Lamott Sheds Light on Seeing the Light

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) In an era when people so easily label themselves and others as conservatives or liberals, religious or secular, and so on, Anne Lamott remains a refreshing anomaly.

She’s liberal, yes, a 50-ish single mother known for her dreadlocks, but she also writes about God and how she discovered faith. Her honesty and humor draw in readers who might otherwise shy away from the subject; they find themselves laughing at her unflinching takes on the spiritual struggle. She is acerbic, as well, on politics, relationships and the thighs she calls her “aunties.”

While Lamott has written several novels, she’s probably best known for “Operating Instructions,” about her son Sam’s first year of life, and her classic book of essays on writing, “Bird by Bird.”

When her book “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith” debuted in 1999, Lamott was newly sober and a recent born-again Christian.

Five years later, when “Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith” came out in hardback, she was still devout but admitted that the re-election of George Bush _ defeating him was Plan A _ made it tough sometimes.

“Plan B” is just out in paperback, and Lamott is on another book tour. She was reached at her home in Marin County, Calif.:

Q: Why do you think your writing evolved in the spiritual direction it did?

A: When I used to teach writing, I’d always tell my students to write the books they wanted to come upon. This is what I’m interested in. I like to read about spiritual things, and I like to read stuff that makes me laugh. I’d like to come upon books like mine, that are spiritual and serious and funny at the same time.

Q: Where are you in your struggle with the relationship with your mom, whose last years and death you wrote about in “Plan B”? Have you been able to move to a place of peace?

A: I wrote that essay (“O Noraht, Noraht,” focusing on the box holding her mother’s ashes) three years ago. The story I told was a huge breakthrough for me, from having a hard heart and also relief that she had died, to missing her and wanting to honor her.

The authentic progress is very slow, and there’s been a lot of moments where I felt real tenderness and connection, but I also am reminded of that mother who had a devastating effect on me. But my relationship with her is a lot gentler now.

Q: How old is Sam now, and what is he doing?

A: He’s 16, a junior in high school, and he just got his license yesterday. I hate it. It’s scary enough to have a kid when others are driving him around and calling you to check in but when they (the child) leave in the car, your heart is in your throat, especially from 10 till midnight.

Q: Anna Quindlen’s husband once famously said, “Can I ask you to get me a beer without reading about it in your column?” How does Sam feel about you writing about him?

A: Basically he’s said he never thinks about it. He’s used to me being a public person since he was born. He was dragged to bookstores and lectures from when he was 8 or 9. He seems to think it’s pretty cool that he’s semifamous.

Q: Does he love to read as you do?

A: He’s not a big reader. He likes to read, but he’s into art and graphics, and stuff in his own field. He’s very, very different than I am in many ways; he’s artistic and visual, an inventor. He’s very articulate when he talks, but he doesn’t like to write. I don’t know how much of a reaction to my work that is, or if he just came that way.

Q: Where does your sense of humor come from?

A: My father had a great sense of humor and some of our family friends did, and I also think I developed it as a defense against feeling teased, or feeling weird. I had an older brother, and I developed a sense of humor as a weapon to use against his strength. I’ve always loved to make people laugh.

Q: Has your humor become more gentle as you’ve become more spiritual?

A: My sense of humor has been very consistent. It’s very dark and edgy and I assume it always will be. I try to be a little more careful with my mouth and more sensitive as to how it hurts people to have their own group attacked in a certain way. But with Bush, there are no boundaries.

Q: How much of who you are do you attribute to where you’ve always lived (in Northern California)?

A: Growing up here, I think I was raised to find beauty and meaning outdoors. My father was very active in terms of hiking and bird-watching; he had a one-room cabin on the coast. It was sort of our religion, the natural world. I was just as affected that he was a writer and my mother was a great reader. I was raised to love books and nature and good writing.

Q: What are some of the misconceptions that people might have about you if, of all your books, they’ve only read “Plan B” and “Traveling Mercies”?

A: I think I’ve been very honest and very discerning about what I put out there about myself. But I have described myself a few times as a born-again Christian, because I became a Christian at middle age, at 32. Most people can’t relate because many born-again Christians are conservative and fundamentalist, and I’m passionately against fundamentalism, whether Christian or Islamic.

Q: Is there anything you are reading now that makes you green with envy?

A: I loved Elizabeth Strout’s new book, “Abide With Me.” I thought that was a beautiful, wonderful novel. I’m always reading something: “The Thin Place” by Kathryn Davis, and Sharon Olds’ book of poems.

Q: Given how our society is polarized, do you see yourself as a combatant in the cultural wars?

A: No, I don’t. I see myself as a ferocious left-wing activist who is passionately pro-choice and really pro-democratic and very, very desperately hoping to end the madness of this current administration. I’m not very combative, though.

I’m more of a missionary with a sharp tongue.

(Evelyn Theiss writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland)


Editors: To obtain file photos of Lamott, go to the RNS Web site at On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

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