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19 December 2014

Improbable grace

In her own unique way, novelist, writer and commentator Anne Lamott tells stories of her faith as it relates to her real life. Having experienced alcoholism and depression, her self-deprecating humour regales readers with how she has dealt with the troubles of life and single-motherhood all the while keeping her eyes fixed on God. Lamott is the author of the New York Times bestseller Help, Thanks,Wow. We caught up with her just before her appearance at last year's Greenbelt festival… 

idea: The world is pretty awful; wars, horrific crimes, planes being shot down from the sky. As we look at the world around us, how can we find hope?
Anne Lamott: I love what Mr Rogers' [The Mister Rogers Parenting Book] mother told him when he was young, and a tragedy was unfolding: "Look to the helpers." Over and over again, in global and private circumstances, I see the most incredible love and mercy demonstrated in the people who respond to loss and tragedy – it so comforts my heart, and makes me shake my head with amazement and hope.

You write in Stitches that hope is a conversation. What did you mean by that?
I mean that we need to be both open, receptive, and sharing from a deep place within us. So it's a flow, a circuit. We need to participate, give forth our best stuff, and take in from others. We open up to hope by telling the truth of our fear and hopelessness and 'stuckness' and pre-conceptions and prejudices, and we keep breathing, and we hear back something that is reassuring, such as that we're not alone. And we're all in the same boat.

How do you start your day?
I get up early, and say my prayers immediately upon waking. I readmy daily devotionals, tend to the pets, then I have a strong cup ofcoffee and read the New York Times.

You recently wrote about Robin Williams's death. How would you advise the Church to help people suffering from mental health issues and addictions? Does the Church have any role to play? Are we kidding ourselves by thinking we can make a difference?
No, we're not kidding ourselves that we can make a huge difference. This is how God heals and sustains us – through each other, sharingour experience, strength and hope. Telling our truth, and saying no to power in the Church – exposing lies, hypocrisy, abuses. The main thing is that no matter what, we show up to be God's hands and eyes to the poor and suffering.

Help, Thanks, Wow is a stunning little book and it's helped many people – including me. But have you found your own prayer life has changed since writing it? Why do we find prayer so hard?
I'm not sure my prayer life has changed since HTW came out. It's been these prayers and commitments for several decades. It seems to be working. I keep things very simple. When I don't have the willingness to be truthful and real, I pray for it – and then the phone rings or the mail comes, and there is someone there who will listen without judgment, and help me clean out whatever wound is causing me pain or mental strife.

Who are your favourite authors? What do you like to read?
I love narrative non-fiction. A nice, juicy true story about people in impossible and scary, challenging circumstances. Loved Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Gypsy Boy, Going Clear by Lawrence Wright. Thomas Merton, Virginia Woolf, Wallace Stevens, T.S Eliot. I love lots of modern novelists and short story writers, like Kingsolver, Munro, Michael Cunningham, Kate Atkinson – all the same people you love. Love Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Yeats, Gary Snyder. CS Lewis, Phillip Yancey.

I've seen your writing described as a "millennial gospel". In the UK, like in the US, many millennials who grew up in church leave at some point in their 20s – when life happens: the depression, the eating disorders, the divorce, the doubt. Is there anything the Church can do to stop that?
I can't speak for any church, except that the message needs to be that all are welcome, 24/7, because that is the main message Jesus preaches – and that we need to take care of the poor, the suffering, the marginalised. I think healing tends to take place one-on-one, rather than through institutions. One person who has experienced profound healing becomes available to share the process/path with a few other people, offer a listening ear, a phone number, the willingness to show up for a cup of coffee. A few people in a church set up a mentoring or literacy programme – again, they just show up, with the willingness to listen, and share their truth. 

The millennials I know look at how we have screwed up the world, and how their elders tend to tear around being busy, trying to achieve and impress, looking hassled and grey and self-important, and pious, and they want something so different and way better than that, lives with a sense of immediacy and presence, much more authenticity.

Anne Lamott's new book Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace is out now.

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