Anne Lamott Always Shows Up for Us

The prolific author’s latest book provides a booster shot of spiritual courage. She’ll be discussing it with us on April 8, 2021.

The flaps of Anne Lamott’s latest book, Dusk Night Dawn: on revival and courage, ask, “How can we recapture the confidence we once had as we stumble through the dark times that seem increasingly bleak? How can we cope as bad news pile up around us? Where, Anne Lamott asks, ‘do we start to get our world and joy and hope and our faith in life itself back…with our sore feet, hearing loss, stiff fingers, poor digestion, stunned minds, broken hearts?’” These are big, good questions.

I have more questions: How do you review an Anne Lamott book? How do you explain this verbal life-force to someone who may not already be familiar with her? How do you catch a cloud and hold it down?

The New York Times bestselling author of Help, Thanks, WowSmall VictoriesStitchesSome Assembly RequiredGrace (Eventually)Plan BTraveling MerciesBird by BirdOperating InstructionsHallelujah Anyway and many other fiction and non-fiction books, Anne Lamott is a successful writer by anyone’s definition. Words pour out of her. While a large proportion of these words are about herself, her stories of single-motherhood, writing, alcoholism, activism, and Christianity have resonated with readers for over three decades. 

When asked why she writes, she told the Dallas Morning News, “I try to write the books I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness—and that can make me laugh. When I am reading a book like this, I feel rich and profoundly relieved to be in the presence of someone who will share the truth with me, and throw the lights on a little, and I try to write these kinds of books. Books, for me, are medicine.”

Anne Lamott is nothing if not self-aware. With dead-eye accuracy, she writes the books she wants to read. They are good medicine, but they are difficult to describe individually. They even dress alike. Her latest book, Dusk Night Dawn, is packaged like all her books since Help Thanks Wow: It’s a slim volume with two color printing, gift-book binding, pretty endpapers and a single excerpt on the back cover. She does not need to be endorsed by other writers; rather, what she writes just needs to be packaged beautifully and presented to her adoring audience.

Despite the sameness and the foregone conclusion of success that this formula suggests, I’m part of that audience. I love Anne Lamott’s writing. I have all her books, and I’ve gone to hear her speak every time she’s come to town. But it’s tricky trying to individuate this latest book. In many ways, Dusk Night Dawn is just like Help Thanks Wow, or Hallelujah Anyway, or any of her other books in this vein. They’re each a stream-of-consciousness recounting of episodes from throughout her life, with a few images and individuals anchoring her thoughts. This one, written after her recent marriage to Neal Allen and during the last presidential term adds these topics, polar opposites that both lead her to deep rumination, and still covers single-motherhood, writing, alcoholism, activism, and Christianity.

If you haven’t read any of her previous books, I have no idea how you might respond if you jumped into this massive oeuvre with Dusk Night Dawn. If you have read Anne Lamott before, of course you need to read this latest. While you’ll be interested to hear about how her online dating worked out, you’ll have the same reaction to her writing that you’ve had before: you might think she needs more editing; you might think she’s prophetic; you might wonder where she’s going with some of her anecdotes, only to find yourself pondering them like a good parable several days later. Or you might skip the literary judgement and declare this new book just perfect. Because, more than anything, her constant message to readers is how deeply we are loved by our Creator, even in the darkest night of our unedited, rambling imperfection. Even, and especially, when the world seems like it’s falling apart. Nobody’s looking for perfection; we just need to show up for each other.

The Anne Lamott quote on the back of the book says, “Yes, these are times of great illness and distress. Yet the center may just hold.” Dusk Night Dawn is sub-titled on revival and courage. But isn’t all her writing about revival and courage? While she struggles every day to show up for her life, her center has clearly held. It hasn’t always been pretty, but it’s held well enough for her to create a multitude of books about her journey, books that help us better understand where the center of our own lives should be and help us show up, for ourselves and our dear ones.

So, yes, we are older. Yes, our joints are stiff, and we’ve been stumbling through a heartbreaking year, even if we were lucky enough to find or hold love in it. And yes, this book looks and reads a lot like her books that have come before it. But don’t let that keep you from reading it. It’s the same, but it’s different. The parables stay the same, but we change. There’s still more to understand.

As always, she’s tangential, irreverent, charming, opinionated, and brutally honest. Reading her, book after book, is like sitting down with a thoroughly modern Maria (When I’m with her I’m confused, out of focus, and bemused, and I never know exactly where I am. Unpredictable as weather, she’s as flighty as a feather. She’s a darling; she’s a demon; she’s a lamb. She’d out pester any pest, drive a hornet from its nest. She can throw a twirling dervish out of whirl. She is gentle; she is wild; she’s a riddle; she’s a child; she’s a headache; she’s an angel…she’s Anne Lamott.) How do you explain her remarkable verbal magic?

How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? Read Dusk Night Dawn. Or, if you’re not already familiar with her work, go back to Operating Instructions or Bird by Bird and get to know her and her people from the beginning. Each book layers richness on the last. You can’t read about Anne Lamott: you have to experience her books for yourself. You might not be able to explain just why, but chances are you’ll feel revived and more courageous afterward. And isn’t that what the sub-title promised?

Anne Lamott will be featured in the Episcopal Booksellers Association Authors Series on April 8 at 6 p.m. Central. Join us to experience her irrepressible wisdom by registering at the link here.

To purchase Dusk Night Dawn from the Cathedral Bookstore, click here.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.
~ Henri Nouwen

Blessed, Indeed, Are the Cheesemakers

Dr. Amy-Jill Levine explains Jesus’s teaching so clearly, it’s as if centuries of varnish have been cleaned from the surface of a gorgeous painting. Join the Episcopal Booksellers Association in conversation with her on February 11, 2021.

When Amy-Jill Levine was in first grade at Job S. Gidley Elementary School in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, her teacher led the children in the Pledge of Allegiance, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the Our Father prayer. Recalling that ritual in her latest book, Sermon on the Mount, Dr. Levine says, “So after pledging loyalty to ‘liver tea’ and singing about the ‘donzerly’ light, I’m sure I was not the only one in the class who bowed my head and prayed, ‘Our father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name…Lead us not into Penn Station…’…Little children have much to learn.’”

When it comes to the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Lord’s Prayer, as we Episcopalians call it, Dr. Levine has much to teach us. Sermon on the Mount approaches chapters 5-7 in the Book of Matthew that most of us consider familiar ground and shows us in the most enthusiastic and loving way that our understanding (at least as a lay reader) is not much more accurate than her interpretation of the “dawn’s early light” was back in first grade.

University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies and Mary Jan Werthan Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School and College of Arts, and Sciences, Dr. Levine is the first Jew to teach at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, and her list of degrees and accomplishments is long and impressive. She brings all her education and experience to her deconstruction of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which she begins by saying “is not a sermon. It’s a series of discrete teachings, each of which could be the basis of a sermon, a lecture, a community study, or a personal meditation.” She suggests that Matthew needs marketing help, and that what we call the Sermon on the Mount (and he never did) should be called something like “A Sampling of Jesus’s Greatest Teachings.” And then she uses her knowledge of Jewish practices at the time of Jesus, her understanding of the Torah and the New Testament, and the range of translations of the bible to deepen our understanding of every significant phrase in these chapters.

Her book is not long—six chapters cover The Beatitudes, The Extensions, Practicing Piety, Our Father, Finding Your Treasure, and Living into the Kingdom. Each of these chapters is packed with thought-provoking, knowledge-based, exciting ideas. Though her erudition is apparent, her work has a strong sense of joy. She is able to laugh at herself, the religious establishment, and outdated interpretations of what Jesus was teaching, while remaining respectful and non-judgmental. She connects the holy with history, head, and heart: reading her book feels like engaging with a remarkable professor—one so sure of her material that she can explore new ideas even as she teaches, one who is delighted to share her knowledge because she has experienced it as life-changing.

Each chapter is an exploration. Sometimes she detours into her own experience or delves into playing with language, and as she does, she remarks on the richness of the Matthew’s writing. She leaves the reader with the hope that future books will further explore these paths that she glimpses down as she moves through the elements of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Jesus that she presents and his messages that she explains come though so clearly, it’s as if centuries of discolored varnish have been cleaned from the surface of a gorgeous painting. We still recognize the beloved subject, but now we can see it as it was intended to be seen. It seems so logical—if we are to accurately understand Jesus’s lessons, of course we need to understand who he was as a Jew, who he was teaching, and what language they were speaking. 

In Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” the crowd hears Jesus say, “Blessed are the Cheesemakers.” Some past translations and interpretations of the Book of Matthew have left us with some ideas that are just as inaccurate. After reading Sermon on the Mount, we not only know specifically what Jesus means when he uses terms like “Peacemakers,” we also come away with a practical understanding of how to apply these powerful teachings in our own lives. Blessed are both cheesemakers and peacemakers and blessed is Amy-Jill Levine for so generously and articulately sharing her learning and experience to shed new light on this important section of the New Testament. 

To register for the EBA Authors Series discussion with Dr. Levine on February 11, 2021 at 6:00 p.m. Central, click here.

To purchase Sermon on the Mount: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kingdom of Heaven, click here.

To see David Hockney’s vision of the Sermon on the Mount, click here.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
~Marcel Proust