A semi-imaginary correspondence with Anne Lamott, I wrote in 2010
Dear Anne Lamott,
You write extraordinary insights and pointed advice: listen to your broccoli, accept your emptiness, start with a one-inch frame, do short assignments, be militantly on your own side, etc. Yet, in an uncharacteristically schmaltzy tone, you wrote in Bird by Bird, “There’s ecstasy in paying attention.” Anne, you are usually much more grounded than this! With all due respect, this sounds like the pop-Zen of the sixties.
I have recently re-opened myself to the writing process; and, as this observant life takes over my sleep, my waking thoughts, my eating habits, my housekeeping and my reactions to all the little things in daily life, I feel like a supporting actress in a soap who is the last one on the set to find out she has spleen cancer in this week’s episode. I’m just not getting the noble part of this paying attention.
I cried over the dance scene in Toy Story 3 in which Buzz Light-year. en modo Espanol, Latin dances with Jessie, the redhead cowgirl prototype of Annie Oakley.
I wept at the downtown carwash. Tears dripped under my sunglasses viewing the latest bridal fashions in the window of Trudy’s — with their flamenco skin-tight bodice and torso and sweeping narrow cut to the flourishing ruffles below the knees. Ole! Not grief for the fashion statement, but mourning my own binding belief that women who are married are happier and more worthy than women who are single. Definitely not ecstatically appreciating my newfound freedom. And talk about pinched by pain, like a corset; I am bound to dancing with daddy as his “little girl.” This was my first notion of romance without having a trendy purity ball.
Somewhere around midnight last night, I woke up to silence in my neighborhood. As I lay there wondering why I was awake, one explosion – a gunshot, I think – broke the stillness and then the quiet returned. Did a bullet lodge in someone’s wall? Was it a threat? Did someone shoot a raccoon in his or her backyard? Did they mistake my black and white cat and shoot Mickey? Is another bullet going to come zinging closer? Was it really not a weapon after all, etc., etc. Waking up to what is going in and around me is shocking like that explosion.
So, I’m wondering where’s the ecstasy in becoming a leaky-eyed lunatic who cannot stop looking below the surface of things that make normal people happy? I mean, weddings!
When I wrote my chapter, “Looking Around,” I did say you might get into a special “Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness…” Maybe. I simply meant that if you start to look around you see. Beauty and pain. Please re-read my introduction in the chapter in which I explain my position clearly: what’s going on is we’re all up to here in it…
I advise you to try to see who you really are in the most compassionate possible sense. This is likely to be a new experience of your self. As you have experienced this summer, it’s hard to look at yourself with compassionate detachment. It will take practice. On page 99, I suggest looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspapers.
So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there with reverence. Let’s think of reverence as awe, openness to the world. The alternative is that we stultify, shut down.
Laura, please read my Toni Morrison story on pg. 193 again. You are just breaking free of bondage to people in your history and from a way of life. As Toni says, “Go ahead, tell your story. Risk freeing someone else.”
I think I get what your ecstasy is about. My new favorite quote from Bird by Bird is the end of the Looking Around chapter: “To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up it own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colo-rectal theology, offering hope to no one”
I will hang in with the mind training and take a more compassionate view of myself. I don’t want to go back to shut down mode. I’ll pay attention.