True Believer 

Anne Lamott on the best-laid plans.

Call it a miracle, a "small" miracle, to quote author Anne Lamott. This is what happened:

One morning, Lamott started to believe in the wisdom of George W. Bush -- that maybe he was smarter than she thought. That maybe he had a real grasp of classified intelligence. That maybe he was well above her or anybody's understanding. It was on this same morning, the author adds, that Lamott, a practicing Presbyterian, started to doubt the existence of God.

"This was it," she writes in the final essay of her splendid new collection of essays, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (Riverhead Books/Penguin). "This earth, this country, here, now, was all there was. This was where all life happened, the up and the down and the plus and the minus and the world of choices and consequences. Not an easy place, but a place full of significance." Prayer? What of it? God, the very idea, was preposterous.

Since the presidential election of 2000, Lamott had been living the "daily depression of life under the Bush White House." She'd spent the better part of four years watching "the end of the world in Super SloMo." The rise of the right wing in America was making her "mentally ill," and she'd been good and angry about the war in Iraq. Worse, she was "soul-sick" to discover that the grim situation in Iraq was making her secretly glad.

But here's the miracle of the story: Compared to the ludicrousness of believing in Bush, Lamott soon realized, belief in God was "almost rational." So she spiritually started from scratch, addressing a simple prayer to the "someone or something" out there that "hears." "Hi!" is how she began.

The word worked wonders. She got out of her house in northern California, joined a peace march that day in San Francisco, and said "no to power" and "hello to camaraderie." Call it part of Lamott's Plan B.

"Plan A was getting Bush out the White House," Lamott recently said by phone from Washington, D.C., where she was promoting her new book. "You have a vision, but it doesn't turn out. Plan B is where you end up -- whether it's in politics or within your family. You think you're supposed to know what you're doing, where you're going, but I keep thinking of the old joke: If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans. Well, it's taken a while for me to get over Bush's reelection. I was pretty devastated. But I don't feel quite as shrill as before."

Maybe it's partly because her energies had this focus: preparing Plan B for publication. In 24 essays (many lifted from her writings for Salon.com), this is the Anne Lamott readers have come to know and to love: a woman (now past 50 and unapologetically in less than tip-top physical shape), an unmarried mom (with a teenage son she one moment could kill, the next moment embrace), and a Christian (minus any and all sanctimoniousness). Consider:

On the author's difficulties with her late mother Nikki, a combination Hermione Gingold and the Hindu goddess Kali: "I prayed for my heart to soften, to forgive her, and love her for what she did give me -- life, great values, a lot of tennis lessons, and the best she could do. Unfortunately, the best she could do was terrible ... ."

On the picture of a full-figured Virgin Mary that Lamott keeps on a gold chain: "She doesn't look like she has missed many meals ... . She looks like Myrna Loy." Or is she a "demure Bette Midler"?

On comments to Lamott's friend Sue, at death's door with cancer: "[V]arious people at her church kept saying that [Sue] could be happy -- she was going home to be with Jesus. This is the type of thing that gives Christians a bad name. This, and the Inquisition."

On the beauty of the Southwestern landscape: "I like the desert for short periods of time, from inside a car, with the windows rolled up and the doors locked."

On a nervous first meeting between Lamott's son Sam and Sam's half-brother: "Sam would stay with [his father] at his apartment, and I had booked a hotel with room service and cable TV, as I had not completely lost my mind."

On her late father's one lesson in life: "Don't be an asshole."

And on Christ's disciples after the Crucifixion, gathered in the Upper Room on Good Friday, drinking, smoking, and, Lamott imagines, thinking: "We are so fucked."

Sacrilege to say? No, according to the author, a self-described "very private person" despite the widespread popularity of her essays, fiction, and guide to the writing life, Bird by Bird.

"I refuse to have arguments about religion. I'm small-minded that way, and I have a radar about what I'm comfortable sharing. Intimate details about me, my family, or my boyfriend -- I'm not going to write about them. But grace or the small moments of breakthrough ... I struggle to find words about something so outside of the language. I struggle with all of my writing. The work I did for Salon ... it was done under benevolent pressure: every two weeks; 1,500 words. It would take me a whole week. But I don't think about the audience. I don't think of the critics either. I think of the story: Would it be something that would help me if I came upon it?"

It's a question David Talbot, editor in chief of Salon.com, has given Lamott the freedom to ask. And why not? According to her book's opening acknowledgements, Lamott's "just about the only overtly spiritual person [Talbot] can stand." Newsweek too? It voted Lamott's online column among the Best of the Web, which makes Plan B our gain. Thank Anne Lamott who wrote it, and thank God for small miracles.

Anne Lamott will read from and sign copies of Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith in the sanctuary of the Church of the Holy Communion (4645 Walnut Grove Rd.) on Wednesday, March 23rd, at 7 p.m. Only books purchased the night of the reading will be signed. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call the church at 767-6987 or Burke's Book Store at 278-7484.

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