From the very preface, titled “Victory Lap,” Lamott stops the stride: The worst possible thing you can do when you’re down in the dumps, tweaking, vaporous with victimized self-righteousness, or bored, is to take a walk with dying friends. They will ruin everything for you.
First of all, friends like this may not even think of themselves as dying, although they clearly are, according to recent scans and gentle doctors’ reports. But no, they see themselves as fully alive. They are living and doing as much as they can, as well as they can, for as long as they can.
They ruin your multitasking high, the bath of agitation, rumination, and judgment you wallow in, without the decency to come out and just say anything. They bust you by being grateful for the day, while you are obsessed with how thin your lashes have become and how wide your bottom.
She recounts one spring-morning hike in the Muir Woods with her friend Barbara, who was being slowly snatched from life by Lou Gehrig’s disease — “you could see the shape of her animal, and bones and branches and humanity” — and Barbara’s girlfriend of thirty years, Susie. Lamott writes:
When you are on the knife’s edge — when nobody knows exactly what is going to happen next, only that it will be worse — you take in today. So here we were, at the trailhead, for a cold day’s walk.
Lamott considers how people like her friend Barbara — people on the precipice of death and yet very much alive — find the grace of making-it-work:
They are willing to redefine themselves, and life, and okayness. Redefinition is a nightmare — we think we’ve arrived, in our nice Pottery Barn boxes, and that this or that is true. Then something happens that totally sucks, and we are in a new box, and it is like changing into clothes that don’t fit, that we hate. Yet the essence remains. Essence is malleable, fluid. Everything we lose is Buddhist truth — one more thing that you don’t have to grab with your death grip, and protect from theft or decay. It’s gone. We can mourn it, but we don’t have to get down in the grave with it……Maria Popova (Anne Lamott’s~ Small Victories)
we never seem to stop running away…..exhausted, bedraggled, and lost, we struggle to find home……..may we trust that we always will……..
So, what can we do when we have to accept the loss of a friend or a loved one? What truth can we find beyond the stories we tell ourselves about how they’re wrong and we’re right, or that we’re wrong and they’re right? What can we do besides spending fruitless hours trying decipher everything they said or did? Can we do something more useful than justifying to ourselves what we said or did, or wishing that we had said or done something else? And what can we do when the story spreads to nearly drown us in despair over feelings that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re unlovable, that we’re the reason things didn’t work out?
Like a sandcastle, all is temporary.
Build it, tend it, enjoy it.
And when the time comes
let it go.
The first thing you need to do when you’ve suffered loss or betrayal is to find a way to regain your wise heart so that you can let it hold the aching of your heart. The Zen teacher Karlfried Von Durckheim speaks of the importance of the need to go through our difficulties in a conscious and clear way.
The person who, already being on the way, falls upon hard times in the world, will not as a consequence turn to those friends who offered them refuge and comfort and encourage their old self to survive. Rather, they will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help them to risk themselves, so they may endure the difficulty and pass courageously through it. Only to the extent that a person exposes themselves over and over again to annihilation and loss can that which is indestructible be found within them. In this daring lie dignity and the spirit of true awakening.
Sometimes suffering the losses and the unexpected betrayals and break-ups that befall each of us becomes the places where we grow deepest in our capacity to lead an authentic and free life. Often by working our way through our difficulties, our ability to love and feel compassion for ourselves and others deepens, along with the wisdom that will help us through similar problems in the future. And learning how to survive our present difficulties is one of the few things that will help us to know the right things to say and do when others whom we love suffer as well.
In us, there is a river of feelings,
in which every drop
of water is a different feeling,
and each feeling relies
on all the others for its existence.
To observe it,
we just sit on the bank of the river
and identify each feeling as it surfaces,
flows by, and disappears.
…..Thich Nhat Hanh