Anne Lamott sneaks up on you, every time she writes. She makes it seem so easy, and she makes you laugh your way through the most serious trials and traumas, yet, as they are usually her own or her friends’ trials and traumas, she only invites you to be amused at yourself and your friends and acquaintances as well, without attempting to force it on you. She gets your attention from the very first, with her whimsical and tantalizing titles. Bird by Bird. Travelling Mercies. Help Thanks Wow. Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year. This last mentioned book is what I want to comment upon today.
No one who thinks in categories is likely to remain unsurprised by Anne Lamott. She writes from the heart for everyone. She identifies herself as a Christian believer, yet many Christian believers who are of the narrow-minded or even reserved variety would be shocked by the things she says about belief, and about the challenges of life and friendship. She’s a writer’s writer, but one who pooh-poohs many of the accustomed bywords of the profession, and instead captains her own canoe, and tries to teach others to do the same. She is preternaturally wise about people, yet doesn’t mind looking clueless or foolish in the pursuit of raising a child, which for everyone not trained in childcare is a new experience at least the first time, sometimes with every child. And she has been a recovering alcoholic and drug-user, yet without mouthing all of the expected pieties or begging for pity or understanding: she understands herself, and is willing to share the experience of new realizations and inspirations on this and other life challenges. And she is a member of a warm and loving community of friends, to whom she spends a lot of time in Operating Instructions giving due credit for all the things they did for her and helped her with during her pregnancy and her son’s first year. You’d think that all of these things would be a large order for one book to fill, but Lamott manages it all. Indeed, my question to myself wasn’t why I was reading her when I myself have never had a child, live without a large community of friends, have never been an alcoholic or a drug-user, am not a strict Christian believer, and etc.,: my question to myself was why I hadn’t run across her work and read it before now, for the sheer overwhelming qualities of humanity and fellow-feeling in it. Indeed, Lamott herself becomes a new friend through her books, and I only regret that if I manage to read all her works, assuming I can find all the titles and copies, that I won’t be able to hear her wonderful voice resounding through any new works. But then, it’ll be time to re-read the ones I’ve already read!
There is a price to be paid by all of us for being alive, and that is the one of someday having to die as well, whether from old age, or infirmity, or sheer cussedness. In the last third or so of the book about her son, Lamott begins to extend her subject, beyond that of her son and his acceptance into her community of friends and fellow church-goers, who all worship him and seem to adore her, and value her as she should be valued (except for a very few, whose defection she recounts with perplexity and consternation, but also with humor); in the last section of the book, she also documents with love, affection, and sorrow, extreme sorrow, the gradual passing of her friend Pammy (Pamela Murray). Pammy was the most frequent, perhaps, of all Lamott’s friends to be around and to help, and they continued by Lamott’s record to support each other to the very time of Pammy’s death, in 1992 at the age of 37.
How like Lamott to center something with the subtitle A Journal of My Son’s First Year on her son, yet instead of making the book wholly about him and his development, (with a certain amount of misdirection) to place him in the center of what would be his community as he grew up. One appreciates the absence of the gaa-gaa goo-goo kind of baby silliness, and instead the distinct degree to which Lamott admits her lack of expertise at this parent game, and takes the reader along as she herself grows up too, in a sense. And one of the pieces of growing up is to accept and to mourn the loss of a friend, whose cancer took her away from Lamott and her family and friends in an untimely fashion. A life begun, and a life ended, and Anne Lamott negotiating her way in between with her masterly and humane craft.
I have no choice but to read now, as soon as I can locate a copy, Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son, to continue to follow this small and yet extended-by-friends family through the story of Jax, Anne Lamott’s son Sam’s first son, who came along when Sam was nineteen. That is all I currently know of the book, other than that it was first published in 2012, but I’m hoping to know a lot more. I also hope that you too will follow Lamott through her books about writing, faith, family, and also her fiction books, which are perhaps undeservedly lesser known because so many people (like me) are in love with her essayistic voice. I know that I urge readers to follow certain writers with the “if you read nothing else this year” line so popular with reviewers, so I’ll just say, “Verbum satis” (A word to the wise is sufficient). Don’t miss the opportunity to make a new writer friend.