On a Wednesday morning in mid-August, my therapist pauses, then says, “So why don’t you think of Annie Lamott when you get jealous?”
We had been talking about school, or friends, or writing, I don’t remember now, and must have mentioned Anne Lamott off-hand. I had been carrying her book with me for weeks, until it was slowly becoming an extra appendage. I was struggling, and I clutched to the paperback like it was a buoy in the rough, sparing me from the worst of the seawater waves.
“In her book. Think of that chapter. When you get stuck, that’s where you’ll go. You’ll think of Annie Lamott.” My therapist speaks like this sometimes, using a nickname, like she’s familiar, like she knows her in real life, making it feel like maybe she does know her in real life. And I agree without fully understanding what I am agreeing to, without knowing where it will take me or if it will work. Such is often the case in therapy, but I have learned to trust the process—so I agree.
I am a reader, and I am a writer, and those two take turns deciding which comes first. I wrote long before I considered myself a writer. I wrote months before I could read, in the storytelling-through-dictation kind of way. And writing is still one of the only areas I feel jealousy so acutely that it manifests itself as stomach aches. It sits like cacti spines at the back of my tongue before I swallow it whole, where it grows into a gnarled tree in the pit of my belly, an ugly reminder of ugly thoughts.
Anne Lamott’s words make sense to me, and are a comfort. They have been for many years, and I suspect they will be for many more years. I carry my dog-eared, paperback copy of Bird by Bird most places. Chances are you will find it in whatever purse or tote bag or backpack I grabbed running out the door, or it will be lying face-down on a nearby table, spine cracked. It is older than me by two years, but every sentence still rings true when I put my head down on the pillow at night. I can quote it.
LAMOTT: I went through a very bad bout of jealousy last year, when someone with whom I am (or rather was) friendly did extremely well. It felt like every few days she’d have more good news about how well her book was doing, until it seemed like she was going to be set for life. It threw me for a loop. I am a better writer than she is. A lot of my writer friends do very well, hugely well, and I’m not jealous of them. I do not know why that is, but it’s true. But when it happened to her, I would sit listening to her discuss her latest successes over the phone, praying that I could get off the line before I started barking. I was literally oozing unhappiness, like a sump.
There is a way in which I look at the world, a way I am not proud of. I am always looking around me, eyes peeled and ears open. I see it in myself and I see it in others. I see it in my words, but I also see it in my flat feet and my curled fingers. The stiffness in my shoulder, elbow, wrist, knee. The scars from falls that refuse to go away. I always scar in the same places.
My body is not a source of jealousy for others. Perhaps instead it is a source of relief, of quiet gratitude of what others possess, that I maybe-maybe-not lack. They do not share their thoughts with me. I do not ask, but I do look, and I send my silent wishes out in invisible tendrils that wrap around coveted parts like ivy, squeezing before letting go and vanishing completely, leaving only ghosts of feelings, of ifs and could-bes.
Jealousy is rage is grief is raw is painful. Jealousy hurts.
I turn to Anne Lamott and sometimes question where my faith in her comes from. She is a single mother, and a recovering alcoholic, and she is devoutly Christian. I am none of these things. She is also irreverent, and funny, and kind; things I want to be. When I read her writing, and when I read her writing about writing, I find a strange, tenuous kinship that is me looking into the past, present and future all at once. To me, Anne Lamott is at once a roadmap, and a how-to on how to feel and to forgive and to express. Not a manual on right or wrong, but a manual on being, and finding comfort in the uncomfortable.
LAMOTT: My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small things. So every time this friend called, I tried to will myself into forgiving both of us. I had been around someone from the South that summer who was always exclaiming, “Isn’t that great?”—only she made it almost rhyme with “bright.” So when my friend would call with her latest good news, always presented humbly like some born-again-Christian Miss America contestant, I’d say, “Isn’t that gright, huh? Isn’t that gright?”
My therapist writes and publishes poetry as a side gig, and she is one of the most talented poets I have ever met. Whether I am sitting on the sofa across from her in her office, or whether I am looking at her through a computer screen, she sees me as a writer, like her, and we talk like that sometimes, writer-to-writer as well as patient-to-psychologist. I am grateful for all the facets of her, and I am grateful that she can see all the facets of me.
I started my appointments with her post-back brace and pre-seizures, an accidentally perfect in-between state of my life. She met me once, years before I became her patient, and she remembers this meeting when I do not. I wish I did.
I look at my body now, and think of how she has seen it evolve, and the iterations of it that she has missed. What kinds of jealousy have passed over me, through me, and which jealousies have stayed long enough to fester, and rot away parts of me? I write my way out of this body, and I am stuck with this body. I am stuck with its imperfections and its failures, stuck with its history.
I learn to live with jealousy, present-tense, because it is a process, and I don’t foresee an end. I am, however, ever so slowly starting to realize that it is not a fight I need to win. I have located its unruly beauty, its jagged edges and pockmarked surfaces. It is beautiful because it is mine, of me and from me, a place to rest and a place to grow. A place to let go of comfort.
Annie Lamott announced her engagement a few months ago. She is sixty-four and her fiancé is sixty-three; she has a thirty-year-old son and a nine-year-old grandson. This is her first marriage, and I cried when I saw the Facebook post, feeling like I was hearing good news from a close relative. I wished I could call her and say, “You’ve waited so long for this. I’m so happy for you.” I would say, genuinely, “Isn’t this great?” Because it is great, that this writer who has spent so much time writing about love in its myriad forms has finally found love in a partner. It’s a kind of glorious.
Is jealousy a form of love? Of misguided, misplaced love and pride? Is it inherently bad, or counterproductive? Does it deserve its place in the lineup of capital sins?
LAMOTT: She would say, “You are so supportive. Some of my other friends are having trouble with this.”
I’d say, “How could I not be supportive? It’s just so darn gright.”
But I always wanted to ask, “Could I have the names and numbers of some of your other friends?”
Sometimes I would get off the phone and cry.
Maybe it’s a cycle we must learn to live with. A circle, a serpent with its tail in its mouth. The Ouroboros. The life and the death, ever-continuing, lacking a beginning, a middle, or an end. It is my beginning, my middle, my end.
My therapist says to me, “We are writers even if it isn’t how we pay the bills, even if it is something we do in stolen moments, scribbles on the backs of scratch papers or fragments of sentences in smartphone notes. That is enough.” And I want to cry.
I stretch out my right hand with my left hand, feeling its joints and the grooves of its surgical scars. I flex my right foot the best I can. I look at my therapist as she sits in her chair across from me, her own hands folded in her lap. Right and left working together. My hands don’t match up quite as well, as I fold them in my lap, intertwining fingers, but I am not jealous. Not while I’m with her.