If you haven’t read anything by Anne Lamott before, welcome. I think you’re going to like it here!
I first encountered her writing when I taught creative writing and read her book Bird by Bird, which is an excellent read for aspiring writers and people who want to grow personally. I immediately snagged Stitches: a Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair when Amazon suggested it.
By June 2020, I think we all needed some hope and repair, so it was a healing time for me to read this one. Stuck at home, isolated from family, friends, coworkers, and students, I felt incredibly stuck.
“Sometimes we feel that we are barely pulling ourselves forward through a tight tunnel on a badly scraped-up elbow. But we do come out the other side, exhausted and changed.”Lamott 10
Stitches is all about the struggle we go through to figure out the difficult times in life. Part of our healing means sitting in the discomfort, something humans are wildly atrocious at. But, taking things one day at a time, stitch by stitch, bird by bird, is what Lamott is all about. Readers find a lot of success in thinking about their tribulations in this way.
“We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or it is unraveling, but if it were precise, we’d pretend life was just fine and running like a Swiss watch. This is not helpful if on the inside our understanding is that life is more often a cuckoo clock with rusty gears.”Lamott 13-4
Lamott uses her own experience with perfectionism and alcoholism to teach about healing.
“Sewing is a finger-and-heart equivalent of putting one foot in front of the other. If you come from a relatively healthy and loving family, you can make a mistake, go back, take it out or patch it. But there is no one fitting that description around here. I had to be taught that it was okay to make mistakes at the age of thirty-two, by the people who fished me out of the sludge of alcohol, confusion, and perfectionism.”Lamott 80
In a series of short essays, Lamott reveals how we can achieve this stitch-by-stitch approach to healing. One strategy is doing something you love, like reading a good book — a plan I can easily get behind!
“When you love something like reading — or drawing or music or nature — it surrounds you with a sense of connections to something great.”Lamott 22
According to Lamott, part of human suffering comes from building up walls and denying the opportunity to maintain an open heart. Part of her purpose is to convince us to live with more open hearts.
“Your heart is really open and that is going to cause pain, but that is an appropriate response to this world. The cost is high, but the blessing of being compassionate is beyond your wildest dreams.”Lamott 28
American culture does much to push its citizens towards various goals, but many are not healthy or helpful when it comes to healing from hardship and trauma. Lamott calls this phenomenon of American culture “forward thrust.”
“You’ve never heard of forward thrust? It is the most central principle of American life, the necessity to improve your lot and status at any cost, and to stay one step ahead of the abyss that may open suddenly at our heels. Unfortunately, forward thrust turns out not to be helpful in the search for your true place on earth. But crashing and burning can help a bit. So, too, can just plain running out of gas.”Lamott 31-2
So many times, I hear students say things that hint at perfectionist streaks running through them. The pressure to succeed and achieve often comes from expectations long internalized, calcified in their tender hearts. I try to tell them that’s not how the world works, but I’m not sure I get through to them. But maybe Lamott can.
“You didn’t come onto this earth as a perfectionist or control freak. You weren’t born a person of cringe and contradiction. You were born as energy, as life, made of the same stuff as stars, blossoms, breezes. You learned contraction to survive, but that was then. You have paid through the nose — paid but good. It is now your turn to reap.”Lamott 34
So, too, is her approach to positivity. Often, personal development books push what I call “toxic positivity,” or strategies that deny us the opportunity to let our emotions take up space in our bodies. But, Lamott encourages us to embrace the uncomfortable feelings as part of the healing process.
“It can be healthy to hate what life has given you, and to insist on being a big mess for a while. This takes great courage. But then, at some point, the better of the two choices is to get back up on your feet and live again.”Lamott 38
It reminds me of a semi-recent newsletter from one of my personal heroes, Melissa Urban, the founder of Whole30. She not only helped me improve my eating habits with her work but how I approach adversity. Her advice on pitching a “full-blown adult tantrum” aligns a lot with what Lamott says here.
I appreciate Lamott’s dark, tongue-in-cheek style and her bluntness about mental health and personal growth.
“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.”Lamott 2
Even more, I appreciate that Lamott is also a teacher! I felt incredibly seen by the nuggets of wisdom throughout this book, and it helped me feel reenergized to apply myself to my vocation, even amid a pandemic.
“To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It’s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin.”Lamott 93
Usually, I struggle with the personal development genre. I either love these types of books (Brené Brown) or hate them (Judith Wright); I don’t like being preached at, that’s for sure. Lamott won’t preach at you, which was a relief for me. I still struggled to accept what she writes about here. But, it gave me a starting point. I think the pandemic really had me at that point.
Support local and independent bookstores as a way of healing your community. Here’s how that actually happens! You can get Stitches on Bookshop.org, which supports these types of business.