Anne Lamott extols the power of simple prayer

11/16/2012 12:00 AM

11/15/2012 10:12 AM

Anne Lamott’s latest book is named for her favorite essential prayers for everyday life: Help Thanks Wow.

The fourth essential prayer — “Help me not be such an ass” — didn’t make the cut but is important all the same, because we’re human and cranky and fallible and, well, let’s just say it the way Lamott does in this neat little book: “Most of us are more like the townspeople of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery than we are like the Dalai Lama.”

But Lamott, who appears Sunday at Miami Book Fair International, also believes that a simple prayer — nothing fancy, just a word or two — can go a long way toward healing us.

“I’ve been annoyed with God for not having a magic wand and not tapping us on the head so we can see the world through magical glasses,” she says wryly. “We get glimmers of grace or illumination, and then real life catches up with us.

“These last few weeks, it was impossible not to be fixated on the election and not hold your breath and have multiple, gigantic opinions. ‘This is the end of the world!’ ‘This is a setback!’ ‘Oh, this is wonderful!’ We keep starting over.”

Lamott, 58, has been writing about faith for years now in such warm, thoughtful collections as Grace (Eventually) and Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. (She’s also author of several novels, including the Rosie trilogy, about a dysfunctional but loving family in Northern California, where she lives.)

She’s written two memoirs, Operating Instructions, about her son Sam’s first year, and Some Assembly Required, about Sam’s unexpected fatherhood at 19 and her conflicting feelings about becoming a grandmother to baby Jax. Her 1994 nonfiction classic, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing and Life, is still required reading in writing programs around the country.

“I’ve taught for a long time, over 20 years, and throughout that time it stays consistent: generations of students always quote Anne Lamott in critical work and in workshops,” says author Connie May Fowler, who lives in St. Augustine and teaches at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. “I think it’s because they feel they know her. She’s very accessible, and her writing is very intimate. She opens herself up, and that’s what the students are responding to. I have students who carry Bird By Bird around like it’s a Bible.”

Known for her generous, liberal Christianity, her adoration of her dogs and cats (“They’re like my collective husband,” she says ) and her fierce guarding of her many years of sobriety, Lamott is easy for a reader to love. In Help Thanks Wow (Riverhead, $17.95) she writes frankly and humorously about prayer, welcoming moments of grace and recognizing the importance of taking time to appreciate joy or beauty wherever you find it. (“The only good news is that we somehow ended up on the one planet where someone thought up Monopoly and Oreos,” she writes.)

“We’re obsessed with our busyness, and when we’re surprised by grace or sweetness in the world, it’s wonderful,” she says. “It’s the reset button. And I do like writing about the experience.”

Lamott didn’t come from a religious family — “[M]y parents, who were too hip and intellectual to pray, worshipped mostly mentally ill junkies,” she writes, referring to their admiration for Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. But she felt a spiritual pull.

“I always had this thing inside of me, a spiritual interest and awareness,” she says. “I remember being a small child and feeling like praying. I had friends who were religious, and it always seemed true. I think my advantage was I didn’t have to resist anything. My parents weren’t shoving anything down my throat.”

Not long ago, Lamott joined forces with her friend author Mark Childress to raise $75,000 for President Obama’s campaign on Facebook (to which she is addicted, she confesses, just as she is addicted to Twitter — “I way prefer them to writing and having a deadline.”). But she recognizes the dangers of praying to get precisely what we want, whether it’s a candidate’s victory or a peaceful death for a beloved pet (she got one but not the other).

“I think it just doesn’t work,” she says. “Anything is fine to ask for. But it’s like when children ask to have sour apple rings for breakfast instead of yogurt and granola. They know if they got it they’d be happy and never ask for anything else ever again. But in an hour and a half or three weeks, something else is going to come up.

“When Sam was about 5 or 6, there was this Power Rangers thing, Megazord, he wanted. … He didn’t wheedle and whine, but he was in despair like I was about the election, desperate that Romney not win and that the tea party not win. I finally got it for him, and he loved it for like 24 hours. Maybe a day and a half. Little by little it wore off, and he needed a new hit, a new fix. … It’s just so human.”

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