By Anne Lamott, via Pam Slim.
Nearly twenty years ago, I arrived at a fancy writer’s conference, in what were some of America’s most majestic mountains, where I was looking forward to meeting a great (and sexy) American director, who’d given a lecture the day before. But he had already left.
There was, however, a letter from him, to me: to not-all-that-well-known me. It began well enough, with praise for Bird by Bird, and gratitude for how many times it had inspired him when he got stuck while writing screenplays. He singled out my insistence on trying to seek and tell the truth, whether in memoir or fiction, and my belief that experiencing grief and fear were the way home. The way to an awakening. That God is the Really Real, as the ancient Greeks believed. And God is Love. That tears were not to be suppressed, but would, if expressed, heal us, cleanse up, baptize us, help us water the seeds of new life that were in the ground at our feet.
Coming from a world famous director, it felt like the New York Glitterati was stamping it’s FDA seal of approval on me, and my work.
Unfortunately, the letter continued.
He wrote that while he had looked forward to meeting me, he’d gathered from reading my work that many of my closest friends and family members seemed to have met with traumatic life situations, and sometimes early deaths. So basically, he was getting out of Dodge before I got my tragedy juju all over him, too.
I felt mortified, exposed. He made it seem like I was a sorrow-mongerer, that instead of being present for family and friends who had cancer or sick kids or great losses, I was chasing them down.
And I flushed in that full body Niacin-flush way of toxic shame, at being put down by a man of power, that had been both the earliest, and now most recent, experiences of soul-death throughout my life.
My clingy child was drawing beside me, What did I do? You can’t use your child as a fix, like a junkie. That’s abuse; plus it won’t work.
Well, duh–I fell apart, on the inside, like a two dollar watch.
I had stopped drinking nearly 15 years before, stopped the bulimia 14 years earlier, and so did not have many reliable ways to stuff feelings back down. Also, horribly, my young child, two thousand miles from home, upon noticing my pain, clung even more tightly. I wanted to shout at him, “Don’t you have any other friends?”
What I did was the only thing that has ever worked. After finding a safe and stable person to draw with my son, I called someone and told her all my terrible fears and feelings and projections and secrets.
It was my mentor, Horrible Bonnie.
She believes that we are here to become profoundly real, and therefore, free. But horribly–hence her name–she insists that if we want to be free, we have to let every body be free. I hate and resent this so much. It means we have to let the people in our families and galaxies be free to be asshats, if that is how they choose to live.
This however, does not mean we have to have lunch with them. Or go on vacation with them again. But we do have to let them be free.
She also knows, and said that day, that Real can be a nightmare in this world that is so false. The pain and exhaustion of becoming real can land you in the an abyss. And abysses are definitely abysmal; dark nights of the soul; the bottom an addict hits.
And this, she said, was just a new bottom, around people-pleasing, and the craving for powerful fancy people to approve of me. It was a bottom around my psycho doing-ness, my achieving-ness.
She said that because I felt traumatized, and that there had been so much trauma in my childhood, and so many losses in the ensuing years, that the future looked like trauma to me.
But it wasn’t the truth!
There was a long silence. (Again: she listens.)
Finally, I said in this tiny child’s voice, “It isn’t?”
Oh, no, she said. The future, as with every bottom I have landed at, and been walked through, would bring great spiritual increase.
She said I had as much joy and laughter and presence as anyone she knew and some of this had to do with the bottoms I’d experienced, the dark nights of the soul that god and my pit crew had accompanied me through. The alcoholism, scary men, etc.
She said that what I thought the director had revealed was that I am kind of pathetic, but actually what I was getting to see, with her, and later, when I picked up my luscious clingy child, in the most gorgeous mountains on earth, was that I was a ral person of huge heart, laughter, feelings and truth. And his was the greatest gift of all.
The blessing was that again and again, over the years, we got to completely change the script. Thank God. We got to re-invent ourselves, again.
But where do we even start with such terrible days and revelations? She said I’d started when I picked up the 300-pound phone, told someone the truth, felt my terrible feelings. Now, time for radical self care. A shower, some food, the blouse I felt prettiest in. Then I could go get my boy and we could explore the mountain streams.
Wow. We think when we finally get our ducks in a row, we’ve arrived. Now we’ll be happy! That’s what they taught us, and what we’ve sought. But the ducks are bad ducks, and do not agree to stay in a row, and they waddle off quacking, and one keels over, two males get in a fight, and babies are born. Where does that leave your nice row?
I got about five books out of the insights I gleaned from our talk. I still have a sort-of heart shaped rock my son fished out of a stream later. Sadly, this director’s movies have not done well in the last twenty years. Not a one. And all of his hair has since fallen out. Now, as a Christian, my first response to this is, “Hah hah hah.”
But Horrible Bonnie would say, Now you get to tell it, because then it will become medicine. Tell it, girl– that we evolve; that life is stunning, wild, gorgeous, weird, brutal, hilarious and full of grace. That our parents were a bit insane, and that healing from this is taking a little bit longer than we had hoped. Tell it. Well…okay. Yes.