Saturday, July 05, 2008

Anne Lamott

I don't buy books any more. Since my income is about a quarter of what it was when I was a programmer, and since I'm a fundraiser for library programs, I get books from the library instead. This is good in some ways. Books were threatening to inundate the house; by most people's standards, I suppose they already had. I was starting to recognize the impossibility of continuing another twenty years with the same habits of book acquisition. And different books seem to ambush me in the library than ambushed me at Powell's, and the change is refreshing. Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys. That was a lot of fun. Six Frigates, that naval history that brought me through the heat o' the sun recently. (The library's quite rich in readable military history: I suspect I'm not the only person in Portland who survives depression by reading about people trying to kill each other. It's a weird solution, since in real life I find people trying to kill each other a bit of a downer, but it seems to be otherwise in books about the past. & when it comes to coping with depression, I have no pride and no political correctness.)

Anyway -- Six Frigates had made me curious about James Madison. I have pictures, or at least caricatures, in my head for most of the Founding Fathers, but none for Madison. It's a lacuna I've been meaning to fill for twenty or thirty years. So I wandered through the library's biography stacks, surfing the letter 'M'. None of the Madison biographies seemed quite the thing, so I wandered on, or rather backwards, into the 'L's The name "Anne Lamott" caught my eye. I'd heard the name before; I was sure of it. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. I liked the title, so I picked it up.

I don't know why it was in the biography section, since it was a collection of personal essays. But it started off with the ham essay, and so that oriented me. A couple years ago, everybody seemed to be trying to get me to read this ham essay. Something to do with winning a ham and giving it away.

I'm not proud of this, but there's nothing like having everybody tell me I should read something to make me lay back my ears, bare my teeth, and dig in my heels. Then a couple years later, when I'm sure nobody's looking any more, I'll surreptitiously pick the thing up and read a page or two. If I don't like it, I don't have to hurt anyone's feelings. If I do like it, no one gets to tell me "I told you so."

Lamott delighted me and irritated me. She's sweet and perceptive and realistic, and she writes about what she knows. She gives the impression of complete honesty, complete disclosure (I may not be as impressed by this as some people are, since I know I give the same impression.) The irritating thing is that she breathes my air a little. She occupies precisely the same writing-space that I do, writing about personal faith from the standpoint of personal doubt, and it's a little spooky how many essayistic habits we have in common. The slow, sidling return to the original image with a soupcon of added meaning. The candid exposure of doubt. The inclusion of the ludicrous and ugly in descriptions of beauty. No wonder people recommended her to me: if I were a better writer, I'd be Lamott's male Buddhist twin.

Two things impressed me most about the book. One is, how grateful I am to have landed in a religious tradition without a creator. It looks absolutely exhausting, trying to square the reality of the world with the doctrine that an absolutely good person made it on purpose. I don't think I could stick it out. It's obviously a valuable teaching -- it takes you new places, way out of your comfort zone -- but compared to that, I find, say, holding George Bush to be my spiritual teacher fairly easy. (In Buddhism, you know, you are supposed to be grateful to anyone who angers you, and consider them your teacher, because they're showing you the aversions you're not willing to release.)

The other thing that impressed me in this book, was how Lamott brought her spiritual life into her family, and in particular how she dragged her son to church every other Sunday, how she made sure he knew it was the center of her life. It made me think of how little of my inmost life I share with my family. I tell you all much more about it than I tell them. We took Tori and Alan to the "Sunday school" at KCC, every once in a while, but it never really took. If anything I suspect that I put Tori off Buddhism by talking about the illusory nature of the self. Teenagers are already anxious enough about the substantiality of their selves; they don't need any extra doubts about it. And Alan has absorbed his grandfather's easy scorn of religion as obsolete superstition: he thinks the whole thing is absurd.

I know some people at KCC who are distressed because they don't share their faith and practice with their partners, who look at me and Martha with some envy. I think they're imagining an intimacy and congruency that aren't really there. It's not easy to share this sort of thing with your lover, even when you're supposedly doing the same practices and acknowledging the same teachers. You never both feel quite the same about a teacher at the same time: generally one of you is inspired while the other is irritated. One of you wants to go to lots of teachings precisely when the other wants never to hear another mealy-mouthed Buddhist sermon in his life. In some ways it might be rather nice not to share a faith, to have it be acknowledged as a private space you go into.

But I wonder if I've given up too easily, if I shouldn't work a little harder to let my family know what these central experiences of communion and liberation mean to me. It doesn't really seem like the people closest to me should be the last to know.

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