One of my favorite exercises I ever had to do in any of my writing classes was to write an essay about a creative nonfiction writer in the style of that writer. I chose Truman Capote for that course, but I was tempted to try Anne Lamott. After going to meet her at a signing last week, I thought it would be fun to write about the event in a style that perhaps, ever so slightly, echoes her style. Consider this an experiment and a tribute to a writer I love.
The minute I heard that Anne and Sam Lamott were coming to Politics and Prose as part of the tour for their memoir Some Assembly Required, I marked my calendar. I don’t go to a lot of book signings and author events, but Anne Lamott is special. I first started reading her books when I was struggling with how to be a Christian and stay true to myself. Her memoirs showed me that it’s possible to be outspoken, foul-mouthed, angry, smart, forthright, and a full-on Jesus freak. I may not be all of those things myself, but the very idea that I could was transformative. If she can be who she is, I can be who I am. This is good news—the gospel.
In typical Teresa fashion, however, when the night came, I didn’t feel like going. Given the choice, I’d almost always rather stay home in my sweatpants. My preference for couch-lounging with the cat was especially strong that night because I’d started going to physical therapy a few days earlier to convince my kneecaps to stay on track so I could climb the stairs to my apartment without pain. The exercises I was doing were leaving me sore and cranky. But I know myself well enough to know that as irritating as driving across DC seemed at the time I would be even more irritated with myself if I passed up this opportunity.
Knowing that I’d be driving across DC in rush hour, I gave myself twice the time I usually need to get to the bookstore. This would have been more than enough had every single DC bus not decided that I was the person they needed to cut in front of. After the third bus in a single block, I started to wonder what I was doing wrong. Is it because I drive a Prius? Do they assume that I’m supportive of eco-friendly travel and would be thrilled to let all buses in front of me, even if it means sitting through the same light multiple times because only one bus can get through? A bus and a car could have gotten through that light, you know. Yes, I support mass transit on principle, but in practice, I support getting to my destination on time.
I just kept reminding myself that I don’t have to do this every day, which makes me lucky. And I turned up my iPod and let the sound of Iron and Wine calm me down.
When I got to the bookstore, there was no parking in the lot, and no parking on the hill just behind the store, unless I wanted to park at the very bottom of the hill and walk up, which was not going to happen, thanks to my cruel physical therapist’s good work at incapacitating me so I’d eventually feel better.
Fighting the temptation to turn around and drive back home, I finally found a place to park and got into the store just before the event started. The place was completely packed, and boiling hot because of course we would be having unseasonably warm temperatures when I’m going to a crowded event. And no one is going to turn on the air conditioner in March. But fine. I’m here. I’ll stay. I can’t actually see Anne and Sam unless I stand on my tip-toes and lean over to the right, which I can’t do for long with my sore calves. But I can listen, so I do.
In person, Anne Lamott was every bit as funny and wise as I’d expected. She is the woman in her memoirs. She tends to ramble and pepper her speech with great one-liners. She had just discovered the joys of Twitter (“I don’t get Facebook, but I love me some Twitter” were her exact words, I believe.) She talked a bit about how she uses writing to bring order to the things that happen to her and around her. And she told us that, in her writing, she tries to get at the universal experiences and feelings we all share. One of the things I love about Anne Lamott is that even though my experiences are entirely different from hers, our feelings about life are so often the same, which is, I think, the universality that she taps into.
After her talk, the eleventy-zillion people who were there got in line for the signing. And good news for me—I happened to be standing in the aisle that the line winds through, which means I was already in line, unlike the suckers who got there in time to get a seat. (To confess, I chose to stand in this part of the store because I remembered that when I came to see Mary Doria Russell, the line went in this direction. I am strategically selfish like that.)
The line was long and moved slowly, even though Anne and Sam were not personalizing the books. One of my fellow fans and I decided that she wouldn’t be able to resist chatting with each person, which was exasperating when the line was slowly moving, but was exactly what we wanted when it was our turn.
When I was almost to the table, a group of four friends were using their turn to take pictures, give Sam their leftover pizza from dinner, and be generally distracting, which, let’s be honest, I would have been too if I had been there with a group of friends, multiple cameras, and some pizza. In the flurry of activity, Anne understandably got distracted while signing one book and almost forgot to sign her last name, but Sam noticed and reminded her to finish. With all the messy celebration and good humor, it felt like a moment from an Anne Lamott essay. Except that I wanted my turn now dammit, and that felt like an emotion from one of her essays.
When my turn came, Anne was still watching the four friends and talking to Sam, so she distractedly signed my treasured copy of Traveling Mercies and handed it back to me and the new copy of Some Assembly Required and hands it over to Sam. When she looked at me, I made a point of telling her how much Traveling Mercies meant to me at a time when I was struggling with my faith, and she reached out and said, “Oh, well, let me sign it.” I smiled and told her she had, and she said, “Then, I’ll sign it again.” Now the OCD in me was screaming, “NO! Two signatures is weird!” but I handed the book over to her, and as she signed, “With ♥” she asked if I’ve found a good community and I told her that yes, I have, and she said, “I’m so glad” as she handed the book back, and I realized that this second signature would contain the memory of what I really wanted—a moment of connection.
In her talk, Anne said that connection is what we often look for in reading. We want to know that others have felt what we feel. And it’s a comfort too to know that Jesus has been here and felt what we feel and knows firsthand what a mess this world can be. With her irreverence and humor and her earthy and enthusiastic love of Jesus, Anne Lamott reminds me of the importance of seeing Jesus in this world, of seeing Jesus in other people, and always knowing that God has been through this nonsense too. We’re all in this together, and God is right here with us. It’s a blessing to have this tangible reminder.
In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright suggests that instead of taking on spiritual practices during Lent, we should take on a special practice during the Easter season, in celebration of the new resurrected life we’re promised. I think this Easter would be a very good time to reread Traveling Mercies. The thought puts me in a celebratory mood already.