Last night I finished a brief but very wise, warm, funny book by Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: the Three Essential Prayers. I’d highly recommend it for people of any faith (or none — she points out that even atheists say these same three instinctual things at the appropriate moments). Lamott is so endearing because she is so free to admit her own imperfection, and she isn’t afraid to write what other people are probably thinking but don’t have the guts to admit.
If you’re thinking, “yeah, yeah, prayer is for other (i.e. religious) people, why would I want to read this book?” as many people I know might be, I’ll let Ms. Lamott speak to the simple but revelatory truth of her book, since I can’t hope to say it as well as she does:
“We are too often distracted by the need to burnish our surfaces, to look good so that other people won’t know what screwed-up messes we, or our mate or kids or finances, are. But if you gently help yourself back to the present moment, you see how life keeps stumbling along and how you may actually find your way through another ordinary or impossible day. Details are being revealed, and they will take you out of yourself, which is heaven, and you will have a story to tell, which is salvation that again and again saves us, the way Jesus saves some people, or the way sobriety does. Stories to tell or hear — either way it’s medicine. The Word.”
See what I mean? There’s a way into this conversation Lamott invites us to join, no matter your beliefs. And she is right, prayer is just another narrative form, a version of telling and listening, and heaven is taking ourselves out of ourselves and waking up to the present moment. Amen, sister. It won’t prevent us from burnishing our surfaces all the time, but any time it does, and we are more ourselves, and more able to see that being ourselves is not only ok but better for us and for the world, there’s hope.
My neighbor Priscilla recently passed away. She was a really interesting lady, who reminded me in some ways of my grandmother. She was 88 and had cancer, so her death was not unexpected. Even so she is mourned, and I’m always a little unsure what to say to someone who has just lost a loved one. Her daughter kindly invited me over to pick out some books — Priscilla was very well read and we always talked about what we were each reading. I thought “help” as I tried to make small talk with her daughter and bungled it, “thanks” because I was remembering the times Priscilla had invited me herself to “see what you’d like, I have so many books!” And “wow” when I chose some and could hear her voice in my head, saying what I heard her say often, “I’ve been lucky really.”
I came home with a book she’d recommended to me several times, The Peabody Sisters, as well as short story collections by Wallace Stegner (and also his excellent Crossing to Safety) and Muriel Spark, as well as Deborah Mitford’s memoir Wait for Me!, a biography of Margaret Wise Brown, William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows, and Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth. The bookconscious theory of the interconnectedness of reading was at work: Stegner was someone I’d only just read recently and loved, and I was glad to hear Priscilla had been re-reading him lately. Ditto Spark, who I only just read for the first time last fall. My dad recently discovered Margaret Drabble and recommended her books. My daughter is studying American history and we’ve just hit the period when the Peabody sisters lived. I’ve had They Came Like Swallows on my to-read list for a long time.
So help thanks wow, Priscilla.