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Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace

Anne Lamott

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 16, 2014
Category: Spirituality

Bird by Bird is the book to read if you’re a beginning writer, or a baffled amateur, or just want to witness a fine stylist making the keyboard sing.

I don’t have a reason for avoiding Anne Lamott’s next 14 books that makes me sound smart. Though I do have reasons. Over the years, Lamott found Jesus and became that annoying person who doesn’t quite try to convert you but wouldn’t object if you came to Him. Someone has described her as “the patron saint of brokenness,” and she became a kind of Leonard Cohen figure, Our Lady of the Unlikely Redemption — on her Amazon page, a reader testifies that she “is the reason I have HOPE and FAITH tattooed on my arms.” Okay, so we are not responsible for the excesses of our fans. But what about twisting her hair into dreadlocks? What about describing herself as “wild, ruined, aging, gorgeous, nutty, marvelous me?”

Add it all up, and Anne Lamott started to remind me of Nora Ephron, a great stylist who consistently wrote beneath her talent.

But I got “Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace” and read every word, marking and underlining wildly. I did this because, as many of you have noticed, this is a hard time. We are surrounded by stupid, and the rich seem to think they live in another country entirely, and there are few visible signs that the good guys have a shot of winning. And so we ask ourselves: What can we do that matters? And how, in this sea of shit, can we keep ourselves clean?

“Small victories” seem like the only victories we’re likely to experience. Which, if you think about it even briefly, isn’t awful. Small victories are local. We can see them. Touch them. Learn what happens next.

Some of you know about Anne Lamott’s chronicle of small victories because you have read much of it in Salon.com. I did not. But at the bottom of the book’s eggshell blue cover, in white type so small I almost didn’t notice it, are four helpful words: “new and selected pieces.” So I went to Salon — of the book’s 24 pieces, eight have been republished in essentially the same form as when they were first published.

Want to sample a third of a book? Here you go:

A Slow Walk into the Amazing Now
My Year on Match.com
A Dog’s Life
Mom
Knocking on Heaven’s Door
Barn Raising
A Ham from God
The Last Waltz

Here, for the newbies, is the first sentence of the book: “The worst possible thing you can do when you’re down in the dumps, tweaking, vaporous with victimized self-righteousness, or bored, is to take a walk with dying friends.”

Death. It’s everywhere in these pages. Kids. In-laws. Parents. It’s what happens in all our lives, but compressed in Lamott’s. And different in her life. For many of us, death forces us to ask unpleasant questions and get unsatisfying answers. For Anne Lamott, death is how God mystifies us, opens us up, gives us a fresh path to grace.

No wonder so many love her — Lamott looks right into the dragon’s mouth. And, at the same time, she takes the measure of her own ridiculousness. And it works. It all works! [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle version, click here.]

At a primary level, she’s selling bravery:

Trappings and charm wear off… Let people see you. They see your upper arms are beautiful, soft and clean and warm, and then they will see this about their own, some of the time. It’s called having friends, choosing each other, getting found, being fished out of the rubble. It blows you away, how this wonderful event ever happened — me in your life, you in mine.

And — this is the punch line — she’s selling community:

Two parts fit together. This hadn’t occurred all that often, but now that it does, it’s the wildest experience. It could almost make a believer out of you. Of course, life will randomly go to hell every so often, too. Cold winds arrive and prick you: the rain falls down your neck: darkness comes. But now there are two of you: Holy Moly.

I read “Small Victories” slowly, because I knew I might want to read this book again, and there’s no reading that cuts as deep as the first time. And as I read, I thought of my friend Carroll. For months, we’d been looking forward to seeing Blake Mills. A few weeks ago, the long-awaited date finally arrived. We drove out to Brooklyn, lingered over dinner, and still walked into the club in the middle of the opening act.

The club was the back room of a record store — yes, vinyl records, because this was Brooklyn — and we hung out there, drifting down Memory Lane. It was fun, but unfamiliar fun, not the kind of fun that I have on field trips with my wife. And because it was unfamiliar, I started to feel… annoyed. Carroll was not helpful, not in the least. She is her own person at every moment, and not shy about it, and now, it seemed, she was right in my face. And yet, at the same time, I adored her.

Anne Lamott is like that for me now. She annoys me. I look at her picture and her beaded dreadlocks and I think: You are a fool. And as I read her, I’m talking back to her all the time, and there’s a tinge of snark and sneering — and admiration, and jealousy — in my responses. But the thing, all of that is enjoyable. As I enjoyed sparring with Carroll, I like disagreeing with Anne Lamott. In these pages, she makes me think and smile and cry, and while there’s little danger I’ll ever be washed in the blood of the lamb, I am grateful for the conversation I have with her.

24 stories of love and loss, acceptance and joy — it’s a lot. Is this shtick, or is it soul food? Is this, in the vernacular of the day, a thing? I’m still processing her point of view. Read it. You tell me.