I was wondering in what way you think you've grown spiritually in the last few years since "Traveling Mercies." What's changed for you?
I think the main thing was I really got forced to deal with the fact that usually you don't get what you want-you get what you get. "Traveling Mercies" was written during the Clinton administration when I was generally speaking in a much better mood politically. "Plan B" was written post-9/11 and also toward the end of one whole term of what I consider to be the most dangerous administration in the history of the republic. So it forced me into new ground and new challenges. It really made me consider what it is I hope to accomplish with my work and what it is I can offer, which is a voice of hope and a voice of belief that alchemy is a spiritual truth for us. On the spiritual path, all the dreck and misery is transformed, maybe not that same day, but still transformed into spiritual fuel or insight. So I think that's the main difference-places I've had to go to since Bush became president. That really challenged my faith.
Toward the end of the book you were trying to spend some time forgiving George Bush and seeing what that felt like. Did you succeed?
That's why [the essay] is called "Loving Your President Day 2." Day 1 went so well because I was in church and feeling inspired by what the pastor had to say-this incredible, loving, compassionate environment of church, where your heart would just get so soft and tender and all things are possible. But at some point you have to leave and go back home and turn on CNN.
So it's about loving your president on the second day when you're not at church but in your own home and your own mind. I would say I feel less hysterical about Bush, but I'm never going to get anywhere with this guy. And I'm just now considering what my plans are in beginning to work for the midterm elections and getting these people out of the Congress and the White House.
What's it like now that Sam has become a teenager?
I tell you, it's a brand-new world, it's as radical as having an infant. And I'm as clueless. And it turns out there are no operating instructions and no owner's manual that come with a teenager either.
It surprised me that you call yourself a strict mother but you're also very open in letting Sam see who you are. How can you be strict and authentic at the same time?
I'm strict in that I'm fierce about manners and I'm fierce about the fact that families really aren't democracies. And I really do get to be in charge of my house. It's my values and I'm the parent. He can't be trusted to make good decisions about his own safety and even his own body. So I get to be in charge of those things. So I'm strict that way, but I'm lenient in terms of being very available to listen and to try to get the outside help I need so that I can hear what he's saying instead of what I wish he were saying or what I'm sure he's contemptuously hinting at.
It's almost like learning to meditate to learn to hear what your kid is actually saying. And maybe the need that is being honestly shared with you.that could be a need for more boundaries or a need for more trust, that he can set his own healthy boundaries.
I didn't feel it was appropriate to write about Sam, he's a teenager, it's very private and intimate. He needs to come through without worrying about being spied upon or used for material. But at the same time I really wanted to capture some of the most significant events of our lives since "Traveling Mercies," and that has involved getting to know his father and getting older and getting to be more challenging and mouthier and needing to begin his own faith walk without my own influence and the influence of the church.
For instance when he turned 15, which is not in the book, I didn't insist that he come to church any more with me.
No, not at all. I'm amazed that he didn't figure out earlier that he really didn't have to come and that if he had pushed it and been impossible about it, I probably at some point would have caved. I'm glad I didn't have to because he was never that adamant. He would always have preferred not being in church, but he came along. And at 15 he was very surprised to find me say to him, "I love that you have come all along and obviously you're always welcome"-and there's a youth group that he really loves. He came on Easter really willingly and gladly and he loved it, but I don't know how many months it will be until he comes again. He's a big guy now. It doesn't bother me.
You talk about his spirituality as his own thing. Were you given a spiritual upbringing?
No, my father was a very staunch atheist. My mother was a not-too-devoted atheist. She went to Episcopal church on Christmas Eve every year, and that was mostly it. But I was raised with no religious training or influence. Except the influence was to be a moral and ethical person at the secular level. And to be a peace marcher, an activist for civil rights, peace and justice.
I always secretly believed that there was a God-I always secretly prayed. I always found these religious kids. I was really drawn to Christian Science, my best friend was a Christian Scientist. I always had a special place in my heart for them because I feel like Mary Baker Eddy, who's basically seen by most non-Scientists to be just a nut bag, is really certainly the mother of the New Age. And a lot of her deepest beliefs were later rewritten with a much hipper tone and voice and approach to be the profound stuff of Marianne Williamson or way before that of Emmet Fox and his great deep wisdom. I read him every day, I read a book called "Around the Year With Emmet Fox" as my daily spiritual reader.
I love the pageantry of the Catholics, but Catholic girls would always let you know just how doomed you were that you weren't Catholic, so I'd go to get the ritual, which I've always been moved by tribally. But I always prayed and I always knew someone was listening.
I feel close to a Christian Science practitioner who comes to our church, who is extremely Jesus-y and hilarious. And I call her often when I'm on tour because I get so drunk on the wine of the world, that is to say on all the addictive, ambitious, beckoning fingers of doing better and becoming more famous and making more money and trying to fill the spiritual holes with something beside Spirit.
It never occurred to me that fame and success could be a problem or at odds with who you are.
Oh, very addictive, it's like cocaine. One kind of stupid example might be that all writers I know log onto Amazon.com when their books are out-if you're not careful it's like online gambling. Which is to say, if you're not really working on your spiritual fitness you can be there like every hour seeing if your book has moved up or down. And last time with "Blue Shoe," I really felt strung out, I was really checking a lot. This time for whatever reason I'm not, maybe because this book is doing so well.
You're turning fifty and seem to be in a much calmer place.
I'm much calmer as I get older, but I'm still just as capable of getting that strung-out stressed-out feeling of mental and spiritual unwellness. But for the most part every year has brought with it a little bit more wisdom or a willingness to throw out the trunks and brown boxes I've been lugging around psychically all my life. I want to throw that stuff out of the plane that keeps me flying too low. And really getting more comfortable with my body and really going easier on myself.
Age has given me the gift of me, it just gave me what I was always longing for, which was to get to be the woman I've already dreamt of being. Which is somebody who can do rest and do hard work and be a really constant companion, a constant tender-hearted wife to myself. It's given me more patience, though I'm not a patient person. Age sort of forces you into loving and accepting yourself, because what are the options? I'm not a Hollywood type, and I don't have any judgments-not very much-about people getting cosmetic surgery or Botox or liposuction, but it's not my style, it's not going to happen.
I want to bring people hope and laughter and a ferocious commitment to self-love. And I also really noticed my age. My body's much less forgiving than it was three years ago when I was out on the tour of "Blue Shoe." [This time] I really arranged every hotel as a little cruise ship or a little nest and did a lot of spiritual work and lit candles and created beautiful scents in my hotel rooms and ate the most nourishing, medicinal comfort food I could, but now I need to do that in a deeper and ongoing way.
After my interview with you, which I think is the last one, which is why I'm in such a good mood, I'm going to be doing many silent retreats and taking two and three hours off the phone, off the world.
Do you think there's a conflict between be so Jesus-focused and so left-wing politically?
Not at all-I think it's been very important to me to not position myself in opposition to Bush's Christianity or John Ashcroft's Christianity and to keep remembering that old Dylan song "With God on Our Side"-that keeps reminding me that we do create an image of God and then we're sure that's right. That's how you can tell you've created God in your own image is if he or she hates all the same people you do. And I have to remember that I follow Jesus, I don't follow followers of Jesus and I don't think Jesus said, let's arm everybody first, let's arm the angriest people of this nation with whatever kind of guns or rifles they can get their mitts on and then let's try as hard as we can to make the richer richer with the Reagan belief that they'll trickle down to the poorest of the poor. I just don't think those are sound Christian principles.
I have to put my energy into working to do what I believe Jesus instructs his followers, which is to care for the weakest, the least of his people, which includes prisoners and the poorest of the poor and the oldest and most exhausted. And then to do the work that I feel called to do spiritually, which is to help this country be a nation of laws again, where one law insists on the separation of church and state that has been grievously chipped away at. I'm also someone who's passionately involved in women's rights and abortion rights and gay rights. I do a lot of benefits and appearances for gay, lesbian, and transgender churches, and I do a lot of benefits for left-wing causes and environmental causes I believe in. We can't continue to have the people in power and still save this precious, precious Mother Earth. For me, I have to try to keep it pretty simple theologically and at the same time do the work I feel called to do.
Has this ever put you at odds with your own particular church?
No, never. It's a church open to liberals. And when I go there, I'm just the water boy, I'm just really a member of the family and sometimes families have people that mouth off a little too much or air the dirty laundry. But I'm just one of the children of God there in this one very small community. There's rarely more than 50 or 60 people there.
Not a megachurch.
Not a megachurch. Just a simple cloth-coat church that's very passionate about social justice issues.
There are a lot of people who want to write about spirituality. Do you have any advice for them?
I think writing about spiritual themes is not really different from writing about secular or matters of family and loss and love and the ties that bind. Probably everything I know is in "Bird by Bird," so all I could add is it really holds true for me that old book with its banged up not-very-technological tool what I know is that when it is time to write again, which I hope will be next week, I'll use the one-inch picture frame on my desk and only try to see as much as I can through that, whether I'm writing about God and/or politics and I'll try to practice the spiritual principles of being firm but friendly, like Dr. Spock urged us to be with two-year-olds, and I'll let myself do a bad job. I'll speak to myself the way I'd like to be spoken to, I'll practice the Golden Rule as I'm working with myself to get some new material begun.
With spiritual stuff it's very easy to feel very shamed and very fussy and sentimental or desperate but I love love love coming upon other people's spiritual take on things, so that's what I urge people to keep writing and to find their voice. They can't tell their own spiritual truth in my voice or Jack Kornfield's voice or Natalie Goldberg's voice, or any other voice but their own. It's some of the hardest work we do, but it's also got that great payoff that when we find our voice and when we hone it and when we sing it, it puts us in touch with our human spirit in a way that almost nothing else can.
And is God there?
God's everywhere. God's in the effort, God's in the struggle, whether that's for civil rights or creative expression. God's always in the struggle with us.
So after the ecstasy, you're going to do the laundry.
Actually, to celebrate the last day of the tour, I was thinking I might take our laundry to the wash-and-fold and really go wild.