3 Things I Learned From Sarah Ban Breathnach

Life is not made up of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, or years, but of moments.  You must experience each one before you can appreciate it,” Sarah Ban Breathnach once wrote.  There is an old-fashioned charm— and lush, almost bewitching, lyricism— with which Breathnach sifts poetry from the sands of everyday moments, be it in her much-beloved daily devotional Simple Abundance, which illuminated the path to richer, more contented lives for millions of women, or Something More, her eloquent, erudite guidebook to excavating the buried longings and forgotten dreams of the authentic self.  In Romancing the Ordinary: A Year of Simple Splendor, her enticing serenade to the sensual, Breathnach redeems the flesh from fire-and-brimstone and invites us to instead delight in our sense of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.  Though throughout the ages pleasure-seeking has been denounced as depraved and hedonistic, Breathnach contends there’s no surer route to the spiritual than through the flesh.  A feast for the splendor-starved soul, Romancing the Ordinary overflows with wisdom drawn from the arts, literature, history and film- not to mention delectable recipes that will enrapture your inner gastronome, ranging from “divine fettuccine” to “not meant to be shared chocolate mousse.”  The three central pillars of Breathnach’s wickedly indulgent philosophy are listed below:

1. life should be the grandest of love affairs 

posing with posies

Though as a culture we’ve mostly abandoned the image of women as helpless damsels in distress, many of us still secretly equate romance with a dashing prince.  Years after the women’s liberation movement, we remain spellbound by the enchanting fairytales of our youth, stories that suggested love of the non-platonic variety was the only possible route to adventure.  The charm of an idyllic French countryside, the smell of earth after a spring rain, the contentment of a winter night spent warm and toasty by a fire: such everyday pleasures, we thought, could only be enjoyed when shared.  

But Ms. Breathnach believes otherwise: women don’t need a significant other to be romanced- they can seduce themselves.  Rather than wait for a debonair lover to woo us with his wit or court us with extravagant bouquets of flowers, we can do small things each day to revive our love of life- or, as the French say, our joie de vivre.  

Sadly, instead of a lustful affair, our lives most often resemble a passionless marriage, stagnant after one too many neglectful years.  Our day-to-day is overrun not by “wants” but “should’s” and “have to’s.”  When was the last time we did something simply because we had a desire to?  At the cornerstone of Breathnach’s philosophy is the belief that life should be a high-spirited soiree, exuberant, filled with longing and laughter.  “What makes the blood rush to your head?  The fragrance wafting out the doorway of a chocolatier?…The silky squeak of a taffeta slip?  The buttery softness of a new pair of leather gloves?  Biting into a liquor-filled chocolate?  Your cat licking your face?  The first sight of forsythias in spring?  Discovering a new-to-you book by your favorite author?” Breathnach implores us to consider.  Ravish your senses, seduce yourself with the sweet, secret yearnings of your own soul, and transform your humdrum marriage with life into a red-hot love affair.

2. leisure isn’t decadent or self-indulgent- it’s an essential form of self-care

bubble bath

“There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know any,” poetess Sylvia Plath once quipped.  A soothing soak in a hot bath, a tattered book of beloved poems, a luscious cup of hot cocoa: these little acts of self-cherishing may be simple but they have the profound power to restore a frazzled soul.  Yet few women pause to pamper themselves.  Why?

One can blame the American work ethic, a legacy inherited from our rigorously disciplined Puritan grandparents.  Much like our forefathers, who believed hard work and strict self-denial brought glory to God, Americans worship at the altar of productivity and despise nothing more than idleness.  Product-oriented and accomplishment-obsessed, we prefer the gratification of checking another item off our to-do list to an unhurried afternoon with nothing “useful” to occupy us.  In fact, leisure and laziness are so inextricable in our society that most women are ridden with guilt when they so much as take a moment for themselves.  Workaholism is a pernicious pathology made all the more perilous because it’s supported and sanctioned by our culture: not only are we the only country in the industrialized world to not offer paid family leave, we’re a nation that shames those with enough self-respect to call-in sick when they’re ill.  Rarely, if ever, do we allow ourselves the “luxury” of missing work- even when we’re confined in bed with a 103 degree fever and a mountain of tissues.

But though our dystopic capitalist state assesses human worth by mechanical notions of input/output, leisure is essential to caring for ourselves.  A blissful reprieve from the day-to-day ennui of our twenty-first century hamster wheel, a few hours of leisure well-spent can help us once again delight in the world.  And here I must make a distinction: by leisure I don’t mean in the contemporary sense of the word but rather in the classical.  Though today leisure has come to signify an aimless frittering away of time in trivial pursuits, to the ancient Greeks, leisure, or scholé (interestingly the linguistic progenitor of the English word for school), was a time for learning and contemplation indispensable both to the advancement of civilization and the expansion of the human soul.  Whereas we in the modern era preach the gospel of work, the ancients viewed labor as a debasement of our higher selves.  Manual labor was seen as a necessary evil, required for survival but a hinderance to nobler intellectual pursuits.  It was only when man was free of the shackles of burdensome toil, they believed, that he could devise, dream, and discover truth.

Indeed, throughout time, leisure has been the fountainhead of all progress.  The most noteworthy human achievements- the greatest art, the most pioneering ideas of philosophy, the spark of every epoch-making scientific breakthrough- were conceived in leisure, in moments unburdened by duty or, as Bertrand Russell once said, in periods of “fruitful monotony,” be it Alexander Graham Bell solving the puzzle of the harmonic telegraph while strolling through a bluff overlooking the Grand River or Mozart noting that is was during promenades in the park that his ideas flowed most “abundantly.”  As Brenda Ueland observed in her timeless If You Want to Write, “The imagination needs moodling,- long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering” to cultivate ideas.

3. we can exalt our lives by being artists of the everyday

still life with bottle & basket

What constitutes “art” and what qualities confer the esteemed title of “artist” onto a mere aspirant are questions that have engrossed man for millennia.  Jacques-Louis David believed the artist was one who could execute his vision: To give a body and a perfect form to one’s thought, this—and only this—is to be an artist,” he remarked.  Henry Miller argued the artist was the “unrecognized hero of our time – and of all time” whereas Georgia O’Keeffe held that the artist was simply someone who filled “space in a beautiful way.”  Sarah Ban Breathnach’s definition is perhaps most similar to Mark Getlein’s: the purpose of art, he asserted, is to “create extraordinary versions” of ordinary things.  

But unlike these writers and artists, Miss Breathnach contends art isn’t only confined to easels and paintbrushes– art can be made of the everyday.  As fellow poet of the prosaic Henry David Thoreau so elegantly phrased, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”  Much as Cezanne could glimpse the miraculous in something as mundane as a bowl of fruit, we can exalt our lives by elevating the ordinary to the status of ritual.  Brewing coffee.  Reading the morning paper.  Setting the table.  Most of us hurry through these daily rounds, accustomed as we are to their trivialities and trifles.  But what are diapers and groceries and dry cleaning if not the material for the greatest masterpiece- life itself?  The artist can only discern the possibility for art if he scrutinizes his subject and carefully renders its details: the intensity of its colors, the outline of its shapes.  To be an artist of the everyday we must act with love, reverence and a similar sense of heartfelt attention.  Rather than carelessly throw on the first thing in our closet and barely brush our hair, why not take the time to establish a real beauty routine and transform the early morning bathroom rush into a glorious retreat of self-pampering and self-care?  why not do a face mask and paint our nails?  If we take a brief respite from our habitual ways of seeing, if we conduct ourselves with the attentive eyes and receptive minds of artists, life can be our magnum opus.

In Other Words: Jhumpa Lahiri’s Linguistic Love Affair

in other wordsIt’s hard to fathom spending your life honing your craft only to mid-career opt for an entirely new medium.  What if Monet had given up oil paints so he could experiment with sculpture?  Or Andy Warhol exchanged Marilyn and soup cans for a bowl of fruit?  But that’s exactly what Ms. Lahiri does when she takes on the bold project of moving to Rome and abandoning her native tongue, an undertaking she christens a “a trial by fire, a sort of baptism.”  After winning the Pulitzer Prize for her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies at the ripe age of 33, Lahiri arrived at superstardom.  Universally acclaimed for her uncommon insight into the immigrant experience and the beauty of her spare, uncluttered prose, she embodied what it meant to be a successful writer.  Lahiri’s startling mastery of her own language- not to mention the extent of her literary renown- make it difficult to understand why she’d relinquish all that’s familiar to read- and write- solely in a foreign tongue.  

As she herself admits, there’s no practical reason for her to learn Italian: when she first embarks on her project, she doesn’t live in Italy, she doesn’t have Italian friends.  All she has is an inexhaustible desire, “an indiscreet absurd longing” to learn.  In Other Words, Lahiri’s exquisite autobiographical debut, written in Italian and translated into English by esteemed New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein, is a linguistic love letter written with the ear of a poet, the sensibility of a minimalist, the heart of an inamorata.  Italian is the chosen beloved, but Lahiri’s true subject is creative renewal.  A chronicle of one writer’s quest for a new voice, In Other Words traces the near impossible metamorphosis from tongue-tied inarticulateness to full-fledged fluency, from dabbling dilettante to consummate master.  One has to commend Lahiri for her tirelessness: despite barely having a 6th grader’s vocabulary and only a rudimentary understanding of basic grammar, she resolves to write an entire book in her adopted language, struggling-just as she did when she first learned English- to find the words to express herself.  

In an illuminating metaphor recalling Andre Gide’s emboldening assertion that “one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time,” Lahiri realizes she’s been learning Italian in the same way she’s been swimming- cowardly hugging the outside perimeter, never wandering too far from shore.  Though her 20 years of diligent study have enriched her mind and heart, she covets the mastery that has so far eluded her.  In much the same way she yearns to cast off the security of the shallows and swim dauntlessly in deep waters, she longs to toss her vocabulary flashcards and immerse herself in the language like never before.  This overwhelming desire acts as the impetus for her cross-continent move to Rome:

I want to cross a small lake.  It really is small, and yet the other shore seems too far away, beyond my abilities.  I’m aware the lake is very deep in the middle, and even though I know how to swim I’m afraid of being alone in the water, without any support.

The lake I’m talking about is in a secluded, isolated place.  To get there, you have to walk a short distance, through a silent wood.  On the other side you can see a cottage, the only house on the shore.  The lake was formed just after the last ice age, millennia ago.  The water is clear but dark, heavier than salt water, with no current.  Once you’re in, a few yards from shore, you can no longer see the bottom.  

In the morning I observe people coming to the lake, as I do.  I watch them cross in a confident, relaxed manner, stop for some minutes in front of the cottage, then return.  I count their arm strokes.  I envy them.  

For a month I swim around the lake, never going too far out.  This is a more significant distance- the circumference compared to the diameter.  It takes more than a half an hour to make this circle.  Yet I’m always close to the shore.  I can stop, I can stand up if I’m tired.  It’s good exercise but it’s not very exciting.  

Then one morning near the end of summer, I meet two friends at the lake.  I’ve decided to make the crossing with them, to finally get to the cottage on the other side.  I’m tired of just going along the edge.  

I count the strokes.  I know my companions are in the water with me, but I know that each of us is alone.  After about a hundred and fifty strokes I’m in the middle, the deepest part.  I keep going.  After a hundred more I see the bottom again.  

I arrive on the other side: I’ve made it with no trouble.  I see the cottage, until now distant, just steps from me.  I see the small, faraway silhouettes of my husband, my children.  They seem unreachable, but I know they’re not.  After a crossing, the known shore becomes the opposite side: here becomes there.  Charged with energy, I cross the lake again.  I’m elated.  

For twenty years I’ve studied Italian as if I were swimming along the edge of that lake.  Always next to my dominant language, English.  Always hugging that shore.  It was good exercise.  Beneficial for the muscles, for the brain, but not very exciting.  If you study a foreign language that way, you won’t drown.  The other language is always there to support you, to save you.  But you can’t float without the possibility of drowning, of sinking.  To know a new language, to immerse yourself, you have to leave the shore.  Without a life vest.  Without depending on solid ground.”  

lahiri

As she recalls her first trip to Italy in 1994, Lahiri equates her earliest encounters with the language with falling in love.  Indeed, Lahiri’s relationship with Italian is nothing short of a love affair: hearing the language- in cafes, on cobblestone streets-she’s seduced by more than its beauty; rather she feels an instant, inexplicable connection, as if learning the language were her destiny, Italian, her heavenly-ordained soul mate.  But despite her best efforts, for years, Lahiri’s love goes unrequited.  Though she savors the sensuous romance of a’s and o’s and studies doggedly, she understands next to nothing.  With the same poignancy that she describes being an immigrant in a foreign country, Lahiri details the heartbreaking irony of being a writer without words:

“I hear the excitement of the children wishing each other buon Natale– merry Christmas- on the street.  I hear the tenderness with which, one morning at the hotel, the woman who cleans the room asks me: Avete dormito bene?  Did you sleep well?  When a man besides me on the sidewalk wants to pass, I hear the slight impatience with which he asks, Permeesso?  May I?  

I can’t answer.  I’m not able to have a dialogue.  I listen.  What I hear, in the shops, in the restaurants, arouses an instaneous, intense, paradoxical reaction.  It’s as if Italian were already inside me and, at the time, completely external.  It doesn’t seem like a foreign language, although I know it is.  It seems strangely familiar.  I recognize something, in spite of the fact that I understand almost nothing.  

What do I recognize?  It’s beautiful, certainly, but beauty doesn’t enter into it.  It seems like a language with which I have to have a relationship.  It’s like a person met one day by chance, with whom I immediately feel a connection, of whom I feel fond.  As if I had known it for years, even though there is still everything to discover.  I would be unsatisfied, incomplete, if I didn’t learn it.  I realize there is space inside me to welcome it.  

I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment.  A closeness and at the same time a distance.  What I feel is something physical, inexplicable.  It stirs an absurd, indiscreet longing.  An exquisite tension.  Love at first sight.”

After her first trip, Lahiri begins studying Italian with a zeal that verges on fanaticism.  When she finally relocates to the eternal city, she’s overcome by a mysterious impulse: to write in the native tongue.  Overwhelmed and disoriented by the foreignness of this strange city, Lahiri- a writer known for her eloquence with words- finds solace in the private pages of her diary, where she can transcribe the trials and tribulations of adjusting to her new home.  Much like the diarists who came before her-from Virginia Woolf, titan of modernism, to Anais Nin, poetic charter of the human soul- Lahiri finds a certain kind of freedom in writing for no one’s eyes but her own.  A refuge from the ceaseless self-censorship of “formal” writing, the diary- particularly because its composed in a distant tongue- liberates her from the inhibiting prison of perfectionism.  Beginning again in a whole other medium, Lahiri rediscovers the simple satisfaction of finding the exact words to express herself:

“A week after arriving…I do something strange, unexpected.  I write my diary in Italian.  I do it almost automatically, spontaneously.  I do it because when I put my pen in my hand, I no longer hear English in my brain.  During this period when everything confuses me, everything unsettles me, I change the language I write in.  I begin to relate, in the most exacting way, everything that is testing me.  

I write in terrible, embarrassing Italian, full of mistakes.  Without correcting, without a dictionary, by instinct alone.  I grope my way, like a child, like a semi-literate.  I am ashamed of writing like this.  I don’t understand this mysterious impulse, which emerges out of nowhere.  I can’t stop.  

It’s as if I were writing with my left hand, my weak hand, the one I’m not supposed to write with.    It seems a transgression, a rebellion, an act of stupidity.  

During the first months in Rome, my clandestine Italian diary is the only thing that consoles me, the gives me stability.  Often, awake and restless in the middle of the night, I go to the desk to compose some paragraphs in Italian.  It’s an absolutely secret project.  No one suspects, no one knows.  

I don’t recognize the person who is writing in this diary, in this new approximate language.  But I know that it’s the most genuine, vulnerable part of me.  

Before I moved to Rome I seldom wrote in Italian.  I tried to compose some letters to an Italian friend of mine who lives in Madrid, some emails to my teacher.  They were like formal, artificial exercises.  The voice didn’t seem to be mine.  In America it wasn’t.  

In Rome, however, writing in Italian is the only way to feel myself present here- maybe to have a connection, especially as a writer, with Italy.  The new diary, although imperfect, although riddled with mistakes, mirrors my disorientation clearly.  It reflects a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment.  

In the months before coming to Italy, I was looking for another direction for my writing.  I wanted a new approach.  I didn’t know that the language I had studied slowly for years in America would, finally, give me the direction.

I use up one notebook, I start another.  A second metaphor comes to mind: it’s as if, poorly equipped, I were climbing a mountain.  It’s a sort of literary act of survival.  I don’t have many words to express myself- rather, the opposite.  I’m aware of a state of deprivation.  And yet, at the same time, I feel free, light.  I rediscover the reason I write, the joy as well as the need.  I find again the pleasure I’ve felt since I was a child: putting words in a notebook that no one will read.  

In Italian I write without style, in a primitive way.  I’m always uncertain.  My sole intention, along with a blind but sincere faith, is to be understood, and to understand myself.”

geography of rome

Soon Lahiri is not only writing privately in Italian- she’s writing publicly as well.  Recounting the unexpected visit from the muses that leads to her first short story in her adopted language, she recaptures the bliss of being a beginner.  A writer of remarkable restraint and refinement, Lahiri is a virtuoso of her native English, but it’s this very expertise that keeps her constantly doubting herself.  Should she say “elated” or “ecstatic”?  write in short, declarative sentences or be more elaborate?  use a semi-colon or a comma?  “Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail,” Virginia Woolf once wrote, “how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in…and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”  To write- to create anything for that matter- is to perpetually second-guess yourself.  This doubt is compounded the more possibilities you have to choose from.  Coined the “paradox of choice,” this natural law states the more abundant your options, the more difficult it is to decide- in other words, there is liberation in limiting yourself.  This is certainly true for Lahiri, who discovers the most exhilarating freedom while bound in chains: in Italian, she doesn’t possess the vocabulary to endlessly debate between synonyms, she doesn’t have the critical capacity to judge whether what she writes is “good.”  But it’s her very lack of ability, her very lack of choices that rekindles her love for the written word:

“One day I find myself in a library where I never feel very comfortable, and where I don’t usually work well.  There, at an anonymous desk, an entire story in Italian comes to my mind.  It comes in a flash.  I hear the sentences in my brain.  I don’t know where they originate, I don’t know how I’m able to hear them.  I write rapidly in the notebook; I’m afraid it will all disappear before I can get it down.  Everything unfolds calmly.  I don’t use the dictionary.  It takes about two hours to write the first half of the story.  The next day I return to the same library for another couple of hours to finish it.  I am aware of a break, along with a birth.  I’m stunned by it.  

I’ve never written a story in this fashion.  In English I can consider what I write, I can stop after every sentence to look for the right words, to reorder them, to change my mind a thousand times.  My knowledge of English is both an advantage and a hinderance.  I rewrite everything like a lunatic until it satisfies me, while in Italian, like a solider in the desert, I have to simply keep going.”

“The moment when a book is best comes before you have written a word,” novelist Mark Childress once wittily observed.  Zadie Smith put it more bleakly: to be an artist, she declared, is to “resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”  No matter how much we edit, no matter how much we obsessively prettify and polish, what we write inevitably disappoints: writing is an everlasting exercise in disenchantment.  So why- when it’s already so heart-rending to compose in her own language- would Lahiri willingly endeavor to write exclusively in another, an aim that will almost certainly elude her?  The preposterousness of her project doesn’t escape the Pulitzer-Prize winner: “Why does this imperfect, spare new voice attract me?” she wonders, “Why does poverty satisfy me?  What does it mean to give up a palace to live practically on the street, in a shelter so fragile?”  Much like James Joyce, who asserted that “mistakes are portals of discovery,” Lahiri comes to realize that- despite our culture’s worshipful reverence of perfection- flaws are the birthplace of all novelty:

“Why, as an adult, as a writer, am I interested in this new relationship with imperfection?  What does it offer me?  I would say a stunning clarity, a more profound self-awareness.  Imperfection inspires invention, imagination, creativity.  It stimulates.  The more I feel imperfect, the more I feel alive.”

A remarkable writer and woman, Lahiri inspires her readers with her courage, her determination and, above all, her passion.  An amorous love letter that will seduce your soul, In Other Words is not just for self-proclaimed Italophiles or those already familiar with Lahiri’s work- it’s for anyone who delights being in the presence of a true aficionado.  

 

How Friendship Teaches Us to Be Merciful

Today- more than ever- we are experiencing a tolerance crisis.  Our political landscape has hallelujah anywaypolarized into warring ideological camps whose central occupation is defending their own belief’s fortress.  Division seems to capture the spirit of our age as the very fabric of society has begun to unravel along racial and cultural lines- lines we thought we transcended half a century ago.  Rather than build bridges of tolerance and understanding, we erect barriers of bias and bigotry until more and more we conceive of those different from us as unworthy of mercy- that miraculous human ability to forgive the unforgivable.  But why should we be merciful to those we deem loathsome?  Why pardon when we can punish?  Why forgive those who’ve done us wrong? 

For writer of soul-stretching wisdom and heart-warming honesty, Anne Lamott, author of Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, we can only learn to extend mercy to ourselves if we extend mercy to others.  No where is this more true than in friendship.  “Friendship is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness,” poet and philosopher David Whyte writes in his lovely redefinition of the not-often-pondered concept of camaraderie, “Friendship not only helps us to see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn…All friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.  Without tolerance and mercy all friendships die.”  Fearlessly honest about her own foibles and frailties, Lamott recognizes that humanity and inadequacy are one and the same.  To be a friend is to see another in their all too human defects and deficiencies- and accept them anyways.  More importantly, to be a friend is to bare our splintered souls in all their imperfection and realize we’re still worthy- of connection, of love, of belonging.  With her distinct blend of good humor and nurturing, motherly insight, Lamott argues there are two paths to living a more merciful life:

“There are many routes to living a merciful life in this mean and dangerous world; assorted ways to find and extend inclusion after lives of cheeky isolation; a number of walkways to awakening and gratitude.  And there are two goat paths to the peace of self-forgiveness.

The first is to get cancer.  All the people I’ve known who have recieved a terminal diagnosis have gotten serious about joy, forgiveness, simple pleasures- new green grass, massage, cherries, the summer’s first peaches- and have been able to find good-enough peace toward people who did unforgivable damage to them and their families.  They know they are going to die one of these days, but maybe not today, so they live, savor, rest, wake up kind of amazed.  

The second is to fall in step with a teacher, briefly or forever, a real teacher who makes it clear that even as he or she points to the moon, we have got to stop staring at the person’s fingers.  If we want freedom from grudge, we will at times need wise counsel- teachers, with flashlights.  Forgiving rat finks who have betrayed a beloved, let alone forgiving one’s own disappointing self, is grad school.  Without these studies, we live so small.  Every one of us sometimes needs a tour guide to remind us how big and deep life is meant to be.  

Mercy means that we no longer constantly judge everybody’s large and tiny failures, foolish hearts, dubious convictions, and inevitable bad behavior.  We will never do this perfectly, but how do we do it better?  How do we mostly hold people we’ve encountered with the understanding of a wise, caring mother who has seen it all, knows that we all struggle, knows that on the inside we’re as vulnerable as a colony of rabbits?  

Sometimes when we cannot take it one more day, like the renowned octopus who recently escaped his aquarium and headed toward the sea, a mentor appears, who knows things, and more important, knows that he or she does not know things.  We want what the person has, a gentler way of seeing, a less rigid way of thinking, less certainty, more play.”  

Battered and broken after years of alcoholism, Lamott confesses that when she finally trudged through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous, she despised herself.  How could she have so much- a loving, loyal family, good friends, several books- and still be so bent on destroying herself?  Though she’s horrified by her own sick, self-defeating behavior, the newly sober Lamott finds comfort in confiding in Loretta, a fellow alcoholic who offers a cup of coffee and a kind, nonjudgmental ear:

“Thirty years ago, one week after my last drink, on a hot July afternoon, a tall and rather plain woman came up to me in a room of sober people.  She extended her grimy hand to me.  She was a gardner.  I found out she had been a junkie, and had gotten clean ten years earlier at the alternative drug rehab in Synanon, famous for having had two of its members put a rattlesnake in the mailbox of an antagonistic lawyer.  She was funny but seemed to be in a bad mood.  I was, too: I had woken up days earlier, hungover and in deep animal confusion, as I was most mornings: Why couldn’t I stop drinking after six or seven friendly social drinks?  Finally the exhaustion of living this way had propelled me to a group of people who had somehow found a way out, a path with one another’s company and bad coffee, people who were laughing about their crazy thoughts and pasts.  Most of them were overly cheerful, but Loretta was cranky, and I like this in a girl.  

[…]

She got me a cup of coffee with four sugars and we sat in a corner.  She listened to the bones of my story: I was thirty-two, with several published books, and the local love of my family and lifelong friends.  I was loved out of all sense of proportion, yet I got drunk every day.  I was poor and bulimic, but adorable and cherished.  There was one problem: my insides…My mind and spirits and behavior were deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.”

anne lamott

In a moving moment recalling Seneca’s conviction that “one of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and be understood,” Loretta responds to Lamott’s story not with denouncement or disgust but with compassionate understanding- a kind of sympathetic “I’ve been there.”  Just as literature reminds us of our shared humanity by requiring we locate commonalities between ourselves and a character whom we deem strange and other, friendship- but a different kind of exchange of stories- confirms we are in this together:

“Then Loretta told me her story: She’d been put in an orphanage after her mother died, although her brothers lived with their father; her cousins gave her a shot of speed at fifteen, which is how she discovered what she wanted to do with her life, i.e. drugs, not knowing of course that this would come to involve turning tricks, alcoholism, and Synanon.  She was smart, with no formal education, a voracious reader, and she had what I wanted, a way of taking each day as it came, mostly with humor and even gratitude.  What she had could not quite be put into words, but the best way to capture it may be to say that she knew what wasn’t true.”

Friendship requires the barest vulnerability: to forge long-lasting bonds, we must be willing to divulge all of ourselves- both our assets and our shortcomings.  But it’s terrifying to share our selfishness, our small-spiritedness with another.  What if they can’t forgive us our trespasses?  what if they realize we’re shitty?  What friendship teaches Lamott is human beings are united in their fallibility.  Among A.A.’s congregation of prostitutes and drug addicts and cheating husbands and neglectful mothers, Lamott makes the ultimate confession and discloses herself at her most disgraceful: how she drinks everyday, how she throws up after every meal.  Like a repentant sinner, she seeks redemption but worries her misdeeds will forever bar her from the paradise of human belonging.  Instead what she finds is the women she encounters welcome her whole-heartedly.  They don’t criticize or condemn but rather offer a cookie and a cup of coffee.  But their greatest consolation is two simple words, “Me too.”  The fact that these women (who admit to also having done awful, unutterable things) still love her and themselves heartens Lamott’s soul.  When others so ungrudgingly grant us mercy, we realize we should be more merciful to ourselves.  A restorative cure for our society’s pathological perfectionism, Hallelujah Anyway maintains we’re still lovable- even though we’re only “mostly,” not completely, redeemable:

“We hung out with these other women, who had betrayed their families and deepest values, and who told me, ‘Guess what?  Me, too.  I have those secrets, that self-obsession.  It’s okay.  Let me get you some cookies.’  

[…]

We were so much the same, except for our histories.  We’d been such good girls, able to tell ourselves that our parents were okay, they loved and would protect us, even as we were scarred by their unhappiness.  Then the world got its mitts on us, no matter that we put our best shining faces forward, and we stayed alive however we could.  We grew into women with big hearts, scars and dark secrets, mostly gentle and kind, mostly generous, with areas of weakness and craving.  When I was a child, I knew a fabulous dog named Mostly, who was mostly beagle, mostly a love bug who every so often bit one of us, although not all that hard.  Loretta and I were mostly okay.”