Every sandwich

As the world falls apart around us, the only answer is to stick close to each other.

Published February 14, 2003 6:34PM (EST)

I don't know a soul these days who does not feel alternately numb, crushed and frappéed with fears of war in the Middle East, and the inexorable smirky march toward fascism here at home. We've never been more vulnerable, yet most days, all Bush has to offer us is verbal, bullying Oobleck, the green sticky slimy substance Dr. Seuss wrote about. The best ideas Homeland Security Secretary Pumpkinhead Ridge has to suggest are duct tape and plastic sheeting? Hey, Pumpkinhead, what about Gummy Bears, to plug up holes in our plaster? And Dippity-Do, to caulk up the inevitable tears in the plastic sheeting? A friend said that she feels like we're all terminal now, and I do too, sometimes. But there is blessing in this fear and madness. It is giving us fantastic peace marches, bigger hearts, great art and wisdom. When Warren Zevon, who is dying of cancer, was asked by David Letterman what his illness had taught him about living, he said, "How much you're supposed to enjoy every sandwich."

There are people to whom I turn, besides Dr. Seuss, for hope and direction. Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd and Molly Ivins come to mind. Funny, sarcastic people help -- Ann Richards, Fran Leibowitz, George Carlin, Garry Trudeau, Bill Maher. Laughter is carbonated holiness. And even devout atheists would have to admit that inclusive religious communities are also helping to save the world now, with sacks of groceries, caring, shelter, mentoring, money and clothes.

I gave a sermon recently to one such community, the Metropolitan Community Church, led by the Rev. Dr. Penny Nixon. It's a church in San Francisco's Castro district made up largely of gay, lesbian and transgendered folk, who in most cases have been cast out from their families and churches of origin. One of my best friends is a faithful member. And he got me to accompany him to MCC's annual gala in San Francisco, which benefits its social services programs. I've long loved this church for many reasons but I'd never gotten involved until that fundraiser. And I was so blown away by Penny Nixon's words, and a video of MCC at work and worship and service, that I'm afraid I became overwrought, and wrote Penny a note saying I would do anything, anytime, for such an organization.

Unfortunately, a few weeks after the gala, she called.

We talked for a few minutes about the event, and then she asked if I would come preach one Sunday evening. I was a little taken aback -- I was actually just being nice at the gala. I'm already quite busy on Sundays as it is, what with my own church in Marin City, and then afternoons at the church of the New York Times in bed with the kitty. I said yes; but in the interests of full disclosure, I started hoping maybe something would put Penny out of commission for awhile -- like, she'd get fired, or have a nervous breakdown, and all the speakers she'd lined up would be canceled.

But as it turned out, I found myself at the MCC pulpit one recent night. There were a few hundred people there, lots of same-sex couples, many enthusiastically gendered men and women and, I suppose, some drag queens in mufti. I hadn't known how to dress. I have a red velvet academic hood from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, which is a long story involving nepotism and corruption, and I was going to wear that, with my tiara, but I didn't want to come across as being a snob, who'd lost her marbles.

I'm not a minister, but I do know -- or am reasonably sure -- of several things, and I decided just to talk about those areas that might help the tired, the poor, the worried, like me. I knew, for instance, that most of the people there had courage to burn. What bravery it must have taken to come out, to insist on the right to be themselves, to love who they loved, to look the way they needed to look, to feel beautiful. The world tells us that we can only be a certain, specific way if we want to be validated, but the world lies. I know the world has a floating finish line that we can never reach because it keeps changing, and if we are not saved, usually by radically odd and uncooperative people, we can lose our lives in pursuit of winning. I know that we are in hellish times, but that the world is rich in peace and mercy and beauty. I know that there is one who has all power, and that it's not me, or George Bush. I know that every time I call out for help, the phone rings, or the mail comes, or I get that noodgey Holy Spirit feeling inside, and enough of an answer to take the next right step. I know that I need to let go, or I am going to get dragged. Letting go is definitely not my strong suit. Neither is forgiveness. In fact, they're the two things I'm worst at. Why couldn't God's answer be, "Why don't you obsess endlessly about this? Then try to control this situation into a fare-thee-well, and be sure not to breathe at all, and try to manipulate everyone into doing things your way; and then stomp away and brood for awhile and then eat a big bag of Hershey's Kisses?"

I told the congregation that I know God is not an old man or woman in the sky, but possibly a drag queen-golden retriever mix. I also know that when I tell my terrible truth to someone, the air and sunlight gets in and somehow heals me. For the life of me I don't know how that works, but it does. It is the mystery of grace. I know when I was drunk and stoned and having tiny little boundary issues with men, sometimes several times a day, I staggered into a little church where I was no longer sure of one single thing, except that I was lost. The people were civil rights activists, and the music was beautiful, and that turned out to be enough.

After a year in that church, I started to call God "Jesus." I wish that this did not worry people so much. My friend Neshama calls God "Howard," as in "Our father/mother, who art in heaven, Howard be thy name," and this does not seem to worry people. When I was still afraid to call God Jesus, I called him my Higher Power, or for the sake of brevity, my old H.P. Then I started to think of Him as my old Hewlett-Packard, and that worked, and it worried people a lot less than this Jesus business.

I told everyone at MCC I know that there is a solution, and the solution is spiritual, and that it probably has nothing to do with the problem. Most of the time, I simply have to remember to breathe, and have a sip of cool water. Spirit is breath, and breezes. In the Christian tradition it's also expressed as living water, poured over us, poured into us, into our dark, thirsty lives, and that sometimes it streams down our faces in tears. It cleanses us, hydrates the ground at our feet, grows things, buoys us up and cools us down. Unfortunately, I do not actually like to think about breathing -- it leaves me gasping like a fish on the dock -- and I don't like water at all. I personally would have preferred the Spirit to be experienced as lemonade.

Now, I know that most of the folks at MCC, like the rest of us, had extremely well-balanced parents, in loving marriages based on respect and equality, who could delight in their children's gifts, protect them and listen. But I told the three or four people at MCC who didn't that since they had found their way into a tribe, they had sewn together a patchwork quilt of makeshift parents for themselves -- in friends, mates, pets, heroes. And part of this miracle is that friends aren't nuts on the same day, so someone is always more or less OK.

I think it's what Jesus meant by the good news: that we're loved, and not all crazy at the same time. Some mornings I wake up and I instantly feel discouraged by the world and my government and by my own worried mind. It's like my brain has already been up for awhile, sitting on the bed waiting for me to wake up. It's already had coffee, and has some serious concerns about how far behind we are already. So I always pray, first thing upon awakening, very simple prayers like the one Sam prayed years ago when his head got caught in the slats of a chair: "I need help with me," he whispered.

There are so many things I am praying for -- sick friends, peace, impeachment. Often I don't even know where to start, or what the point is. But I knew that the people at MCC had been pummeled by the deaths of their partners and friends and family, that there were years when they were going to two and three funerals a week. The answer then, and the answer now, is to stick close. When you're desperate to isolate yourself, cry instead. The world is unbearably sad. But you breathe, have a little water, and start trying to bear being alive again. You start anywhere, and do it poorly, clumsily, afraid.

I know that most of the time, for me, the only real problem is, that left to my own devices, I am on my own mind almost all the time. But we're not left to our own devices. People help us, and we help them. Some days I just try to give glasses of water to everyone. Maybe that means having patience with the children in my church school, or flirting with old people at the health-food store, or offering chocolate bar communion to the people in line at the DMV who don't have appointments because they're the most seriously afflicted of all God's creatures.

I told the folks at MCC that in the old days, I was so isolated and disgusting on the inside that I had to run around with my glass empty, hoping other people would have extra water sloshing out of theirs that they would share with me. I thought their glasses were special, while mine was a grape jelly jar with the Flintstones stamped on it. Lots of people gave me water. But what quenched my thirst was the spirit that animated their kindness, and telling the truth, which was that they had grape jelly jars, too. That we all do.

I told the people at MCC how blown away I was by their hope, against all reason and odds, in their love. I told them that just by showing up, they were making a difference. Of all the services MCC provides, I love the shower program most. The community offers hot water and soap and clean clothes to the poorest of the poor every week -- people living on the street. It's so democratic. I mean, I don't even like my son using my shower. I asked Penny, from the pulpit, if maybe Sam could start using the showers at MCC.

My friend Margaret Milton preached a few weeks ago on salvation, which is a word that normally makes me want to run screaming for my cute little life. It's a word I suspect John Ashcroft uses all the time at his perverted little home, with all his hidden cameras and electrodes. But she meant salvation in the sense that we are given clean clothes to wear every single day. We get to keep starting over, you, and me. And so do the people to whom we will offer water and soap and fresh clothing.

One last thing I know for sure is that God always comforts the disturbed, and disturbs the comfortable. A lot of us feel very disturbed, but not alone, because we are on the phone and out in the streets, and in prayer and classrooms and libraries. We're singing the tribal songs of freedom again. Two weeks ago at my church we sang "Wade in the Water," and our pastor said that even as we now find ourselves in deep, frightening waters, there's no solution in focusing on the chaos. She said confidence begins when we focus on those who have led us out of hate and madness, people who never gave up hope -- Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Corazon Aquino. Veronica also said that when the slaves in the American South sang "Wade in the Water," out in the fields, the slave owners thought they were singing wistfully of the River Jordan, or the Red Sea. And maybe that's true, but this song, like most African-American spirituals, was also subversive, instructional. It urged people to seek freedom in the North, on the other side of the Ohio River -- and if you left dry land, and waded in the water, the bloodhounds couldn't pick up your scent.

And my sermon seemed to know exactly how to end itself, because I skipped my planned ending and told this story from the Sufi tradition instead: A holy woman sat outside the temple watching a tide of people pass, a river of need, the destitute and the wounded, the drunk and the lame and the outcast, and during her prayers, she cried out to God, "How can a loving creator see so much suffering, and not do something to help them?" And God said, "I did do something. I made you."

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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