Everything You Need to Know, You Can Learn in an Anne Lamott Book 

There’s a popular phrase that goes something like, “everything you need to know you’ve learned in kindergarten.”  Play nice, wash your hands, share your toys, things like that. But, the deeper stuff, like relationships, forgiveness, love, faith and the like, you learn by reading an Anne Lamott book. Her latest release, Somehow, came out earlier this year, and it’s a collection of essays, ten in all, that read like a wise elder lady looking back at the years, sharing both the dark days when grave mistakes were made, and the lighter days with the loves of her life: her son; grandson; and, Neal, her husband of six years. She likes to say she married him the same month she received Medicare, at the time, she was 65 and he 63. 

Throughout the reading of these heartfelt essays, I found myself dog-earing pages with particularly poignant phrases that gave me goosebumps, or some hilarious wise-guy comment that had me giggling. Right now, there’s about 20 of them, 20 pages with the corners turned down so I can browse through the book in the years ahead and retrieve these word gems. 

What do I mean?

Well, right out the gate, literally on page one of Lamott’s opening essay, Overture, she begins with a lovely sentiment about how everything that is “true and beautiful can be experienced in any ten-minute walk.”  Examples she shares include good-hearted people, a spray of wildflowers, a snoring old dog, or cats, and adds “when they are in the right mood.”  That is typical Lamott, speaking simple truth, and then ending with a bit of honest humor: maybe you’re not inspired by flowers or nice people, but you might when passing a friendly cat or a snoring dog. I mean, who can walk past a snoring dog and not go, “aw.”   That page is dog-eared.  

In the essay entitled, Shelter, she beats herself up for possibly ruining a friendship after a harsh conversation. Haven’t we all been there, ruminating over how we came across too strong, too mouthy with a co-worker, family member, and then wear ourselves out trying to find ways to patch things up.  Lamott writes how she “binged” on “dark Scandinavian thrillers” that she finds “strangely calming.”  She took to writing it out, opening up self-esteem issues about how rotten she is that linger from when she was an awkward teen. By this internal process of “reveal it to heal it,” she finds her way back, and notes that there was some relief in that she wasn’t as bad as those crooks killing people in Norway. There’s a happy ending as the two mend fences and are back on the same side again.  I have two dog-eared pages in that one.

And it’s not like Lamott just began writing a series of books sharing hard-earned wisdom without telling us in her earlier works how she got here. Over the course of her writing career, she has revealed a lot, while also showing us how she works at the healing. In Operating Instructions:  A Journal of My Son’s First Year (1993), which is nothing like one of those “what to expect books” for new parents. This one, both touching and hilarious, is about the year she found herself pregnant, single and struggling to get and stay sober. She’d already had a lifetime of addictions: alcohol, cocaine, and meth, but during that year, she was taken under the wing of the women of a local church which she calls her miracle. Since then, Lamott has a keen eye for the miracles that surround her, and through her stories, she reminds us that they are around us, too. 

In Minus Tide, there are a handful of dog-eared pages. This essay had me chuckling at the get-go. The first line: “Sometimes it all just sucks, as Jesus says somewhere in the Gospels (although off the top of my head, I can’t recall chapter and verse.”) This essay is about the memorabilia we store in boxes in the attic, and the highs and lows those memories can bring when uncovered again after being forgotten.  Lamott’s attic is a scary place with spiders and silverfish chewing on the glue that holds together high school yearbooks. Lamott had to go up the even scarier pull-down ladder to get to these boxes while preparing to move into a new house. She found the odds and ends of family keepsakes, and her son’s childhood art — the stuff that “parents are constitutionally unable to throw away.” Coming across random items, she wonders why she kept this or that, but in the end, she closed the boxes, keeping it all, reminders of a long-ago time that wasn’t so bad to go back to. But with a new attic that will cost too much to fix up, she must find a new place to store them. So, she and Neal ordered one of those handy-dandy sheds from the local Home Depot. They visit the shed often to look for seasonal items, and will see memorabilia from their wedding day, like their written vows. Isn’t that what most of us do? Go through our attic, wonder why we keep all this stuff, then close the lid and go back to what we are doing.  And, sometimes, like Lamott, we find a new place to store it all.

There’s a sweet passage in the final essay, General Instructions, and in fact there are so many I may have to dog-ear the whole dang thing. She teaches Sunday school to youngsters and shares short stories that have big meaning. This is one, it’s about a sparrow and a horse. “A war horse,” she writes, “comes upon a sparrow lying on its back in the street with its feet straight up in the air.” 

“What on earth are you doing?” the horse sneers. 

“I’m trying to help hold back the darkness,” the sparrow replies.  

“That’s absurd,” the horse says. “You barely weigh an ounce.”  

“One does what one can,” says the sparrow. 

The kids look puzzled, Lamott writes, and then they ask her if it’s true. 

Yup, lots of dog-ears. 

Anne Lamott is the author of twenty books, including the New York Times bestsellers Help, Thanks, WowDusk, Night, DawnTraveling Mercies; and Bird by Bird, as well as seven novels. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California with her family. Website.

Top photo: Anne Lamont, credit Sam Lamott

About MJ Hanley-Goff (175 Articles)
MJ Hanley-Goff has been contributing to Woman Around Town since its inception in 2009. She began her career at Newsday in the early 90’s and has continued writing professionally for other New York publications like the Times Herald-Record, Orange Magazine, and Hudson Valley magazine. Former editor of Hudson Valley Parent magazine, she also contributed stories to AAA’s Car & Travel, and Tri-County Woman. After completing her novel and a self-help book, she created MJWRITES, INC. to offer writing workshops and book coaching to first time authors, and also college essay writing help to students. MJ has recently made St. Augustine, Florida her home base, and is thrilled and honored to continue to write for WAT and the amazing adventures it offers. Despite the new zip code, MJ will continue to keep a pulse on New York events, but will continue to focus on the creative thinkers, doers, and artists wherever they are.