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Author Anne Lamott offers words of wisdom to start a new year

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

Let's face it - standing on the precipice of another new year can be daunting. It's this time when we are forced to take stock of all the stuff that has happened in our lives and in the world. We think about all the things we hope to gain in the new year and all the things that maybe didn't happen in the last. All of this can be a lot. And on top of that, a ticking clock on New Year's Eve can add a lot of pressure.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Ten, nine, eight, seven...

MA: It might surprise you that Americans did not actually start to embrace the countdown widely until about the 1970s.

ALEXIS MCCROSSEN: We used to celebrate New Year's Day - you woke up on January 1. You said happy new year. But by the 20th century, the clock and midnight become especially important.

MA: Alexis McCrossen is a history professor at Southern Methodist University. And she says there may be some grimmer reasons why the idea of a countdown was not always associated with celebration.

MCCROSSEN: In the 1950s, there were atomic bomb tests, and the countdown to the dropping of the bomb and then to its detonation was televised.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three, two, one, zero.

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MA: But later on, countdowns would have more positive connotations; you know, counting down to the Apollo moon missions or counting down the top 40 pop hits. And finally, in the '70s, they caught on as a way to ring out the old and ring in the new.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Five, four, three, two, one and a happy 1979.

MA: And yet McCrossen says that counting down to the new year, it could still bring up angst.

MCCROSSEN: There's this sort of overwhelming sense that there just isn't enough time. There's never enough time.

MA: Not enough time for our friends and loved ones, not enough time to accomplish all the things we want to accomplish. So this New Year's Eve, we are not going to focus on resolutions or dropping balls. Instead, we're going to focus on little ways to find some comfort as we step in to the new year.

So for that, we are turning to author Anne Lamott. If you ever needed some inspiration to write, you've probably known her from her classic "Bird By Bird: Some Instructions On Writing And Life." Or, if you've needed some strength and humor to make it through a rough patch, you might have reached one of her collections of essays on faith. Anne has written seven novels, many bestselling nonfiction titles. Anne Lamott, thanks for joining us.

ANNE LAMOTT: Thank you, Adrian.

MA: It is so good to have you here. And, you know, this time of year, there's a lot of celebration. There's champagne and ball drops and big parties. But also at the same time, a lot of us can feel the weight of going through such a tough year, you know, whether it's people experiencing personal challenges or just trying to, you know, deal with all the turmoil that we see in this really complicated world. So, you know, for a lot of people, looking forward with hope can actually be a struggle. Like, how do you approach going into a new year?

LAMOTT: I always get outside, and I look up. If you think about it, you never look up and go, oh, that's a medium moon. You know, whether it's a baby moon or a full moon or somewhere in between, you look up, and you say, wow, that's so beautiful. And I rest more than usual. I believe that joy is peace on its feet, and peace is joy at rest. I do actively things that will help me laugh. It might be a really funny movie. It might be the - a collection of New Yorker cartoons.

I get together with my best girlfriend or - and we just make - you know, we just start telling the truth. And the truth is pretty hilarious, you know, the absurdity of life. But it doesn't happen in my own pinball brain. It happens when I'm sharing with somebody. And sometimes, I call my girlfriend - my best girlfriend - and I say, I hate everyone in all of life. And she always says, oh, I'm so glad you called. Come and get me. We need to go shopping. And then we'll start laughing. And we'll get in the car, and we'll compare how annoying everybody is, and then we'll start laughing about it.

MA: So you've given us a few, I think, kind of simple steps we can use here, right? You said get out. look up, rest if you can. You mentioned at a certain point bringing hope, which actually - it reminds me of - like, a lot of your writings are really funny and really honest. But one thing that really comes across in a lot of them is this idea that the best thing that people can do is to show mercy and compassion to ourselves. And I think for a lot of people, that is a hard thing to do. Like, why is that so hard? And why do you say it's important for us to do anyway?

LAMOTT: Well, you know, I wrote a whole book on it. But the short form is that I think that when we were young, we were - we had these two qualities. We were so merciful, and we were curious, you know? And, I mean, little kids can also be little monsters on the blacktop, but we had this sense of mercy. We gave away our sandwiches when other kids had forgotten theirs. We shared what we had.

But at some point, I think we put it away in the drawer because they didn't grade for it, you know? And what we were - what we substituted for instead was, like, productivity and getting better and better at the things we were told we needed to be good at - and so to go to that drawer, that metaphoric drawer, and to get the mercy out and to practice mercy and hope.

MA: This actually leads me to my next question, which is - you know, so the title of that book you mentioned, the whole one, is "Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy." And you say that's actually taken from a gospel song that you sing at your church. And...

LAMOTT: Yeah.

MA: You know, for people who are not Christian or who may be secular, you say there's still a thing that people experience which you describe as, like, a hallelujah anyway moment. Can you talk about that?

LAMOTT: Well, the whole poem, "Relax" by Ellen Bass, is about that moment. It's about - that everything seems to be breaking down, including democracy. And families that I am close to are in a lot of trouble and that it seems just kind of hopeless some days, but that if you look around, you start to notice what is still working, that love always works, that kindness always works.

And to start to look around and - there was this man, this priest - I think his name was Father Dowling, who helped Bill Wilson get AA off the ground in 1935, although the father, the priest, was not himself an alcoholic - but he said, sometimes I think that heaven is just a new pair of glasses. And I live by that and that if I have this - the bad pair of glasses on, the judgment or the - having this very specially tuned eye for everything that could be better, then I'm unhappy, and I don't have hope. I can really tell you for hours the catastrophe of the current political landscape or this or that or the other or the - or somebody's family that I'm very involved with and who should do - and blah, blah blah. But if I put on the better pair of glasses, I really notice what is still working. The whole book somehow is about what has always worked in crisis and what will certainly work again. I wrote it so that, when I'm gone, my son and my grandson will have a kind of handbook of what always has worked.

MA: Anne Lamott is author of bestselling novels, nonfiction and essays on faith. You can read her next book, "Somehow: Thoughts On Love," when it comes out in April. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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