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Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith


There is not much truth being told in the world. There never was. This has proven to be a major disappointment to some of us. When I was a child, I thought grown-ups and teachers knew the truth, because they told me they did. It took years for me to discover that the first step in finding out the truth is to begin unlearning almost everything adults had taught me, and to start doing all the things they’d told me not to do. Their main pitch was that achievement equaled happiness, when all you had to do was study rock stars, or movie stars, or them, to see that they were mostly miserable. They were all running around in mazes like everyone else.

On the other hand, sometimes you encountered people who’d stopped playing everyone else’s game, who seemed to be semi-happy, and with it, who said, in so many words, I saw the cheese, I lived on it for years, and it wasn’t worth it. It was plain old Safeway Swiss.

At twenty-one, I still believed that if you could only get to see sunrise at Stonehenge, or full moon at the Taj Mahal, you would be nabbed by truth. And then you would be well, and able to relax and feel fully alive. But I actually knew a few true things: I had figured out that truth and freedom were pretty much the same. And that almost everyone was struggling to wake up, to be loved, and not feel so afraid all the time. That’s what the cars, degrees, booze, and drugs were about.

By the time I had dropped out of college at nineteen, I’d acquired a basic and wildly ecumenical faith cobbled together from shards I’d gathered in reading various wisdom traditions—Native American, Hindu, feminist, Buddhist, even Christian, in a heart-stopping, kick-starting encounter with Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. My best teachers were mess, failure, death, mistakes, and the people I hated, including myself.

Drugs often helped. I knew that if you had the eyes to see, there was beauty everywhere, even when nature was barren or sloppy, and not just when God had tarted things up for the spring. Often the people with the deepest insight looked as ordinary as any old alcoholic or serial killer. They might look like Siddhartha or Ananda Mai Ma, but odds were they resembled your bipolar cousin Ruth, or Mr. Burns from The Simpsons. Also, they could be extremely annoying. I already understood that on this side of eternity, we were not going to get over much or see very clearly, and that often what we saw was happening only in our minds: “Things are not as they seem. Nor are they otherwise.” Who said this? Rumi? Or Illya Kuryakin? No idea.

Thirty years ago, I was living in Bolinas, California, an exquisite enclave of hippies, artists, and organic farmers on the coast. I had a wonderful poet boyfriend named Ty. We were crazy about each other, even though we were not exclusive—which is to say that I loved him more than he loved me. But he was gentle and funny, and had great stories about his years in India, Tibet, Taos, and Salt Lake City. It had never occurred to me before Ty that you might wake up spiritually as easily in Utah as in Sri Lanka. He was the first to give me books from which I learned that God was an equal opportunity employer—that it was possible to experience the divine anywhere you were, anywhere you could see the sun and moon rise or set, or burn through the fog.

Bolinas was a great place for ritual and celebrations—it was nearly as exotic as India, if you thought about it, but without all those dying animals in the streets and people defecating in the holy waters, which doesn’t really work for me at all. We had perfectly good bodily mess right here where I lived. We had burnouts in the streets, nudes on the beach, our own drunken sex lives. Feral cats, three-legged dogs, and horses stood side by side. During our countless festivals and parades, people in cowboy boots and homemade holiday garlands and leis drank beer, and vivid chalk murals decorated the walls downtown—an exuberant aesthetic that celebrated both ordinary community life and tribal-stomp mysticism, but on the Pacific Coast instead of the Ganges. There were altars and candles and veils, people in costume and exotic clothing redolent of human spirit and dreams—not to mention foods cooking in the heat, all that delicious joy, with rot waiting in the wings.

And then Ty fell head over heels in love with another woman, who had so many unfair advantages over me. For instance, she was not a falling-down drunk. She was womanly and celestial. She had money and perfect earth-mother clothes of flowing silk, batiked and embroidered, and soft blond hair, whereas I was poor and looked like a Gypsy wagon with fuzzy curls. She was a gifted artist, soft-spoken and gentle, with an elegant house on the beach, all candles, altars, incense. She even had a beautiful name: Romy.

She did not love Ty as much as he loved her, or as much as I loved him, which stacked the deck in her favor. In the competition between us, she won for caring less. After Ty and I had been sleeping together for six months or so, he left me for her.

I had already come through three heartbreaks, which caused long physical withdrawals, as bad as trying to get off cigarettes, and through two bad acid trips, and everyone convinced me that I would come through this bad patch, too. Luckily I was still drinking. And I had a perfect best friend, whom I saw every day and who drank the way I did.

I learned mostly from drugs and great books: I was a lifelong reading girl.

I already believed that there was something in me that could not be touched or destroyed that you could call the soul. And I was part of two wings of the community—the smartest, funniest alcoholics, and the seekers, who had designed lives based on spiritual values and tried to live up to them. I loved equally reading the great literature of the world and getting wasted. I thought we were here to have spiritual awakenings. When it came to books or drugs, I’d take anything that was offered, and I considered the next day’s drug hangover worth the expanded sense of reality. I was sick many mornings, but curious, like Dorothy opening her eyes in Oz: Is there still gravity? Can we breathe the air? Yes. Then might as well go look around.

I was crushed for a while after Ty dumped me, but it ¬really is easier to experience spiritual connection when your life is in the process of coming apart. When things break up and fences fall over, desperation and powerlessness slink in, which turns out to be good: humility and sweetness often arrive in your garden not long after. And I had a pharmacist friend in San Francisco who gave me Valium. The tears were finally helpful, for what they washed away and revealed, which is to say my deep longing for a kind partner, and my bad judgment. Seeds sank into the ground, and who could even guess what might grow? Hey! We all like surprises, don’t we?

My best friend and my father and younger brother saw me through; they helped keep the patient as comfortable as could be expected. I finally figured out that I had a choice: I could suffer a great deal, or not, or for a long time. Or I could have the combo platter: suffer, breathe, pray, play, cry, and try to help people. There was meaning in pain; it taught you how to survive with a modicum of grace when you did not get what you wanted. In addition, I got a couple of office-temp boyfriends, and best of all, lost a lot of weight.

By June 1975, life had gotten easier. We were in the delicious bland limbo of Gerald Ford. Our generation had changed the world: the worst U.S. president in history had been forced to resign, the war in Vietnam had at last ended, and the women’s movement was here to stay. On one particular day, I was bird-watching at the Bolinas lagoon with my father, and at a certain hour he left to make my younger brother dinner down the road. Not long after he left, Ty stepped through the willows and alders onto the bank where I sat.

We hugged and kissed, and I buried myself in his smells. We smoked a joint and huddled in the chill of dusk. He gave me his sweater. We marveled at the ducks and egrets on the calm waters, white pelicans flying overhead. He told me that Romy and he were still together, but she wanted to sleep with other men. Although he loved her, he spent only a couple of nights a week at her house. I thought this over. “Oh,” I said. “Which nights?” He laughed.

He was so handsome, sweet, and so much fun. He asked if I wanted to come to his house for enchiladas. Of course I did. We ate them with a lot of hot sauce and cold Tecate, and went to bed. We could not get enough of each other. Eventually he fell asleep, and I turned on the reading light. The book beside his bed was The Only Dance There Is, which was based in part on lectures on spirituality that Ram Dass had given at the Menninger Foundation. A few people had told me how brilliant and funny it was, and I dove in with cheerful anticipation.

I got to the title page, where there was a calligraphed inscription from Romy, with curlicue hearts, lotuses, and—I am not making this up—a drawing of Krishna.

Hmph, I thought, and put it aside. I found Trout Fishing in America and reread parts. In the morning when I awoke, Ty was at the foot of his bed, in cutoff blue jeans, tying his running shoes. “Where are you going?” I asked.

He said he was going for a long run on the ridge. But then? He paused. It was a bad pause. He was going to an outdoor luncheon at Romy’s. I tried to act nonchalant, and did not start crying until he left. Then I lay on my side, naked, and sobbed for so long that I was heaving for breath, for every man who hadn’t loved me enough. I showered, brushed my teeth, took some aspirin, found some Visine in his medicine chest, dressed in my tie-dyed tank top and underpants, and crawled back into bed. When Ty returned, he was clearly worried to see me still there. I said I had been throwing up and had a fever.

He looked as if he might be about to burp up a newborn chick.

He got me a cup of tea with honey, toast with honey, yogurt with honey, like I was John the Baptist with the flu. He said he had to take a shower and then head over to Romy’s. I said it was totally okay, but I was just too sick to get up. He felt my forehead with the back of his hand, like a father. I was hot from crying and grief and mental illness. He went to shower.

When he came back, I clutched my stomach as if I was about to heave, and he got me a pot to vomit in. This is my kind of date. I lay back in bed, barely able to keep my eyes open.

I pretended to sleep while he got dressed.

“Annie?” he said gently. I opened my eyes, waiting for the boot. “You can stay here as long as you need. But I won’t be back until tomorrow.”

“Okay,” I said in a tiny voice. I tried to look as sick as I could, in the most touching possible way, like the little match girl in tie-dye. He made me more tea and sat with me. I cried when I heard his car drive off, but I knew he would be back later in the day. How could you leave skinny, touching, sick, adorable me? I’ll show you, I thought: I won’t leave.

Then, because I didn’t know what else to do, I started to read the book Romy had given him. This was part maso¬chism, part revenge, and part curiosity. And I was soon mesmerized. There was nothing particularly new about consciousness and God and love in the book, but it was the first time I’d heard this information given in such a hilarious, wise, human, neurotic voice. Ram Dass was a vulnerable mess—just like me. I felt the way I had felt reading A Wrinkle in Time at eight, The Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Virginia Woolf, Vonnegut later on, whenever a book had offered me a box with treasure inside. It was what flooded out in the quiet, intimate relationship between me and the writer; the treasure of me.

The physical excitement in me was profound. People say about experiences like this that “the veil lifted,” but for me, for the whole day, it was as if an itchy burlap sack had come off my head. Molecules shifted, as in the shimmer before a migraine, the ocular shift at the edges, where I felt as if I might be having a stroke. Ram Dass’s book was about his stuckness, his sick ego, his life, his heart, the Buddha, Krishna, his guru—even Jesus, which was truly radical. I felt as though I were snorkeling one concentric circle outside where I had been before.

I read all afternoon in bed, peaceful as a cat. There was only me, the book, the space I was reading in; hands, and the whisper of pages, eyes, and a place to sprawl. The wrinkly flower of my heart was opening in slow motion. I felt one with everybody. Well, except Romy. I felt about one and a half with her, even as I knew deep inside that she was part of the reason that I would never be the same. And I wasn’t.

This was the day I pecked a hole out of the cocoon and saw the sky of ingredients that would constitute my spiritual path. This was the day I knew the ingredients of the spiritual that would serve me—love, poetry, prayer, meditation, community. I knew that sex could be as sacred as taking care of the poor. I knew that no one comes holier than anyone else, that nowhere is better than anywhere else. I knew that the resurrection of the mind was possible. I knew that no matter how absurd and ironic it was, acknowledging death and the finite was what gave you life and presence. You might as well make it good. Nature, family, children, cadavers, birth, rivers in which we pee and bathe, splash and flirt and float memorial candles—in these you would find holiness.

I started praying, not the usual old prayer of “God, I am such a loser,” but new ones—“Hi” and “Thank you.” I viscerally got that God was everywhere; poor old God, just waiting for you to notice, and enter your life like a track coach for slow people. Kathleen Norris said, many years later, “Prayer is not asking for what you think you want, but asking to be changed in ways you can’t imagine,” and I got the message that day. People were going to come into my life. Many of them would leave. Most of the people in my family would roll their eyes and hope that soon I’d go back to the manic and tranquilizing mall of American life.

Ty still hadn’t come back by the time I finished reading the book at seven, so I went to the main road in Bolinas to hitchhike home. I ended up at the bar. It would be ten more years before I stopped drinking, twenty years ago ¬today. But I remember standing there at dusk with my thumb out, euphoric and exhausted as if I’d been at the beach all day, then taken a long, hot shower to wash off all the sand. 

Excerpted from GRACE (EVENTUALLY): Thoughts on Faith © Copyright 2011 by Anne Lamott. Reprinted with permission by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved.

Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith
by by Anne Lamott

  • Genres: Essays
  • hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead
  • ISBN-10: 1594489424
  • ISBN-13: 9781594489426