Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

I’ve written before about how important Anne Lamott’s writing has been for me. I first encountered her writing at a time when I was feeling conflicted about how the way I thought and felt about life didn’t seem to jibe with the way so many other Christians felt. I felt surrounded by people who believed in easy answers and straightforward rules, and I was becoming increasingly convinced that life is messy and once we get beyond the basics, like “do unto others” and “love God and your neighbor,” the rules are never as clear as we think. (And even the how of following those rules is vexatiously unclear.) Reading Lamott’s confessional and irreverent essays about life and faith felt like stepping into a warm lavender-scented bath. It was peaceful and cleansing, and the scent helped take my spiritual headache away.

I’ve read Traveling Mercies in its entirety at least twice before, and I’ve dipped into it to read an essay here or there many other times. But it had been a while since I read the whole thing, and after attending Anne and her son Sam’s recent book-signing in DC, I thought this Easter season would be a good time to reread it. I doled the essays out slowly, just one at a time, more of a daily-ish foot-washing than an actual bath.

When I think of Anne Lamott’s writing, her honesty and humor are the first qualities that come to my mind. She’s open about the things she’s done wrong and about unfortunate thoughts that creep into her lizard brain. There’s no sense of holier-than-thou guru wisdom here. She lives in the world and experiences all the mess that the rest of us do, and like everyone, she doesn’t always react appropriately. But she manages to keep a sense of humor about it and to remember God is with us even when we’re a big mess. In the essay titled “Fields,” for example, she tells how she’d been dealing with bad colds and flu for several weeks and finally asked her friend Rick, who had stage-four cancer, for help:

I hate being the kind of person who tries to get someone with stage-four metastatic cancer to feel sorry for her just because she has a headache. (Though it was an ice-pick headache.) But the way I see things, God loves you the same whether you’re being elegant or not. It feels much better when you are, but even when you can’t fake it, God still listens to your prayers.

And then there’s “Forgiveness,” in which she writes about how resentful and competitive she feels toward the mother of one of Sam’s classmates:

I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.

The essays deal with the ordinary struggles of day-to-day life, as well as those big events that completely alter our course. The opening essay, the longest in the book, is a spiritual autobiography in which Lamott gives an overview of her life so far and the path that led her to embrace Christianity. In other essays, she writes about her past alcoholism and eating disorders, but most essays focus on her present-day life (or her present-day life in the mid to late 90s).

Although I have read some of Lamott’s essays in isolation, I usually read her collections in big gulps, rather than by parceling them out. It was sort of like the difference between eating the whole pint of ice cream at once and just having a spoonful or two and then putting the container away. Both are good experiences, but going slowly prolongs the pleasure and causes me to properly taste each spoonful. When reading slowly, I noticed things about Lamott’s writing that passes me by when I gulp it down. For one thing, Lamott is great at description. She picks out just the right images to get across the essence of a moment or a person. This description of a friend’s granddaughter is a good example:

My friend Neshama’s regal little granddaughter Akela is four years old. Her face is big and has a rising-moon quality, since it is round and fair, as they say in fairy tales. She has huge brown eyes that take a great deal in. She is a wonderful mix of toughness and fragility on sturdy little legs, with a quality of attentiveness and seriousness that can trip her up. Sometimes she’s very thoughtful, very composed and canny. She has shoulder-length golden locks that are really brown, but she tosses them as if they were golden, and she says that they are, so we do, too.

Lamott also has a gift for metaphor. Some are funny and unexpected, like this description of losing her temper with Sam:

It’s so awful, attacking your child. It is the worst thing I know, to shout loudly at this fifty-pound being with his huge trusting brown eyes. It’s like bitch-slapping E.T.

And then there’s this description of her thighs, which she was exposing to the world on a Mexican beach:

I had decided that I was going to take my thighs and butt with me proudly wherever I went. I decided, in fact, on the way to the beach that I would treat them as if they were beloved elderly aunties, the kind who did embarrassing things at the beach, like roll their stockings into tubes around their ankles, but whom I was proud of because they were so great in every real and important way. So we walked along, the three of us, the aunties and I, to meet Sam and our friends in the sand. I imagined that I could feel the aunties beaming, as if they had been held captive in a dark closet too long, like Patty Hearst. Freed finally to stroll on a sandy Mexican beach: what a beautiful story.

I could go on and on with quotes like these. Lamott herself is a big quoter. She’s a little like a magpie, picking up bits of wisdom from other writers, from the sayings of her friends, and from things she notices around her. She then puts those bits and pieces together to create something new.

Lamott’s writing has meant a lot to me specifically because of the way she integrates her faith into it, but I think (in fact, I know) that people who don’t share her faith will find things they can relate to. She doesn’t write about faith in a preachy way; it’s just part of her toolkit for getting through life, so of course she’s going to share how it fits in. I love that she’s out there writing about faith in this way because it shows that there’s not just one way to be Christian and that the ones who get the most press don’t represent us all.

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6 Responses to Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

  1. Jeanne says:

    Those are such good passages–I had forgotten that one about the aunties, but it was my favorite when I read that book.

  2. Lisa says:

    I’ve been thinking of re-reading this myself, before I start “Plan B.”

  3. I have never had any faith in my life (my family is non-religious) and although I don’t feel the lack of it, I do sometimes wonder if I have missed out on something.

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