Anne Lamott on coping with "existential exhaustion," from the healing power of Target to forgiveness

"It's devastating to be here on earth," the author acknowledged and outlined ways to keep going despite it all

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 10, 2021 6:00PM (EST)

Dusk Night Dawn by Anne Lamott (photo illustration by Salon/Sam Lamott/Riverhead Books)
Dusk Night Dawn by Anne Lamott (photo illustration by Salon/Sam Lamott/Riverhead Books)

"That's really all I write about, is hope and despair," says Anne Lamott. Clearly, she was born into the era she was meant for. The bestselling author of durable classics like "Bird by Bird" and "Operating Instructions" is back once more with a new book, a new(ish) marriage and very much the same curiosity, humanity and sense of humor that been her brand for nearly 30 years. "Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage" considers friendship, forgiveness, aging and the collective "existential exhaustion" that haunts us.

Salon spoke to Lamott recently about what's changed since she wrote prophetically about "stockpiling for the apocalypse," and finding grace in a big box store run.

This is an important question to be asking right now, and one you touch upon in the book. Sincerely, how are you, Annie?

I am sincerely well. I got both of my shots because I'm old. In California, they're vaccinating 65 plus. I'll be 67 next month. Neal's getting his second shot today, so he'll be less of a contaminant to all of us.

We're all fine. Nothing interesting, which is just great. Everyone's kind of coping. Some days are just too long and you just hate everybody and all of life. Then it passes, and it's kind of a miracle that everyone's doing as well as they are.

I loved the woman in the book who says, "My definition of okay is constantly changing." That speaks very much to this moment.

Your last book opens with, "I'm stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse." Annie, then an apocalypse kind of came. That book is about hope, but also very much about despair and about this dark moment that we were in two years ago. Writing this book, what was the narrative through line that you were feeling was pulling you through?

I was on tour for the last one, the hope book, which had originally been called "Doomed: Thoughts on Hope," but then my publisher thought it wasn't a really selling title. This book I wanted to call "The Third Third," because I'll be 67 in April. The publisher thought, again, not a selling title. On tour for the last one, everywhere I went, people were really in despair. They weren't in the hope.

I mean, it was the UN climate report. It was Trump. And Australia was then on fire. It seems like a decade ago, but it wasn't. Everywhere I went people, especially parents, felt very, very scared and doomed. Like, "If nothing changes, our kids end up in gas masks in their 30s and their children are born wearing gas masks." I was just so struck by where you even start to revive after the catastrophe, the one-two-three punch of the last five years.

I of course wanted to write about my marriage because it's so wonderful and so hilarious and such a mixed grill, like all of life. It was really that I couldn't write a book ostensibly on hope because I was touring for one, and talk about beating a dead horse. That's really all I write about, is hope and despair and second winds. This book, "Dusk, Night, Dawn," was really about second winds.

Now it is coming out into the world when we are one year into this very strange and deeply sad time. How do you approach this book in particular now? You must be looking at it through a different lens, as I'm assuming you are looking at everything through a different lens. We all are who we are, but we are all also now collectively traumatized in a way that is in some sense unifying.

I've just been enraged since February of 2020, when the first cases surfaced and it was clearly not going to be addressed, even recognized, like the U.S. recognizes nations. We weren't going to recognize it as a reality and there was going to be no real help. There was only going to be propaganda. I've been so angry for so long. But I'll tell you I'm less angry this year. I am a lot less angry.

What's that great line of Martin Luther King's? Don't let them get you to hate them. Even though I did hate them and kept going into that rabbit hole all through 2020, I kept remembering that line, and how it really destroys your center of gravity. It destroys yourself. I do have an inner Donald Trump, this petty, narcissistic blowhard, but to hate him took away my mostly "me" self, which is really decent and loving and caring, and mostly compassionate and mostly tenderhearted.

When I go into the hate, it's like this cold sheet metal heart that I operate from and then I'm of no good to anyone. Probably every book I've written has had a great sorrow in it. My dad, and then my friend Pammy in "Operating Instructions," I've just been a person who's had a lot of death in her life and also I'm a person who doesn't run from people when they are experiencing death. My best friend's child just died. He was 23. She's who said she had to keep changing the goalposts on "okay."

All of the books have been about that mixed grill, and that it's devastating to be here on earth and to have had children and to not be able to save them from really much of anything. That's really my only driving desire, is to save my child and my grandchild. Sam is 31 now, and left to my own devices, I would run alongside him on his hero's journey with juice boxes and sunscreen and ChapStick. That would be the most heinous, destructive thing I could do to him. You release, release, release. You release, release, release with your heart in your throat, you know?

How do we do that with any modicum of grace or confidence, with COVID, and with all these things that we've gone through as a community? There's the Salon community, I was there forever. Then a recovery community, a community of progressives. How, in that community, do we keep our heads above water? How do we fish people out when they just couldn't any more that week? You're aware of all that no longer works.

In the '50s and '60s, people and politicians always talked about the common good. When you've lost faith that Americans are choosing that and it doesn't work anymore to think that it will, you notice what still does work. Marches still work. Neal, who was much more worried about COVID than I am, because I have this nutty religious faith, put on two masks to march with Black Lives Matter, every time.

All the old people were in the back of the long marches past the Civic Center in San Francisco. That still works. Candles still work. A hot bath still works. All through 2020, the generosity and the outpouring of goodness just brought tears to your eyes. That people, when they didn't know what to do, gave money to the food pantries. You took in either all your canned items or you went to Safeway and bought $50 bucks of canned items, or you just sent money over and over and over again.

I always come back to that amazing thing that Mr. Rogers's mother told him when he was a little boy and scared because of a tragedy. She said, "You look to the helpers." That's what I did all of 2020. Who's helping, and how can I help the helpers?

You're reminding me of what you say in the book — how we are collectively good at going through hard things and we are good in extraordinary circumstances. I think the part where we're not as good is what happens in the aftermath. What happens when the dust from all of this clears and how do we find our way back to each other? Because we've all been so isolated for so long.

I think that's what the entire book is about. I don't have a short answer, but the subtitle is, "On Revival and Courage." How does my friend, who just lost her son, make a comeback? How do you come back from that kind of loss? How do you find the courage when it's just so scary? The world has always been a very scary place. It was scary for the cave mothers.

It's always been a scary place, and we're a violent species. Cain is always killing Abel over and over and over again. Cain is killing Abel today. Four thousand people will die again today, or 3,200 or whatever the current number is, because of "Trump's response" to the pandemic. What do you do in the face of it? Where do you even start?

The literary types like myself, we read a lot more poetry. You read Wendell Berry's Mad Farmer Liberation Front, the manifesto. Read that today. It's a complete owner's manual. My favorite line is, "Be joyful though you have considered all the facts." Be joyful and faithful in the goodness of humanity even though you look around.

What do you do in the face of that? Well, you send money to Doctors Without Borders. It's not a direct lineage, but you do something like that. You take the blankets that you bought that were expensive, that you love so much, and you haven't used in five years and will never use again, unless you move into a mansion next to the Kardashians and have a lot more guest rooms. Barring that, you give them away. That's what they need at Goodwill and Salvation Army. You wash the blankets and you fold them up and you drive them to Goodwill because it's very, very cold right now.

This brings up another big theme in your book, forgiveness. That feels like a button that I have to keep resetting constantly lately, Annie. How do we keep trying, when there is so much that feels almost unforgivable?

Well, for one thing, forgiveness doesn't mean that you want to have lunch with the person, right? It means you stop hitting back. Forgiveness is not my strong suit. I'm one of those Christians who's not heavily into forgiveness. I'm reform. You don't get anywhere if you pretend to forgive or if you have a nice bumper sticker response when talking about it. For me, the willingness to do anything to change, to give up an old habit, or to forgive, is an old habit.

Not forgiving is a part of the comfort zone from childhood, because I was raised intellectual, and of course you don't forgive Barry Goldwater or you don't forgive the Ku Klux Klan. I have so many thoughts. I've written whole books on this, but as C.S. Lewis said, when you decide to become a person of forgiveness, maybe you don't start with the Gestapo. 

It's like with pickup sticks. Maybe you start with the neighbor down the street who's just really awful to you for no good reason. I had a neighbor down the street who left doggy bags with dog poo and my name written out on the doggy bag because he hated me so much. Where do you even start with that? Well, you don't hit back. You understand, as with Trump, that this is someone who was never loved, whose only safety came from hatred and revenge. For me, the willingness comes from the pain of not forgiving.

When I have made myself mentally ill enough in my revenge, and when I make myself just so toxic with not forgiving, then I may surrender. When I come before God, I come bitterly and with my arms crossed and I say like a teenager, "Okay. Fine. Whatever, whatev, God." Then I think God wipes her brow and goes, "Oy gevalt." Then something happens. There's a tiny shift. You know what it's like for me, Mary Elizabeth?

It's like how good we were as little girls at untangling knotted gold bracelets. They get knots that everybody else would give up on, but not me with my OCD and my tiny fingers. You don't tug. You jiggle. You don't give up.

Sam, my son, has "We never give up," tattooed on his left forearm. You don't give up and you gently jiggle. You jiggle a little bit and there's a tiny space where before there wasn't. Forgiveness is so hard for me, but it's so painful not to forgive. I am the one who is damaged and punished by not forgiving. Where do you start? You start by just telling the truth to someone, like you just did. Like I just did. Like we both do with our closest friends or with our church community or with my recovery community or with my husband or Sam or with Janine who lost her son. I'll call her and I'll say, "I hate everyone and I hate all of life except for you and the kitty." She'll say, "Well, that's a start. We better go to Target." We'll go to Target, and overeating with a girlfriend helps, always. It's 90% of the solution.

That is a pretty top-notch coping mechanism.

Right. It is.

I'm going to ask you about sobriety because it's hard for people to be sober. This is a tough time to keep your head above water. What do you say to the people who are struggling with this right now? It's so, so challenging for all of us, whatever it is. If it's depression, if it's addiction, if it's alcoholism. These are very challenging, very isolating times. I wonder how you're finding that community and strength every day.

I've been sober almost 35 years. I've had eating disorders too. I have 30-some years away from that, but I've actually thought about rekindling the eating disorder, just to have any measure of control in this world that is spinning away. One day at a time I haven't. People are going out. People with 25 years. There's an old Christian saying from the south that I just love, which is that the voice of the devil is sweet to hear.

The voice of the devil doesn't say, "You are a piece of s**t and you're going to drink anyway. Why don't you just drink? Because anyway, no one particularly noticed that you were any less annoying sober or less of a disappointment sober." It doesn't talk to you like that because it couldn't get you, it couldn't win you over.

What the voice of addiction, the devil, toxic obsession says is, "Oh sweetie, this is really a nightmare and I want to help you stay off the bottle too. It doesn't make any sense to me that right now is a good time to stay sober, to stay off those opiates. You know what I'm going to recommend," it says gently, "is that we revisit this in the spring when more people are vaccinated. For now, no one will judge you, right?"

You go, "Ooh, ooh, that's right. I'm going to go get half of a carrot cake sheet cake at Safeway." I actually got about a quarter of one, a couple months ago when I had hit a new bottom of hating everyone in the family and all of life. I just got a very large, maybe a six-by-six piece of carrot cake at Safeway, which does not have a single ingredient found in nature, which is why it's so great. A half-inch cream cheese frosting. This is what happened. I ate it and I did it with weird radical self-love. I said, "It is whatever it takes except for drugs and alcohol."

Sober people with 20 years are dabbling in CBD with ever so slightly elevated amounts of the THC. People are dabbling with pain that they suddenly can't take care of with Advil. All I can remind them is, the willingness comes from the pain. If the scary thoughts that you're having, if the fear of losing your sobriety is big enough, then maybe just for today, you'll pick up the 200-pound phone and call me. I am literally here all day. I am on the bed, reading with the kitty. I'm trying to teach the kitty to read during the quarantine. Call me.

That's what works. Call one of us. If you call another sober person, it's going to be their favorite thing that happened that day because it's going to help us stay sober and feel great about our sobriety. You can't get somebody not to use or drink. I saw the statistics for the very elevated numbers of overdoses and it's heartbreaking. That is what my destiny was, you know? I will go to my grave not knowing why I'm one of the addicts and alcoholics who got fished out of that and pulled back to my feet and dusted off one day at a time all these years.

Alcoholism is a disease of isolation. It's a disease of this extremely stark reverberating loneliness, whose solution to that is to isolate. It's a disease that wants you dead, as all self-destruction does, but will settle for getting you drunk. The way that you don't get drunk is that you pray. I was thinking of Christopher Robin's little pop gun in Winnie the Pooh. You get out your little Christopher Robin pop gun and you hold it to yourself and you say, "I am going to call Caroline. I'm just going to call her. I'm going to tell her how close I am. Then if it doesn't help, I'll have a cool, refreshing bottle of gin." You do the one thing. You start with one thing. I will call Caroline. I hate her too. I will call her and then also, you know what it's like for me? Addiction, the addictive desire to change how I feel, which is awful. It's like contractions, when you're in labor. When you're in the labor, the contraction says it's never going to end and the craving for a cigarette the third day tells you it's not going to end unless you smoke.

In contractions, you realize you don't like children or want children and that you'll do anything to get out of like eight more hours of this. But it will end. It'll end in several minutes, a contraction and a craving. You remind yourself of what worked before and that's a lot of "Dusk, Night, Dawn." If that's what worked before, it may, and I'm underlining and italicizing "may," just work again. You try it. You take the action. "Figure it out" is not a good slogan. You take the action. You get yourself a lovely cup of tea and you call horrible Caroline, and you leave the rest in God's good hands.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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