Paths of eventual glory

Sometimes our worst nightmares, personal and political, turn out to just be complicated stories still in progress.

Published September 25, 2004 3:07AM (EDT)

After a rainy morning yesterday, both sun and clouds were out in the afternoon when several friends and I headed through California's West Marin corridor, past meadows full of cows and horses, and hills of dry lion-colored grass. We drove through the small rural towns on the way to the ocean, out to an eccentric little town on the coast that prefers to go nameless. I lived there for eight years in the mid-'70s, when I was still an out-of-control alcoholic -- but in a good way, I had thought. A festive way. I got drunk every night, and took a lot of drugs, which sometimes expanded my mind, but other times caused me to accidentally sleep with other people's husbands. I hurt a lot of people along the way. I had some great friends, and my father and brother lived nearby, and I really began my life as a writer there, describing the mountains, the beaches, the tide pools, the marvelous hippie values of the community, the pelicans. But then when I was in my mid-20s, the world came to an end. My father died in our cabin above Duxbury Reef, half an hour's walk from the Bolinas Lagoon, where we went birding every week.

My friends and I headed to that lagoon yesterday, which was very rare for me, as I have stayed out of town for most of the 22 years since I left. It's way too painful there, filled with the huge, gaping absence of my father, and with the faces of people who loved me, or didn't, whom I hurt so egregiously, or by whom I was hurt. But I still have a couple of friends there, and one of them is named Megan Matson, who was the 9-year-old girl I wrote about nearly 30 years ago, in my first novel, "Hard Laughter." She is now the mother of three children and one of the co-founders of the Mainstreet Moms Oppose Bush (MMOB), along with Caroline Quine, Arlene Allsman and Greg Hewlett, all of whom will surely get great seats in heaven. What began as a few mothers helping women in swing states register to vote has grown into a thriving grass-roots organization.

The MMOB send out packets of pretty stationery, envelopes, decorative stickers, sample letters and the names and addresses of unregistered women voters to volunteers all over the country. Then the volunteers write to the women who thought they didn't count, and they tell them that they do.

The MMOB were having their first fundraiser, a picnic near the lagoon, and they had invited me to do a reading. I've been back to town since I left, but I hadn't walked to that lagoon in 22 years.

My friends and I headed down a private path that led from the town's main road. I almost immediately started to get a Twilight Zone feeling, a sense that I was not walking into an old nightmare, but into a fairy tale. I was going back to the place from which I had fled -- which should always tip you off that something mythical may be in the works. And secondly, a man appeared in our way, who asked rather cryptically, I felt, "Do you know where you're going?" It was very David Lynch.

We had no idea where we were going so he directed us to a meandering path that led to the water.

Soon we came upon some tall, thin wood poles, like stripped tree trunks, festooned with yellow silk streamers. And then we looked up and saw a horde of children swinging from branches on tire swings, above hay bales, wearing bright colors, like extensions of the streamers, in tie-dye, overalls, sequins.

It was like an updated scene from Bruegel, with that amazing shifting light. First there were the hay bales, and then people in farming clothes, and hippie peasant wear, none of the black you see in city circles, but the colors of flowers, and Necco Wafers. There were tables covered with exquisite natural foods, none of that weird seitan and mochi that make you feel like an abused astronaut, but barbequed oysters and sausages, cornucopias of bright salads, and pastry. A few hundred people sat eating under trees and in the sun. There were tables set up with jewelry you could make or buy, T-shirts that said "Vote," and voter packets that you could take home.

You just can't live in furious emergency all the time, and for all that mess and defeat we'd been feeling over the election, to be transformed into beauty and work you could do, well, it was brilliant and brave. Sweet hippie musicians were playing protest songs, not the heavy-metal polemics or rap you might hear at a rally, but more like harp polemics, herbal essence guitar polemics about peace and love and freedom. Then they led us in singing "America," and I felt dizzy with a kind of patriotism that comes from joy and connectedness and gladness to be among all the loving, angry, dissident energy, that still -- still -- exists in this country. I started to wonder at this point if maybe our nation was not in the midst of a nightmare, either. Maybe instead a story was unfolding, of good people trying to reclaim something great that had been lost. And maybe it was just taking a little more time than we had hoped.

The town and the townspeople had grown up since I'd been away. I spotted and then checked in with a number of the former kids I'd been close to, as if they were listed on my Audubon birding list. Many of them now had kids of their own, on the swings. Their parents were grandparents, or ersatz grandparents, broader in the beam, and going gray.

The light on the lagoon and the field shifted constantly, so bright in contrast to the glower of the morning. The tide was so high that the lagoon could almost have leapt right over the meadow into the clearing where we had gathered.

I felt a lot of happiness, seeing all these old friends, and at the same time, I kept saying to my companions, God, I hope so and so isn't here -- and then that person would suddenly appear. Sometimes it was an old lover, or one of the people I had ripped off or betrayed, or someone I had dropped, or been dropped by. I had tried to clean things up efficiently when I got sober, but with deep wounds to the heart, the healing is expensive and circuitous.

Still, in each case, these people wanted to hug and kiss me. Well ... mostly.

The morning rain had left a sprinkly shine on the leaves.

I knew 22 years ago, like I knew yesterday, that I couldn't stay. But this time I got to be with all these people, some firebrand activists but mostly regular old people, who now, during an absurd and extreme time, let their concern guide them to this project and to this gathering. That is what happens in fairy tales. The old wound or the danger or the hope that doesn't die guides you straight back into the heart of itself, where you end up finding your self again, so you can be made new. It reminded me of that lovely line of T.S. Eliot's, "Where is the Life we have lost in living?"

I found some of that yesterday. It was right there, that life, and the only reason I was there with it, was that nine months before, three worried women and one man had gotten to a level of fear and frustration where, instead of stomping off and saying, "This is so fucked, and so hopeless," they had decided to register to vote as many mothers as they could in swing states.

The first month, Megan and her friends sent out 5,000 handwritten letters. They've sent out 201,000 since then. Five thousand alone on the day before the fundraiser.

Now some people might think that writing letters to unregistered mothers in swing states is rather pathetic in the big scheme of things, just howling in the wind. But others of us think that this is how the pendulums of time slowly shift to the other direction, by the very act of us howling in the wind, which always comes back eventually, breezes carrying seeds.

The weather grew cold not long after my reading. The clouds that threatened to rain were breaking up, hanging there in front of the sun, like memories. I have to say, on top of everything, I felt grief and a deep, scary discomfort. In a fairy tale, you always have to leave the place where you have grown comfortable, and travel to a fearful place that is fuzzy and full of pain, and it takes time for all that change to integrate itself into the small funky moments that make up our lives. But at the same time, all that mess I had made, all that love, all those connections, all those ghosts and all those children who were parents to the children on the swings ... well, I can't quite express how it felt in my soul except that it reminded me of being at the Fillmore auditorium 35 years ago, or even recently, at peace marches, when all that human power gets pulled in the direction you want it to go, where it counts. In those moments, people would be passing a balloon around the room, overhead, and everyone would tap it as it passed, lifting up all that energy with the lightest touch.

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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