Review - Anne Lamott's Help Thanks Wow

My God box

My God box

Anne Lamott’s new book, Help Thanks Wow, The Three Essential Prayers, is a sweet, moving guidebook to what Lamott considers the three most important prayers one can utter. I love Anne’s books. Her Bird by Bird has been on my bookshelves for many years, and I especially enjoyed Traveling Mercies. One doesn’t have to be religious, or even particularly spiritual, to appreciate Help Thanks Wow, as Anne mentions in the introduction. You only have to believe that something is bigger than you, and that if you ask for help and express gratitude, things will happen in your life that will make you say “wow.”

What I love about Lamott is even though she is a firm believer in Jesus, she also knows that neither she nor Christianity (or any other organized religion) has the answers. In fact, she says, no one does, and if they try to tell you they do, they’re delusional.

Anne Lamott's Help Thanks Wow

Anne Lamott's Help Thanks Wow

She had me close to tears with the first section on “Help,” because what she describes is so perfectly the human condition. We all go through difficulties, and most of us will not be spared life’s harshest experiences. But, she says, just uttering the simple entreaty, “help,” can shift things within us, can allow us to give over the suffering to something bigger than we are, and that can make all the difference in our ability to handle whatever we face.

“Most good, honest prayers remind me that I am not in charge,” she writes, “that I cannot fix anything, and that I open myself to being helped by something, some force, some friends, some something. These prayers say, ‘Dear Some Something, I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t see where I’m going, I’m getting more lost, more afraid, more clenched. Help.’”

And then, she says, let it go.

Lamott says she has a “God box” that she puts her prayers into, then closes the lid and lets whatever universal power is out there take care of it. It could be anything, a glove box, a crayon box. I like this idea.

For my birthday last week, a dear friend gave me a lovely wooden box with the tree of life and birds carved into the top. I have made this my God box (I just mistyped God as Dog – that works, too).

I also especially believe in the second prayer, “Thanks.” Gratitude is a powerful emotion, and I can attest to its ability to shift perspective. Every day I mindfully say thanks, for everything, and more often than not something even more serendipitous or fortuitous comes into my life. 

The final prayer, “Wow,” is a wonderful expression and acknowledgement of how wondrous life is.  Look around. You will always find something, even if it’s just a tiny hummingbird flitting around a bottlebrush tree – to be amazed about. Wow.

Help Thanks Wow is a slim volume – I read it in about an hour or so – but it packs a powerful message. And with the world we have today, it’s a message many of us need to hear.

A Poem for Today - Daughter/Mother

In the orchard, beyond the creek

broken tree limbs strewn

the clouds danced above

white light from your fingers

daughter, do not cry

after during now never

memories not remembered

a coffin of memory buried

in desire, a lost child

sometimes there is hope


In the voice, beyond the creek

blue tree limbs strewn

the river danced above

white silence from your fingers

mother, do not cry

until now during after

memories not singing

a window of distance buried

in grief, a lost child

there is always hope

A Wedding Wish

A little over a week ago, the daughter of my dear friends Tom and Joan Bolton was married, and they asked me to speak at the wedding. I thought I'd share with you what I said.

I was so honored and delighted to be asked to speak today. Watching Laura, in fact all of our kids, grow up has been a richly satisfying experience, even through the inevitable ups and downs of adolescence. Our families spent a lot of time together when the kids were younger, and for many years did a family camping trip to Fiqueroa Mountain every spring. I have an especially fond and vivid memory of all three – Laura, Tim, and my daughter, Kendall, who is a year younger than Tim – splashing through a nearby creek, hunting for pollywogs.

As parents, we have so many hopes for our children. That they will grow up happy and whole, that they will find meaning in their lives and have opportunities to learn and express their creativity, that they will find love. I am so happy that Laura has done all of these things.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to say today, I remembered a William Butler Yeats’ poem, called “Prayer for My Daughter.” I won’t recite the whole thing, because it is long, but I want to share a few stanzas that I thought were particularly apropos to the occasion today.

In the poem, there is a raging storm outside, and Yeats is in his infant daughter’s room, gazing at her in her crib, and listening to the rain beating against the windows. In the poem he mentions a linnet, which is a small bird in the finch family. He writes:

May she be granted beauty and yet not

Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,

Or hers before a looking glass, for such,

Being made beautiful overmuch,

Consider beauty a sufficient end,

Lose natural kindness and maybe

The heart-revealing intimacy

That chooses right, and never find a friend.

May she become a flourishing hidden tree

That all her thoughts may like the linnet be,

And have no business but dispensing round

Their magnanimities of sound,

Nor but in merriment begin a chase,

Nor but in merriment a quarrel.

O, may she live like some green laurel

Rooted in one dear perpetual place.

My mind, because the minds that I have loved,

The sort of beauty that I have approved,

Prosper but little, has dried up of late,

Yet knows that to be choked with hate

May well be of all evil chances chief.

If there’s no hatred in a mind

Assault and battery of the wind

Can never tear the linnet from the leaf.

We all hope our children will never be torn from the foundations we build for them, and here I will betray my own feminist leanings and say, yes, we especially want to protect our daughters from the world and its vagaries. We ardently hope they will find someone to love who cherishes them beyond their own selves, and who will be partners who allow our daughters to continue to grow and create and become the women they are meant to be. I believe Laura has found that person in Rick, and I am so happy for both of them.         

Congratulations,  and may you enjoy many wonderful years together.

A Birthday Present

Yesterday was my birthday. Well, it was and it wasn’t. My actual birthday is Christmas Eve, but about seven years ago I decided to celebrate it on July 14 instead. It has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Some people assume it’s just because it is close to Christmas, and that is partially true. When I was a kid, I never had a birthday party outside of just family members partly because of that, and once I was in my early 20s, people started giving me combined birthday and Christmas presents. That never felt good.

But for me, the reasons go much deeper. My Christmas Eve birthday is inextricably linked to my childhood, and very painful memories of innumerable hospitalizations and surgeries. I had no friends before junior high, primarily because the disfiguring scars on my face caused kids to shun me. Abusive Catholic school experiences made going to church difficult, and since we always went to church on Christmas Eve, those memories are equally woven into my Christmastime birthday. It got to be that I could hardly go to Mass without sobbing.

So, I created a new birthday celebration day, one that recognizes who I am today, rather than the sad and lonely disfigured child I was. I have not been that little girl in years, but I carried her around with me until my fifth decade. With lots of counseling – and writing – I was able to let that little girl go, and begin to see myself for the woman I am today – vibrant, happy, inspired, loving, loved.

Friends sometimes tease me about having a “half” birthday or claiming two birthdays a year. And one or two still insist on remembering my Christmas Eve birthday. I love them and appreciate the intent, but I sometimes wish they wouldn’t; it is emotionally painful.

Many of us carry within us what Jung called the “wounded child,” that part of us that was somehow injured in childhood and never recovered from it. It can be emotional or physical, or in my case, both. Often we don’t even know that child is influencing our lives, in ways that oftentimes are destructive.

When my life started to fall apart I was fifty years old, and I couldn’t understand why things weren’t working the way I wanted them to. My marriage was crumbling, my relationship with my mother was puzzling and distant, and I couldn’t seem to make the one professional thing I loved – the Santa Barbara Writers Conference – successful financially. That led to one bad decision after another, until finally, I was forced into bankruptcy. I was despondent, desperate, nearly suicidal.

And yet, through the grace of good therapy and lots of prayer, I began to understand. I started to see how the lessons I learned just to survive had caused me to make choices that ultimately harmed me. I have written about this in my memoir, Face, which was as much a part of the healing as the excellent counseling I received over nearly eight years.

Changing the celebration of my birth allowed me to become the person I am today, without all the woundedness of my childhood. So, thank you, all who have embraced my new life with me. Friends have invited me to lunch and dinner almost every day this week and into next. I cannot express how much you mean to me. You have all literally saved my life, and I am grateful.

Let’s celebrate!

Be Still. Listen to the Stones of the Wall

“In silence, we most readily preserve our integrity.” – Meister Eckhart

Maintaining silence is healing. It means removing not just speech, but all extraneous thought and chatter. It means quieting the mind.

It is something I say I want to do, but don’t do as often as I should. The chatter in my head is incessant, constant, distracting, numbing.

Often I am so concerned with the minutia of the moment, the constant movement and flow of daily life, I forget to just stop and breathe. Meditation is healing, and yet I don’t do it as I should.

So, a pact with myself: I will turn to meditation every morning, and even maybe a brief time in the evenings before bed, to be grateful. To thank the Universe for the many blessings that fall upon me every day, for the loved ones – dear friends and clients – who make my life so richly rewarding.

I embrace it all, even the unknown, and step into the breach, off the ledge, trusting that wherever I land will be the place I am meant to be.

I am whole.

I am loved.

I am grateful.

I am enough. (Thank you, Brené Brown.)