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Karen Bouris
2013 January-February

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 now that he needs water and cashews, I’m crippling him.

Why do we think it’s our job to ensure the well-being of the family?

In a very paradoxical, pathetic, natural way, we calm ourselves by worrying about others. And obsessing about others keeps us out of our own worry. Black-belt codependents like me use other people as a drug to keep from having to deal with our own aloneness or feelings or care about the world, so that instead of thinking about global warming, you can think about your children’s swim lessons—we think it’s all more manageable. The fact is, it keeps us stoned and worried in obsession. The very most profound thing we have to offer our children is our own healing.

You write about the three truths of existence: “That we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.”

There is a line—you have heard me use it in every book practically—by William Blake:

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love

When I read that, somewhere in my 20s, God, it blew everything up for me—because I thought we were here to be really cool, hip, slick people. I didn’t know we were here to learn to endure the fact that people adore us anyway, and that it really is a “me too” situation—that we tell people about our darkest corners and ickiness, and they go, “Oh, thank you, me too.” So to understand the mystery of that much love, it brings tears to our eyes. It is devastating.

It is so funny—even in my 40s, I still believed my ideas were good ideas. I believed that most people—most reasonable people—would write down my ideas about their lives, because they are good ideas. And little by little, you realize people-—people are going to do what they are going to do, and to try to interrupt that is an act of abuse and of disrespect.

That’s a third prayer in the book: Wow. “Holy shit,” is another way to say it. And I think our liberation begins with understanding how disappointing everybody else is—and that we are all in the same boat. We screw up right and left.
You write: “I have found that I even have to pray for the willingness to give up the stuff I hate most about myself. . . I just love my own gunk so much.”

I love my own gunk. I love it so...

This makes me smile with recognition. Why do we do this?

Because we are human. Because we have dual citizenship: we are people of spirit and soul and divine matter in a greater radius and realm than we can even imagine; and yet we are also human, and that means we are really scared a lot. We really want to help the people we love most, but it didn’t work when we were little, and it’s probably not going to work when we are big. And once you realize, oh my God, we are all in the same boat—“Oh, me too. No, me too, exactly. Me too exactly”—that will give you liberation. That will give you your breath back. And then you say to the person, “Thank you.” Second great prayer.

The second prayer, “Thanks. . .”

You know, it is so frustrating when you can’t get yourself to stop obsessing about something. You can’t get yourself to count your blessings, or whatever people demand that you do instead of feeling troubled. But when you do get that feeling of gratitude back and amazement with what you have been blessed with, you are just radiant with this positive magnetic energy. When you see someone who is in that state of positivity and of gratitude, you just want it. It is like a little campfire, and you just want to go warm your hands on them.

But for me, I have always had the belief that you take the action and then the insight will follow. You can’t will yourself into gratitude or breaking through an obsession. You take the action of beginning to say “thank you.” Like Rumi says, “There are hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” If I were in a bad place, and I made a list of everything I am grateful for, it would change me.

Can you let go?

Well, yes, on the one hand, sure. But on the other—I really, seriously have great ideas.

Until I was about 50 I would say, or until menopause, I had lived my entire life with the belief that there was a code I was about to break and as soon as I broke the code, what was going to be revealed was going to be the thing I had been searching for my entire life. As soon as you break the code with your kids, as soon you break the code about why I don’t have peace of mind on a more reliable basis, as soon as I broke the codes, the writing code—

The relationship code.

As soon as I break the relationship code, oh my God, the light is going to go on and then I’m going to be able to have peace of mind and let go and just have this, this kind of cheerful equanimity, almost all the time. In relationships, as a mother, as a grandmother, as a writer, as a public figure, as a Christian, as an activist. But there is no code. I don’t know what you do in the aftermath of that—of someone saying to you, to me, there is no code. How do you even go on, because the codes have given us purpose and direction and a sense of self and a sense of hope, but it was toxic, because there are no codes.

So let go, let go, let go, unhook, unhook, take the rusty fishhook out of your chest—it’s not connecting you to anything true; it is connecting you to your own disease in your own search for the codes. There are no codes, so what are you going to do?

What we do is we try to find the windows and the doors to get us out of this situation of being human, of having these human minds and monkey minds. You have got to just understand that there is no escape and to sit down at where you are, feel the connection of your butt to the floor, breathe, notice that there is a tiny crack, a little tiny little bit of fresh air is getting in, and it’s enough. Sit there, breathe, be present. —S&H

Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy—all at the same time. It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our backs against the wall, or when we are going under the waves, or when we are just so sick and tired of being psychically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something. Or maybe miraculously, we just release our grip slightly. —Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow

We Are Loved
Prayer is talking to something or anything with which we seek union, even if we are bitter or insane or broken. (In fact, these are probably the best possible conditions under which to pray.) Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. —Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow