Anne Lamott's amazing grace

The former Salon columnist talks straight about being attacked by readers, why she's not crazy about Hillary, her wonderful week with Molly Ivins, and what a drag it is getting old.

Published March 21, 2007 11:42AM (EDT)

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Anne Lamott works in mysterious ways. Her publisher overnighted me a copy of her new book, "Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith," so I could read it the weekend before our scheduled interview. On Saturday morning, the doorbell rang and a Fed Ex guy delivered the book; a half-hour later, mysteriously, another Fed Ex guy, another book. So I had two. I grabbed one and took it with me to get a manicure, where a woman sitting across from me couldn't get over the fact that I had the new Anne Lamott before it was even published, when she'd been waiting for it to come out for so long! I explained that I was writing about it, and then I set out to read it, but she kept interrupting. "How is it? Do you like it? Have you read all of them? Is it as good as the last one?" The normally petty me would have been irritated, but under the influence of "Grace (Eventually)" I knew there was only one way to respond: I handed her the book as she left (knowing I had another one at home), making her day, and mine.

I'm sure my nail salon friend wasn't disappointed. "Grace (Eventually)" continues where "Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith" and "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith" left off, with Lamott raising her son, Sam, railing at the Bush administration, ministering to friends, loving Jesus, staying sober, getting older. For the last 20 years I have tried to read everything Lamott has written, going back to the days when we both contributed to a mind-blowingly smart but short-lived magazine called Equator, as well as the late, sometimes great California magazine. She wrote "Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year" just in time for me to read it after my daughter arrived without any. And she began her series of books on faith as I began to realize that my adolescent rebellion against and lingering disappointment with Catholicism wasn't a reason not to have a spiritual life as an adult.

Readers of "Traveling Mercies" and "Plan B" will find familiar, if slightly darker territory in "Grace (Eventually)." In "Ski Patrol," she takes a bad fall off a chairlift and pretends to be fine, but finally allows a woman worker from the ski resort to minister to her until she's safe and warm. In "A Field Theory of Beauty" she makes uneasy peace with aging, covering some of the ground Nora Ephron did in "I Feel Bad About My Neck" but with more God and less money spent on maintenance. There's grace in all of the essays, but it doesn't always make them light reading: "At Death's Window" is about helping a friend with cancer die; in "Dear Old Friend" she helps her aging Aunt Gertrud, who's outlived close friends and family, change her mind and keep her house and her independence; in "Samwheel" (that's the way her son pronounced his name when he was small), she narrates an awful fight with Sam that culminated in her slapping him. When a version of that piece ran in Salon, it generated more reader mail than any essay ever had before. (Lamott says things with Sam got worse "and we both got help, and now, five months later, we are closer and healthier than we've been in years.")

I feel as though I should disclose my friendship with Lamott, even though our interview about "Grace" was the first time we'd ever had a conversation in person, apart from brief hellos at readings and political events. But she once wrote a Salon Premium testimonial (back before we'd ever met or spoken) suggesting that I deserved a raise (and I got one); we had a long e-mail commiseration when the San Francisco Giants lost the World Series and fired Dusty Baker in 2002; she regularly writes with encouragement after my various television adventures, and we have teenagers who are about a year apart, which is a crucial bond.

Your book is called "Grace (Eventually)." But I thought the deal is that if I get to the right spiritual place I will be in perpetual grace. Are you saying instead it's "Grace eventually," not "Grace now," and not "Grace permanently"?

I think it's very frustrating and if I were God I would have a completely different system. I would have a magic wand and I would touch people with it, and help them be struck well. But nobody cares about what would work for me spiritually. My experience is that grace is never in the direction you are looking for it and it never even vaguely resembles what you think decent grace might look like. It's like a shift, it's like a breath, it's like a pause. But then an hour later or three days later real life rears its ugly head again and it's dicey, life is, and it's a mess. We're in our seventh year of the most catastrophic and appalling administration we've ever had and any place of calm or surrender or spiritual equilibrium we can get to will be hard won. It's very frustrating.

But there it is.

There it is.

I told you the story about the woman in my nail salon who wanted your book so badly that I just had to give it to her. It seems like you're writing for people in need, who have fallen off some kind of wagon and are trying to find the courage to get back on. Is it ever a burden for you?

I don't feel it as a burden. I feel like all I can share is my experiences and my belief that we're all pretty much in the same boat. Everything in the culture says that if you're a person who really loves Mary or Jesus or one of the Hindu gods or whatever, that you're not supposed to have jealousy or existential waves of judgment. And I don't think God ever said that. I think the message of Jesus is "Me too" and "It's weird down here" and "People can be really awful and the amount of suffering you're going to see around you, whether in San Francisco or Fairfax or a foreign country, is going to literally blow your mind." I work like hell but I'm also secretly kind of lazy. I do tons of benefits and stuff like that and yet I'm kind of lazy and shiftless; I take a nap every single afternoon. I have a life that allows a 45-minute nap. So what I can say to people is, "There's nothing you've thought, I haven't thought too. No matter how awful you behave I can probably relate, although the details will be different."

One thing you and I have talked about is a sense of needing grace as you age, and how "aging gracefully" is something nobody really does. Is that one of the things we need grace for -- deciding not to get Botox, or getting it if we want to?

Or you can do it and still have this really deep reservoir of self-love; be there for yourself as though you were your own gentle but militant mother, the way you would be there for your daughter even if she felt she needed to lose weight, god forbid, or to straighten her hair or whatever. Be in a place of tenderhearted understanding. Your neck looks very good, by the way.

Thank you. I'm grateful, but I feel bad that Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck, because she's such a great writer, why does she have to care about her neck?

I think, probably, she doesn't care nearly as much about her neck as reading her book would make you think. She's very passionate and she writes. You know, I can feel really bad about my neck. For some reason we all have these different aspects of ourselves that just are so unacceptable, and for me, my neck is pretty terrible.

But when you grow up in California, you get outside at about 8 [in the morning] when you're a kid, and you literally come home when it's dark. People that are 53 -- and I'll be 53 in April -- many of them look much younger than I do because they've done so much to look younger and I've done nothing. I look in the mirror -- sometimes I'll catch myself outside when I haven't had time to prepare, and I see myself and go, "Aaaaa! Who's that sad old derelict?" I don't know why Nora Ephron would care; she's so brilliant and hilarious. When "Crazy Salad" came out, I couldn't believe what a treasure trove it was.

I think the other thing about Nora's book -- people really get the title, "I Feel Bad About My Neck," it's a great title, you remember it -- but the more important message is just how hard it is to get older. We turn aging into such a shtick -- people complaining about their friends dying and their health all the time. But as you get older you start to realize: Oh my God, if I'm lucky I'll live long enough to outlive most of my friends.

I think two things are true. One is that life gets so much easier. Oh my God, life has never been easier for me. The truth is, I get just as lost and anxious and frightened and egotistical and narcissistic as I ever did, but it doesn't last nearly as long. I mean, it used to last entire years and now I get it and it can last two days. The truth is that you care so much less about most of the stuff you used to care about. It's like you've thrown so much stuff out of the plane that you used to bog down in. I honestly couldn't name a person I know who would turn back the clock.

But the paradox is that it's also very hard to get old. It's especially hard to become a much older woman. It's hard to have a body. I travel to give talks or to do benefits or readings, and if I lift my stuff into the overhead [compartment] my body is not forgiving about it anymore. I was with my Aunt Gertrud on President's Day, and with God as my witness, for an 89-year-old she's great. But that's what you say when someone is old, you say, "Oh, she's in great shape for an 80-year-old." You don't say, "Oh, she's in great shape for a 15-year-old. She's in great shape for like, 8." It's only when you are really going down the tubes.

When you're getting decrepit.

And I tease her about it and she loves it because she knows she has lived too long, but she still has a lot of pleasure in her life. But she uses a walker, in fact she uses two walkers now, and I just find her exasperating. I just say, "Gertrud, you are just wearing me out."

When you get her, you have to get the regular house walker and you walk out to the car, which is an effort, and then you go into her car, and her car is broken-down too, but there's no point buying a decent car because she's 89. And then you try to wrestle the walking walker out of the car; she has a high-tech walking walker and it's got all these wires connected to it and all the wires catch on things and her car is breaking so the trunk is banging you on the head and she's yelling from the front, "Oh I forgot to tell you, don't get banged on the head by the trunk because it doesn't work; I have to do something about it."

So then with the trunk leaning on your head, which is throwing your neck completely out of kilter because you're tipped over holding the trunk up with your head, you're trying to wrestle out the walking walker. Then you get the walking walker out, get into your car, and then you drive. We drove down to the waterfront and we got the walking walker out and we started walking and it took us about an hour to go the equivalent of about five city blocks. And at one point she said, "Oh, I'm afraid I'm going to fall." And I said, "Gertrud, I know this is not going to sound Christian -- if you fall I'm going to toss you over the rocks into the water like the Eskimos would have done years ago." And she said, "I have lived too long."

And that's what we get if we're lucky.

And she's lucky.

You wrote a piece for Salon last year proposing we have a very quaint protest on Bastille Day, and in response you got a ton of letters, a lot of them negative, which you wrote about in the book. Did that affect the way you've thought about writing? We've been talking about this a lot at Salon lately.

It was so painful for me. It was just terrible. The obvious thing to do would be to...

Not read them?

Not read them. But you're not going to be able. I don't think you're going to find really, really good writers who are so healed and healthy and mentally stable that they're not going to read the letters, especially if you set off a firestorm. No one has more loyal readers than I've had at Salon -- I mean inappropriately loving. Like, out of all sense of perspective -- and I love it. I get so many Salon readers that come to readings and say, "Oh I discovered you in Salon" or "When are you going to write some more in Salon?"

We get that a lot.

So I love that Salon is so big out there but I have to say, I have found it devastating when I have been really attacked. But it's also sort of fascinating, it's a little like cobra-hypnosis where it keeps saying next at the bottom.

Next page, click!

And you're going, "OK, next! Click..." But they were vituperative, when that revolution essay was so sweet and so silly. It was like, "I think we should have a revolution. We should have it wherever we are..."

On Bastille Day.

On Bastille Day. And we will turn off our cellphones and our revolution will be about good manners and peacefulness and about, maybe it will be a little bit about Al Gore's movie, but it wouldn't have to be. God, you would have thought that I was saying we'll all have our animals put down that day or something. I didn't get it. It was such a sweet and silly piece. Before, when I [wrote the essay about] how I'd slapped Sam, I was kind of prepared for that, because I don't like slapping children stories much. But it was about the terrible ways being and having a 17-year-old can shape both of you, psychologically and spiritually. It was about grief. But what it was really about was that grace against all odds can get in. [Like in "Ski Patrol"] when I was in that cramped little room, and it smelled like kerosene from the heater; a little bit of fresh mountain air got in. That was what grace was like -- fresh pine-scented air in the midst of a really awful hour.

Do you smell any fresh, pine-scented air in our political climate right now?

The plates of the earth shifted for me tectonically the night of the midterm elections and I have not been the same. The day after the 2004 election ranks up there for me with days where cherished friends died. I was so hurt and stunned and hopeless. The day of the midterms I wouldn't watch them with anybody.

So superstitious.

I'm nobody's fool and I wasn't born yesterday. And also remember, new polls had come out two days earlier and it made the trend seem to have shifted and so all of a sudden Bob Menendez was in trouble in New Jersey, and I mean in real trouble, and he'd be doing much better and all of the sudden McCaskill was not going to win Missouri. So I got all of my foods, you know, my communion foods. I got Cheetos and M&M's, and I got cozy blankets, and I got ready for the good thing not to happen again. I sat here, and all of the sudden the first thing that happened was [Rhode Island's Lincoln] Chafee lost. Then all of the sudden Menendez won, quite handedly. And then Webb won, by God. There's a lot of fresh pine-scented air for me in that nothing Bush wants is going to happen.

How are you feeling about the Hillary-Obama-Edwards, etc. question?

I'm not crazy about Hillary.


Because I think she's been too hawkish about the war for too long. She really strikes me as being an opportunist. But the main thing, actually, the truth is, I hate how she's been about abortion rights. She has found, what she thinks, is a centrist and evangelical position. You know, Jim Wallis and the progressive Evangelicals, their position is that you can be pro-life and still be in favor of legal abortion, but that the actual solution would be for a lot fewer girls and women to need abortions. And that just doesn't cut it for me. Obama, I like him, I like that he didn't vote for the war. I really like John Edwards a lot. And I really like Al Gore.

I wanted to ask you about Molly Ivins -- I know you spent time with her just before she died.

I saw Molly in the second week of January, about two weeks before she died. I went and stayed there for three days, and it was great because she was going quickly but she was still definitely Molly. She could hardly walk, and it was hard for her to get up but, when she did, she was just like careening all over the place with just every ounce of her, her Mollyhood, Mollyness. We went out to dinner with her family Friday night, and then the next day I decided that we should have a dinner party and we got into this hilarious party planner mode, which included a clipboard. I'd say, "Molly, I'm sorry but we're going to need to talk about the napkins. You only have six of this one kind. You have five of this, and neither of them go with the only tablecloth I can find." "This is a problem," she would say, "we better have a cup of tea." And we'd sit down and talk about the nightmare of our mismatching napkins.

Saturday morning, first we went and got her chemo and then we went to Whole Foods. And I found a new fiancC), although I love my guy -- but I found a pâté man who played me like a violin and that made Molly happier than she could express in words, and she laughed and talked about my new fiancé, the pâté man, all day. She had just written that wonderful column that was so Molly, that we should all get out on the streets with our pots and pans and bang them until we start to get our troops home. And do anything, no matter how ridiculous, to bring down this ridiculous, heartbreaking regime.

Then we both had very, very, very long naps together, and that was fun. I mean it was one of the happiest days of my life. I wanted to write a piece called "Molly Ivins: Party Planner," but didn't get around to it. When I left her, she was in the living room on a Sunday having tea, and we were talking about our plans for world peace. She had a disease with a 5 percent survival rate, which means in five years, 5 percent of the people are alive, and something like three out of four people, women, are dead by the end of the first year. And she lived for seven years. Not only did she live, but she published amazing books. I've been onstage with her drunk -- which I never let her live down -- when she was just totally drunk, and I had to hold her up, but what an honor. And then we did events where we were sober; we did a big Code Pink event in Austin, two months before she died. And it was fabulous, at a spa where we rabble-roused and then got our nails done. We tried to galvanize the next wave of the women's movement, and had massages, too. You know, the best of both possible worlds. What we both loved most.

By Joan Walsh

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