I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.
My seven-year-old grandson sleeps just down the hall from me, and he wakes up a lot of mornings and he says, “You know, this could be the best day ever.” And other times, in the middle of the night, he calls out in a tremulous voice, “Nana, will you ever get sick and die?”
I think this pretty much says it for me and for most of the people I know, that we’re a mixed grill of happy anticipation and dread. So I sat down a few days before my 61st birthday,and I decided to compile a list of everything I know for sure. There’s so little truth in the popular culture, and it’s good to be sure of a few things.
For instance, I am no longer 47, although this is the age I feel, and the age I like to think of myself as being. My friend Paul used to say in his late 70s that he felt like a young man with something really wrong with him.
Our true person is outside of time and space, but looking at the paperwork, I can, in fact, see that I was born in 1954. My inside self is outside of time and space. It doesn’t have an age. I’m every age I’ve ever been, and so are you, although I can’t help mentioning as an aside that it might have been helpful if I hadn’t followed the skin care rules of the ’60s, which involved getting as much sun as possible while slathered in baby oil and basking in the glow of a tinfoil reflector shield.
It was so liberating, though, to face the truth that I was no longer in the last throes of middle age, that I decided to write down every single true thing I know. People feel really doomed and overwhelmed these days, and they keep asking me what’s true. So I hope that my list of things I’m almost positive about might offer some basic operating instructions to anyone who is feeling really overwhelmed or beleaguered.
Number one: the first and truest thing is that all truth is a paradox. Life is both a precious, unfathomably beautiful gift, and it’s impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It’s been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive.It’s so hard and weird that we sometimes wonder if we’re being punked. It’s filled simultaneously with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, desperate poverty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together. I don’t think it’s an ideal system.
Number two: almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes — including you.
Three: there is almost nothing outside of you that will help in any kind of lasting way,unless you’re waiting for an organ. You can’t buy, achieve or date serenity and peace of mind. This is the most horrible truth, and I so resent it. But it’s an inside job, and we can’t arrange peace or lasting improvement for the people we love most in the world.They have to find their own ways, their own answers. You can’t run alongside your grown children with sunscreen and ChapStick on their hero’s journey. You have to release them.It’s disrespectful not to. And if it’s someone else’s problem, you probably don’t have the answer, anyway.
Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. And help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.
This brings us to number four: everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared, even the people who seem to have it most together. They are much more like you than you would believe, so try not to compare your insides to other people’s outsides. It will only make you worse than you already are.
Also, you can’t save, fix or rescue any of them or get anyone sober. What helped me get clean and sober 30 years ago was the catastrophe of my behavior and thinking. So I asked some sober friends for help, and I turned to a higher power. One acronym for God is the “gift of desperation,” G-O-D, or as a sober friend put it, by the end I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.
So God might mean, in this case, “me running out of any more good ideas.”
While fixing and saving and trying to rescue is futile, radical self-care is quantum, and it radiates out from you into the atmosphere like a little fresh air. It’s a huge gift to the world. When people respond by saying, “Well, isn’t she full of herself,” just smile obliquely like Mona Lisa and make both of you a nice cup of tea. Being full of affection for one’s goofy, self-centered, cranky, annoying self is home. It’s where world peace begins.
Number five: chocolate with 75 percent cacao is not actually a food.
Its best use is as a bait in snake traps or to balance the legs of wobbly chairs. It was never meant to be considered an edible.
Number six —
writing. Every writer you know writes really terrible first drafts, but they keep their butt in the chair. That’s the secret of life. That’s probably the main difference between you and them. They just do it. They do it by prearrangement with themselves. They do it as a debt of honor. They tell stories that come through them one day at a time, little by little.When my older brother was in fourth grade, he had a term paper on birds due the next day, and he hadn’t started. So my dad sat down with him with an Audubon book, paper, pencils and brads — for those of you who have gotten a little less young and remember brads — and he said to my brother, “Just take it bird by bird, buddy. Just read about pelicans and then write about pelicans in your own voice. And then find out about chickadees, and tell us about them in your own voice. And then geese.”
So the two most important things about writing are: bird by bird and really god-awful first drafts. If you don’t know where to start, remember that every single thing that happened to you is yours, and you get to tell it. If people wanted you to write more warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.
You’re going to feel like hell if you wake up someday and you never wrote the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves of your heart: your stories, memories, visions and songs — your truth, your version of things — in your own voice. That’s really all you have to offer us,and that’s also why you were born.
Seven: publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and evil people I’ve ever known are male writers who’ve had huge best sellers. And yet, returning to number one, that all truth is paradox, it’s also a miracle to get your work published, to get your stories read and heard. Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, that it will fill the Swiss-cheesy holes inside of you. It can’t. It won’t. But writing can. So can singing in a choir or a bluegrass band. So can painting community murals or birding or fostering old dogs that no one else will.
Number eight: families. Families are hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be. Again, see number one.
At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal –remember that in all cases, it’s a miracle that any of us, specifically, were conceived and born. Earth is forgiveness school. It begins with forgiving yourself, and then you might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants.
When William Blake said that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love, he knew that your family would be an intimate part of this, even as you want to run screaming for your cute little life. But I promise you are up to it. You can do it, Cinderella, you can do it,and you will be amazed.
Nine: food. Try to do a little better. I think you know what I mean.
Number 10 –grace. Grace is spiritual WD-40, or water wings. The mystery of grace is that God loves Henry Kissinger and Vladimir Putin and me exactly as much as He or She loves your new grandchild. Go figure.
The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and heals our world. To summon grace, say, “Help,” and then buckle up. Grace finds you exactly where you are, but it doesn’t leave you where it found you. And grace won’t look like Casper the Friendly Ghost, regrettably. But the phone will ring or the mail will come and then against all odds, you’ll get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness. It helps us breathe again and again and gives us back to ourselves, and this gives us faith in life and each other. And remember — grace always bats last.
Eleven: God just means goodness. It’s really not all that scary. It means the divine or a loving, animating intelligence, or, as we learned from the great “Deteriorata,” “the cosmic muffin.” A good name for God is: “Not me.” Emerson said that the happiest person on Earth is the one who learns from nature the lessons of worship. So go outside a lot and look up. My pastor said you can trap bees on the bottom of mason jars without lidsbecause they don’t look up, so they just walk around bitterly bumping into the glass walls. Go outside. Look up. Secret of life.
And finally: death. Number 12. Wow and yikes. It’s so hard to bear when the few people you cannot live without die. You’ll never get over these losses, and no matter what the culture says, you’re not supposed to. We Christians like to think of death as a major change of address, but in any case, the person will live again fully in your heart if you don’t seal it off. Like Leonard Cohen said, “There are cracks in everything, and that’s how the light gets in.” And that’s how we feel our people again fully alive.
Also, the people will make you laugh out loud at the most inconvenient times, and that’s the great good news. But their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you. Grief and friends, time and tears will heal you to some extent. Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate and moisturize you and the ground on which you walk.
Do you know the first thing that God says to Moses? He says, “Take off your shoes.”Because this is holy ground, all evidence to the contrary. It’s hard to believe, but it’s the truest thing I know. When you’re a little bit older, like my tiny personal self, you realize that death is as sacred as birth. And don’t worry — get on with your life. Almost every single death is easy and gentle with the very best people surrounding you for as long as you need. You won’t be alone. They’ll help you cross over to whatever awaits us. As Ram Dass said, “When all is said and done, we’re really just all walking each other home.”
I think that’s it, but if I think of anything else, I’ll let you know.
June 24 at 11:04 AM •
The world can feel like an alcoholic father sitting in the living room in his vile underwear, tranced out or abusive; and the world can feel like your favorite auntie who thinks you are just great, still likes to hike, always brings trail mix, and knows her wildflowers.
These are excruciating times, and this is the kingdom. It’s two, two, two mints in one.
So yeah, some of us are a little tense.
But we are not flattened. Nor do we look away from the suffering of others. And no matter how bad things look and how long change is taking, we don’t give up on goodness. Here is proof: we still take care of each other in ways that are profound, loving and sacrificial, by the bedside of our most beloved, and in the streets. We show up: the secret of life.
We gather in cities to rise up, and at local parks for live music in the sun, where we and our cranky neighbor end up doing the old tribal hippie two-step in the same shaft of light.
We are still laughing—some of us perhaps a bit maniacally—and people are creating the greatest, most live-giving routines and cartoons and responses. This is what saved me during the Cheney years. It was chemo.
So, great laughter, community, joyous and/or sacrificial love. We can work with this!
It is more than enough.
Here’s the one fly in the ointment: we have to do this in dim lighting, what with a political fever dream, and our own failing memories and overwhelm. Life is always like E.L. Doctorow’s great line about writing, that it is like driving at night with the headlights on—you can only see a little ways in front of you, but you can make the whole journey that way.
You still have to buckle up, no matter how slowly the car is moving. Put on the radio and sing along, loudly and off key. You just have to trust that, as John Lennon said, “Everything will be okay. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
I heard a story last week from a sober friend that almost completely captures my understand of goodness and life, a story that has been medicine for my worried, worried soul:
Caroline stopped drinking 30 years ago, at the age of 40, with zero interest or belief in any kind of higher power to whom she might be able to turn when cravings overcame her. But after a year of white-knuckle sobriety, contemptuous of a higher power, hanging on through will power, she one day heard and then found a frog in her shower.
She lifted it and gently carried it in her cupped hands through the house. She could feel and, of course, imagine its terror. She took it out to the garden, where there was a moist patch of earth over near the blackberries, and set it down. It sat stock still for a bit, and then hopped away into the bushes.
She said, “My name is Caroline. I’m that frog.”
I am, too, and I am also a big helper. When I have felt most isolated and lost, I have always ended up being carried back to the garden in people’s good hands, to where I need to be, afraid and not breathing. for much of the way. And I have helped carry scared people, the best I could. You have, too.
Isn’t that what grace is, when some force of kindness, against all odds, with unknown hands, brings us from fear and hard tiles to a moist patch earth, and sets us down?
If I were God’s west coast representative, I would speed up the process a bit, and hand out klieg lights but I can’t. All I can do is to try and help you get back to where there is moist soil and fresh air, and let you help me. And those happen to be the two things I most want in life.
This is a face book post by the author, Anne Lamott
We all secretly think we are defective–this is why our parents were unhappy, or unfaithful, or abusive, or whatever. Believing this gave us our only shot at control in households that were chaotic or cold: If we were the problem, then it meant our caregivers were good parents, capable of nurture and the healthy raising of children. And it meant we could correct our defects, and then our parents would be happy, finally, be nice to each other, and stop drinking.
I have spent 30 sober years healing from this survival tactic, of thinking I am annoying or a screw-up. I have just toured the country promoting a book on mercy, called HALLELUJAH ANYWAY, whose main premise is that if we practice radical self-care and forgiveness, this will heal us and radiate out to our families and communities, bringing peace.
However, I have done something so out there, so On Beyond Zebra, that it drew into question every aspect of that guiding principle (i.e., that I am NOT defective). I thought I was 80% over this. As a child, I agreed to believe it because it helped my family function and helped the other members feel better about themselves, because at least they weren’t screwed-up, annoying me.
But I have outdone myself. I have done something so amazingly incompetent and so profoundly inconvenient to so many people I love that it will allow you to forgive yourself for almost anything. I will be your new gold standard; you will no longer be secretly convinced that you have Alzheimer’s. You will think you are just fine and have been overreacting. You will understand why my son, Sam, so frequently mentions the website A Place for Mom to me.
So: six months ago, I was invited to give a talk at the 2017 TED conference in Vancouver. This was very heady stuff, as sometimes millions of people see these talks online and might want to buy your new book, saving you from financial ruin and having to go live at the Rescue Mission and live on government cheese, which is very binding.
So I wrote and sort of memorized my 15-minute talk, and my various caseworkers worked for months to get me to Vancouver this morning from Seattle, where I did a reading last night.
I got to the airport an hour ago, got out my passport, and tried to get a boarding pass for a flight I’ve been booked on and obsessing about for 3 months.
That’s when I’d realized I had grabbed the wrong passport at home. The expired one.
Therefore, I would not be able to catch a flight to our tense new enemy, Canada, to give the biggest and most important talk of my life.
It is hard to capture my feelings at that moment: terror, shame, self-loathing and catastrophic thoughts about my doomed future.
I texted my agent, ran to TSA, pleaded my case and how I must be HUGELY important (albeit brain damaged) to be giving a TED talk.
No go. And no way to get on board any flight to Canada. I was doomed.
But those 30 years had not been in vain. Because within a few minutes, I had remembered 3 things:
God always makes a way out of no way.
Radical self-care and forgiveness are always possible – always — and always the way home.
And HALLELUJAH ANYWAY is half about how there is nothing outside of yourself that can heal or fill you or make you whole unless you are waiting for an organ. A TED talk was never going to have been able to fill me with respect. That’s an inside job.
I hate and resent this, but it is the truest truth — union with God or Goodness, including our safest, most trusted friends, and deep friendliness and forgiveness to one’s sometimes very disappointing self.
So five minutes later, my agent and the TED people had worked out a plan whereby as I write this my son is flying to Seattle with my passport. He’ll be here in 5 hours. There’s a late flight to Vancouver, and the TED people have created a space for me tomorrow morning out of thin air. Talk about making a way out of no way.
Additionally, I charged $30 worth of medicine, magazines and a sack of peanut butter M&Ms.
I’m not sure what the message of this is. I quoted Samuel Goldwyn in Bird by Bird, who told screenwriters that if they had a message to send a telegram. All I have to offer is this story: that we get to make huge mistakes, and that the one I made this week is almost certainly bigger than any of yours. But neither of us is defective. We are perfect children of the universe, although maybe still a little funny around the edges, with tiny character issues and failing memories. We possess every day the capacity to extend gentleness and forgiveness to ourselves and those suffering nearby.
I am smiling gently at all the miserable frantic people at the airport and telling them I like their hats. I gave a sobbing child my IHOP crayons. (This is the path to world peace.) And I will never, ever hear the end of this from the people who love me. Ever. Believe me. Written by Anne Lamott on her face book page on 4/28/2017.
Anne Lamott’s Face Book post:
You know the famous Footprints image, where, in heaven, a person sees their footprints in the sand? My pastor mentions the times where there are two sets of prints, where we’re walking with a power of Something–love energy, let’s say– and the times where there is just one set, where that love energy, carries us when things are too hard. But Veronica also mentions a third pattern, of crazy squiggly bouncy lines. The person, looking them over with God asks, “Oh, and what were those times? And God says, “Those were when we danced.”
Anne Lamott’s Autobiographical books are my number one favorite reading. Louise Penny’s Canadian Mysteries are my second favorite reading.
Both of these Authors’ bottom line is :It’s all right to be a weak fallible human being: we are loved. Period. No if’s and’s or but’s.
“Simply realize who is hidden within you.” –osho
“Story telling has always been at the heart of being human because it serves some of our most basic needs: passing along our traditions, confessing failings, healing wounds, engendering hope, strengthening our sense of community. …………….when our discourse becomes more abstract, the less connected we feel.” Parker J. Palmer (These are quotes from the blog: makebelieveboutique.com)
They really hit me where I live. Not very many people relate to my writing because I tell, instead of show. I’m a theory person in that I explore the world through concepts, connections and possibilities.
But my responses to daily experiences come straight from my emotions. That makes me feel very vulnerable, so I stay focused on the outside world of theories as much as I can.
I have many “God” experience stories that are beyond statistical coincidence. But most of them came out of my struggle with repeated failures to love, because of being a bottomless pit of needs and wants. Needy people are not people who are able to love unconditionally. We may do a lot for others, but it is at least partly, if not mostly, out of our need for constant confirmation that we are worthwhile people.
My favorite autobiographical spiritual writer is Anne Lamott, because she too is a needy person who has often messed up big time because of it, but has found the grace to be open about her flawed humanity through her ongoing experiences of God and His love.
To be honest, I’m not sure I really want that kind of courage enough to ask God for that grace. But I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with where I am, so like it or not, that may be where God is calling me.