By the time we had the chance to meet yesterday, Anne Lamott had already helped me raise my children. Her book "Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year" got me through my own son's infancy, clinging as I did to Lamott's admissions of her own failures, to her implied reassurance that it would all turn out okay in spite of them, and to her pithy summations of parenting like "we compare our insides to others' outsides" and find ourselves wanting.
Anne Lamott also helped me become a writer. Another of her books, "Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life," is the most trenchant, dead-on description of the creative process that you will ever read, and, among other lessons learned, it's the reason I have a one-inch picture frame on my desk at home to remind me of her advice to focus only on that amount of copy at a time. That writing advice -- in fact all of Lamott's writing advice -- is also really parenting wisdom, starting with the title of "Bird by Bird." It comes from a moment when her brother was sitting at the dining-room table decades ago, surrounded by stacks of books for a report about birds. He was overwhelmed and drowning. So much to do. So far to the completed product. "Son," she quotes her dad as saying, "just take it bird by bird."
I have said that to my children often over the years, not about research papers, but about life. It has become shorthand at our house for break the problem down and tackle it in manageable pieces. I say it to myself even more frequently. No one moment, or one decision, or one mistake is an overwhelming whole, I remind myself. It is just one bird.
When Lamott stopped by The Huffington Post yesterday for muffins, coffee, and conversation, she brought her son, Sam, whose own first year is chronicled in "Operating Instructions" and whose latest journey is the subject of her newest book, "Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son's First Son." (Sam, who is quite the writer himself, wrote this one with her.) If reading her books feels like talking to her, then talking to her, it turns out, feels a lot like reading her books. During her conversation with about two dozen HuffPost staffers she covered most of the territory that fills her pages -- motherhood, writing, faith, love, loss and doubt. It isn't happenstance, she said, that these intertwine in her writing -- and that readers like me find parenting lessons in her writing "manual" -- because they are all braided up in her life as well.
"Every single thing I know about one thing is true for the other," she said. "I can talk about writing, or faith, or motherhood. All of them are messy, beautiful, screwed up."
In writing and in motherhood, she said, "Some days are too long. You don't wait for inspiration -- you just do it." In writing and in motherhood, "You have be willing not to be very good at something. When you learn to dance, you start with step, step, quick step. You don't start with the tango. You don't learn guitar to botch 'Farmer in the Dell,' but that's what comes first."
And so it went, an hour of Anne capturing wisdom in words. She started off by adding another amulet to my arsenal of birds and picture frames -- the acronym WAIT. It stands for "Why Am I Talking?" she said, and is her reminder (which does not always work) to keep her mouth shut and let her young adult son live his own life.
She used it (or tried to) when Sam first called four years ago and said he was going to be a father. He was 19-years-old and Amy, his girlfriend, was 20.
"He called with the news and didn't sound ecstatic," she said. "I said 'Oh, Sam' but I was practicing WAIT."
In a moment of great self-restraint (Lamott tends to be, shall we say, a worrier...) she held her tongue. "I knew he and Amy had this ton of overwhelming frightening stuff in their meadow," she said. "The last thing they needed is the maternal unit showing up in that meadow with her backpack of neuroses and spreading its contents everywhere saying 'Take care of ME.'"
Which doens't mean she didn't fret, loudly and often. "I talked about it with my friends, and to THEM I said, 'OH MY GOD. My life is RUINED." she said. But when talking to Sam and Amy she did her best imitation of a calm mother and said things like, "Well, well, now, we really do need to talk about health insurance."
That's hard won wisdom from a seasoned mother, right? One who is so much better-prepared for this child raising stuff the second time around?
"Nah," she says. Being a mother really isn't preparation for being a grandmother, and the same screw-up-and-try-again approach applies to both. She held on too tightly when Jax first arrived, interfered too much, took his parents' attempts at extrication too personally ... "You learn to be a decent grandmother," she says, "by being a (crappy) grandmother."
But her foundational message -- that you have to forgive yourself your missteps and move on -- works for grandparenthood as it does for parenthood and writing and love and faith, she said.
You can't do any of these without "screwing up," she said. "You just have to say it and move on. 'I screwed up. I shouldn't have done that.' Then dust it off. Like Jax, when he falls. Stand up. Dust it off. If you need the hug, then you need the hug, but then you dust it off and keep going."
Bird by bird by bird.
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