A couple of weeks ago, I picked up my copy of Anne Lamott's "Operating Instructions" to find a suitable quote for my friend Andrea's blessingway. The evening brought together two circles of friends who hadn't previously met, and it was an absolutely beautiful, lovely night. We all read something about motherhood - touching children's books, poems, things we ourselves had written. I read a short blog of mine - written when Dora was teeny-tiny - and the Lamott excerpt. Being an excerpt from a Lamott book, it included the F-word, some political references, made us laugh, and made us cry - everything you want and need in a good piece of writing.
Looking for that excerpt was enough to get me started, and I've been reading a little bit ever since. To be a good writer, you need to read a lot - so I know this is good for me. And I enjoy it. But it also means I've had less time to write. I want to write - even have entire blogs pass through my head in, say, the shower. The time simply isn't there, right now. But sinking into a book these past few weeks has been a luxury, a return to some former part of myself that I have essentially lost in motherhood. I have always loved to read, and when I lay down in bed on a summer night, with the window open and the fan spinning above me, I am a child and a teenager and a newlywed and an expectant mother all at once, feeling the pages slip between my fingers.
I've read this book by Anne Lamott about three times - once before I was married, when it's story of friendship was the most powerful narrative to me. I re-read it when Dora was a little baby, the same age as Lamott's son Sam is in the book, and I found solace in her honest and funny account of the wild swings between absolute adoration and complete desolation that come with new motherhood. Now the book is still touching, still funny, and it is her sadness about her father's death - her feeling that him not knowing Sam is a real tragedy - that speaks to me the most.
My mother had a thing for books, too, and it is through her that I discovered Anne Lamott, and nearly every other contemporary author I have read and enjoyed. She worked in bookstores and libraries throughout her life, and I trusted her literary guidance so completely that, when she died, it had been years since I had picked out a book for myself. After years of following and enjoying her suggestions, I felt lost. There is a comfort now in returning to words I know that my mother read, but I miss the new adventures, too, miss the unfolding of some unknown story that comes in a new literary experience.
The past week has unfolded like Lamott's account of new-motherhood, traveling over ups and downs with the speed and ferocity of a roller coaster. After an incredibly stressful day at work last Friday, I took some engagement pictures for good friends Joanna and Trevor. I had been in tears in my office hours before, and found absolute joy in taking the pictures for them. I came home feeling energized and happy. The next day, eating lunch and babysitting for a friend, my phone buzzed on the table indicating a new email had arrived. I read it, and gasped out loud. The email brought the sad news that a colleague and friend had died, totally unexpectedly, apparently of a heart attack. He had been at a meeting, left the table, and didn't come back. I am sure that the day before, he had packed a suitcase and kissed his wife goodbye for a business trip, but he never came home. On Monday, a friend who attended his funeral said she had been in a room full of people in absolute disbelief. And today, I heard some sad news about another friend, an illness returned for another round.
It seemed almost unbelievable, then, when yesterday the facilitator at a workshop I was attending asked "if you had a year to live, would you be doing what you're doing now?" People around me said yes, but I stayed silent. I'm not sure it's possible to know the answer, and my tendency to get tied up in logistics stopped me from going too far into the answer anyway. What about money? If I have a year to live, I must need health insurance! I can't just quit my job, etc. etc. It's an interesting question, and it does make me think. A year ago, my friend had a year to live, and he didn't even know it. I guess that's the point of asking the question.
If I had a year to live, I'm not sure what I would do, but my guess is that there are a few things I would try to do: Read. Write. Take pictures. Sew and knit and be at the farmer's market every Saturday. Spend time with my girl. Reconnect with my husband. Walk the dogs every day. Vacuum - maybe. If I had a year to live, I'd start picking out new books again.
When faced with uncertainty, Anne Lamott writes her questions on a little slip of paper and puts them into a box by her bedside. This is her way of asking God for guidance. After this week of loss and reflection and returning to words I have loved and read before, I woke up this morning feeling uncertain myself. Perhaps I will always be wondering what I'm supposed to be doing. This morning, I took a cue from one of my favorite authors. I wrote my question on a slip of paper, put it in a little wooden box in the top drawer of the antique dresser in my room - the one that belonged to my mother. Like Anne Lamott, I'm waiting for my next operating instructions. I think maybe a trip to the library is in order. It's almost time for a new book.