Take a Load off, Annie

April 2, 2012

When my favorite blog (Motherlode) announced that its book club would be reading the newest book by one of my favorite authors (Annie Lamott) I signed on as fast as I could.  I was eager to see how Lamott would take on sudden, unexpected grandparenthood — and even more eager for the humor, oversharing, and dead-on honesty that is her trademark.  When the book arrived in the mail two days later, I had it read in twelve hours.

You could say that I really (really, really) love Anne Lamott.  Bird by Bird for teaching writing, Traveling Mercies and Grace, Eventually on faith, and Operating Instructions for the most intense experience I have ever had: motherhood.

Some Assembly Required, Lamott’s tale of her son’s becoming a father at age 19, is an unexpected sequel to Operating Instructions, the book that first told me the truth about parenthood.  Sure, Anne Lamott was a single mom, a recovering addict, and a fumblingly serious Christian.  But in nearly every other way, I found her account of parenthood to be complete accurate.  When I stepped into parenthood at age 29, totally unaware of just how fully it would floor me, only Annie told me the truth. (also Rachel Cusk, in A Life’s Work.  But Annie is drastically funnier.)

According to Annie’s Operating Intsructions, motherhood would leave me not just tired, but desperate with fatigue.  I would mourn my flat stomach, which she informed me would lie next to me, “like a puppy.”  In the gospel according to Annie, I would also be so besotted with my infant that nothing else would matter, which would be great, since nothing else I used to care about was possible anymore.

Yet (and this is a big Yet) when I read Operating Instructions for the first time, I learned from Anne Lamott that my bad days — like hers — were themselves infused with grace.  That I did not have to be perfect, or a saint, to be a mother.  That my life could be holy in its imperfection.  Nobody else ever happened to mention this, so I appreciated it when she happened to drop this crucial truth into her funny, funny book.

So what did I discover after my fast sprint forward 19 years — from Sam Lamott’s birth to his son Jax’s?

Well, to be honest, I found Some Assembly Required less gripping.  Less interesting even, at least to start.  No meltdowns to speak of.  A little griping, a few uncomfortable moments caused in part by the age of her grandson Jax’s parents (20, and 19) but mostly just by the human condition of imperfection.

But in general, the book was way less intense because Annie herself, at age 55, is significantly less desperate and miserable.  There is less for me to grab onto because she has — through serious, diligent practice — become a calmer, more deliberately loving and accepting human being.

This, my friends, is the miracle of the book, and of her life:  that the world’s hottest mess of a mother has mellowed into a semi-wise grandmotherhood.  She is still neurotic, still doubting, still has urges, unscratchable itches and cranky moments like the rest of us neurotic, doubting, cranky people.  She needs God like some of the rest of us need beer, chocolate, exercise, or SSRI’s — to combat the terrible lack of Serotonin that makes life so damn challenging.

It’s just that she’s discovered, through faith, ways of temporarily setting that aside and sitting with the discomfort of being fully alive.

All of this makes for a less gripping book, but a more hopeful future for those of us following in her messy footsteps.

Now generally, I find tales of naturally serene, accepting people so irritating I can hardly stand them. I’m not particularly interested in reading about calm, Budda-like people who never sweat the small stuff.  For me, that would be sort of like reading about the physical challenges of top athletes or the trials and tribulations of women with naturally wavy and always-perfect hair.  (Annie and I have opposite, but equally problematic, issues with our hair.)

No, I am at my core an irritable, complicated, overthinking person who has faced the challenges of parenthood in cranky, graceless, awkward ways.  I overthink things.  I try to control outcomes that are none of my business.  Thus I crave — indeed, need — the example of Anne Lamott, patron saint of those who find motherhood, and life itself, less than straightforward.

But when I read Lamott this time, I discovered that she had grown up.  And so had I.  This time around, her mottos are all about accepting, rather than fighting the lack of control that is endemic to parenthood.  “Ask and Allow,” she reminds herself.  “Lower the Bar,” her good friend tells her.  And, remarkably, she does.

And then, she offers us perfectionistic worrywarts this gem:

“I’ve always thought I could use my brain and my heart to jockey everyone around to the good.  But life is not jockeyable.  When you try, you make people infinitely crazier than they already were, including or especially yourself.”

Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Some Assembly Required is Anne Lamott 2.0.  She still has to sometimes rely on medicinal chocolate, or pathetic late-night telephone calls to her friends to get her through.  She is still OCD-picky enough to still worry so much over the crusty stump of her grandson’s umbilical cord that she first obsesses over its presence, then freaks out when it falls off and she thinks his guts are falling out.  This particular obsession has never gripped me, but I totally identified with her sense that the pediatrician’s office on the other end of the telephone line was ignoring her perfectly reasonable terror. 

But then, there is a return to calm, which I find to be the miracle.  After her freakouts and her phone calls and her occasional flights to the parking lots of malls to overeat and feel sorry for herself, she rights herself and goes on with her normal life.

This is Annie with the load off.

One of my favorite songs to sing is “The Weight,” Aretha Franklin style.  While my bandmates and I argue about whether it’s Fannie or Annie who is being invited to unburden herself — and I am pretty sure that Brendan is right, it is “Fannie” —  I will from now on sing it Annie, and think of how successful my patron saint of crazy came to be in letting her own self off the hook.

Take a load off, Annie.

Take a load for Free.

Take a load off, Annie,

And you put the weight right on me.

Now everybody knows that “The Weight” actually is about Jesus, a big old metaphor for putting the load of one’s troubles on Him.  This is not actually something I have been able to do in my own little life, but this is exactly what Anne Lamott does, every goshdarn day.  Soon after getting sober, she joined a decidedly unfancy Church and became a super-dedicated Christian.  Given the weight of her addiction, her big fat brain, her various forms of emotional damage, and that endless OCD-sort of craving, she seems to have needed it.

The miracle of this book, for me, is that she can be so successful in growing up without losing her intense moods, her cranky introversion, and her fundamental honesty, which is the central quality of her writing.  She doesn’t trade her wickedness for fake Christian perfection.

Sometimes she veers in that direction.  “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans,” she writes, but that is sort of something a Hallmark card might say.

But then she goes further than that, and comes to understand her own mind as her worst enemy.  She jokes about how the people around her (and she herself) are occasionally oppressed by “the ubiquitous litany of [her] good ideas.”  “It’s funny how no one wants my always-excellent advice,” she writes, and faux-complains, “the people did not want me to organize them.”

And then, instead of sticking with her first impulse— to control and to shape the world, to boss it around and set her own version into place — she seeks to release herself.    When her friend Bonnie informs her, “This exact mess is the very place where God is,” she settles in and lets the mess spread out a bit.  She recognizes that too much meddling gets between her grandchildren’s parents and their own “higher power,” because she is not it.  She leaves her children to their own growth.

I love this Annie — A grandmother at 55, and her weight utterly given over.

I love it not because it makes for the very best possible story, but rather because it holds out for me the possibility that someday, if I keep working at it, I too can become wise.  Someday I will learn to get out of my own way, and my children’s.  I will admit that I hope it does not take a teenage pregnancy in my house to teach me this lesson.  I hope, instead, that just reading a little Annie now and again can nudge me in the right direction.

GailNHB April 2, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Love me some Anne Lamott. I look forward to reading this newest book.

I like the way you describe her, her life, her writing, and how she has been an influence on you as a mom and as a woman. She has been a great example to me of how to be “a fumblingly serious Christian” who “needs God like some people need beer, chocolate, exercise or SSRIs.” That is sooooooooo me – except I need God, sugar, my journal, AND exercise in some combination every single day.

Thank you for yet another stirring piece of writing. I can’t wait to read your book!!!

Lindsey April 3, 2012 at 6:52 am

I read Anne’s latest book and has a similar reaction – somehow it felt slighter, but also I ended it feeling happy. Your words help me understand why. Incidentally, I loved the India part of the book. xo

Laurie April 3, 2012 at 11:41 am

I have not read any of Annie Lamott’s work but after this, and hearing her interviewed on NPR recently, I am adding her books to my list of ‘must reads’. Great piece Launa – I look forward to reading more of your stuff.

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