Lamott essays display wit, wisdom

SMALL VICTORIES: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace. By Anne Lamott. Riverhead. 304 pages. $22.95.

Picking up a book by Anne Lamott is like having a conversation with an old friend: her style is accessible, witty, and wise. She makes us feel better about our flaws by laying bare her own, and while we are busy laughing, she slips in moments of grace.

Curled up in bed on cold winter nights with Lamott’s most recent collection of stories “Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace,” I frequently startled my husband with bursts of laughter over her clever observations.

In the chapter titled “Dad” she writes, “I have been known to hold the random grudge, usually against a really rotten egg. Yet for two years recently I was quite mad at my dad, the person I loved best. The problem with this is that he has been dead for 34 years. Also, he died tragically, way too young. So you’d think I might cut him some slack. Nah.”

Her father’s girlfriend had discovered a journal he’d kept and sent it to Lamott who was hurt and betrayed by some of the journal entries. To hell with him! she states, and decides that at 60 years old, “Growing up is not going nearly as efficiently as I had hoped.”

The book is organized into four sections titled: Companions, Families, Airborne and Ground, and while the themes are not entirely clear, readers won’t care because her stories are honest and her insights compelling.

Lamott is a recovered addict, single mother (now proud grandmother), and Christian who has written more than a dozen books, and is widely acclaimed for her nonfiction guides, including “Bird by Bird” and “Operating Instructions: A Journal of my Son’s First Year.” Her gift as a writer is her ability to show her own flaws so that readers can easily digest the simple but powerful lessons on the complicated topics of life and death.

In the prelude titled “Victory Lap,” Lamott walks through the Muir Woods with her dying friend Barbara, who is being pushed in a wheel chair. Barbara’s smile is “not a flash of high-wattage white teeth, but the beauty of low-watt, the light that comes in through the bottom branches; sweet, peaceful, wry.”

She shifts to a discussion about death with her son when he was six years old and how, “when he realized that he and I were not going to die at the exact same moment, he cried for a little while, and then said that if he’d known this, he wouldn’t have agreed to be born.” This is what makes Lamott such a beloved writer. She holds readers hands and gently guides us through sadness and loss with humor.

There are occasional moments that felt overdone with yet another dying friend and the pessimist in me wanted to roll my eyes, but I kept reading because in the end, I discovered another small moment of beauty. Faith is a common theme in all of her writing, and its done in a way that is not preachy. Lamott writes about prayer as a constant in her life and reveals her struggle to forgive her dead mother whose ashes were stored in the back of her closet for two years.

In “Mom: Part One” she writes: “I assumed Jesus wanted me to forgive her, but I also knew He loves honesty and transparency. I don’t think He was rolling his eyes impatiently at me while she was in the closet. I don’t think much surprises Him. This is how we make important changes — barely, poorly, slowly. And still. He raises His fist in triumph.”

Just like that old friend, we turn to Lamott for comfort and wisdom.

Reviewer Amy Mercer is marketing and communications manager at the Gibbes Museum of Art.