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Monkeys, marble and a respite from the Massachusetts election

I’m doing fairly well for a grandmother who had a monkey tangled up in her hair last month on a ghat in Varanasi at sunset. Back home again now, I can report that in the midst of the zap that is India, with its heartbreaking, gorgeous, hallucinatory, dazzling, kaleidoscopic, mind-blowing grandeur and loud reality -- a place where having a monkey’s hand trapped in your dreadlocks is pretty par for the course -- I came to three decisions about my own country.

The first is that if the people on the streets of India can keep their humor and good nature, I can keep mine.

I left for the subcontinent the day before the Massachusetts election, and so arrived in a state of rage, despairing that we would ever see healthcare reform. I nearly bit the head off the kindly driver of a tiny rattletrap car -- which had broken down by the side of the road to Agra -- when he inquired innocently, from under the hood, if I knew anything about wiring.

But after a few days on the subcontinent, I came to the unshakable belief that we will have decent enough healthcare reform, and soon. What’s going to help America rebound from Bush/Cheney is what saved and saves India -- love, nonviolence, a lot of help, radical playfulness and perspective. I saw Indians living in spaces the size of my bathtub, giddily colorful amid the squalor and deprivation, making themselves beautiful and focusing on what they do have.

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And I remembered that here we have a 59-vote majority, all but a handful of the senators perfectly good Democrats, who’ve passed an adequate healthcare bill, yet we’re mewling and puking and acting like victims. Of course we are coming through the most toxic political cleanup since the Civil War: What happened during the George W. Bush years was in its way as devastating as the earthquake in Haiti, or daily life for much of India -- just as many dead, and a constitution nearly destroyed. Suffering is suffering.

So we have to do what is working slowly in the wreckage of Haiti and India: We don’t give up; we take care of each other; we act like grown-ups; we work with what we have; we get our game back.

It’s just like what happened on that trip to Agra. Once I quit sputtering, I gave my driver the blue cord handle of a paper shopping bag I was carrying, and he gamely used it to get the car running again.

The second decision I made in India is to forgive John Edwards. If no one else is going to, I will. My mother would have. She was an old Adlai Stevenson/Jack Kennedy liberal, and I am too. Of course, she also had Alzheimer’s, and I have jet lag so severe that I walked smack into the glass door of a coffeehouse this morning. So maybe take our forgiveness with a grain of the salt that freed India.

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But she would have railed against Edwards for a few months and then forgiven him. She had a sense of decency that was common in my parents’ generation. She would have piled on when Edwards became this season’s Old Testament goat, but then at some point she would have let it go and gone on to register voters.

Edwards’ fall from grace is the oldest story in America, and probably the world. He was a gorgeous, powerful man willing to torch his family, his career and those who trust him to get laid -- by someone whose name the rest of us can’t even pronounce.

But where does Edwards even rank on the scale of loathsomeness when compared with, say, Dick Cheney? Not very high. Twenty names below John Boehner; 27 below Sarah Palin; directly after the TSA security people at the airport; and tied with Susan Collins. He has little children, as innocent as the Haitian and Indian babies we ache and care for through charitable donations. So I am going to forgive Edwards as a way to help them, two of the world’s children.

My third decision: I am going to trust this guy Obama. I am going to get my head out of the darkest place on Earth, and I am going to help his election remain a miracle. He was not my original choice, but I think he is a great man, trying to get a crushed nation back on its feet the best he can. And besides, who else are we going to trust? Bart Stupak? Evan “Boom-Boom” Bayh?

When I get ready to travel around the globe, I tell the people of my church how afraid I am and ask for prayers, for safe flights, for travel blessings and for avoiding death by snake bite. My pastor always reminds me gently that when you get on the plane, it’s a little late for beggy, specific prayers -- rather, it is time for trust and surrender.

Now if you, like me, had an older brother, surrender means certain defeat -- and getting your nose rubbed in the dirt or getting slugged in the shoulder for changing channels. But I have grown up -- and learned through trial and defeat and the divine WD-40 some of us call grace -- that surrender means putting your weapons down and coming over to the winning side. It means keeping our eyes on the prize. It means surrendering the fantasy that a person is going to save us, even an honorable president. It means when we say, “Let there be light,” we understand it as a contract: Let it begin with me.

I saw a few sisters from Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity on the streets of Delhi, bustling by to work with the poorest of the poor, and I kept hearing Mother’s voice in my head saying that none of us can do great things but we can all do small things with great love. Oh sure, she had her ambition issues -- like me and John Edwards -- and yeah, she lost her faith those last dark years, but she still kept showing up before dawn, to clean and feed and love the poor.

So hers are the words by which I am going to live, and I don’t care if Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins mock me for it. Go ahead, guys, hit me with your best shot: It’s not easy to browbeat a woman who laughed with a monkey ensnared in her hair and had the perfect blue cord to get an old Indian car to the Taj Mahal.

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Anne Lamott’s new novel, “Imperfect Birds,” will be published in early April.


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