having to compete and come out
the winner.

She was beautiful, soft, zaftig and powerful, a mother; she was in
love, she was a combative pacifist. And that was Grace. That was Grace
Paley.

I used to almost pant like a thirsty dog when I'd have a new unread
story of hers before me. I drank up her humility, her generosity, the
radical wisdom of those stories. Most amazing of all was her wonderful sense
of perspective, grounded in self-forgiveness. She pointed out her own flaws
and foibles, but it was clear that she was not bogging down in them, not
getting caught up in the small stuff. Foibles are not worth hating, was the
point: What was worth hating was poverty, injustice, war, the killing of our
sons and brothers.

I met her a couple of times over the years, and we always had an easy
rapport. We had much in common -- we were mothers, teachers, activists. And
then a few weeks ago, I got to do two literary evenings with her, in two
different cities.

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Now, the producers of the events both wanted us to read from our work,
then each give a prepared talk from the podium. But then this terrible thinky
little thought got caught in my head: Why not let us just be together in
front of the audience, a couple of funny, articulate women hanging out? And
I was sure that this was the way to go.

I had to convince the first producer to give us a shot at this. I've
been giving variations on the same talk for a long time now, and after a
while it makes you feel like a baton-twirler. It had begun to leave me
feeling like Peggy Fleming skating to a medley of songs from "The Sound of
Music." And that is what Fleming's audience would probably want to see.
Left to our own devices, I think most people want what is smooth and light
and easy and instantly warm. They do not want to pay to watch someone sit
with the nervous abyss onstage. I do not think they want to see Peggy
Fleming skate to "Carmina Burana" or Keith Jarrett.

I saw Peter, Paul and Mary recently in concert. I wanted to hear them
sing "The Great Mandala." I became frantic and somewhat bitter when Paul
Stookey began to sing an interminable new song about the Internet.

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So. I hoped that the fire of truth would catch between Grace and me.
The producer gave us a shot at this happening. It didn't.

Grace and I read our own works for a while, and then we sat down to have
a nice intimate conversation with 2,000 people watching. And it was a weird,
glumfy dance, as Sam said once; a private dance done publicly. We bombed.
This is not actually the truth: I bombed. Grace was fine. Everyone agreed
later that Grace was fine. She answered my questions on writing and activism
with intelligence and style, and then listened respectfully when I then went
on to the same questions I had just asked her. Apparently I went on a little
long. Repeatedly. But I couldn't hear the music, I couldn't remember how to
play my own little song, and it all came out frenetic and narcissistic. I felt
like the minutes were coming at me much too quickly, like the chocolates on
the conveyor belt in the famous "I Love Lucy" routine. I became Lucy when
she's dutifully trying to place each chocolate in a little paper panty, but
finally, just to keep up, has to shove chocolates down the front of her
dress, fling others over her shoulders, stuff a whole bunch in her mouth.

It was all a little -- comment se dit -- glumfy. Grace shone through as
she can't help but do; she was wise and forthcoming and inspiring. She was
all the things she is. I was more panicky than usual, and so perhaps the
tiniest bit -- well, chatty would be the nice word. Garrulous would be the
meaner, but maybe more accurate. But I was me, just lost and wired but
endlessly eager to please. So instead of something machine-extruded and
satiny, the audience got something that was more like a nubbly, handmade
shawl with lots of textures and lumps, a weaving of earth-colored yarns and
moss and pebbles, with a few thin bright ribbons throughout. It was warm,
but odd. The worst moment was toward the end, when I was handed a pile of
index cards that contained the questions from the audience that were
directed towards me. Unfortunately, I got one of Grace's cards by accident. It said, "What would you have talked about if Ms. Lamott had not
gone off on all those narcissistic tirades?" The adrenaline of shame flushed
through me. I didn't want to have to carry it all alone, later, in the hotel
room, 1,000 miles and two nights away from home. So I shared it. It
intuitively seemed the most therapeutic thing to do. I read it out loud to
the audience. Then I turned to Grace and said, "I don't think we
should answer this one. Because I think it sounds a little angry." Everyone
laughed. Maybe it made a bunch of people uncomfortable; and maybe this is not
a bad thing. On the other hand, maybe it modeled for one person in the
audience how sometimes you can grab a spear that's headed at you, snap it in
half in the air and get a laugh, instead of another wound.

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The end of the evening was terrific: We both answered another question
or two, and then read short things we had written, with which we wanted to
close. Everyone loved what we read, but as soon as we came off the stage, I
began to suspect that hardly anyone was entirely happy with how it had gone.
Except, of course, for Grace.

Grace thought it was fine. "It was just what it was," she said.

My friend Paul O., who is in his 80s, says that he tries to enjoy life
the way it is, because that's the way it's going to be anyway.

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I am not there yet. I felt that the night had shown the world that I am
a jerk, an egomaniac, a loser, but I did not tell anyone I felt that way. I
just felt terribly depressed and lonely in my hotel room that night. Left
with my own bad thoughts, most of them about myself, I felt stricken and
lurky and dark, like a wallflower at the vampire's ball. I cried a little,
then closed my eyes, bowed my head and whispered the best prayer I know,
"Help."

Then out of nowhere I remembered something one of my priest friends
said once, that grace is having a commitment to -- or at least an acceptance
of -- being ineffective and foolish. That our best ideas and all of our
bottled charm are the main roadblock to drinking that clear glass of grace,
to feeling its cooling breeze. I remembered what Grace's stories were all
about: self-forgiveness, and taking care of one another. And I also
remembered what Jesus said to do: Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, help the
cold people feel warm. Now, I'm not positive he meant that you should
immediately order some overpriced room service food or wrap yourself up in
the hotel's terry-cloth bathrobe or draw yourself a bubble bath. But maybe
he did. The next thing I knew I was leaving messages on machines all over
the Bay Area for friends to call me the moment they could, because I was
lonely and cold and sad. I do not understand the mystery of grace, only that
it can be received gladly or grudgingly, in big gulps or in tiny little
tastes, like a deer at the salt. I gulped, I licked, and pretty soon, I
wasn't lonely anymore. I got in the hot tub. I became funny again. I made
myself laugh out loud.

Oh, the review the next day was awful -- there's no getting around
that -- mostly because the critic beat up the producer for letting us take such
a risk. I just felt awful about letting her down, and still do. But the
gift of failure is that it breaks through all that held breath, all that
isometric tension about needing to look good. One of the things of which
I've been so afraid finally happened, with a whole lot of people watching,
and it was a total nightmare. But I came through. Sitting with all that
vulnerability, all that discomfort and even the shame, I discovered I could
ride it. And every so often, one needs to be reminded that life is dangerous
and beautiful all the time, in equal measure. So I felt shaky and ungainly,
the way Marlon Brando looked on those ice skates, but I also felt back on my
feet.

I hate it every time something happens that makes me let go of the
illusion that life is seamless and that everything is going to be OK.
Because the truth is, it's not going to be. We know it isn't. It's not
even constructed to be OK -- kids' hearts get broken, and then they become
teenagers and scare us, and themselves, and parents get old and feeble and
die, and friends have sick babies, and people you love leave. That's pretty
basic, pretty real. Like Vonnegut said, "Welcome to the monkey house." But
the more we get grounded -- on ice, in loam and mud and moss and rocks and
fields and unmown grass -- the higher we can lift.

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I was in and out of depression and a vague sense of humiliation all the
next day. I even cried a few more times, and that is almost always a good
thing. I hadn't figured out anything specific by the time I arrived in
Portland, but somewhere along the line I had gotten willing to give up the
self-will. I think it had to do with all those tears and tender self-care.
But in any case, I had a willingness to cooperate with grace, in the sense
that Jesus' mother Mary cooperated with grace when the angels said, "Hey,
girlie, want to get pregnant?" She did not say, "Are you nuts?" which
is what I would have said. She did not need to contribute her own thoughts
and theories on world peace. She just said, "OK." So when both Grace and
the producer in the second city said they wanted to go back to Plan A, take
the safer route and read prepared talks from the podium, I said OK. It was
not at all what I wanted but it is what we did. We read talks that we had
each given dozens of times before, we skated again to the medley of songs
from "The Sound of Music;" and we soared.


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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