"Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace" (Riverhead Books), by Anne Lamott
Fans of author Anne Lamott know reading her work is like finding a favorite sweater from the depths of the closet on the first crisp fall day: warm, comforting, familiar and easy. Her new book, "Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace," is a collection of beautifully written essays, filled with nuggets of wisdom gathered over years of mindful living.
The stories tackle some heavy topics, from Lamott's alcoholic, dysfunctional family to mourning the illness and death of friends. But Lamott's candor, and sarcastic, self-deprecating humor, lighten the content and engage readers.
The author's faith is a strong part of her foundation and informs her views of the world. She infuses her storytelling with Christian principles and Zen insight, and manages all this without sounding preachy.
It's this spirituality that helps keep her mind open to moments of grace in unexpected places, like finding common ground with strangers during a long flight delay, or appreciating warm gloves and shelter after a hard fall on the ski slopes.
Her tone is intimate and the pace slow, allowing readers to linger over each essay, like a great meal with friends you never want to end. She boils complicated matters down to basics, and stretches the limits of emotional depth in simple stories with larger lessons.
Now 60, Lamott's conversational and confessional style — sprinkled with pop culture references — feels modern and cool, like her trademark dreadlocks. A sensitive and thoughtful soul, she's also a feisty liberal — and doesn't pull political punches, taking several opportunities to bash President George W. Bush and conservatives.
In separate essays about her father and mother, Lamott shares intimate details of growing up in a family that suffered from "spiritual anorexia." Her vulnerability is tangible, even years later.
Forgiveness is a recurring theme as Lamott strives to let go of anger and resentment and concentrate on the present.
"You sacrifice the need to be right, because you have been wronged, and you put down the abacus that helped you keep track of things," she writes.
Lamott acknowledges many character flaws that ring true for anyone. In one story, she decides a fellow mom at school is her "Enemy Lite." She's certain this hateful woman — who's either exercising or baking cupcakes — is judging her, and perpetually trying to show her up.
But as the relationship evolves, she realizes she was projecting all her fears of failure and maternal insecurities onto this woman. Once she sees the situation clearly, she's able to accept the woman's kindness and forgive herself for not being perfect. "I was trying to get her to carry all this for me because it hurt too much to carry it myself," Lamott writes.
Lamott's subtle humor is at its best when she describes her foray into Internet dating. Her Goldilocks parade of prospects included men who were anti-religion, self-involved, apolitical and hated her politics. One wore an unbuttoned tropical shirt, another had an unbearable laugh. Alas, no love connection, but she finds satisfaction in conquering the awkwardness and fear of dating.
In several essays on dying with dignity and the mourning process, Lamott suggests grief is an individual experience with no set timetable or behavior rules. She says it's not only OK to yell, scream and cry, it's probably necessary to receive the best gifts of grief: "softness and illumination."
She's learned the best you can do is try not to fix people, just show up and listen. When a friend's child is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a community of friends and neighbors offers food, rides, baby-sitting and hugs. She compares the compassionate support to building a barn around the family — a shelter against the cruel unfairness of reality.
Lamott often seeks solace in nature and uses hikes in the woods or a walk on the beach as a peace tonic, and a reminder to stay in the now. She says you can reach your dreams if you're willing to "fall in love with your own crazy, ruined self." That love takes time to grow. By sharing her journey from drunk to sober, broken to mended, hungry to spiritually fulfilled, her words heal us all.
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