Tag Archives: anne lamott

Pay Attention

Writing Books
“He could go anyplace he wanted with a sense of purpose. One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore. Another is that writing motivates you to look closely at life, at life as it lurches and tramps around. Writing taught my father to pay attention…”
– Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

I avoided writing whenever possible in high school and celebrated upon testing out of both required English composition courses in college. And now I love to write. For whatever reason I cannot seem to pick up the curveball in this game called life.

When my dad died in 1994 I experienced a strong urge to write—the first time I wanted to write an essay—and the urge returned not long afterward when the moms and dads of my elementary school daughter’s local soccer team acted completely insane and nearly drove me bonkers.  Around then it occurred to me that I should not have prayed so fervently to test out of English composition.  On both occasions writing was my way of processing the confusion of life.

And then, on the eighth day, God created a host of things like home computers and Microsoft Word, grammar check and spell check, print-on-demand publishing and blogs.  I became a writer in spite of poor life decisions.  Sort of like how Donald Trump became the president.

Somewhere along the way I purchased and devoured two wonderful books on the craft of writing: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and On Writing by Stephen King.  Both are chock full of hilarious, practical, and straight-shooting advice on this creative outlet that I now adore.  It was Lamott, however, who zeroed in on what I love the most: Writing teaches me to pay attention.

I shouldn’t need anything to make me pay attention to life, but then again, maybe I do.  Maybe my cousin, Amy, is right when she claims that we all have a creative side that needs exercising, and maybe it is that need to create that leads us to lean into this thing called life, to have a reason to head out into it, to use all of our senses, to take notes on everything that is there.

Maybe.  That’s all I’m saying.  I just know that writing is now a part of who I am—and that I am thankful.

Accepting Grace

IMG_0384“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” – Anne Lamott

Pepperdine hosted the 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball West Regional Final matchup between Florida State and Michigan on Saturday at the STAPLES Center, and I was most grateful to be in attendance to watch Michigan secure a berth in the Final Four.  The fans in maize and blue dominated the arena but not the game and yet the Wolverines held off the scrappy Seminoles down the stretch for the victory and a trip to San Antonio this weekend.

This was not my first NCAA tournament experience, but it had been fifteen years since I sat with my daughter, Erica, in the rafters of the Louisiana Superdome to watch a teenager named Carmelo Anthony lead Syracuse to a thrilling victory over the Kansas Jayhawks in the last game Roy Williams coached for Kansas. This experience was quite different.

Fifteen years ago I won the right to purchase overpriced tickets in a lottery. On Saturday my ticket was the gift of a gracious friend.

Fifteen years ago I needed binoculars just to look down and see the Jumbotron. On Saturday I had to crane my neck and look up to see the big screen from my amazing seat.

Fifteen years ago I prepared for a nosebleed by stuffing napkins in my pocket. On Saturday I prepared for the game by stuffing my face with pizza.

Fifteen years ago I waited for the captain to turn off the seatbelt sign before safely moving about the stadium. On Saturday I leisurely wandered around Pepperdine’s suite prior to the game and sat among friends from upper administration.

Heck, this time my friend, Rmani, sang the national anthem! It was a great night from start to finish.

Truth be told, I still feel that my place and my people both hang out in the rafters, but I confess that it felt awfully nice to sit in prime stadium real estate. Once I got past the feeling that a security guard was going to kick me out that is, I had a really good time.

Grace is pretty cool on the receiving end once you give yourself permission to accept it. It might be what a few young men feel like this weekend when they look up and discover that they are in the Final Four.


In a Few Words


The Airbnb concept is somehow both weird and intuitive.  It is weird to spend the night in a perfect stranger’s home, but then again it makes sense to get some use out of something otherwise unused at a mutually beneficial price.

The service thrives on customer reviews, of course.  For instance, any review with “there were creepy people playing with snakes” will pretty much guarantee that I will keep looking.  On the other hand, “there were creepy people playing with snakes—and free churros” might persuade me to stay more than one night.  So it is in the best interest of the host to provide a pleasant stay, which leads to good reviews, which leads to more business.  You know, Economics 101.

What I did not know until recently is that the hosts can also review the guests.  Makes sense, I guess, but I will admit to being a little nervous when I recently received my first review by an Airbnb host.  Here is what I got: “Al is clean and kind.”

I am incredibly proud.  Absolutely love it.  Mark it down, when I check out of the Airbnb called Life, I believe that is headstone worthy.

It reminded me of a great Anne Lamott story (in Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, 37-45) when she helped her friend with a dance class for adults with special needs.  Several days later, Anne’s friend told her that after the class one of the students said, “I liked those old ladies!  They were helpers, and they danced.”  Those are the words Lamott wants on her gravestone.

I have had more opportunities to be around death so far than I remember requesting and each instance got me to thinking.  After all the resume drafts, and after all the performance reviews, and after all the updating the LinkedIn profile—and even after the obituary is written, read, and recorded—a few numbers and a few words are engraved on a rock in an attempt to sum up one’s life.  An entire life in just a few words.

What will your words be?  I’m just saying, clean and kind ain’t bad.

One at a Time

Today marks the end of this semester’s last full week of classes at Pepperdine School of Law.  Two more days next week, several “dead” days, and a couple of weeks of final exams remain so we surely aren’t done, but today feels significant because this academic year is almost, pardon the pun, in the books.  The 1Ls will soon be rising 2Ls, the 2Ls will soon be rising 3Ls, the 3Ls will soon be law school graduates, and the faculty and staff will still be faculty and staff.

So most of us are in a mood.

I like to think of it as an antsy-yet-over-it, needy-but-don’t-touch-me, slightly nauseous, hyperactive zombie sort of mood.

There is something terrible about being so close in time to a finish line while remaining so far away in the amount of work.  All you can think about is being finished with it all, but that simply distracts you from making any progress on the pile of whatever that stands before you.  It is as if the nightmare where you are trying to run to safety but for some reason cannot get your legs to work came true.

One of my favorite books on writing (and just, ever) is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  She describes the book’s title this way:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and 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.”

That is my advice to law students as well as life students when the sheer amount of what lies ahead seems a bit daunting.  Just take it one step/day/hour/bird/whatever at a time.

Hope SPRINGs Eternal

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball.  I’ll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.” — Rogers Hornsby

Well, spring has sprung, or so I hear: it is hard to tell living in a land of perpetual spring, but the calendar seems rather confident about it.

There is an idyllic conception of spring where the frigid death of winter awakens to butterflies and chirping birds, colorful explosions of flowers, cottony clouds floating across a bright blue sky, and Julie Andrews twirling in musical exultation.  This has not always been my experience, at least on the first day or two.

But spring is real.  Nature is rhythm, and the very planet is predictably reincarnated each year in a birth-death-birth cycle that generates hope in all things if you let it.  In an increasingly insulated and distracted world, however, it takes effort to notice.

Anne Lamott wrote, “I am going to try to pay attention to the spring. I am going to look around at all the flowers, and look up at the hectic trees. I am going to close my eyes and listen.”

I’m with her.  I want to sense hope in every way—to see it, and hear it, and smell it, and taste it, and touch it—and even engage an ineffable (sixth) supernatural sense.¹  I will work at it.  Hope is imperative.

The woods and pastures are joyous
in their abundance now
in a season of warmth and much rain.
We walk amidst foliage, amidst
song. The sheep and cattle graze
like souls in bliss (except for flies)
and lie down satisfied. Who now
can believe in winter? In winter
who could have hoped for this?

– Wendell Berry, Given 58 (2005).


¹ Inexplicable hope is the substance that undergirds Easter.


Freedom Road


Random Glitter Beard Guy (Not Me. Yet.)

My inaugural participation in No Shave November would have ended today were it not for (a) my wife’s shocking declaration that she likes the beard; and (b) an entrepreneurial law student convincing me to wear a “glitter beard” for a full day if he raised a thousand dollars for the law school’s public interest student organization. He created a GoFundMe page for this effort, and as disturbing as a glitter beard on my face is to consider, last I checked he had raised ten bucks. You could change that, of course, with your donations (click HERE), but this is a classic win-win situation for me.

Glitter beard aside, my life is actually one long story of self-consciousness about physical appearance, but there has been great progress over the decades, and my path to baldness is particularly instructive.

My hair embarrassed me from the moment I realized people judged your appearance. I don’t know exactly how to describe my hair, other than terrible. It was thin, light brown, oily, and curled in all the wrong places with length, with a cowlick smack in the middle of my forehead. I hated it. I tried, without talent mind you, to make it look okay, hoping not to draw attention to it—ever—and in that effort spent more time than I care to know in front of a mirror. In effect, I was a butcher with a comb attempting brain surgery.

Worse, any time the wind blew or rain fell it somehow got worse, and both happened in my hometown on a regular basis. Wearing a hat was okay if it was stapled to my head and never came off in public. I wore out untold back pockets on blue jeans because I carried a comb everywhere I went. Everywhere. I guess I was vain in reverse, not consumed with looking good, just desperate not to be the object of laughter.

This went on for a few decades or so, give or take, and then I started going bald on top, too, as if being pale/skinny/freckly with bad hair wasn’t enough self-esteem for an American male.

And then one glorious day I was reading lovely Anne Lamott talk about her lifelong obsession with bad hair (although her particular malady was frizzy-ness). She mentioned that as an adult a friend with dreadlocks encouraged her to follow suit, but the idea of a middle-aged white woman in dreadlocks took some time to consider. Then, one day, while watching the climactic scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne tunnels through sewage to escape from prison and stands in the pouring rain with his arms to the sky in glorious freedom, Lamott thought, “I could never do that. My hair would look terrible.” At that moment Lamott decided to go with dreadlocks. You laugh, but I had to catch my breath. It was me. In effect, it was that story that led me to shave my head.

Here is the kicker: It was so difficult to actually follow through with it because my entire life had been one long attempt to avoid calling attention to my personal appearance. (And let me tell you, shaving your head is one surefire way to draw attention to your personal appearance.) But I did it. Our friend, Devon, did the honors, and as expected, everyone had to comment. (My favorite was when meeting those who hadn’t seen me for some time. They were oddly quiet, and I am sure that my bald/pale/skinny self had them wondering if it was cancer or AIDS. I just let them wonder.) After some time, the comments went away, and all these years later, I could not be happier.

What I learned is that the path to freedom requires the courage to face your greatest fears. And that the freedom is worth it.

It is still difficult to say, but—look at me. I’m up to sporting a glitter beard now if the price is right.

Introducing: Starting to Look Up

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
– Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Things are really starting to look up.

Check it out: I live with my beautiful wife in Malibu, California. We have two amazing daughters who are making their way in this world, and we are proud of them. We both work at Pepperdine University, where I have the honor of serving as Dean of Students at the School of Law. My job connects me to a phenomenal community of faculty, staff, and students who are already changing the world

There is another way to look at things I guess. Malibu is not cheap. I work too many hours. Law school is a stressful environment. Our daughters are no longer little girls. My parents are no longer alive. My hair is no longer with me, and my body seems to remind me on a daily basis that we aren’t on the upswing anymore.

But I fully believe in the wise counsel of Holocaust survivor and Jewish psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, who taught us that nobody can steal our collective ability to choose an attitude in any set of circumstances. If you are skeptical, imagine trying his circumstances on for size.

The law students I serve have this dilemma in spades. They have the tremendous opportunity to study law in Malibu and pursue a most noble profession that offers power and influence. They also work like crazy with looming fears of failure, bar exams, debt, and difficult job prospects.

This blog is my attempt to help all of us, law students along with anyone else in the neighborhood, to work on the attitude choice in our given sets of circumstances.

“Emerson said that the happiest person on earth is the one who learns from nature the lessons of worship. So go outside a lot, and look up. My pastor says you can trap bees on the floor of a Mason jar without a lid, because they don’t look up. If they did, they could fly to freedom.”
– Anne Lamott

Things are really starting to look up, and so am I.