Anne Lamott, and Why The Masthead of This Blog is a Raggedy Quilt.

Anne Lamott totally stole my metaphor.

No, not really. But her new book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, plays with the metaphor that made me choose that particular photograph for my masthead and, moreover, explains my love of quilts, especially the kind made from bits of cast-off clothes or leftover scraps that aren’t good for anything until they are stitched together into something beautiful. On the wall of my mother in law’s house hangs a gorgeous old ‘crazy’ quilt that was nearly tossed into the trash; it’s likely over a hundred years old, and that’s probably my favorite kind of quilt: jaggedy lines, clashing colors, and unusual embroidery tying it all together into a startling mosaic of color and texture.

Crazy Quilt Mosaic via Flickr. By Buttersweet.
Crazy Quilt Mosaic via Flickr. By Buttersweet.

Anyway: Anne Lamott’s newest book is very small. And it came out so soon after her last book that I was tempted to dismiss it, like, “how could anything good be produced so quickly?” Recently I read a review in which the reviewer dismissed Anne Lamott, saying that each of her books is basically the same. I admit that I wondered if this was just going to be a volume of so much recycling. And while all the classic Lamott themes are there, this book moved me more deeply than perhaps any of her spiritual essays since Traveling Mercies. It’s small, but it really packs a punch, not least in dealing with the problem of pain in a way that’s conversational, witty, and wise.

Here are some of my favorite lines and passages:

When something ghastly happens, it is not helpful to many people if you say that it’s all part of God’s perfect plan, or that it’s for the highest good of every person in the drama, or that more will be revealed, even if that is all true. Because at least for me, if someone’s cute position minimizes the crucifixion, it’s bullsh*t. Which I say with love.

Christ really did suffer, as the innocent of the earth really do suffer. It’s the ongoing tragedy of humans. Our lives and humanity are untidy: disorganized and careworn.

My understanding of incarnation is that we are not served by getting away from the grubbiness of suffering.

Any healthy half-awake person is occasionally going to be pierced with a sense of the unfairness and the catastrophe of life for ninety-five percent of the people on this earth.

Pretending that things are nicely boxed up and put away robs us of great riches.

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To get back to what this all has to do with crazy quilts and such: there is so much brokenness in the world, and our ability to stitch it all up is incomplete and impermanent. But while we are waiting for all things to be made new, we find hope and healing in the connections we make with one another, and with God: paying attention to the extravagant beauty in the most ordinary things, sharing a meal, being kind. These are stitches. This is grace.

I highly recommend it, but Mom: don’t buy yourself a copy. I’m sending you one for Christmas.

Better a Bowl of Kraft Mac & Cheese Where Love Is…

A few days ago, I came across this great post at The Power of Moms: it’s about how your children want and need you–not Pinterest-perfect meals, home decor, and crafts:

“Can we remind each other that it is our uniqueness and love that our children long for? It is our voices. Our smiles. Our jiggly tummies. Of course we want to learn, improve, exercise, cook better, make our homes lovelier, and provide beautiful experiences for our children, but at the end of the day, our children don’t want a discouraged, stressed-out mom who is wishing she were someone else.”

Or, I would add, snapping at her husband and/or kids because of her stressed-out perfectionism, which happens around here more often than I would like to admit.

I want to be the mom who makes perfectly nourishing chicken soup when my kids are sick:

and perfectly cozy, adorable blankets with their names on them:

and tasty, diverse foods:

veggie sushi with yummy plum powder from Japan (thanks, Susan!)

But more than anything, I want to be the mom who is close to her kids, who lets them know in thousands of ways that they are loved and they are safe in the world, that they are beautiful and so, so precious.

The other day when I was making the empty tomb cake, I found myself ready to snap at the children for (understandably) swiping bits of frosting and hovering around me as I assembled and decorated the cake. I had, in my mind, a Pinterest-perfect picture of how I wanted it to look. And so when I pulled out the bag of candy rocks, I wanted to be the one to put each one perfectly in place.

Okay, guys, you can each put on five rocks. And then I want you to let me do the rest.

But then I started to feel as if I’d eaten too many candy rocks and they were gathering in my stomach. And so I had a little talk with myself–what is this all about, anyway?–and handed them the bag.

Go wild, guys. Just decorate it up.

Anne Lamott, who’s one of my very favorite writers, has this great piece up at the O magazine. She talks about how her parents read Julia Child and served up world-class cassoulet, chutneys, and mole poblano, but hated each other with a silent, stuffed-down anger. On the other hand, her friends’ families served up “aggressively modest” food like English muffin pizza and tuna noodle casserole, which was delicious to her because of the spiritual food–the love–that went with it.

She writes:

the steamed persimmon pudding was easy on the taste buds but hard to swallow, because it came at such a cost: a lump in the throat, anxiety in our bellies.”

Proverbs 15:17 sums this bit of insight well:

A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate. (NLT)

or, if you like:

Better a bread crust shared in love than a slab of prime rib served in hate. (MSG–other translations here.)

And so while I value good, wholesome food that’s been raised responsibly and prepared well–and while I think that this can be a tangible (edible?) way of loving other people, especially my family–why, I still think the essential ingredient is love.
And, of course, joy.
The other day I was rolling fresh pasta and started to get really ticked at the boys because they were doing all sorts of normal and age-appropriate things like sticking their fingers in the gears and generally getting in the way, and I thought:
Better I should buy some Ronzoni than snap at my kids because I’m stressed about fresh pasta.
Better a bowl of Kraft Mac & Cheese where love is, than a Gratin Dauphinois with grumbling.
Better to order in a pizza than spend all your time hand-stretching foccacia and having no time to play Candy Land.
What other “better a _____ than ______?” would you add?
(tech stuff: C77ZZVJT65E5)

Lenting Fasting; Easter Feasting

I’m not sure what the actual stats were, but it sure seemed like most of the kids in my high school were Catholic. When I started going there as an eighth grader, everyone (it seemed) was busy making their confirmations. On Ash Wednesday, lots of people went around looking like this:
And while I’m pretty sure it wasn’t constitutional or whatever, somehow it seems that the school lunches on Fridays during Lent tended toward the fish stick and pizza variety and away from the fleisch products. Could it have been so? I can’t be sure, but I definitely remember people “giving up” various things–chocolate, swearing, soda–for Lent.
I must admit, I always felt a little left out as one of the few Protestant-y type Christians. Because I don’t how much my A Beka curriculum told me that the Catholic Church was BAD, I found all that liturgy and incense and images and ashes and abnegation attractive; a welcome change from the excessively inward “is your heart right with God?” kind of thing. I could always see–can still see–how holding a cross and a circle of beads might help one’s mind stay on one’s prayers.
But it wasn’t until after college, I think, that I started to see some of my fellow evangelical-type Christians practicing Lent in the more modern style of “giving something up.”
(Orthodox Christians still go vegan for Lent; traditionally, Lenten fasts involved limiting meals to one a day and fasting from various animal products. Hence, Mardi Gras-type celebrations are called Carnival in Latin America: “farewell, medium-well!”)
Some Christians see the tradition of Lent–beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending forty days later, on Easter Sunday–as a way of “fasting while the Bridegroom is taken.” Others see it as a way of participating in Jesus’ 40 days of desert temptation. In any case, practicing some kind of fasting during Lent is definitely no longer a ‘Catholic’ thing. What’s its appeal?
1.  Lenten Fasting Makes Outward and Visible Stuff That Is Otherwise Just In Your Head
A vintage (circa 1960) Christianity Today article put it this way:
“Lent can become a time when material things are put again in their proper secondary position; when we see in the spiritual the unconquerable forces of life. It can become a time of self-examination, when we reflect upon our present position in the pilgrimage and check our directions. It can become a time of personal readjustment, not through mental resolutions to do better but through yielding ourselves afresh to the God who demands to be obeyed. And it can become a time when, by following the battered path to Calvary, we identify ourselves once again with the Saviour who makes all things new.”
And in an NPR interview, the inimitable Anne Lamott said:
“Ash Wednesday, to me, is about as plain as it gets — we come from ashes and return to ashes, and yet there is something, as the poets have often said, that remains standing when we’re gone.”
Hence Facebook, online, and other media-fasts. Not “I should spend less time doing this or more time doing that,” but a firm resolution to do so. Can this be ‘legalism’? Sure. Can it just be a Good and Healthy Discipline? Absolutely.
2. Lenten Fasting Gives You a Good Reason to Say No To Good Things
Andrew Santella wrote the following for Slate a few years back:
“Perhaps it’s the things that made Lent hard to take as a Catholic kid—the solemnity, the self-denial, the disappearance of hot dogs from the lunchroom—that account most for the season’s broadening appeal. I was schooled to see Lent as a time apart, a respite from the daily pursuit of self-gratification.”
And likewise Lauren Winner:
“In sated and overfed America […] fasting teaches us that we are not utterly subject to our bodily desires.”
Greediness is tiring. A season of voluntary simplicity is–or can be–one way of taking a kind of rest. Also, it can be a way of expressing solidarity with those whose simplicity is not-so-voluntary.
3. Lenten Fasting Provides a Counterpoint To Easter Feasting
My favorite Episcopalian priest I’ve never met, Robert Farrar Capon, exalts the rhythm of festal/ferial as a splendid way of ordering our appetites. Because really, how much better is Easter Dinner–how much sweeter a sacramental celebrating that Joy of Joys–when you have prepared for it by fasting?
The sensation I always remember in this regard is how incredibly tasty a nasty freeze-dried meal by the fire with friends can taste when you’ve been hiking up and over mountains all day on nothing but water and GORP–a sweet nectar/sore need dynamic.
Again, Anne Lamott on the breaking of the Lenten fast–ie, Easter Sunday:
“I’m going to go to my little church, and we will have a huge crowd of about 60 people. And I will cry a little bit … out of joy, and then I will go home, and I will have 25 people — 15 relatives and about 10 riffraff, i.e., my closest friends — and we will sit down and we will eat, the most sacred thing we do.”
Even though I want to fast, I’m not quite sure what form that will take for me/us this year.
What is your take on Lenten fasting? Will you fast this Lent? How?
{This is the first stop on the IVP Lenten blog tour! Next up is Margot Starbuck on February 27, followed by Brent Bill, Logan Mehl-Laituri, Andrew Byers, Valerie Hess, Beth Booram, and Chad Young. Stay in touch by following @IVPbooks or @IVpress on Twitter.}