One exquisite winter Sunday afternoon late in my high school career I went to my English teacher’s house.
When she let me in, I found one of the “cool” guys from school standing uncomfortably in the entryway. Chronically on the brink of academic mayhem, he could’ve easily worn an “I’m here because I’m in trouble” sign around his neck. However, he was well bred about his predicament, a stray dog threatened but too polite to snarl.
Naturally, he and I did not share a social orbit at school. But given the circumstances it hardly mattered. He latched on like a barnacle. At the time, I was amused and a smidge flattered, but realistically these emotions were misplaced: the guy was a survivalist, and hanging with me was better than talking to the two middle-aged female English teachers also in the house. One of whom was surely responsible for his presence.
You see, this was a powwow before the fours of us carpooled to hear Anne Lamott speak. I got the impression attending the lecture was part of a redemption spell for the guy, mandated to ward off failing an assignment, a class, or life in general.
Whatever the precise cause, he’d given his pot vaporizer a rest for a few hours, while I’d excused myself from a babysitting gig in order to see an adored writer in person. I’m sure we had some things in common, a healthy respect for Dave Matthews Band, maybe, and a secret tolerance for Britney Spears, but we didn’t discover them that day. Or on any subsequent day.
As we mini-vanned toward the venue, Coolio and I exchanged shallow pleasantries and snippets from our respective weekends. His were no doubt whitewashed in deference to our wholesome driver and passenger, while mine were painted black in an effort to not seem nerdy. Like I stood a chance.
While we lied, NPR played in the background. The smooth-voiced hosts performed their weekend story reading segment. In the front seats, the English teachers were just short of peeing themselves with glee—What luck! Anne Lamott and a real-time fiction reading in the same afternoon!
In a filled-to-the-gills church, we smashed in, thigh to thigh. The pews, while not comfy, felt good in an elemental way. Like a cradle. I could’ve stayed all night.
Her talk was brilliant. And while I’m sure I took countless notes, only one coherent vignette is still lodged in my mind.
Side note: I remember everything, so recalling a little tale told on a random afternoon in 2001 is child’s play. What’s impressive is the statement’s lasting truth.
In one of her stories, Lamott described a city slicker asking for directions. Lost in a middle-of-nowhere location, he was desperate to reach his destination before nightfall. The wizened local he’d begged for help pointed and said, “Down that road there will be a sign. And then another sign. And another.”
Although I dutifully transcribed, part of my brain sniped, Well isn’t that quaint.
However, time and again over the years I’ve noticed I only get lost, in any sense, when I don’t go far enough. Whether it’s physically, while navigating crooked streets in Budapest or misplaced in my mind obsessing over a problem, the trouble begins if I quit before the next sign.
Doubt, panic and the belief I’ve overdone it are the first three dominos. They begin the cascade to actual problems later on.
You should probably keep going. Don’t give up too soon. Only double back when you’re sure you’ve exhausted all possibilities. We’re guided, if we look.
Luckily, Lamott recently gave a TED talk, meaning we can all hear her speak without a carpool or social posturing.
And here are my favorite quotes.
1. “There is almost nothing outside of you that will help in any kind of lasting way, unless you're waiting for an organ. You can't buy, achieve or date serenity and peace of mind. This is the most horrible truth, and I so resent it. But it's an inside job…”
Compulsive shopping, eating, connecting on LinkedIn with exes (True story! I’m the connectee) won’t help. What you want from others is always, exhaustively, precisely what you need from yourself. Other people just highlight it.
2. “…Radical self-care is quantum, and it radiates out from you into the atmosphere like a little fresh air. It's a huge gift to the world.”
3. “Earth is forgiveness school. It begins with forgiving yourself.”
4. “Grace is spiritual WD-40, or water wings…the movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and heals our world. To summon grace, say, "Help," and then buckle up. Grace finds you exactly where you are, but it doesn't leave you where it found you.”
Thank you, Anne Lamott. Here’s to solid advice for the next 16 years.