Anne Lamott’s “Imperfect Birds”
Kate Moos, managing producer
"Everything I write is for spiritual reasons—to help people keep their spirits up, to help transform misery into laughter or healing, to help people remember the truth of their spiritual identities."
Anne Lamott appeared on SOF years ago, in 2003, in a show we titled "The Meaning of Faith." I had been fan of hers for some time prior, but I was especially captivated at that time with her personal story of redemption and recovery, and her life as a thoroughly 21st-century writer.
So, when her new fiction, Imperfect Birds, showed up in the mail, the volume floated to the top of the stack of books on my desk — and I took it home and read it. And then I read the two novels that preceded this one and decided to put some questions to her about this very moving story of recovery and human frailty.
What follows are her replies that took place via email:
I appreciate you taking the time to discuss your new book, Imperfect Birds, with me. In this story you bring us back into the lives of the Fergusons—a story begun in your book Rosie (1983) and continued in Crooked Little Heart (1997). So, the first thing I want to ask is, what is it about this story that makes it necessary to write it in intervals of 13 years or so? Is that because it’s a hard story? A sad one?
Novels take a lot more stamina and time—at least two and half years—I much prefer self-contained stories and essays that I can begin and finish in a week. Novels are years worth of needing to keep the plates spinning in the air; hardly ever really knowing what you are doing, and lurching forward slowly, backtracking, flailing, falling, losing hope and confidence, getting back up, lurching onward.
The Fergusons, especially in this last book, really embody the idea that alcoholism is a family disease. (I am a recovering alcoholic and the daughter of a recovering alcoholic, so I am grateful for this portrayal.) Elizabeth, the mother of the teenager Rosie, is a middle-aged recovering alcoholic whom I found sympathetic at the same time her helplessness made me want to wring her neck. Of the primary characters in the novel, she seemed most incomplete, in a way, most damaged, even though it’s her daughter who is in trouble. Will she stop living her incomplete life through Rosie?
I don’t see her the same way you do. She has really been a late bloomer, not even getting to the full expression of grief following her beloved husband’s death, until Rosie is 13—8 years or so later.
I see her small actions towards truth and tough decisions as heroic, because emotional expression does not come easily to her, as it does to James and Rae. Truth does not come easily to most people in this culture—a good appearance is the dominating value. Rae and James’s adoration of her is one of the things that most helps me experience what a profound, if introverted, person she is—how brilliant and rare, to be able to have a husband and best friend of this quality.
Your portrayal of Rosie’s drug use seems to me to describe a sort of 21st century story about addiction. In an older sort of story about teenage drug use, the kid would hook up with a bad crowd, her grades would crash, and she would start stealing cars or running away from home. In this case, the teenage junkie is extremely high functioning—a model student who volunteers at church. But she’s morally bankrupt, a schemer and liar and manipulator. I think this change in the nature of story reflects a change out there in the world. Do you agree? What has changed?
The pressure on these modern kids is infinitely most intense than it was on me—I’ve heard it said by high school teachers whose kids are almost cracking up under the strain to get into the great colleges, that exceptionalism is the new normal.
At the same time, there’s a kind of terrible feeling of inevitability and doom that begins to unfold. Rosie clearly has fallen into this vortex and there is only one outcome possible. For me, that really hits when it becomes clear that she and her boyfriend Finn are taking a horse tranquilizer with complete whimsy, as if they were tasting chocolates. Her tone is one of complete innocence. Is this the function of denial? Sin? Is she even a moral agent at this point?
She’s a late bloomer too. She didn’t develop until fourteen and fifteen, whereas her best friend in junior high is a luscious voluptuous vanilla blondie who gets pregnant at fourteen. So partly I think she has a lot of catching up to do—she spent the bulk of her youth on the tennis court, which injured her in many ways, and now she wants to experience being desired and larger than life, wild, intense, young, loved, and normal, part of a whole.
In Crooked Little Heart, it seems like Rosie’s moral education really begins, or anyway gets interesting, when she is becoming a competitive tennis player, and she starts cheating, and then she keeps that secret, and we begin to actually feel the spiritual corrosion that secret causes. She starts lying to herself first, about whether she is even cheating. As I read it I actually started thinking about my own reflexive dishonesty and the perils of that. Is there a connection between this cheating and keeping it a secret and where Rosie ends up at the end of Imperfect Birds?
I don’t think so. Almost all of us are pretty secretive, and maybe especially those who had a genetic predisposition to substance abuse, as Rosie does. Then you hear that we are only as sick as our secrets, and it takes a little while to truly get that, and to make the decision to try living a different way.
In the last year or so, I was aware of five people in my orbit who died of alcoholism. I wasn’t close to any of them—they were family members of co-workers or uncles of friends. The people who died were in their 50s (roughly my age) and they just finally wore out. One of them died with full-blown cirrhosis but others were just-you know, their heart gave out, or they fell off a roof, or just came to the end active drunks inevitably come to. It’s such a staggering thing to see people come to that end. Why do you think some of us manage to get better and some of us don’t?
I literally have no idea. Grace?
Elizabeth’s good friend Rae at one point counsels her that she needs to accept the truth, and that even if it is bitter and frightening and difficult, it is beautiful and she should find a way to be grateful for it. That seems like hard advice. Does Elizabeth come to terms with her hard truth? Doesn’t it take her a long time?
It does take her a long time. It has always taken me a long time, too—as a parent, as a daughter, as a sister. You just keep trying not to see what is going on in front of you—especially if you were raised among alcoholics, it’s one of the first things you learn: that what seems to be going on between your parents can actually be explained so that they do not seem crazy or out of control. So you develop a habit of not seeing what you’re seeing—of colluding with the lie machine. And this is a very hard thing to turn around, which is why I said earlier that Elizabeth’s growth, while slow, is so heroic.
I hope this isn’t too personal. You’ve spoken in interviews and in your other, nonfiction writing, about your own experience of addiction, and how your religious awakening happened. I remember, in the interview you did with Speaking of Faith several years ago, you told a story about coming down from drugs on a houseboat, and that—I believe the story was—Jesus was there with you. And I seem to remember that for a while, you said, Jesus was nipping at your heels like a little kitten. Not like Deus Omnipotens, but like a playful lovely kitten. That image is so unexpected and has always sort of stayed with me. Do you still have the experience of Jesus, or of grace, like that? Do you see these novels as religious or spiritual stories?
I have a very unsophisticated relationship with Jesus. I do not have one interesting theological thought in my head. I just feel him, and did from the beginning: I feel the intense love he has for us, especially when we are suffering, and I feel his delight in me, which is something most of us are starved for most of our lives, and I feel his unwavering companionship. I feel his purity and goodness, and I see it wherever people are suffering, and others show up to help. I see Christ Crucified in the world’s abject poverty and despair and unfairness, how horrible horrible horrible it is for most people, and when I see this, I desperately want to be there beside him, helping in any way I can. Maybe just bringing a glass of water, or sitting there breathing with him, like you sit with someone in child birth.
Everything I write is for spiritual reasons—to help people keep their spirits up, to help transform misery into laughter or healing, to help people remember the truth of their spiritual identities. I try to shine a little light in the world, to be the light for whomever is there, whether at the market, or in a bookstore. It is my spiritual calling. I do a very meager job most of time, but this is my intention.
(photo: James Hall)
Cycles of Life and Daffodils
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
"Last year at this time, I passed this field of daffodils every day going to visit my aunt who was dying. As the spring progressed and the first shoots of the daffodils appeared, I saw the changes each day riding by as the buds appeared. The flowers bloomed and then, of course, finished their amazing show and vanished back into the earth. She died soon after.
The field once again turned to a level green field of grass. This year I’ve been taking the same daily ride, but this time for my uncle. The daffodils were back this year in all their glory. The cycle and our journey continues.”
We received this touching photo and reflection from Ruth Govatos in Wilmington, Delaware in response to our call-out for pictures on how you are spiritually nourished by gardening and growing things from the soil. Share your photos with us.
Thinking of Anne Lamott As We Create a New Show
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
"Sober people say that religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell, and spirituality is for people who’ve been there. And I think faith, for me, is a word that speaks much more to a belief and an interest in matters that are spiritual rather than the institution and creeds that you associate with religion."
We’ve been thinking about Anne Lamott a lot lately as we continue to build a dialogue about what it means to be spiritual but not necessarily religious. (We’re looking to make a full-fledged production out of your responses, so add your reflections here — and please share this link with others.)
Krista interviewed the writer back in 2003, during the earliest days of Speaking of Faith. Now for the first time, we’re making Krista’s unedited interview available. It’s a wonderful listen chock full of audio gems (stream in player above or download).
Lamott described herself to Krista as a spiritual “woman of faith” who disdains dogma and “the great evil” of religious fundamentalism. She calls out fundamentalism as a terrifying peril of our time: “a conviction of being right and of feeling that we are chosen and that other people can be denied a seat at the banquet table.”
We’ve noticed some conversation threads emerging on our blog and Facebook page that illuminate and expand upon Lamott’s ideas about being faithful, spiritual, but not religious. As Elissa Elliot commented on our Facebook thread:
“‘Religious’ (to many people) implies abuse, hypocrisy, and shortsightedness…Perhaps the world ‘spiritual’ is a more ‘open’ and ‘embracing’ term and that’s why more people are using it. It implies that although I believe certain things, I’m not set in my ways, and I realize that God may work in ways ‘outside the box I’ve been raised in.’ AND I want to hear what the next person is saying…”
But if “spiritual but not religious” feels more expansive and embracing to some, others experience it as isolating.
"We can’t just be spiritual individuals all by ourselves. The tension is the tension between the important need to form communities within which to share our spiritual journeys and the impulse to organize these communities efficiently to expand and grow." — Brant Lee
"Individualism is highly prized in our culture, but when it comes to matters of faith, community is very important."
In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott has a passage that squarely hits on this need for a spiritual community:
"Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians—people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful. I saw something once from The Jewish Theological Seminary that said, ‘A human life is like a single letter of the alphabet. It can be meaningless. Or it can be a part of a great meaning.’"
We’d like to know how are you finding and creating communities that enrich you spiritually? Share your story with us.
(photo of Anne Lamott by mdesive/Flickr)
A First Rite of Passage
Colleen Scheck, producer
This is a personal entry, in the spirit of the "Your Voices, Your Stories" door we open to you each week. I hope my experience will prompt you to share your own stories and reflections.
I’m a melting pot of religious identity: a lapsed Catholic, sometimes agnostic theist, envious of Buddhists, awed naturalist, live-by-the-golden-rule spiritual seeker. I worry that this may be off-putting, but maybe that’s my guilt as a “lapsed” Catholic.
So, this is the identity I brought to the baptism preparation class my husband and I attended a couple months ago at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church. I also brought with me the wisdom of Rabbi Sandy Sasso from our spirituality of parenting show:
"Don’t let the people who gave you a bad impression of your religious tradition be the only ones to define it. You, too, are a part of that tradition, and you’re not just a descendant, you are also an ancestor, and you helped to create the future of that tradition. So give it a second chance."
We were one of five couples who listened to the priest talk about the evolving theology of limbo, the intended role of godparents, and the significance of baptism. One “couple” was actually a Hispanic mother and her five-year-old daughter, whose baptism was required for her to enter St. Rose’s school.
“What is a sacrament?” the priest asked our class. ”A direct touchpoint with God,” I offered, and then unexpectedly choked up. At that moment, I intensely felt how important it was to me to have my son baptized, to give him a spiritual rite of passage in the tradition I was raised in, to allow him to be touched by God. My emotion surprised me, given the frequently confused spiritual state of mind of my own life. I’m still pondering what it means.
That deep emotion surfaced again a few Sundays ago during Owen’s baptism ceremony. It was held after Mass, and was an intimate gathering of the family and friends of the four souls being baptized: two young babies, my squirmy 10-month old, and the wide-eyed Hispanic girl. We formed a circle around the baptismal font and witnessed each pouring of consecrated water, anointing with oil, lighting of candle, and donning of white bib — all the while offering prayers and blessing to children, parents, and godparents. Owen was curious and innocent. I felt the beauty, gravity, comfort, and joy that comes with ritual.
I wrote a card to Owen that day, trying to articulate why I wanted him to have this experience. I mentioned hoping he’ll embrace a spiritual life, whatever it may be or however he defines it, alongside an intellectual, physical, and emotional life. Knowing he would not read it for many years, I wrote that for me spirituality is about recognizing that there is something greater than ourselves, that life is precious and interconnected — things I want him to recognize in his own way one day.
What I focus on as a result of this ritual, a ritual I was a bit conflicted about, is the place of religious traditions in helping us learn how to care for ourselves and others, and in instructing us how to reflect and how to act. In the card, I told my just-baptized son that I hoped this would be the first of many rites of passage for him that will shape his identity and commemorate his growth.
I asked Trent if I could write about this partly so I can keep evaluating the meaning of this experience and not lose it in the busyness of motherhood and work. But I also wanted to write in order to hear about your experiences of approaching and undergoing rites of passage, religious or otherwise, and how you navigated them for yourself or others?
(photo: Brian Brown)
Between Order and Mystery
Andy Dayton, associate web producer
Nature really is chaotic. The real myth is the one that the Natural History Museum promotes in its collections and in its family trees and genealogies. The real myth is the myth of order.
Interestingly enough, earlier this week one of our podcast listeners alerted us to a New York Times article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon that adds another perspective to the naming and ordering of nature. While Prosek’s words lament a loss of nature’s magic to the rigid confines of Linnaean classification (named after the “father of taxonomy” Carl Linnaeus), Yoon’s essay mourns the loss of popular interest in taxonomy:
In Linnaeus’s day, it was a matter of aristocratic pride to have a wonderful and wonderfully curated collection of wild organisms, both dead and alive. Darwin (who gained fame first as the world’s foremost barnacle taxonomist) might have expected any dinner-party conversation to turn taxonomic, after an afternoon of beetle-hunting or wildflower study. Most of us claim and enjoy no such expertise.
And, she relates this loss to a divestment from the natural world:
We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening.
I find it interesting that these two perspectives on taxonomy can seem completely at odds, while at the same time come from the same sense of wonder in the face of the nature. Perhaps these two viewpoints evoke a need for balance: without some system of naming we’re limited in our ability to understand the natural world, but pin everything down too neatly and we lose the life that makes nature so attractive and — as Prosek might say — mystical.
(image: A plate depicting the characters used in Linnaeus’ classification system, from Order from Chaos: Linnaeus Disposes.)
Robert Coles: “Children Consider Human Conflict”
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
As promised in our show with Robert Coles, "The Inner Lives of Children," we are finally able to bring you the video of Robert Coles’ Lowell Lecture at Harvard Extension School in April 2008. We had a few technical difficulties and permissions procedures to clear, but we think it’s worth the hour. In particular, he talks about his first encounter with Ruby Bridges in New Orleans, and his subsequent conversations with her.
If you’d like to take the video on the road, you can download the file from Harvard’s presence on iTunes U.