Bestselling author Anne Lamott gave Hoda Kotb one of her favorite "operating instructions": "Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Including you."
Lamott, the third guest on Hoda's "Making Space" podcast, is the author of 19 books, including "Bird by Bird" and her latest, "Dusk, Night, Dawn." She is open about her life, including the messy stuff like addiction and anxiety.
"As a big believer in talking about those experiences, I've learned and I've loved from her transparency. And I know that you will too," Hoda says. "But I do want to warn you in this conversation, we get real. We talk about death. We talk about addiction. We talk about recovery. We talk about finding God."
Hoda says talking to Lamott is always a journey, "but I think you're going to love where it leads."
This conversation has been edited. For the full conversation, listen to "Making Space" wherever you find your podcasts.
If when you were a little girl, someone was going to come up to you and tell you, hey, little Annie, you're going to get married, but it's going to happen when you're 65, what would you have thought?
I would have felt complete despair because everything in the culture, especially in the '50s and early '60s before the revolution, was that that was the reason I had been created, was to get married and find a nice husband, probably right out of college and then have several children and keep my weight down.
I like that order, too. And there's something about finding love at this stage in life. I found love when I was 50 and I was like, wow, I can't believe I get to do this. What's love like at 65?
There was always secretly a dream. You know, I know it was for you, too, to find someone who is your soulmate and your partner to have a partner in all of this, you know, sometimes fever, dream of of life and getting older and it all. And so when it happened, I felt like, OK, what's the catch?
Oh, my God, I love this chapter, but I want to start back in the beginning and I often try to picture you as a little girl. And I wonder, what was little Anne Lamott like?
Well, I'll send you a picture, because I was a tiny sort of wood sprite. I had this crazy curly, kinky, platinum blond hair and these gigantic green eyes. And I was very, very, very thin. But I was a very scared child. I was very bright and very sensitive. ... And I believed two things. One was that I was defective because my parents were so unhappy, it must be me. If it was me, then I had some sense of control because I could try to do better and need less. ... And then I also felt I was responsible for making Dad come home and there would be trickle down if Dad was OK. ... So it was a very difficult dynamic for me and I developed some survival skills that became my default landing places whenever I've been very, very stressed or overwhelmed by life. One is to think I need to do better and ideally need almost nothing, and that I'm in charge of helping everybody feel happy.
It's just such a big responsibility for a little kid. I mean, I was just thinking all the stuff that kids have to be concerned about, but it sounds like you had all kind of grown up problems.
I had grown up problems and I got migraines at 5 years old and 40 pounds. But back in the 50s, there wasn't a consciousness that children could have mental illness or burnout. You know, I think I had burnout because there are just a lot of balls in the air. Plus I needed to get A's. Plus by about eight, I became a tennis champion and I needed to keep my ranking up.
And where did you find courage when you were a kid?
I heard eventually that courage is fear that has said its prayers.
Well ... my parents were atheists. They were very avant garde. And I had this secret deep secret that I believed that if I asked for help in the dark, something heard me. I always had this secret belief that there was some kind of love energy that heard me. And then I heard eventually that courage is fear that has said its prayers. And so when I was a little bit afraid, I just prayed, help me, help me. And then I learned, you know, do it. I learned the motto, do it afraid. You know, you take the action and the insight follows.
I know that one of the ways that you tried to get your mojo was by having a drink. When did you have your first drink?
Well, we had sips ... but I remember chugging a beer, a 16 ounce Coors, when I was 12 years old ... and I felt hope bloom in my chest, I could breathe again, but I remember that first beer and I remember thinking I'm good. And then I believe I also had a predisposition. It is a family disease. Both my brothers ended up being alcoholics. My dad was an alcoholic and my son was an alcoholic, an addict. And it just began to be what I love most about life was having a couple of beers before seventh and eighth grade dances. And then I began to smoke marijuana that I then smoked until I was 32 on a daily basis. And of course I discovered lots and lots of other drugs along the way that that either helped me lose weight or get even more animated or help me get to sleep a little later.
What was the point where you were on your knees and you said, that's it? Like, I can't live like this?
Grace always meets you exactly where you are and then it doesn't leave you where it found you.
The funny thing about being addicted to drugs and alcohol is that you just hit bottom every step of the way. You know, I heard a guy when I first got sober say that he began deteriorating faster than he could lower his standards. And this happened for me by like 18 or 19. ... And then at 32, because of of grace or something, I woke up one morning after a very, very bad three-day Fourth of July holiday where I'd been in blackout for three nights in a row, one night on the boat watching the Fourth of July fireworks. And I just kept thinking kind of calmly about climbing over the side of the boat because I was exhausted. And sometimes grace looks like exhaustion and it looks like running out of any more good ideas. But grace always meets you exactly where you are and then it doesn't leave you where it found you. So on July 7th of 1986, I woke up. I was so sick and, you know, there was a three inch cigarette ash next to my bed. I don't know why I hadn't burned my tiny houseboat down. And I called a sober friend and I said, OK, I might be done.
You were in your 20s when your dad passed, and everyone deals with grief differently. How did you deal with that passing and that grief?
Well, I drank. I was 23 when he got sick. I was already drunk every night, but as soon as he got sick, my brother and I were just off and running. He got brain cancer. He had a metastasized melanoma in his brain. And it was up to us to help him through and take care of it. And so how do you survive the unsurvivable? With a couple of really close friends to whom you can tell anything, anything, anything. And it was incredibly hard, and I actually am not positive I ever came back from it, but in every book I've ever written, I talk about how you're not going to get over certain losses and the world tells you you will. The culture has kind of a grid of when you should be over certain losses, like 18 months on a spouse. And then we'd like to see you start participating more fully in life again. ...
I discovered that if I didn't let my heart seal over, that my dad was really fully alive
And I discovered you don't. And it's OK. You know, Carly Simon has that song. I forgot what it's called, but she says there's more room in a broken heart. And I discovered that if I didn't let my heart seal over, that my dad was really fully alive. And then when my mom passed, my mom, too, and after the acuity of their loss passed because my heart didn't seal up and I was still permeable, I could feel them again in a very real and vital way.
The heart sealing up is such a beautiful analogy because you can tell when someone's heart is hard. I mean, you can see how they look. And did you consciously say mine's staying open?
What I've discovered is that if I set the intention of staying as permeable as I can and crying and grieving and being ugly and enraged, that the person I've lost is still alive for me.
What I've discovered is that if I set the intention of staying as permeable as I can and crying and grieving and being ugly and enraged, that the person I've lost is still alive for me. And, you know, this is such a cliche at this point, but there's that great line of Leonard Cohen said there are cracks, cracks in everything, and that's how the light gets in. ... You're going to be so grateful for those cracks a little ways down the road.
My best friend's husband passed a couple of years ago, and she cried every day, and now she says it'll come forever, but it comes in waves.
The fear is that if you start crying, you'll never stop, and that if you start crying, it will just wash away like the Mississippi River. Instead of the truth that it will wash you right into your very self.
Through love, all pain will turn to medicine, becomes medicine for others. You know, and I think so much of the reason that it's so frightening for people to go through loss and grief is, first of all, we didn't get an owner's manual for it because you're supposed to just kind of get over it at some point. But the fear is that if you start crying, you'll never stop, and that if you start crying, it will just wash away like the Mississippi River. Instead of the truth that it will wash you right into your very self.
And once I was given permission by other women to just fall apart and be a mess and say to them what was true ... it was like I could breathe again because you start to laugh about it and laughter is carbonated holiness. And I would get effervescent again and I'd laugh. We would laugh, but we had tears streaming down our face, comparing notes about what it was like. It's everything we've talked about up till now, which is that fear expressed allows relief.
When you talk, I feel like there's so much beautiful furniture in the room, I'm missing some of it. It goes by so fast, but I feel like you're a hope giver. So what gives you hope these days?
I love that thing, Mister Rogers' mother always said when he was a boy and he was freaked out about a tragedy or didn't know what it meant or how to feel hope. And she said, look to the helpers. And if you put on a good pair of glasses and you see how hard people are trying and how far they've come and how much warmer your heart is to them, although they didn't change. You know, one of my daily prayers is 'bless them and change me,'
Bless them and change me
As soon as you're in gratitude, you watch out, world, because gratitude is some mysterious magnetic energy that just draws goodness to you. It draws people to you. It draws wonderful new life to you.
Bless them and change me. And you see that you're getting a little better and you see just how incredible people are all around you doing the best they can. ... And as soon as you're in gratitude, you watch out, world, because gratitude is some mysterious magnetic energy that just draws goodness to you. It draws people to you. It draws wonderful new life to you. When you're grateful, you just see, you know, whatever you focus on, you get more of. So you get grateful, you get more grateful. You get more blown away by the beauty of it all.