Monday Over Coffee: "Please Remain Seated"

Published March 13, 2023 by Greg Funderburk

If I just sit there long enough, something will happen.
— Anne Lamott

Once it was for surreptitiously shuffling a serving of stewed squash off my dinner plate through the window of our kitchen and into an adjacent flower bed. More than once it was for quarreling with my sisters about the phone—there was only a single line for the whole family back then. Quite a few times it was for fighting with my brother. But each instance of misbehavior like these would lead to a stiff parental reprimand—one which typically involved sending me to my room. Once there, I was told to just sit still. To stay put and to think. And while it's been a long time, of course, since that's happened, sometimes for all sorts of reasons, not just punitive ones, we need to be instructed to do just that.

Anne Lamott is a novelist and the author of several non-fiction books driven by deeply spiritual themes concerning grace, mercy, redemption, and hope. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the mid-eighties when she was 30 years old and for the last 40 years has continued to write with an unflinching devotion to honesty and the truth with a uniquely quirky wit. She writes about "human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness" always aiming to, as she puts it, "throw the lights on a little." You get a real sense of her faith and what's most important to her simply by reviewing the titles of her books. Here are just a few: Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith; Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith; Grace (Eventually); Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers; Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy; and Dusk, Night, Dawn: On Revival and Courage.

Back in 1993, Lamott published her first memoir-like effort called, Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son's First Year in which she told a story from her own childhood about her older brother. Ten years old at the time, he was struggling with a school report on birds that had been assigned three months before but was now due the next day.

...he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

The story so captured her readers' attention and imagination that Lamott called her next book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. In it, she recounts how we so easily become overwhelmed by big tasks. Whether it's in writing a book or taking on any other ambitious endeavor, breaking things down into smaller "bird by bird" increments, she sagely advises, helps us to get started. As far as finishing such a project, Lamott, while writing that she wished she could offer a fool-proof, code-cracking secret to accomplishing one's goals, she acknowledges that there's really no mystery to it. You simply have to sit down and, as she puts it, "keep your butt in the seat."

Chuck Close, a painter, photographer, and visual artist at the forefront of the photorealism art movement during the sixties and seventies, expressed a similar notion. "Inspiration is for amateurs," he said. "The rest of us just show up and get to work." Close, a recipient of the 2000 National Medal of the Arts, was suggesting that the idea of that sudden lightning strike of pure genius, or a creative muse suddenly arriving at one's doorstep to bestow a brilliant idea, is mythical. It doesn't work that way. "All the best ideas," he said, "come out of the process. They come out of the work itself."

Sometimes, just sitting there, thinking, working, grinding it out seems a lot like eating our vegetables, but as Anne Lamott—with her remarkable faith and over a dozen terrific books to her credit—once told an audience: "If I just sit there long enough, something will happen."

God — Help me to remain in my seat. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk