[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”1594632588″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41Ci2iclwOL.jpg” width=”188″ alt=”Anne Lamott” ]Stitching Together Meaning in the Midst of Hopelessness.
A Review of
Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair
Hardback: Riverhead, 2013
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Reviewed by Jasmine Smart
In an article in GQ magazine, Andrew Corsello wrote on comedian Louis C.K., identifying C.K.’s genius as being the ability to say the things his audience isn’t even aware they’re thinking until Louis says them for us. This same sentiment, it seems to me, applies to Anne Lamott. Her writings speak to universal concerns, and yet she writes in such a way that whatever sorrow I am bringing with me seems to be directly addressed. She recently celebrated her sixtieth birthday, and she seems to be approaching this new decade in her life with the same artful connection to the world around her that she has exhibited time and time again in her writing. In her most recently published book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, she approaches the question of how to make sense out of a world of chaos: “One rarely knows where to begin the search for meaning, though by necessity, we can only start where we are. That would be fine, when where we find ourselves turns out to be bearable. What about when it isn’t—after 9/11, for instance, or a suicide in the family? I really don’t have a clue” (2).
Of course, that’s not entirely true. She has a semblance of a clue, which she shares with us in the next line: “I do know it somehow has to do with sticking together as we try to make sense of chaos, and that seems a way to begin.” Even if she does not give straightforward, cookie-cutter answers to the problem of evil, her presence as a conversation partner can be felt in the text, and during the time I spent reading the book, I felt a little less alone when facing such a daunting question. Her words are pieced together in a melodic, almost musical way, so that even if we approach her text from a chaotic world, her rhythmic writing gives us a small piece of peace in our souls.
Reading this in the Lenten/ Easter season seemed particularly appropriate. I even found the chance to use a passage for a sermon about the resurrection of Lazarus:
“Life can be wild, hard, and sweet, but it can also be wild, hard and cruel.
The bad news is that after the suffering, we wait at the empty tomb for a while, the body of our beloved gone, grieving an unsurvivable loss.
It’s a terrible system.
But the good news is that then there is new life.
Wildflowers bloom again.
That’s it? You ask. That’s all you’ve got?
No. I’ve also got bulbs. Well. They’re both such surprises. Wildflowers stop you in your hiking tracks. You want to savor the colors and scents, let them breathe you in, let yourself be amazed. And bulbs that grow in the cold rocky dirt remind us that no one is lost” (11-12).
Grieving at the empty tomb. We do that, don’t we? Even though the resurrection of Jesus is good news, life comes from death, wildflowers and planted flowers emerge after a cold winter, there is still an awareness of that loss. In someone else’s sermon on Lazarus, the point was made that we would much rather invite Jesus into our tombs, ask him to redecorate and spruce up the place, than to accept the risky proposition of stepping into new life.
So how do we step forth into a resurrected life, from the down-to-earth wisdom of Anne Lamott? “This is all that restoration requires most of the time, that one person not give up. For instance, when I was in school, there were a few teachers along the way who must have seen… power and beauty deep inside me, but that I was afraid of this and I was in fragments… They had a divine curiosity about me… This is who I think we are supposed to be, people who help call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness” (78-9). In no way does Lamott diminish the depth of this hopelessness, whether it is personal tragedy or a communal tragedy like the Newtown shooting, which she references. Through sharing her own stories, one is invited to remember their own, both the triumphs and the failures.
But even in remembering the failure, there is no sense of judgment from Lamott. Her own narratives show that the best one can do is be gracious toward oneself, and just try to live one day at a time: “You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that’s done, you take one more stitch… Empathy is meaning” (93-4).
Although this book calls itself a “handbook,” it does not fit that definition in the typical sense by providing a manual or blueprint on how to get through life’s tragedies. But Anne Lamott certainly offers up a fellow traveler’s wisdom and presence in the midst of one’s own tragedies, in a way that might incline someone to read this book often and to keep it close at hand.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
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From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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