"You have to forgive yourself": Anne Lamott on loving, fighting and not fearing death

Salon's D. Watkins and Anne Lamott in conversation about conflict, cancelation and her new book "Somehow"

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published April 10, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Anne Lamott (Photo courtesy of Sam Lamott)
Anne Lamott (Photo courtesy of Sam Lamott)

Anne Lamott is not afraid to die.

Death is as guaranteed as hunger and fatigue. We know it's coming, but we still diet, plan and medicate ourselves with hopes of extending our time on earth. Why do we fear the inevitable?

I spoke with Lamott recently, ahead of her 70th birthday about the publication of her 20th book, Somehow: Thoughts on Love,” published this week by Riverhead. In her new essay collection, the memoirist and author of the seminal writing manual "Bird By Bird" writes freely about a topic many of us run from. “I've had so many people [die] in my lifetime, starting with my dad when I was 23, and then my very best friend when I was 37, and then my mom and friends my own age,” Lamott told me. 

“I am a believer, and for me, death will be a rather significant change of address, but I'm not afraid of death," she said.

A New York Times bestselling writer, Lamott is the author of “Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy,” “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers,” “Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace,” the influential parenting memoir, “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year,” among others. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and her words have appeared in many publications, including The Washington Post and here at Salon

Lamott's latest collection explores the subject of love beyond romance to include the many different ways we do or do not experience it: The love we have for our parents, our siblings, our friends, our professions, the love we are responsible for sharing with our community. Lamott writes about her efforts to supply the unhoused with soap and hair care products, an endeavor that ended up being surprisingly difficult, and the care and patience it takes to watch a friend die.

Throughout the book, Lamott balances meditations on death with recognition of the love we can name and cultivate while we are still here. She also addresses, as she has in an earlier book, the fall-out from her 2015 retweet of a transphobic remark, "this gigantic public mistake I made," as she characterizes it below. After making amends, the episode resurfaced several years later, leading to a university keynote address being canceled after students spoke out and a fundraiser she offered to host for the LGBTQ community coming under scrutiny. Both events ended up happening, as she writes in an essay exploring internal and external paths toward an internal cleansing of shame through love. 

In a recent conversation, Lamott and I discussed how her definition of love has evolved over the past 30 years, what heaven on Earth would be, how to fight productively and why forgiveness is a cornerstone of her faith.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations are in order, first and foremost. You have this great body of work, different ideas and thoughts that belong to the universe forever. In "Somehow: Thoughts on Love," you approach the topic of love in many different ways. I think about my own definitions of love before I had a child four years ago, and so much has changed since. How has the idea of love evolved and changed for you over the last 30, 40 years?

Well, that's a great question. I mean, it takes a whole book to answer it, but I think I got sober in 1986 — 37 years ago — and I think that was when the plates of the Earth shifted underneath me. And I very slowly began to have a different relationship with myself. I stopped being so mean and judgmental and disappointed and loaded, and I just started to understand that I was just like almost everybody else. I wasn't worse than or better than. I was just this kind of screwed up person who screws up. Sometimes if you're a writer, you screw up in public, so you screw up with 100,000 people aware of that. Other times it's at the dining room table.

And when that happened for me, this friendliness towards myself, I think love started really changing. Because I started understanding what other people were going through in their lives. Even if they had so many blessings, it's just hard here. Life is hard and weird, and people with whom we can't live without die. How do we survive an un-survivable loss?

And being a parent or being an auntie or an uncle is so, so joyful and it's so fraught. It's scary, and some patches of time are hard and sometimes they're devastating. And other times, some days are just too long. So I started having a lot more compassion, beginning with myself and then spreading out into the bigger world.

"My book begins with something my husband says, which is that everything true and beautiful about life can be discovered on a 10-minute walk."

I want to share a story with you, a big realization moment for me. I was in high school and in an argument with my girlfriend at the time. I ended the argument because I had to get to the post office. I thought, "You know what? I'm having such a bad day. Parking spots are too tight. It is just a horrible day." So I decided I'm going to do something nice for somebody.

I'm walking into the post office and a homeless guy asks for some money. And I'm like, "I'll buy you something to eat, man." Mind you, I'm 18 years old, right? I come back out, and he's like, "What's up, man?" I said, "Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I will go to the chicken spot across the street, right? I'm going to grab you something to eat, man." And he said, "All right, cool." And as I crossed, walking away, he's like, "I only eat white meat, none of that dark meat." So I said, "What the ...?" And I laughed it off. But then it dawned on me: We're so messed up as a society. Why would I think this man wouldn't have an opinion just because he sleeps in front of a post office? I thought about that when reading about your experience giving out bags [of supplies to unhoused people] and the conversations you were having.

Let me tell the story for people who haven't read the book. The book is based on the premise that if you want to have loving feelings — which is what heaven I think is like here on Earth — you do loving things. You take the action and the insight follows. So I just love your story. My book begins with something my husband says, which is that everything true and beautiful about life can be discovered on a 10-minute walk.

So you get out of the car and you walk to the post office. You could see everything in the world that is really sweet and lovely, people waving to you from across the street and the daffodils that are up right now, et cetera. So the first chapter [of my book] is about these bags that we gave away at my church for the unhoused people in our community. And it had all of this stuff that might be hard to get if you don't have any money or a house to live in, like some body wash or some floss, a really nice beanie to keep your head and ears warm, two pairs of warm socks. And so it was about me being asked by my church to give a bunch of these bags out to the homeless people in the area. The story is really about the deep surprise the people [reacted with when] I set upon to give them these bags.

I'm 70, and my teeth were shifting, and I had to wear this Invisalign retainer and I lost it. Oh, I tore the house apart. I tore the car apart. I tore the whole world apart, couldn't find it. And finally, I thought to drive past this woman and her child who were asking for donations outside of Safeway. I'd given them a bag [of supplies from the church], which they hadn't had a clue what to do with. I asked if I could peek inside. And by God, there it was at the bottom. I mean, that is the miracle of grace if you ask me.

And so I was explaining to the mother, who didn't speak very good English, and her son who did, that [the retainer] was very expensive and I was so grateful, I couldn't even believe it. And then the son did this magical moment. He looked at me and he made the universal sign of, "Give me some money. Hand it over." And so I just got it. It was like I'd stepped on the cosmic banana peel, and these people had helped me back up. Of course, I shelled out some more money and some food. 

These stories give us the opportunity to reflect on situations in our own lives. I think the book does a great job of showing how we are all connected in so many ways. And I was upset when I got to the end of the chapter with Tim. Can you give our readers some insight into the conflict between you and Tim?

Yes. And I want to hear why you were upset. So I had this man I was mentoring who was much younger than I am, and sober not quite as long. And he had done a kind of confession on paper and was telling me writing stuff that was plaguing him: Things he was jealous of, people he had resentment towards, and the main person was this very close friend of his. I don't get it because Tim is this beautiful, evolved human being.

And he started telling me all this stuff that the woman had done to him. And for some reason — it was just like a brain fart or something — but it seemed like a good idea to just jump right in and tell him all the stuff that I didn't like about her or that I thought was dangerous. And he listened and it was mostly to say, "Don't worry about it. She is a handful." And so then a couple of hours later, he called me and said he didn't want me to be his mentor anymore. And he said, and I quote, "I don't want to turn out like you."

So the story is about what on Earth you do when a very beloved friend says something like that to you. If you translate, it means, "I find you sort of repellent and I don't want to turn out like you are." 

Who am I, and how can I get back on my feet after somebody has seen what I'm suddenly convinced is the truth of me?

All my life, all these years, I've thought if you got to know me too deeply, you'd run for your cute little life screaming, because I'm so scary and disgusting on the inside. And [I believed] Tim alone could see this, and everybody else had been seduced by my persona or my neediness or whatever.

So the story [in the book] is about how do you get out of that kind of hole? Of course, what you do is you cry and you pick up the 200-pound phone and you look around and you fish out your husband and you let people in on the devastation. But anyway, so tell me what you were going to say.

The beauty of that essay was that you have a very special friend who encourages you to give it time. In that time lies grace. I was upset because . . . now, if you're a licensed therapist or something, it is one thing. But you had a human response. You saw a person in need. Maybe over time, you felt like you would've handled the situation differently because you [and Tim] did get to reconnect, you got to your phones.

But for me, don't tell me this stuff if you don't want my truth. You don't want my answer, then don't pour into me. Because [I'm] going to be a friend and say, "Look, she doesn't deserve you. You shouldn't be treated like that. You deserve better." What's wrong with that?

Well, I don't know. It's really complicated. My response to having somebody feel that way about me and make me think that they were revealing the truth about me was to start fawning and to beg. As you know from the story, begging their forgiveness and cashing in my SEP IRA and giving them all my money, and the dog, and my next grandchild. And this brilliant friend said, "That would be a detour away from the gold flecks in the mind of what you're going to get out of this." And I said, "Well, I just want to apologize and go." And she just said quietly, "Maybe tomorrow."

My husband coddled me and fed me and stuff like that. And the next day I called the same friend. I said, "OK, now today I just want to go over there. I want to just beg for forgiveness. I just want him back." And my friend said again, "Maybe tomorrow." 

By two or three days later, inevitably you're better than you were. You're starting to get that the person is not uniquely seeing the truth about you. The person had their own possibly neurotic or knee-jerk reaction and it got all over you, and that was their stuff. And your stuff is to own it and to say, "Boy, I can't believe I said that to you. I know how much you care about this friend of yours, and I'm really sorry. And I hope that this too passes." Which let's face it, everything does eventually. I wrote a book of spiritual essays, most of which appeared first at Salon, called "Grace (Eventually)," and it's the eventually that kills you, the waiting to feel a lot better about things.

"There are people who will never forgive me, who will bring it up, who will get me canceled, who will get talks canceled, who will say it wasn't enough."

The door at Salon is always open for you.

Oh, thank you, love. I was there for 10 years in the early days when David Talbot was the editor, and then when Joan Walsh was the editor. Ah, my heyday.

When you go on tour, is it going to be mostly talks or will you be giving readings as well?

I go onto these stages and I feel the audience. It's really like a tide pool. They're expecting something from me and I'm just looking out at them and I'm getting what the vibe is.

I'm going to like 17 cities in 17 days and almost everywhere I go, people feel lost and hopeless. They feel just devastated by Trump and by MAGA, and they feel devastated by climate change and they feel scared to death in their own families. They've lost or are losing their teenagers or their grown kids to drugs or alcohol or mental illness. And so I usually come from that understanding that people feel.

I wrote the book because I wanted there to be one place where everything I know, everything I'm almost sure will work for my son and grandson when I'm gone, no matter what the climate looks like, no matter what democracy looks like, because it always worked before: Community, love, activism, nature; deep, deep, deep, friendship; self-love, divine love. Each piece is one of those realms.

And so when I get to each city, I figure out what's going on in the audience. The pieces are all pretty funny, I think. And so I'll find something to read that seems to have to do with where that city and that audience is. And then I'm doing a lot of interviews. A lot of the time people are interviewing me on stage, but then the audience gets to ask a lot of questions for 20 minutes. Everybody's favorite thing is the Q & A. I try to keep it not too long if I do a reading or the interview so that people can ask what's really on their heart. They often want to ask about writing because of "Bird by Bird," but whatever they want to ask, I'm happy to answer.

The essay where you talk about the cycle of an argument or a disagreement between you and your husband was so poetic, and it was so beautiful, and it's just so relatable. I can just imagine the crowd saying, "How can we turn these one-hour, two-hour disagreement cycles, into 15 minutes? How can we?"

Yeah, I know. I wish I knew exactly where that was. I'd love to read it. It's sort of funny, but I can tell it. What happens is my husband is a know-it-all. Like you, he's like six-three. He's a large guy. The ground shakes. And so he'll say something that gets under my skin or hurts my feelings. I am very sensitive; I just came this way. On this side of the grave, I'm going to be overly sensitive. In the 1950s, my parents had a book called the "Overly Sensitive Child," to try to help them with the nightmare of having a child who was so sensitive.

Anyway, so now Neal's got me on his hands, so I shut down and then he doesn't understand it. I start to cry, and then I leave the room. And he stomps around. The earth trembles in the living room, and I sit in our bedroom bitterly grabbing the kitten and holding her to me.

And by the time he finally comes in, I become very quiet — deadly, scarily quiet. I've weaponized my silence. And then he gets out his psychic battered old briefcase with these old briefs that he's been shaking for 68 years. And then I kind of stare at him with this corpse-like look. And then he stomps off again. And then he has a moment of clarity, usually about an hour and a half later, that he's completely doomed without me. And he comes back and now he's teary, and then my cold stone heart melts. And then we sit down and we do what you do in any good relationship. You have those really awful, really hard, really deep talks, and you say, "I'm really sorry for my part."

It is beautiful. It's beautiful.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

You also write about cancel culture and what you went through with the university. And I wondered if you think, with the way things currently are, if we are doing it wrong? 

Yeah, well, you jump through a lot of hoops and you are contrite and you try to make it right.

Somehow, I twice have written essays about this gigantic public mistake I made. I wrote about it in an earlier book, I think in "Hallelujah, Anyway," and again in "Somehow." I publicly was contrite. It's about 50 percent better. But you know what? There are people who will never forgive me, who will bring it up, who will get me canceled, who will get talks canceled, who will say it wasn't enough. You have to read the piece in "Somehow" and decide whether you think it is or not.

You are obviously a very celebrated author and intellect, but you're also spiritual, very religious, a Christian. Forgiveness is the foundation of Christianity. So it's not like you don't have a body of work that explains that. Has intellectualism ever caused conflict with your Christian beliefs?

Well, I am a Sunday school teacher. It's mortifying to be a Christian in the modern era because it's like Gandhi said, "I love Christ, but it's the Christians I can't stand." And I pretty much feel the same way.

I am a Sunday school teacher and I teach forgiveness. It's just a tiny family church. It's like three kids or four kids. And I teach them that Earth is forgiveness school. That's what you're here for, to forgive horribly. At some point, you have to forgive yourself.

And so I know that that is the path. And I have to say that it's a lot harder for me than I would hope. I'm often not forgiven because I have a public life and it's really easy for people to express their unforgiveness of me on social media and in the newspaper and in the magazine.

Bad things happen, for me, very publicly. But I never give up on forgiving other people. And it really, really hurts me that people don't forgive me, but — work in progress. Please be patient. And I always say I'm Reform. I'm Reform Christian, and like you, I'm doing the best I can on any given day. And as I said, some days are just too long. 

You talk about death in the book. We all know it is a part of life and we all go through it and it happens around us. How often do you think about your own mortality, your own life and journey? 

I'm not afraid of my own death. I am a believer, and for me, death will be a rather significant change of address, but I'm not afraid of death. I've had so many people in my lifetime, starting with my dad when I was 23, and then my very best friend when I was 37, and then my mom and friends my own age — and I write in this book, in "Somehow." about the impending death of a very cherished friend who had been well about 20 minutes before she was all of a sudden terminal. I mean, sometimes it feels like there's a sniper in the trees picking off the young and the beautiful. Well, I hate to name names, but Henry Kissinger lived to be almost 100.

I mean, I think it's a terrible system, but it's the system currently in place. And if I were God's West Coast representative, things would be different, but it would be the end of the world if my son or grandchild or my younger brother died. I don't know how I would bounce back, but I know I would because I have seen this. The cycle is life, death, and then new life over and over again. And again, that system doesn't really work for me. But I know because I've seen the miracle of people resurrecting from un-survivable losses. My best friend lost her child two years ago, her 23-year-old child who was the most fabulous, precious young man you can imagine. And it was the end of the world. You don't minimize that; it's like an anvil dropped on the family, crushed them. But you don't also minimize the resurrection. She and I'll go to Target later today. That's my plan for after I'm done with this.

And little by little, grace — it meets you exactly where you are, the spiritual WD-40, wherever you are in a pile of ashes on the ground, and it picks you up and it puts you in its wheelbarrow and then it doesn't leave you off where it found you. And one day at a time, love is sufficient for the family to have healed. They're going to always feel grief-struck. You're not supposed to get over certain losses. The culture tells you that you will, and it's the great palace lie.

But at the same time, your life is bright again and it's sweet, it's soft, and it's full of love and blessing. And grace does that last. I'd give anything if this boy were still alive. But you know what? He's not. And so I'm not as afraid as many people are because I've been through this. I've been called in by families to be there for them and their loved ones at the hour of their death and in the months before their death. And so I feel like, you know what? I can promise you it's going to be gentle. There's nothing to be afraid of. It's going to be a surprise and it's going to be filled with tender mercies and sweetness. It just is.

Do you look at your old work?

No, I don't. That's a great question to end on if we're ending.

About 25 years ago, I was on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." And you are too young for VCRs, but my son —

I remember VCRs.

OK, so my son recorded it — he was about 10 — on a VCR. And when I got home from New York, we listened to it together. When it was over, he turned to me and he said, really gently, "Mommy, do you have a speech impediment?" And I have never bounced back from that.

I've recorded about 15 of my own books. I can tell you, as God is my witness, I've never listened to a word. I don't go back. My son recorded the audio of me reading "Bird by Bird" just last year for the first time. It had been read originally by an actress. And so I had to hear myself reading it out loud. But no, I'm not going to go back and listen to it.

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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