Author Lamott finds faith, meaning in life's rubble
By Lou Fancher
Best-selling Bay Area author Anne Lamott peers into dark corners and at the torn, frayed edges of rags, searching for life's meaning.
On Dec. 4, more than 500 people attended a KPFA- and Pegasus Books-sponsored conversation and reading of Lamott's 2013 release, "Stitches; A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair" (Riverhead Books), hosted by veteran San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik.
The First Congregational Church of Berkeley provided a fine setting for the author, who often writes of finding a broken wholeness through faith in God and about whom Garchik said, "How she lives her life is at the core of everything she writes."
Lamott's novels, autobiographical essays and nonfiction books parade into subjects she has said many writers avoid: death, grief, parental paranoias, faith in Jesus, and the "alcoholic advent calendar" of a substance-abusing family's home. Her first novel, "Hard Laughter" (1979), was written as a love letter to her father after he was diagnosed with brain cancer.
"Operating Instructions" (1993) was her raw account as an ex-alcoholic, single mother, during her son Sam's first year.
"Stitches" circles her trademark literary wagons, sewing together biting humor, frank confessions and burning affection for the world's children (young and old). Here again, Lamott roots around in the rubble of her life -- a friend's shirt she's held onto for far too long, preoccupation with her adult son's health, a fondness for coffee filter crafting--and surfaces, holding a shiny mirror image of our similarly broken selves.
Writing has allowed Lamott to look at the shadows in her life, she said. But the tragic Dec. 14, 2012, shooting and deaths of 28 people in Newtown, Conn., tore into her consciousness with unbelievable savagery; disrupting the next book her publisher awaited and causing her to question life's meaning anew.
"The day after Newtown, I was teaching Sunday school. I told my kids they're loved and chosen. I also told them they're safe, but how can you say that with a straight face when 20 children are mowed down in a classroom?" she asked.
She found the answer in familiar places and practices.
"Everything I know about faith applies to writing and everything about writing applies to faith. It's all a nightmare and you just do it," she said, drawing laughter for her juxtaposition of profound belief, piercing despair and characteristic lack of sugarcoating.
Garchik asked Lamott if spirituality was "more natural" when it arose from a place of deep sadness. Lamott cryptically referred to her first three books, saying, "I was hilarious, but I was drunk ... a lot. I was intensely popular, but inside, I was swiss cheesy. I was either going to get sober, or I was going to die."
Getting sober didn't mean losing her dry, comic sense, which was on full display before the large crowd. Asked by Garchik if there were issues she'd like to ask God, Lamott said, "There are lots of things I want to bring up when we meet, face-to-face, like why Pam (a cherished friend she writes about in "Stitches") died when Dick Cheney is still alive?"
Moments later, reluctantly saying that as a follower of Jesus, she would wash the feet of Cheney -- a man she once called "a war criminal" in an interview -- she admitted to mixed feelings and to wanting to ask for the return of his (recently transplanted) heart.
Eventually, as her book suggests, laying down the "backpack" of other's awfulness is one key to salvation.
Likewise, viewing raggedness as a state of grace and finding solace in the comfort of coffee filter angels, fabricated by differently abled children and resulting in community, allows the solidarity needed to survive the "permanent injuries" of life.
"Nothing was made to last, not even us. Which I hate," she said. And later, after emphasizing "the great palace lie" (applying a timetable to "getting over" loved ones' deaths), she said, "The coffee filter angels solved nothing, but everyone was laughing, two days after Newtown, so it was enough."
Life's meaning, she suggested in Berkeley while reading with tenderness and humor from her new book, is not found by avoiding grief. Instead, it comes from grasping the hand of a friend, family member, kind stranger, or divine being, and thrusting oneself into the wind.
"Without stitches, you just have rags. And we are not rags," she wrote, in a final chapter. In Berkeley, she added, "There is something so beautiful about someone helping you to repair the tears and holes."