Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith – Anne Lamott

5 Dec
Anne Lamott is a wonderful writer. Like, really, really great. She’s sly, witty, and incredibly real; there’s nothing she won’t tell the reader, nothing she would hide to spare herself embarrassment. Most of all, she’s funny. She makes me laugh out loud, and not just small, single laughs, but really belly-deep giggle fits. While Anne Lamott writes fiction that has a popular following, it’s her memoirs that I love with the passion of a thousand suns.

[Personal aside: I used to live in the same town as Anne Lamott. One day I saw her walking toward me on the street, and I froze up and grabbed my husband’s arm and whispered frantically “OH MY GOD. It’s Anne Lamott! I love her!” I may have been bouncing up and down, and I may have been looking at her, then away, over and over again in a really intense manner. She is coming closer and closer, and from the expression on her face I can see she knows I recognized her and is wondering what that crazy lady is going to do. I smiled and said hello. Played it cool, right? Ha, I totally win at life.]

While I’ve read and loved most of her memoirs, it’s Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith that I come back to over and over. In it, Lamott writes about how seriously f’ed up her life was – deep in depression and alcohol addiction, she expected little from others and wasn’t surprised when she got even less. Two things happened that knocked her off her downward spiral though: she got pregnant and she found her faith. She doesn’t present that experience in a way where the reader would think “oh man, she’s preaching to me and thinks babies and God fix everything. Ick.” No, she’s astounded to find herself pregnant, and she’s shocked to her core to realize she believes in God, or any god. Traveling Mercies defies the stereotype of a “spiritual memoir” – she is not holier-than-thou, she’s not trying to convert you, and she does not act like she has much confidence in her ability to live her life as a good, law-abiding, sensible woman. She’s an uber-liberal, earth mama, political activist, feminist Christian. A bit different from a lot of what is presented to us regarding religion and faith, no? I may not have the same problems as her, but I do have problems, and the honesty and humor she brings to her own life inspires me.

Lamott is incredibly funny and is able to use her humor to lighten the moment, even when really terrible things are happening. When her best friend Pammy is losing all her hair due to chemotherapy, Lamott writes that Pammy called her up and said:

“Come shave it all off for me,” she asked over the phone. “As it is, it looks like hair I found in the trash can and tried to glue back on.”

As capable as Lamott is of laughing at the horrors of life, she is also deeply compassionate. Speaking of the strange interplay between seemingly disparate life views in her own church, a little, ramshackle place in Marin City, Lamott describes a young,  gay church member who is dying of AIDS and the tense way a fellow church member, Ranola, interacts with him. When the young man, Ken, is at his sickest and is unable to stand during the singing of a hymn, though,  Lamott observes this interaction:

And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent down to lift him up – lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang. And it pierced me.

Goddamn, that pierces me too.

Traveling Mercies is just what is described in the subtitle – it’s Lamott’s thoughts on faith. She dips in and out of different aspects of her life, such as her relationship with her son, her relationship with her best friend, how she feels about her body, and her writing career. She weaves her personal journey throughout the chapters and liberally sprinkles anecdotes here and there, some hysterical, some heart-breaking. I found the gentle meandering to be soothing and well-suited to a discussion on faith, because I find faith to be an intensely personal experience, and by shedding light on her faith by using stories from her life, I was able to have a conversation with Lamott about this most personal subject.

2 Responses to “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith – Anne Lamott”

  1. Rebecca December 16, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    You totally should have introduced yourself to her and told her you were a fan! It probably would have made her day, or brightened it, or at least eased her fear of the psycho woman staring while jittering and clutching her husband. LOL

    But I totally get the star-struck reaction. I had a similar one when I met Kim Harrison. All logic about how she’s a normal person, just like me, etc., flew out of my head, and all I could think is “This is KIM HARRISON!” and the rest of my thoughts were this great, white vacuum of awe. Babbling ensued, along with some really awkward body language and an acute fear that my breath smelled.

    • Amanda December 16, 2011 at 11:29 am #

      Oh no, awkward body language and potential bad breath? Double whammy! I’m sure you were as lovely as you always are. I just feel so weird stopping someone just trying to get along with her day, and she totally had my number – she could see I was freaking out. I do love her.

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