One of my coworkers is obsessed with Anne Lamott. She is constantly quoting her and forever recommending her books to me. I would have read one of her books a while ago were it not for the fact that this coworker had also recommended Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. I couldn’t finish the book because my disgust was too strong. I was wary of following any more recommendations from this source, but a couple of weeks ago, after another lengthy discussion of the merits of this author, I said, “Ok, what the heck? Let’s do it.”
I read Traveling Mercies over the course of a week and it was a bittersweet experience. Anne Lamott’s voice reminds me of the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, one my all-time favorite books. I felt like I was sitting on a porch in the bayou, listening to her wisdom wash over me like a summer rain. At the same time, I felt like my very being was under attack. Lamott ‘s words dug into my chest, scooped my heart out like it was the insides of an avocado, and then laid it before me to stare at the shredded ruins.
It took me days to read the book because I couldn’t process all of her truth in one or two sittings. I didn’t enjoy having to face my own demons, but I was delighted to discover that I had a kindred soul in Lamott. She spoke about personal issues that I have been far to ashamed to even examine, much less put a name to. When I finished, I lay in my bed, mourning the immediate loss of my newfound friend, the kind of friend Toni Morrison described. She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.
Reading that book helped me understand why I write. I was always very insecure about my writing and did not enjoy the writing process. If I had my way, every exam I took in college would have been an oral exam. When I was around thirteen, a prophetess at my church came to me one day and said that I was going to be a writer. I was embarrassed for her and her false prophecy. I cringed, thinking, “Oh snap. She’s gotten me confused with Marnie (my sister). Marnie was the writer in the family, the creative one. She was always writing poems and short stories. That was her life, not mine.
But then I went to college and went through a really bad emotional period. I tried therapy and it didn’t work out for me. Fortunately, soon after that, I made the acquaintance of an amazing professor my junior year. During office hours, we would share life and I would tell her things about my life and my family that I was too self-conscious to share with my friends. She never judged; she always understood. “Andrea, you should write,” she would say and I would vehemently reject her proposal. It was one thing to sit in office hours, confiding in her. It’s a horse of an entirely different color to broadcast my issues to the world. But, I would write short stories about my life for her and it was a catharsis. All of the short stories I produced back then were conceived during periods of deep resentment and sadness.
Writing started to heal me. I let some things go and I was ready to move on. So, I stopped writing because I was happy. I didn’t know how to write in a happy state. But, my professor’s urgings to write a book stayed with me. I remember once when I was a teenager, I promised God if he delivered me out of my situation, I would tell my testimony to the world. Years after having been delivered, my testimony was still silent and I was feeling really guilty about that facg. I wanted to tell my stories, so that if any one reading them could relate, they would feel less alone. As Brene Brown notes, shame thrives on people feeling like it’s just them. No one would understand because no one had shared their experience. When people are brave enough to be vulnerable and open themselves up, they realize that they are not alone and the shame falls by the wayside. I want young people growing up in less than desirable circumstances to know that their beginnings don’t dictate their trajectory. I didn’t play the hand I was dealt; I changed my cards. I prayed to the skies and I changed my stars. I wanted to write a book about life growing up in Memphis and the road to Harvard. That was my goal when I moved to Guatemala. But, what I have found myself doing is blogging about my life now and the issues I am dealing with at this point in time.
I didn’t really like blogging at first. For one thing, I’m not techy enough to be really good at it and I wasn’t clear what was being accomplished by me blogging. Every so often I think, ugh, I’m done with it. And then, someone will email and say, “That touched me” and it makes my day. This was the whole point. I just want people to know that they’re not alone and they shouldn’t be afraid to have the difficult conversations, even if it makes people uncomfortable.
But after reading Lamott’s book, I have to acknowledge that a big part of this writing process is self-indulgent. I had a friend in college who once told me that I’m the kind of person who has to “speak truth to light.” It was her way of describing my confrontational nature. I can’t let things go until they have been discussed ad nauseam. I don’t do well with people who just want to glide over things and dance around the issues. I knew that about myself before she made her comment, but I was so struck by her language that her words stayed with me because they describe more than my confrontational manner. Speaking truth to light is also how I heal.
My coping mechanism in my early twenties and late teens was avoidance. Sometimes, the pain was too much to bear, so I pushed it aside and ran as far as I could. But things catch up with you eventually and they will keep catching up to you. That is how I ended up in that rough, emotional state in college. But when I am able to acknowledge what is transpiring and then write about it, a burden lifts. It amuses me sometimes when I publish a piece and someone tries to comfort me about the things I have written. If it is written, it’s not really an issue anymore. If I can name it, then it has no power over me. It’s the time before I find the words that brings me grief.
Guatemala has proven to be a perfect place to write because I have so much time and space and there is nowhere to run. I am so aware of myself here and some days, the awareness is overwhelming. When I finished Traveling Mercies, I fell into a deep sadness. All I could do was play Tamela Mann’s, “Take Me to the King,” on repeat and let the tears flow. I cried for a week non-stop. It was the first thing I did when I woke up in the morning and the last thing I did before I fell asleep. I was Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give.
But the crying jag passed and I feel more at peace. I am glad that I faced the sadness head on and did not run from it. I feel more whole, more complete. And eventually, I will be able to write about those things that the book stirred up in my soul. There will probably be more tears involved in the production of that piece, but I look forward to that day because I know when I am strong enough to tell that story, I will be free.