Driving up a lane of graceful cypress trees as I arrive at Anne Lamott’s colorful home in Marin County, Calif., the first thing I see is a paper flyer posted on a tree near the door: “LOST KITTY,” it reads. “Gringo. Grey and white with a pink nose. Call Annie.”
When I knock, Lamott opens the door, flanked by two dogs, and before I get a chance to commiserate about her cat, she brings it up. Ushering me in, she says that he’s been missing for several days now, but she’s hopeful; someone will find him, or he’ll find his way home again—she’s sure of it.
Sitting at a long wooden table in her spacious, light-filled house, Lamott, 64, is at ease and readily opens up, speaking in fluent full paragraphs and answering some of my questions before I get to them; she’s a practiced interviewee, since, in addition to having written seven novels and 11 works of nonfiction, she is a regular public speaker, teacher, activist, and Sunday school teacher.
Lamott is known to some as a religious writer—for her books on prayer (Help, Thanks, Wow), mercy (Hallelujah Anyway), and faith (Traveling Mercies; Plan B; Grace, Eventually)—but this isn’t how she characterizes herself. She comes from a heavy spiritual place, she says, not a heavy religious place, with an “unsophisticated theology” that is rooted in humanism over Christianity.
Still, Lamott is vocal about her love for Jesus, even, she says, when it’s sometimes “mortifying” to be seen as a Christian due to the religious Right. She learned long ago to shrug off what people think of her, and, in embracing authenticity, she’s found her audience. “People are starved to hear about real stuff,” she says. And she aims to offer truth—in all its complications and paradoxes.
Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (Riverhead, Oct.), Lamott’s latest collection of essays, distills wisdom she obtained throughout her eventful life. The concept started as a letter to her grandson and her teenage niece, trying to ground them at a time when, she says, “everybody’s scared, everybody’s damaged.” She writes what she, as a reader, would want to encounter, and right now, in 2018, she wants someone to tell her not to give up hope. She wants someone to help her keep her sense of humor, and she wants someone to tell her that the truth is precious and worth seeking.
Almost Everything features the philosophy found in many of Lamott’s other essays, exploring the truths around which she has built her life and writing. Its title is taken from the introduction, in which she promises to share with the reader “almost everything I know.” Chapter by chapter, she doles out good advice—be kind to your body; try not to hate others; love your family, even when it’s hard; don’t fear aging and death—with brevity, clarity, and her trademark wit. (Death may not be the enemy, according to this book, but snakes are, and so is cheese.) Reading Almost Everything is like sitting down with a good friend—one who is open and vulnerable as well as wise.
With its intimate tone and engagement with the good life, practical and spiritual, Almost Everything is in keeping with the other essay collections Lamott has produced in the past 10 years. She doesn’t plan to take on the topics covered in her books, she says, but comes upon ideas accidentally, based on what’s happening in her world. Some Assembly Required, her favorite of her recent works, was written with her son and chronicles the first year of her grandson’s life. Help, Thanks, Wow, a short meditation on prayer, came to life after a publisher liked what Lamott had to say about faith during a book tour. Small Victories was an attempt to work out what to tell her Sunday school class about Sandy Hook that might be meaningful in the face of what she calls “abject, darkest, evil sorrow.”
Lamott, whose father was a writer, started her literary life young: she was a talented storyteller as a child, and chapter books were her salvation, she says. She learned disciplined writing habits from her father, who woke up at 5:30 a.m. to write each day. She’s never in the mood to write, she says, and it always goes badly, but she does it anyway.
Lamott started her career as a novelist but says that novels require a profound focus that she doesn’t have the stamina for anymore, what with her life being full of friends and neighbors and grandchildren and pets barging in continually. She adds that as much as she loved the process of writing her most recent novel, Imperfect Birds, she finds the idea of writing another daunting. Instead, as an essayist, she writes in focused increments of two or three hours, expressing what’s “on her heart” at the time.
I ask if it’s difficult, as a writer, for Lamott to share this much of her heart. Does she worry about what her readers will think? Through her personal essays over the years, she has chronicled her journey to sobriety, her religious conversion, her family life, and her anxieties and insecurities; she’s maintained a steady, honest engagement with the tough questions of life, seemingly without the fear of criticism holding her back. “If you bog down on how your thighs are at 64, you don’t get to swim in warm water,” she says. “And how awful will you feel at 75, not swimming?”
Lamott doesn’t hold herself back in person, either. She’s as warm and active as the tone of her books, welcoming me with a cup of tea, inquiring about my five-month-old son, and even indulging me by cooing over a photo. She lights up when I ask what books she recommends, and beyond her first answer—a brief directive to “read poetry”—even sends me an email right then and there to ensure I remember some titles. (The Mad Farmer’s Manifesto by Wendell Berry and If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.) I owe her forever now, she jokes. As I leave, she greets a neighbor who’s working in his garden and mentions to me that she’s been tutoring his daughter in poetry.
Happily swimming in the deep waters of community and connection, Lamott is a woman in her element, and yet she’s clearly familiar with the darker sides of life and the current political climate. Almost Everything skirts around the topic of contemporary politics, never mentioning any situation or person by name—deliberately, as merely invoking names gives them more power to draw attention—but clearly espousing a spirit of resistance.
Embracing her maxim that all truth is paradox, Lamott says that radical self-care is also an act of rebellion—a type of “chemotherapy for the fatal and progressing thing we call life.” Sitting in her living room with the warm California sun shining through the window, she outlines the small everyday acts of rest and fun that bring her hope: meditation, hiking, going to church, spending time with her grandson and with friends, reading People, eating full-fat yogurt with honey. “I try to realize what I can do something about,” she says.
Lamott cannot will her cat into coming back, but she can stay hopeful. As she says this, the phone rings and she jumps up. She has to take this, she says, because it might be someone calling about her cat.
Hannah Pritchett is a writer who lives with her husband and son in the San Francisco Bay Area.