Anne Lamott Is Cheesy, And That's Okay: A Re-Evaluation

Anne Lamott is a rare breed — a liberal Christian who writes publicly about faith, politics, and family. Her writing about spirituality has bothered me in the past — but a new interview may have won me over.

The Q&A with Salon's Sarah Hepola, apropos of Lamott's new novel Imperfect Birds, prompted me to examine all the conflicting feelings I've had about Lamott over the years. I've come to expect high religion from her, but most of the interview is as earthly as a meatball. Except for when Hepola mentions Lamott's classic Bird By Bird, the widely beloved memoir-cum-writing-manual, and asks, "Why birds?" Lamott responds,

I said in "Grace (Eventually)" that if birds were the only evidence that there is another side, or a deeper, bigger reality, birds and bird song would be enough proof for me. We are so bound, and they are so free — and yet so vulnerable. The little ones you might crush, and the big ones might peck your eyes out or dive-bomb you.

This answer pretty much sums up the contradictions inherent in Lamott. She'd probably admit it — her writing usually seems pretty self-aware — but she can be really cheesy. Much as I loved Bird By Bird — not least because my junior high school English teacher gave it to me to encourage my writing — I've often chafed at sentences like "we are so bound, and they are so free." A lot of this, when I come to think of it, is prejudice on my part. I'm not a religious person, and as much as I'm refreshed to hear a Christian like Lamott criticize America's religious right, I also have a knee-jerk negative response to most contemporary discussions of spirituality. As it turns out, this response also affects my memory.

When I've thought of Anne Lamott in the past few years, I've thought of how much I liked Bird By Bird as a teenager, and how schmaltzy I found one of Lamott's essays about her own teenager Sam, a piece called "Diamond Heart." The essay is actually a book excerpt published in Salon in 2005, and the part I remember offending me goes like this:

I asked a friend of mine who practices a spiritual path called Diamond Heart to explain the name recently, because I instinctively know that Sam and I both have, or are, diamond hearts. My friend said our hearts are like diamonds because they have the capacity to express divine light, which is love; we are not only portals for this love, but are actually made of it. She says we are made of light, our hearts faceted and shining, and I absolutely believe this, to a point: Where I disagree is when she says we are beings of light wrapped in bodies that only seem dense and ponderous, but are actually made of atoms and molecules, with infinite space and light in between them. It must be easy for her to believe this, as she is thin, and does not have children. But I can meet her halfway: I think we are diamond hearts, wrapped in meatballs.

I had recalled the part about "a spiritual path called Diamond Heart," but not the part where Lamott brings it back down to earth, down to meat, as she does with the birds that can dive-bomb or peck your eyes out. The truth is that much of Lamott's audience is probably like me — liberal, raised by liberals, with a certain unexamined suspicion not just of religion but of any attempt to explain life in extra-rational terms. And acknowledging the meatiness and mundanity of life even as one celebrates its transcendence is probably a pretty smart way to reach us. My generation has its own kind of sentimentality (cf. the '00s rise of tweeness as an artistic pose), but the many lefty agnostics I grew up with also have a tendency to focus on the world's ugliness and amorality, and Lamott knows how to hit us where we live.

Except for the birds bit, most of her Salon interview is likably grounded. She talks about hating Sarah Palin, about buying new underwear, and about accepting her nineteen-year-old son's news that he was going to be a father. On grandmotherhood, she says, "One thing that is great about it is that you get to pour your love into this amazing little being, really finally get in touch with unconditional love — and then the kid leaves at the end of the day. It's so cool." Ultimately, a lot of Lamott's writing is not about the infinite, but about finite — yet infinitely confusing — human relationships. That she should sometimes infuse this writing with her own or her friends' spirituality is understandable — that she can do so while still acknowledging the crappiest and least transcendent aspects of life is admirable. I'm not going to start following the Diamond Heart path any time soon, but if I had to get advice from Anne Lamott or that other famous mother of a young parent, I know who I'd choose.

Anne Lamott's Parental Guidance [Salon]