a bit about Grace

From the chapter “Grace” in Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott; pretty lengthy for an excerpt, but I thought the whole chapter was about one of the best I’ve ever read. So. For you, too — on Grace:

I know more about grace than I did two weeks ago. For instance, that Auden was right when he wrote, “I know nothing, except what everyone knows–if there when Grace dances, I should dance.” I know, because she was, and I did: two weeks ago I was onstage with Grace Paley. … And I danced. But the thing is that since I have admired her my whole life, I desperately wanted to dance beautifully, and I didn’t. I was little like Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein, putting on the Ritz. But I did dance, because when all else fails, you follow instructions.

I understand that Auden meant grace in the theological sense, meant it as the force that infuses our lives and keeps letting us off the hook. It is unearned love–the love that goes before, that greets us on the way. It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you.Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.

But had he meant Grace in the literary sense, he would have been referring to Grace Paley. In 1970, when I was sixteen, the women’s movement had just burst into the general public awareness. … at the same time, coming out of New York from the tenements and the Village and the antiwar movement was a short-story writer whose work taught me that you could be all the traditional feminine things–a mother, a lover, a listener, a nurturer–and you could also be critically astute and radical and have a minority opinion that was profoundly moral. You could…become who you were born to be, and succeed in the world without having to participate in traditionally male terms–without hardness, coldness, one-upmanship, without having to compete and come out the winner.

She was beautiful, zaftig, and powerful; she was a mother; she was in love; she was a combative pacifist. That was Grace Paley.

Grace and I read from our own works for a while, and then we sat down to have a nice intimate conversation with two thousand people watching.  …a private dance done publicly. We totally bombed. No wait, this is not actually the truth: I bombed. Grace was fine. …

Grace thought it had been just fine. “It was what it was,” she shrugged. But I knew it hadn’t gone well–even her husband said it had been a disaster. And my fear of failure has been lifelong and deep. If you are what you do–and I think my parents may have accidentally given me this idea–and you do poorly, what then? It’s over; you’re wiped out. All those prophecies you heard in the dark have come true, and people can see the real you, see what a schmendrick you are, what a fraud.

Alone in my hotel room later that night…I cried a little, then closed my eyes, bowed my head, and whispered: “Help.”

Out of nowhere I remembered something one of my priest friends had said once, that grace is having a commitment to–or at least an acceptance of–being ineffective and foolish. That our bottled charm is the main roadblock to drinking that clear cool glass of love. I remembered what Grace’s stories were all about: self-forgiveness, and taking care of one another. It wasn’t far away from Jesus saying to feed his sheep. Now, I’m not positive he meant room service. But maybe he did. So I ate strawberries and melon and cookies, then put on the heat, and got in the tub.

It was amazing. I do not at all understand the mystery of grace–only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. It can be received gladly or grudgingly, in big gulps or in tiny tastes, like a deer at the salt. I gobbled it, licked it, held it down between my little hooves.

I don’t know why life isn’t constructed to be seamless and safe, why we make such glaring mistakes, things fall so short of our expectations, and our hearts get broken and our kids do scary things and our parents get old and don’t always remember to put pants on before they go out for a stroll. I don’t know why it’s not more like it is in the movies, why things don’t come out neatly and lessons can’t be learned when you’re in the mood for learning them, why love and grace often come in such motley packaging. But I was reminded of the lines of D.H.Lawrence that are taped to the wall of my office:

What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.

No, no it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them.

And by the time I arrived in the second city where Grace and I would perform, I understood that failure is surely one of these strange angels.

When both Grace and the second producer said they wanted to go back to plan A, reading prepared talks from the podium, I said, “OK.” I just decided to cooperate.

And the evening went really well. Grace was honest and sweet and tough, and she made everyone in the audience feel like going out and fighting the great good fight. … She shone. I was just me, which Grace said later was all anyone asked. I’d really wanted to be Cyd Charisse onstage, but as usual, if I’d gotten what I wanted, I would have shortchanged myself. What I wanted was acclaim, and what I got was Grace, lovely and plain in her faded dress and dark socks, smiling at me all night.



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