Anne Lamott Hates COVID-19

Fran & Annie onstage, 2015

Probably most of us hate COVID-19. But when it comes to identifying the reasons why, Anne Lamott can condense them into a few very well chosen words. In this season of poorly chosen words – face masks represent “a culture of silence, slavery, and social death,” or carefully chosen no-words, if you watched the Amy Coney Barrett hearings – Lamott’s words have the effect of a lemon verbena air spray.

“I miss the recognizable world,” she says. “the casual warmth of the old world. I used to hug and kiss everyone, and you can’t hug and kiss anyone when you’re standing in your little circle. I miss hugging and kissing everyone. It was so carbonating, and uplifting.”

Maybe that’s it? We are all just finally uncarbonated.

Photo by Sam Lamott

“I miss skin,” Lamott says. “People’s necks to burrow in. I miss people.” May we all please have someone’s neck to burrow into soon.

I first met Anne Lamott when she was leading a writers workshop at Book Passage in Marin in 1993, finishing up work on Bird by Bird, arguably the first book to propel her toward becoming a Household Name writer beloved by uncounted millions. But this was pre-fame. I’d been a newspaper & magazine writer forever. My new, Final husband The Great Encourager brought a small ad into the kitchen one night and said, “You ought to try fiction. This workshop could help. And you’ll love Annie.” Which was an understatement.

“I miss the beloved community of my church,” Lamott says. Many of us have beloved communities – faith communities, book groups, yoga classes, those places where we burrowed into someone’s neck, or touched someone’s hand as we settled in. If we are lucky we have a bunch of them. But they’ve all gone virtual and we can’t reach out and touch anyone.

Lamott and I put our faith communities at the top of the list of beloveds: mine for fairly traditional, progressive, urban Calvary Presbyterian in San Francisco, hers for much smaller St Andrew Presbyterian in Marin – a remarkable assemblage of God’s people for which this writer cannot find an adequate descriptor so you’ll just have to follow the link. Several times in past years we’ve done fundraisers for St Andrew at Calvary, which have been highlights of my performance career. (Essentially, I say, “Hello, Annie. What about . . .” and she picks it up, and 30 minutes later we get a standing ovation.) Recently St Andrew was doing a little budget-boosting with a pop-up marketplace of Black Lives Matter T-shirts and totes, and I had a brilliant idea about promoting that; but like most of my brilliant ideas it was too shrimpy and too late. If you’d like to send a contribution now, though, that’ll be fine. There’s a donate button on the website.

But if you’re missing all of the same things? Is there no hope? Anyone who knows Anne Lamott knows there is hope. And joy abundant, light to overcome the darkness.

“We’re doing what we can with what still works,” Lamott says. “I am so excited to see people I know even with their masks on. You do the litany: ‘Is everybody okay? Are you voting in person?’ There is a lot of gentleness. I study this. People let other people go first, first in line; people are bringing their better selves to the arena.”

“Grace,” she adds, “is like letting other people go first.” So these are some of the things Lamott loves, things that bring joy despite everything COVID has thrown at us:

“I love church by Zoom. So many people with physical challenges couldn’t get there, and now I can see them on Zoom. I love seeing the little kids.

Photo by Sally Tooley

“I think a lot about what the virus has given us. It has slowed everybody down. Made everybody do a deep dive into who they are. Before, most of us were so confined by our busyness, so confined by the things we were good at. But now we’re saying ‘Who am I without my rituals? Who am I without racing from place to place?’”

Lamott also sees a lot of practical goodness resulting from the pandemic. “Everybody’s going into their worst drawers to clean them out,” she observes. “There’s a huge amount of free stuff on the sidewalks. We went to a free library place and came away with forty books to give to shut-ins and older people.”

And the blessings. “The opportunities for service are just huge,” Lamott notes. “Phone calls still work. There’s an awareness of what does work.”

Speaking of which, Lamott fans will be glad to know she’s not been idle. Her new book, Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage will be out in March. “Do you know that twilight is at dawn and at dusk?” (No, I actually did not.) “I learned that,” the author says with Lamott-like awe. The new book – now in the publishing phase, meaning the author can rest – promises enlightenment and inspiration.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 “can’t steal the warmth and goodwill that we have for each other,” Lamott says. She is reveling in the fall colors that underlie that warmth and goodwill, and invites us all to go anti-COVID by paying attention to those colors, listening for birds like the golden whistler currently making its brief annual visit to her backyard, heightening our awareness of the seasons.

COVID may have numbed us with isolation and inconvenience, but Lamott believes it has brought us something else. “There’s an awakening to the beauty.”    

Saying Goodbye, and Hello to 2015

sunrise

My friend M has died, just shy of the old year’s end and significantly decreasing the joy of the new. But her dying was full of life lessons about saying goodbye, being grateful and trying to ring in a better planet for the days ahead. And thus she leaves a gracious greeting for 2015.

M was a believer in good causes, and she put her substantial time and energies to work for them all. We became friends over our mutual love of writing but we bonded over our mutual commitment to end-of-life choice. Once you concede that you won’t live forever, a reality most prefer to ignore, it is possible to live both gently and joyfully even in tough times. Both of us spent long years encouraging anyone who would listen to confront mortality, make choices, and make personal decisions known to all. It’s called living fully, even into dying.

So M, after conceding her own days on the planet were dwindling, sat down over a cup of soup I’d brought her not long ago and we went about the business of saying goodbye. I told her why I thought she was such a wonder, and she told me all the things I’d be happy to have said for my own eulogy. OK, we had an extravagant mutual admiration society. But the life lesson is that telling others about their own gifts and good qualities (however hard it might occasionally be to uncover them) is something anyone can do, any time; the planet would be immeasurably better if more of us did it more often.

M was supportive of my activism for reproductive justice, having done more than a little of that herself in years past, but once she expressed reservations about how much time I was investing in that cause. “It’s time for young people, young women, to take that on,” she said. Well, yes. Another 2015 greeting for that demographic: reproductive rights are disappearing at an alarming rate. Unless more of us of whatever gender or age pitch in, women – particularly women without money or power – will soon be back in the pre-Roe dark ages, with no control over their own bodies. Which could make for a very unhappy new year for uncounted thousands of women.

The daughter of a rabbi, M was aggressively non-religious. We didn’t waste a lot of time on the subject, though she applauded the idea of my Presbyterian church working to break cycles of poverty. But once, after some sort of “What Would Jesus Do?”-type remark I made she said, “Oh, you and Anne Lamott.” I am personally fine with being lumped in with my funny, gifted friend Lamott, but this was not meant as a compliment. It did lead to a brief, lively discussion about faith and practice. And wouldn’t 2015 be a happy new year if fewer wars were fought in the name of Allah (or Whomever) and more focus were put on the peace, justice and love for fellow creatures that is the basic message of every religion around.

Rest in peace Maya Angelou, Robin Williams, James Brady, Pete Seeger – and all those other good souls we lost in 2014. Most especially, M.

And Happy New Year to us all.

Random Acts of Kindness

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

One particularly gray day, the kind of day writers have when their brains fog over and their vocabularies vanish, I had an email from the irrepressible Anne Lamott. Lamott is a longtime friend whose writing and gumptious spirit I greatly admire — but not someone from whom I would have sought literary endorsement in a million years.

“I can’t wait to blurb your book,” she wrote. Clouds vanished, vocabulary returned, book was soon published with a classic Lamott remark on the back cover proclaiming Perilous Times “rich in (the author’s) trademark blend of stories, history, knowledge and passion… an important contribution to (the fight for reproductive rights.)” Unsolicited kindness from a casual friend: an incalculable gift.

The kindness of strangers, though, is priceless. And might surely be a movement whose time has come.

Susan Johnson Nelson is up for starting the movement. She is also anxious to change the image of America and Americans from the ugly to the kind, as is her husband Andy. A few years ago the Nelsons traded in a comfortable life in San Francisco, where he was well established in a career in law, to join the U.S. Foreign Service. Having just completed a two-year tour in Managua, Nicaragua, he is now in an immersion program in Washington preparing for their next assignment in Hanoi. The Nelson family — which now includes 3-year-old Bode and 1-year-old Lake — is one you would want to represent the U.S. abroad. (The Nelson boys already enjoy love and adoration from fans on several continents.)

Susan Nelson decided recently to celebrate the Christian season of Lent not with the traditional giving up of one thing or another but with a daily act of kindness. Jesus would probably be fine with this. The inspiration actually came, she wrote in an initial social media post, from being on the receiving end of a double act of kindness herself not long ago. While negotiating the streets of downtown Washington with two screaming toddlers who had just received immunization shots, she ducked into a sandwich shop on a cookie diversion mission. A long queue of tired, hungry people let her jump to the front of the line (kindness #1), where the lady behind the counter smilingly offered not one cookie but two (double kindness #2.) Nelson’s first random act of kindness: a bouquet of flowers delivered to the lady behind the sandwich shop counter.

Others follow daily. They have included homemade cupcakes for Pete at the front desk, a basket of flowers painting by Bode for a post-surgery teacher, pick-up and delivery of recycling left in hallways (double kindness: gift to building residents and anger aversion for the maintenance workers who would otherwise have to deal with it.) There was babysitting for a friend in need, banana bread baked and delivered to the local firehouse. There was Andy’s kindness to Mother Earth, buying toothbrushes from all-recycled materials (hey, credit where credit is due; Andy also does extraordinary acts of fatherly kindness when Mom is wearing down) and on one dark and snowy Saturday morning both boys slept in until 9 a.m. — duly reported in the online exchange as a great kindness on their part.

The digital saga has also prompted reports of other acts of kindness elsewhere, such as the story of a woman with cancer, having her head shaved in a beauty salon as chemo-induced hair loss began and then finding her bill had been paid by an earlier customer.

They may be small acts of kindness, but who knows how large their effects? For many of us, frustrated with what seems the impossibility of world peace, tiny moments of joy bring renewed hope. It’s a start.

Roses, wrecks and New Year’s blessings

Rose et amour....rosa y amor ....rose d'amour ...
Rose et amour….rosa y amor ….rose d’amour ..rosa de amor.. // Explore (Photo credit: photosylvia / silabox.)

It was the first day of Anna’s fifth week in intensive care. When the car flipped over and down the embankment she had emerged with a broken sternum, broken ribs on either side, a cracked femur and internal injuries; internal bleeding has been a problem since. I got this report from her husband Ned, in a phone conversation linking our homes on opposite coasts. Ned had been driving when he suffered a sneezing fit and blacked out; Anna had tried to grab the steering wheel and possibly prevented something worse from happening. The accident left him without a scratch — other than a broken heart.

Ned and I go wayy back: to the time he brought me a corsage of roses from his family farm on the occasion of my second grade piano recital. So I am sad for Anna, but in some ways sadder for Ned. He is a retired corporate executive, a take-charge type, and an incurable optimist; this may be putting a strain on his famous ebullience.

“I’m there every day,” he told me. “I give her my three rules of life: Never give up. Don’t you dare give up. And, Don’t even think about giving up.” Anna, I’m willing to bet, thinks a lot about giving up. I didn’t suggest that to Ned.

I was writing a note to Ned, following up on that conversation, when the phone rang. My youngest daughter, reporting on her holidays on the east coast, said — as a sort of throw-away aside — that there had been “an incident” the night before at the end of her 3-hour trip from North Carolina to Atlanta to visit with family. At the Claremont Avenue off-ramp from I-85 in Atlanta (a familiar piece of real estate now etched into my brain) her Toyota truck had flipped, coming to rest on its side just before crashing into the pylons below. Airbags inflated, emergency helpers immediately appeared to get her out the window and she sustained only a bruised shin. Flo, the elderly part-labrador retriever, was also lifted out unscathed, but Apple the more recent rescue dog took off for parts unknown.

“They kept wanting to take me to the ER. I said, ‘Thanks, but I’m an ER nurse, and I’m calling my brother.'” Later in the holidays she planned to visit the totaled Toyota to see if an explanation — front tire issues are suspected — for the accident might be found.

There’s no particular connection between these two accidents, and no particular reason for such a Christmastime story. Unless it would be an excuse for quoting these words from my friend Anne Lamott’s new book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential prayers:

“We are saved by memories of love and beauty — maybe there’s more of that to come, if we keep on keeping on…”

Happy New Year!  And if you see Apple the dog, let us know.