Anne Lamott’s millennial gospel has been irresistible: Life is grim. It is full of posturing and the collateral damage from same. It is pocked by bad choices and badly-dealt hands, wallpapered over with outsize ego trips and cleverness. Lamott’s landscape was the country of neurotics and perfectionists driven by ambition and blinded by drink. We can be saved, she taught us, but only by landing on our asses first.
Since “Traveling Mercies,’’ her 1999 bestseller, Lamott has offered gimlet illumination into emotional train wrecks and the sobriety won by prayer, kindness, and self-surrender. Her tales of surviving childhood, raising a son, learning from “churched” pals far more advanced in spiritual insight than she have pierced the hides of cynics, turning us 180 degrees to laughter and a kind of revisionist hope.
In “Stitches,’’ her new collection (six pieces, a mere 96 pages), she strikes a far more elegiac note. The book is subtitled, “A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair.” But repair arrives late in this “patchwork of moments, memories, connections and stories” and feels as provisional as the wacky seams that join a once-magnificent pair of curtain panels in her front windows.
Turned from those windows to gaze into her past, she reviews life’s irremediable losses, searching for those threads that enabled her to press on.
We return to her upbringing in a swinging household loosely managed by talented, alcoholic parents whose chaos did a number on their sensitive daughter. There are no neat epiphanies; rather, there is the humbling journey of asking for help and learning one’s limits.
We encounter again, from “Traveling Mercies,’’ Pammy, Lamott’s best friend who died at 38 from breast cancer. Lamott has kept the linen shirt Pammy gave her shortly before she died. Threadbare after all these years, it needs to be relinquished. But it takes Lamott several attempts, until she is finally able to tear it to pieces and let it float down a river in Laos.
If the past is dimmed by pain, the present, glimpsed beyond her mended curtains, isn’t much brighter.
An acquaintance dies of ALS; another loses her husband to dementia. An aging mother has to institutionalize a mentally-ill adult son; a village and its natural inhabitants are destroyed by a careless fire. Heartbreak happens, and Lamott can no longer say for certain that we overcome it. She offers, rather, a hard-won and almost threadbare wisdom: We carry on.
“We clean up beaches after oil spills. . . . We return calls and library books. We get people water. Some of us even pray. Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice.”
We can patch. We can discover wonder in the grace notes of routine, in the birds we see on our walks, in the children no one wants who show up for after school or Sunday church classes.
Lamott’s trademark ear for the bon mot, her blend of wit and timing are muted here, almost weary. Her patchwork metaphor feels tentative, offered more as palliative than as cure.
“You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true.”
As the random shooting of schoolchildren, car bombs, disease, and sadness threaten to shatter our inner compasses and our hearts, Lamott reminds us that “hope is a conversation.” What allows us to continue, and occasionally glimpse a momentary goodness, she writes, is “attention, creation, love, and dessert.”