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Photo by Sam Lamott
By:
Karen Bouris

Anne Lamott: Life as a Black-Belt Codependent

The best-selling author of Bird by Bird and Operating Instructions reflects on her latest book, Help, Thanks, Wow, and the challenge of accepting love in a culture of arm’s-length perfection.

I met Anne Lamott in her cozy Marin County, California, home, where we talked about her latest book, Help, Thanks, Wow, over the objections of her two exuberant dogs.

In person, as in her writing, she is an astute observer of her inner life, wielding both humor and lightness with Jedi-like precision. Her best-selling nonfiction books have chronicled many of her life passages—from single motherhood in Operating Instructions to writer and daughter in Bird by Bird to defining her faith in Traveling Mercies .

It is easy to understand why readers respond to Lamott’s books with gratitude and relief. Through the baring of her own vulnerabilities, she reassures us that the chorus in our heads—the complainer, the high critic, the insecure woman, even the hater—is a normal part of being human.

In Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers she offers us a “sliver of light,” a gentle, beseeching invitation to turn inward and upward.

Why a book on prayer?

The experience reminded me a little of [ Bird by Bird ], where I’d been talking about writing for so long, and the publishers wanted the book so quickly, that I relied on what I knew about writing to write a book on writing. So I relied on what I know about prayer and trust and surrender and showing up to write a book that’s basically about trust and surrender and showing up.

I always told my writing students, “Write what you would like to come upon , because that’s information from your soul that is very alive and attentive.”

And with this book, I felt that I would like to come upon a kind of small, quirky, really down and dirty, slightly funny book on prayer. It would help me start a reset button. It was a kind of perfect storm—I needed it, I had the summer, I had a little benevolent pressure in the deadline, and I felt like I could be helpful.

You write, “God can handle honesty, and prayer begins as an honest conversation.”

Every single thing in this culture tells you not to have that [honesty], and tells you that it will be used against you, and tells you that the most important thing is that you look good, you achieve more, and that you—you put all the other kids to shame with your achievement and perfection.

So for us to say, “I’m completely doomed. Everything has turned to crap, and I’m scared to death, and I ran out of good ideas”—it’s the most disloyal thing you could ever, ever do to your family. So it’s very scary. I think the child—the kind of archetypal image would be the long bony finger that comes out of the sky and points at you, and says, “We told you not to tell.”

What does radical self-care mean for you?

Radical self-care means that I gently bust myself out of the desperate lifelong need to please, and it means that I start to say no as a complete sentence. Women get so used to leftovers, helping everybody else get it together, and then living their lives from what time and life force and energy and family goodwill are left over. My mother ate every broken yolk, because that’s how we were raised, and so this is about a new paradigm of saying, Everybody in the family should take a turn with a broken yolk.

It’s so hard for most to allow ourselves to do this.  The almighty “no.”

That’s why it’s called “radical” self-care. Especially if you’re a mom. I’m a mother and a grandmother, and I have both of them with me a lot of the time. Everything in me wants to put their needs and their meals first—I’ll do their laundry, you know. Without radical self-care I’m like some demented flight attendant and they’re first-class travelers.

But I can’t do my son’s hero’s journey for him. I’m his mom, and I want to run alongside him on his hero’s journey with clean socks, and I want to give him little bicyclist packets of goo food, yet I can’t be on his journey with him. He gets to make mistakes, he gets to trip, he gets to fall. If I feed him when he’s hungry, that’s almost like abuse. Because if he hasn’t figured it out by

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