Ann Landers’ successor shares the secrets of where she finds moral guidance and why a barbecue pit is the perfect place to find God
Interview and introduction by Kristine Gasbarre
The response to our Busted: Amy Dickinson article was so great we decided to be equally great and give our readers the chance to win her new memoir The Mighty Queens of Freeville. In fact, we are giving away THREE whole copies of the book. All you have to do is tell us what makes us so great in 1,000 words or less… or, you can just submit your name, email and shipping address so that we can pick a winner and send them this fantastic new memoir that critics are calling “Buoyant and bright” and “Great American storytelling at its best.”
In her new memoir, The Mighty Queens of Freeville, nationally syndicated advice columnist and NPR contributor Amy Dickinson shares her experience of moving back to her childhood hometown and pulling support from the community to help her as she recovers from divorce, raises her young daughter, and takes the road less traveled to exceptional career success. In her one-and-only lovable, colloquial, letter-from-your-best-friend voice, Dickinson spans two decades in 12 chapters. She shows her knack for finding the kernels of enlightenment and opportunity buried within struggles — loss of love, job, the sense of permanent security of a home — that she has experienced along with everybody else. From her story one learns that the secret to success is the bravery to take the life path less traveled… and to not be afraid of looking silly doing it.
Dickinson succeeded Ann Landers in 2003. She takes on readers’ issues in “Ask Amy” with a daily audience of 22 million in more than 150 newspapers nationwide. In this exclusive interview with Busted Halo, she talks about seeking moral guidance for life and her column, finding ambition amid economic turmoil, and looking to a barbecue pit as the perfect place to find God.
BustedHalo: You reached out to a lot of strong resources for support when it came to succeeding in your life and career and certainly with raising your daughter as a single parent. How strong a role did your spirituality play?
Amy Dickinson: In retrospect, it was huge. I always went to church because that’s just what I do, and I have always found a tremendous amount of solace at church. People these days find it very easy to talk about spirituality in that breathless Oprah way — like finding your spirit…. I grew up in a Protestant tradition where you don’t trumpet your beliefs to other people, and I feel like mainstream Christianity has been sidetracked by evangelicals who aren’t so shy.
One of the things I really treasured [while writing the book] was trying to describe my experiences as a Christian and as a spiritual person in a way that was accessible to everyone. That chapter I wrote about being a Sunday school teacher, “Peanut Jesus,” caused me so much trouble because [early on] my agent didn’t feel it was appropriate. And I have to say that in the easiest book experience anyone has ever had, I had a few dark nights of the soul, and I ended up saying to her, this chapter has to be in the book, otherwise I don’t have a book; and it has to be in the book, because it has to be in my life. This book is supposed to be about my life, and a huge part of my life is the community that I’ve always sought and found at church.
BH: In the book you talk about going back to your childhood church as an adult and sort of re-encountering this friendly Jesus on the altar who wears a surfer smile and looks like a yearbook photo. The perception is that you’re friends with everyone, from God to your readers. Are you really that down to earth?
AD: I will confess in my column something very benign: That I’m not a good cook. That I am divorced. That I go to a ball game and sip on a beer. I am very open about that stuff, and people very often express surprise, and I feel like, if somebody writes to me, they’re honoring me by sharing their story with me, and it’s nothing for me to share my story with them. So I’ve always been at great pains to set people straight, that I have real experiences, that I live in the world, that I live my life as I would have before [the column] because I’m a human being. Those experiences give me insight, and if I’m gonna share my insight, then I’m going to share where it comes from. And that’s what my book is, it’s the answer to the question, “How do you know what you know?” I got here the hard way, by living in the community, by watching people behave, behaving myself, and making choices — some bad, some good.
BH: You talk a bit about devotion through common ministries, for example how a person can be doing something as earthly and common as barbecuing chicken at a church picnic and yet contributing powerfully to their community of faith. Do you believe that simply offering our talents to a community dedicated to the awareness of God is a solid way to enrich our own faith?
AD: The real eye opener for me was when my pastor, Reverend Kenworthy, said about my Sunday school class, “This is your ministry.” and I thought, Oh no, nope, uh-unh. But then when I thought about it, I thought about all the people in my hometown community, in this struggling church, and their barbecue chicken ministry, and the roof committee ministry. Everybody in the church community is ministering to one another. When I was a little kid hanging around at the barbecue pit, those men taught me so much because they were providing something for me that I did not get at home. And they were kind, really tolerant, funny, and didn’t mind having a kid hanging around watching them. And fortunately for me, a lot of these men are still in my life, and this is my way of thanking them for those occasional moments when I was in their orbit, when I got to see what life was like for other kinds of people.
BH: There’s a powerful line at the end of the chapter on faith and community: “I had introduced Emily to God.” Would you say that being your daughter’s mother deepened your faith?
And you know, my daughter has always been very free to go her own way. She’s off at college, and one day she called and said, “Mom, I went to church today,” and it was this historic church in Williamsburg, built in the 1600s. She described it to me, and what it was like, and she loved it, and she had gotten herself out of bed on a Sunday morning and taken herself to church. I didn’t ask her why she went, or what she got out of it, but I said to her, “I love to think that every once in a while you’ll put yourself in a church.” When I was a Sunday school teacher dealing with these kids in Georgetown and they were so privileged, I realized that, you know what, these kids probably aren’t getting it at home. I had this epiphany and remember thinking, What if we are all they get? Then we should just give it to them.
BH: A lot of young adults right now are experiencing firings or layoffs and are leaving, for example, the investment banking world to go travel, or study their real passions like photography. As a person who pursued a creative career and succeeded, do you believe that if we take risks to pursue our true passions, God will deliver opportunities for us to make a living off those?
AD: Even if you can’t make a living doing what you want to do, it can be your passion. One of the things I tell people who write in to my column who are dissatisfied, or unemployed, or underemployed, I will tell them, make sure to do something that feeds their soul. Something that makes them feel good. I hate to spout Bible verse because I hardly know any, but here’s my favorite: “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.” That speaks to me because what that says is, “If I follow my heart, I will find my treasure.” Will it be pots of gold? Probably not. Is it satisfaction, feeling good, helping others? That’s what it’s all about.
BH: One of our favorite lines in the book is when you say that like the seasons, faith comes and goes.
AD: “And when your prayers go unanswered, you learn to change your prayers.” I’ve learned that the hard way! Because, if you think about it, one of our burdens as thinking, spiritual people is to actually reflect on our prayers. Are we praying for the right thing? I’m somebody with elderly family members who aren’t well, who need help, and I find myself praying for someone else’s good health. But when that doesn’t happen, I need to think about comfort, happiness, the joy that we can have together without the health. Faith waxes and wanes. It always affects me when a spiritual leader confesses to lapses in faith, crises in faith. That’s how we grow — when our faith falters.
BH: Do you ever struggle morally over how to answer questions that your readers write in to you?
AD: I go to books, to people who are smarter than I am. I find questions about addiction [in particular] really challenging because I’ve never seen that up close, and I sought out a really smart addiction counselor who could explain to me what it feels like, and what it’s like for family members. I get a lot of professional counsel. I force myself to answer what I think are the hardest questions because I feel like I need to learn more.