What If Anne Lamott Hates Me?
June 10, 2020 § 5 Comments
By J. A. Strong
I’m reading Bird by Bird again. This time I’ve read exactly as far as I have the other six times: “Perfectionism.” Each time I read the book, I attempt Anne Lamott’s prompt of “writing down every single thing you can remember from your first few years in school. Start with kindergarten.”
I remember kindergarten in chromacolor fed by all the senses. First grade, by comparison, is a smudge.
We arrived in Texas and my parents scrambled to find an apartment. We found a place in the nick of time, the day before school started.
I recall thinking my teacher was pretty and petite. I was six. How could I have thought someone was petite? But my mind stubbornly tells me I did.
First grade was spelling tests preceded by elaborate folder-wall building so no one cheated and math problems worked at the chalkboard in front of everyone.
One memory predominates: waiting for the classroom door to open each morning, anxious about what I would see. Our desks had open-front metal boxes mounted underneath, inside which we stored our things. Every day after school, my teacher checked them for neatness. If one met with her disapproval, she tipped it, and all its contents gushed to the floor. It must have been satisfying after frustrating days. Each morning, we found out whose desks had vomited.
I spent those moments before the door opened in florid worry. What if it was my desk?
One short boy with dark curly hair and a body made of circles almost always came in to find his desk trashed. He got slower and slower putting it back together. He made it seem like fun. When the teacher wasn’t looking, he would eat leftover lunch things he found. He carefully sharpened each pencil, staying at the sharpener so long he had to dump the shavings twice, like he didn’t even know the rules. He got in trouble before he finished cleaning up, for making others laugh.
I worried more. What if I made people laugh while I cleaned up?
Now I can’t remember if my desk was ever an offender.
Was it this year or the next that we made the salt maps of Texas? When did I tell mom the elaborate lie about our school cafeteria burning down and how we repaired the damage in art class? What if this was second grade? What if I’m not a reliable narrator of my own life?
I review second grade. I liked my teacher, and I was learning without being afraid. Then she had a baby, our class was split into other classrooms. I ended up with the unhappy lady who was “fixin’ to retire.” This was the year of the fire, the plane crash, my mom’s miscarriage, the kitten, the shooting, the meatloaves, the snakes in the atrium.
I’ve never met Anne Lamott and I’m not likely to, so it doesn’t make sense that I worry about her imaginary opinion. But she likes candy corn and can’t quite stop at the ludicrous serving size of 19 corns. She’s in my tribe. Or I’d like her to be.
When I was just home from the hospital with my second child who would not wake to eat ever, a friend gave me Traveling Mercies. I lay in bed bleeding, trying to rouse my baby and entertain my toddler, reading that it could be okay. It might be okay if I went to a church with a female minister. It might be okay if I never went to church again. Anne Lamott was the first one to tell me it could be different in my lifetime. In my life.
When I learned she taught writing classes, I researched enrolling. She was a Writer. I was maybe someday going to be a writer. She understood so much of what no one around me understood.
But what if she hated me: my clothes, my face, my ideas, the specific words I wrote? What if my upbringing crept out in peevish aloofness? What if, even worse, my work evoked no response?
I keep rewriting my kindergarten stories, polishing those turds so she won’t hate me if I ever find myself in possession of enough shitty rough drafts to hash into an actual thing. And I re-read Bird by Bird until she writes:
“Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here — and, by extension, what we’re supposed to be writing.”
Writing this thrilled me like finger painting used to – big, bold lines that make me happy and bear my fingerprints. I feel like saying what that sleepy baby-turned-toddler yelled while playing hide and seek: “I found me!”
J.A. Strong’s writing grows from years of observing human behavior as a mother, personal assistant, and advertising account executive. She attained her journalism degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia and is a member of Shine Street Writers. An apprentice herbalist and permaculture student, Strong and her husband are turning their Florida property into a sustainable, regenerative ecosystem.