Anne Lamott was able to drag Stephen Simpson out of a spiritual ditch when he needed it most. And then came the quadruplets.
I have a dysfunctional relationship with author Anne Lamott. She’s like that girlfriend you can never bring yourself to break up with, even though she drives you insane.
In terms of Christian spirituality, it doesn’t get much better for me than Anne Lamott. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith is one of my favorite books. It dragged me out of a spiritual ditch the first time I read it. I don’t agree with Annie on everything, but her big themes are exactly what I need to hear over and over: love, patience, kindness, and grace. She talks a lot about having patience for people who annoy you. An asshole like me needs to be bombarded with that kind of stuff. Her message puts me back on the right path and makes me want to give her a hug. Her imagery and metaphors, however, make me want to egg her car and toilet paper her house.
Anne Lamott writes in the language of nesting. She writes about finding God in plants, wind, rain, forest animals, and bracelets made out of yarn. Every one of her books mentions a dozen flowers by name. She talks about experiencing God while sitting on a lawn, eating and singing and doing crafts. She describes God meeting us in silence, breathing, and the ordinary life of community.
Such pastoral imagery reveals important aspects of God, but half the time I’m reading I want to shout, “Oh yeah, Annie? What about the part of me that wants to blow stuff up – not to hurt anybody but just because it looks cool when things explode? What about the part of me that wants to blast off in a rocket or mock death as a Nascar driver? What does it mean that I can’t get enough of video games and earth-shaking rock ‘n’ roll? What do I do with my longing to run and sweat and move? If I can only find God in stillness, nature, and deep breathing, I’m in big trouble. I crave action, excitement, and risks. Even though I abhor war, I’ve watched Band of Brothers seven times because some damaged part of my brain is pissed off that I didn’t fight in World War II. And I hate doing crafts, especially ones with yarn.
Annie describes a spiritual tranquility that eludes me. It’s something that sits at the kitchen table and focuses on precious, pretty details. It creates a sense of permanence and stillness. It also happens that this sort of diligent focus earns rewards at school, work, and church, places where I’ve always felt restless and sometimes bored. As a result, I spent most of my life thinking something was wrong with me.
Let’s take reading for example. Reading “literature” is like pushing a rock up a hill for me. Reading Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Joyce, Garcia Lorca, Henry James, George Eliot, Faulkner and other canonized authors felt like hard labor. I would always be glad that I’d read the book and cherished what I gained from it, but reading it was like pounding away on a Stairmaster without my iPod.
In his book, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality Don Miller, a great writer and a big Anne Lamott fan, says that every young male intellectual has had a crush on Emily Dickison. Ugh. When I read that, I became terrified that I wasn’t intellectual! This confused me for years because, even though I slog through “literature,” I devour anything by Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, T.S. Eliot, Isaac Asimov, C.S. Lewis, Pat Conroy, Thomas Harris, and dozens of authors whose writing contains motion. I’ve always considered these books art, with depth, big ideas, beauty, and pain. It’s just that more shit hits the fan in these books, and it hits faster. People don’t just muse and whisper and eat and exchange looks pregnant with meaning – there’s a sense of adventure. Does that they’re not art? Why can’t I find God in these books instead of one that takes thousands of words to describe eating a madeleine cookie?
As much as I love reading Anne Lamott’s books, they’ve always made me feel shallow and impatient compared to the people who must “really” be spiritual. Her stuff made me think I might lack a true connection with God. I realized that this was something I’d felt most of my life. Our revered institutions – the academy, the family, the corporation, and even the notoriously patriarchal church – prize feminine energy. They reward focused, quiet, concentration over action and motion. As a result, I once felt stupid and ashamed because I preferred stimulation to contemplation. I sometimes wondered if I lacked the patience to be a good Christian.
Fortunately, I corrected these shameful feelings by my late twenties. Through studying psychology and the literature of the Christian men’s movement, I began to see value in my masculine energy. Yes, all people– men and women – need feminine energy. God has a powerful feminine nature that patriarchal systems often fear to acknowledge, but I needed to feel good about my masculine energy. I needed to discover how God could use it. I began to realize that my restless longing for motion and change is a creative force. My ability to make bold decisions, think on my feet, and tackle big problems are blessings that I once regarded as curses. It turns out my restlessness solves problems and helps people more often than it gets me into trouble.
I spent six or seven years celebrating my abundance of masculine energy, but the party stopped in May, 2005, when our quadruplets, three girls and a boy, came home from the hospital. While my wife was pregnant, we referred to the stress of caring for quadruplets as the “good problems” that would come if all the babies survived the dangerous pregnancy. I never knew that those “good problems” would require so much of what I lacked: attention to detail, concentration, constant cautiousness, and the unforgiving repetition of washing baby bottles, making formula, and changing thousands of diapers. My world of motion and stimulation hit brick wall covered by soft cloth decorated with pretty, precious things. I had no choice but to start searching for God in the quiet, tiny bits of ordinary of life.
Somewhere in a serene field speckled with snapdragons, lilacs, and lilies, Anne Lamott was laughing her ass off.
photo: by bald_eagles_nest flickr