Monday, March 19, 2012

The sublime Anne Lamott talks about writing Some Assembly Required with her son Sam, grandparenting, holding on, letting go, and so much more






I'm completed thrilled to post this blog, for many, many reasons. I don't remember when I first had contact with Annie--I think it was after I read Operating Instructions (though I had been following her career since All New People). But what I do remember is, before I gave birth to my son, I had a miscarriage at three months and people were saying all sorts of ridiculous things to me, like "At least you didn't know the baby," or, "Why'd you have a kid at your age, anyway" I just felt I had to talk to her, and I called and left a message (or maybe I wrote a letter, I don't remember) and then immediately felt like an idiot, because who was I to intrude on her time? I went out to sulk and when I came back there was this ten minute, hilariously funny, incredibly warm message on my answering machine from Annie. It was the first time I laughed since the miscarriage.

I never forgot such incredible kindness. 

She's got legions of fans, her books seem to become bestsellers before they are even out of the gate, and she writes about what's really important. I loved Some Assembly Required (written with her incredible son Sam) because she talks about how difficult it is to let go of our children and let them have independence, how thorny, wild and wonderful it can be to navigate from being a mother to being a grandmother, and how love and hope and faith are the glue that holds it all together.

I'm honored, thrilled, and so excited that I can hardly sit still, to also report that Annie will be interviewing me in April 26 at Rakestraw Books in California as part of Algonquin Books Book Club. Please come! (This is yet another example of her incredible generosity and kindness.)

I can't thank Annie enough for coming on this blog--or for everything else. Thanks, thanks, thanks, Annie.

What was it like writing a book with your son? What surprised you about the process?
 
The main thing was that I wouldn't have written it without his initial insistence that it was a great idea, for Jax to have an operating instructions of his own. Then, getting him to write his pieces or submit to the interviews was pretty much like getting your kid to do his college applications. Every so often a sweet funny little e-mail arrived on its own, but I had to rely on all the old parental stand-byes--guilt-mongering, teeth pulling, threats; money changed hands. Then I would receive one of his set pieces--like the Father's Day entry, or the story of my brother's wedding, and it would just stun me with how profound and lovely it was..

I love that you talk about the whole idea of letting go of our children, letting them find their own way. As a mother of a 15 year old, I already am panicking about this! So much of our culture gives it a cute name—empty nest syndrome—but it’s a real ache of the heart, and I loved how honest you were about your struggle. So I have to ask, does it get easier?

If it were mostly a phenomenon that men experienced and expressed, it would not have a birdy name. It would have a name that captured the wrenching pain of loss and identity, how scary it is to create a new life when all that you've known drops away. The male term would make men seem heroic for being able to raise their children knowing the kids would leave while still in their youth, in the natural yet excruciating order of things. I think men minimize the process with a cartoony name because it hurts them so much, too--missing the kid, and facing up to the passage and ravages of time., and all that silence and empty space.

My story was that Sam moved out on his own to live, work, go to school, locally. So I had the best of both worlds--him having taken the plunge, yet getting to stay in close contact. I loved so many things about both having him around, and him being gone, the freedom and quiet of that. My work took off. Then a year and a half later, he and Amy were pregnant, which was very frightening and unexpected. The best thing to do about all the pain and confusion of feelings is to wake up to them, have a real awakening to the mixed grille nature of one's emotional responses--grief, anger at having to hurt so much, failure, the great attendant achievements, the wistful mooniness--because an awakening always leads to blessings and expansion of consciousness. You really have to cry a lot, or it all gets stuck and plugged up. Then the tears, the water, the action of self-care, your life-force and general wonderfulness, lead you back into the flow of life, your life; like a stream. Then you get to have all these dreams come true, because you have time and space. 
 
I also love the way you talk about your faith: it’s messy, complex, complicated, and best of all, it’s always evolving. (I also love your two prayers that Sam says he got from you, Help, help, and thank you, thank you.) Do you ever waver in your belief, and if so, what brings you back?

I don't really waver in my faith too much, but there are times when I think--or rather, can SEE--that life here on earth can really be too hard to bear. I sometimes feel sick with the devastation that dear friends are going through--sick kids, bad diagnoses, Madoff, various anvils dropping on top of their lives from out of the sky. But each and every time, literally, I have seen the response of their closest people and of the community, and so have gotten to see miracles and mind-blowing acts of strength, generosity, vulnerability and grace.

 I have a son I adore, but I don’t have grandchildren yet (I think I would kill myself if I did—he’s only 15). But you describe how different the love of grandchildren is from the love of children. Why do you think that’s so? What makes your son having a son so incredible?

The great thing about grandchildren is that they LEAVE. When your kid still lives with you, at the end of they day they walk to their own room to continue plotting the uprising against you. Or to shut you out of their minds so they can think straight, or find a floaty patch of peace. But with a grandchild, you pour yourself into him, and then at the end of the day, one of the parents takes the baby away! It's so great. You and the dogs sink to the floor with exhaustion. Then you get to watch all the shows you recorded on your DVR, in a row, while eating something delicious that you don't have to share with ANYONE. Then of course you find yourself craving the baby again, because he is so lovely and smart and hilarious and delicious, and his skin is so soft and he just adores you. So maybe you have a little withdrawal, but then you see him again, absolutely pour yourself into this mutual love machine, until you are totally used up--babies are exhausting--and then the parents take him away. And you get to have a tiny pre-dinner nap.


You and your son Sam also have this incredible honesty with each other. How did you get so lucky to have such a thing?

Maybe it had to do with my being a single mother. Also, I so love and live for truth and honesty in the world, especially because those qualities are so rare; so he grew up with this as a primary value, amidst my very closest friends and my brother, and it can be very addictive.

 There’s a part of the book I found profoundly moving. You’re at an ashram, and you say that the leader doesn’t “breathe on you, the way your parents would. He lets you come to it.” Do you think that might be the secret of life?

The secret of life is close friends. But it really is so life-giving and wonderful to see real people modeling a beautiful healthy way to be with others, OE not needing to own, control, manipulate, rescue them, to see people who know from deep within that each of us--even our kids!--is on our own hero's journey towards truth and oneness.

It seems that so much about the book is about relinquishing control—of where the baby is baptized, of how he is raised,--and yet, it’s a paradox that this letting go actually brings closeness. 

 I'm so lucky that Sam and Jax still love and depend on me, even though I am so impossible and needy and spoiled (AND such a martyr, although perhaps 75% better.) Letting go is by far the hardest and most important thing we do, daily and over time. As I said in the book, when people chirp, Let go and let God," I literally want to attack them. There's a great line from the recovery community that everything we let go of has claw marks on it, and that is still often true for me. One way I let go is by SOMEHOW not doing certain controlling things--for instance, maybe I hold my tongue instead of sharing my rarely helpful Helpful Thoughts. And that creates an atmosphere of ease, the opposite of clutch and clench, and that means our children don't have to gird themselves defensively against us. So they don't have to bolt from us, and we find ourselves metaphorically sitting together on the couch a little while longer, or riding around in the car enjoying the views together, or the music., or God knows, even each other's presence.  

How are Sam and Jax and Amy now?

They split up a few months ago and are now living about an hour apart, raising their boy together from two different homes.

What's obsessing you now?

Oh, all the usual things; how the book will do, what my butt looks like, how old one of my dogs has gotten, and how I can possibly survive when she dies; the economy. 

9 comments:

Erika Robuck said...

Oh, how I loved this interview. Anne and Caroline--your energy and honesty made this a true pleasure. Love you both.

Lindsey said...

Oh, thank you thank you. I love this interview and cannot wait to read the book. Like you, Caroline, Anne has been a touchstone and guide and mentor to me, though she doesn't know it (I'm one of a zillion, though, which I hope she does know). I remember her saying - maybe on twitter - that along with please, please and thank you, thank you, the other prayer we need is wow. Nothing has epitomized so much how I feel about everything in this world! And letting go is central to my life - my children are 9 and 7 and I am just awestruck and heartbroken by what lies ahead, overwhelmed daily, and still, but the outrageous bittersweetness of this endeavor. I had no idea. I'm so grateful to women, and writers, like you ahead of me on this journey. You hold a lamp. Thank you. xox

kelly said...

Can I just say, how many of us would not have become writers without "Bird by Bird"? Anne has paved the way for many of my life's paths.

And now-- I can look forward someday to how to grandparent along with all the rest.

Thanks to you both!

Ann Napolitano said...

This is lovely lovely lovely, Caroline. Thank you.

AlvaradoFrazier said...

What a wonderful interview. I felt like I was listening to both of you chat over a cup of coffee in your living room. With 3 kids entering adulthood I know I'll face these same sorrows and joys before I know it. After I read her book I'm sure I'll feel like I've had some student driving instruction. Thank you.

Pat Verducci said...

Love this interview so much. I too have a 16 year old son and am learning to let him go "bird" by "bird." The next step for me is being able to sit in the passenger seat of a car with him driving and me NOT freaking out.

Bring on the after road party cocktails.

I can't wait to read the book! xo

Nichole Bernier said...

Reading this interview was such a joy. It reminds me that off-the-cuff Lamottisms are possible (here! in the blogosphere!) even if she isn't on my coast or reachable through Twitter etc. Operating Instructions might be among the first books I was truly an insane missionary for: any pregnant woman with an iota of humor got one, and any pregnant woman who needed an iota of humor got one anyway.

I went to see Anne at Coolidge Corner two years ago, and I'm trying to pull it off again during this book tour. I cannot wait to read her candor and wisdom about this next phase of parenting.

So wonderful that you both can repeat the experience in reverse....Please try to reprint the transcript here of Anne's upcoming interview with you, Caroline!

Nichole Bernier said...

Reading this interview was such a joy. It reminds me that off-the-cuff Lamottisms are possible (here! in the blogosphere!) even if she isn't on my coast or reachable through Twitter etc. Operating Instructions might be among the first books I was truly an insane missionary for: any pregnant woman with an iota of humor got one, and any pregnant woman who needed an iota of humor got one anyway.

I went to see Anne at Coolidge Corner two years ago, and I'm trying to pull it off again during this book tour. I cannot wait to read her candor and wisdom about this next phase of parenting.

So wonderful that you both can repeat the experience in reverse....Please try to reprint the transcript here of Anne's upcoming interview with you, Caroline!

Robby said...

She is brilliant. You are brilliant. Two brilliant people in one place. It's too much for me, in the best way.