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Anne Lamott by Donna Raskin

I actually tell Anne Lamott stories to my friends as if they are my own. I’ll say, “Have I ever told you this story?” and then proceed to talk about the baby in the pretend driver’s seat, which we hear about in Operating Instructions, or I talk about the chapter on perfectionism in Bird by Bird. And now I print out Anne Lamott’s bi-weekly diary entries from the Web to give to my favorite coworker. Like Anne Lamott, she believes very deeply in God and Jesus Christ, but doesn’t let that stop her from having fun or striving to be her own person.

Anne Lamott is the kind of woman everyone warns you not to become, and yet, if you found yourself living her life you’d probably laugh at the wonder and joy of it all. She has been bulemic; a drunk; and is, today, an unwed, single mother, and a born-again Christian. She is infinitely appealing. In my mind, Anne Lamott is the anti-Kathie Lee Gifford. Whereas Kathie Lee somehow manages to take the happiness in life and somehow make it seem evil, Lamott takes the painful and creatively conjures up the spiritual, .

Here, for example, is the aforementioned baby in the driver’s seat story:

“I have a deep belief that I know what is best for me and now, by extension, what is best for Sam [her at-the-time infant son]. The fact that I have spent my life proving that just the opposite is true does not keep me from acting like a schizophrenic traffic cop with a mission and a bullhorn. There’s something sort of poignantly ludicrous about it. I heard this old man speak when I was pregnant, someone who had been sober for fifty years, a very prominent doctor. He said he finally figured out a few years ago that his profound sense of control, in the world and over his life, is another addiction and a total illusion. He said that when he sees little kids sitting in the back seats of cars, in those car seats that have steering wheels, with grim expressions of concentration on their faces, clearly convinced that their efforts are causing the car to do whatever it is doing, he thinks of himself and his relationship with God: God who drives along silently, gently amused, in the real driver’s seat.”

You might think this story is about God, but I don’t. I think this story is about how, when you’re really lonely and wish things would go the way you want them to, that perhaps the best thing you can do is relax and not feel so sorry for yourself. In fact, maybe you don’t know how things should go. Maybe you only see the small picture (your own steering wheel) and not the big picture (the universe’s steering wheel). Finally, after relaxing and reading a wonderful essay such as this one, you might even be inspired to laugh at yourself, because, well, just a few moments ago you were one of those driving babies.

Anne Lamott’s best and most rewarding books are Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird. The first is a diary of her first year as a mother, and the other is a book on how to write. After reading these books I felt that Anne Lamott was a good friend. I mean, a really good friend. The kind who you know has had bulimia and alcoholism, but is still the person you’d call in the middle of the night to take you to the hospital if you needed it.

Her most recent novel, Crooked Little Heart, is not great, but I would recommend it to women and girls, because it tells the story of a mom and a daughter, Elizabeth and Rosie, who are better people than they think are, but not so much better than us that we don’t like them. Rosie is a ranked tennis player and Elizabeth is a recovering alcoholic. (In fact, Anne Lamott has been both of these people in her life). The story centers around one year during which Rosie’s best friend gets pregnant and Rosie starts to cheat at tennis. Everyone in the book is out of sorts, not in a grumpy way, but in that “not being your own best friend” kind of way. Lamott manages to let us both identify with Elizabeth and Rosie and admire them. We understand why they feel so goofy and yet, we also understand that if they could just lighten up on themselves things wouldn’t be so hard.

But life doesn’t really allow them to lighten up. The memory of a husband who died years ago, a creepy guy who stalks Rosie during her tennis game, a young kid who gets a girl pregnant and then abandons them both…well, you get the picture, things are tough (as they are in life) but the people in the book have each other, and they appreciate their relationships. Also, Lamott shares their feelings with us, understanding that we have those same feelings throughout our own lives.

This painting of life, detailed, personal, lovely, is very much the way Anne Lamott’s own existence seems to be: confusing and filled with the kinds of details and choices right-wingers and Republicans hate, but that the rest of us find necessary and rewarding.

As a writer, Anne Lamott knows that ugly judgment comes from inside our own inferior minds, while grace and forgiveness comes from the Divine. She believes, as so many of us do, that people who surrender to those voices become pro-life Senators, while those of us who listen for the words of wisdom that the Universe offers up at any given moment end up living sweet, happy lives. Anne Lamott is quick to point out the bumps that have appeared in her road, but despite all of that we can’t help but notice how exceedingly scenic and lovely her ride seems to be.

Anne Lamott publishes an on-line diary for Salon magazine every Thursday. The URL is http://www.salon1999.com. Her new novel, Crooked Little Heart, is out in hardcover (Random House, $24.00). Two of her other books, Bird by Bird and Operating Instructions, are available in paperback. These books are available at http://www.amazon.com.


Donna Raskin is a writer for Rodale Press, a personal trainer and yoga instructor. She has a terrific giggle and gives great advice. -kgb