Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
by Anne Lamott
New York: Pantheon, 1999, 275 pp.
Reviewed by Jeanette Stokes
Every afternoon for a whole week this fall, I’d say to myself, “Oh goodie, I get to go home and be with Annie tonight.” I was reading Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott’s latest collection of essays.
Nearly everyone says the same thing about this book, “I didn’t want it to end. I just wanted her to keep talking to me.” Reading the book was almost like having her curled up on the sofa next to me drinking a cup of tea and chatting away.
Lamott writes about her life, her faith, and her crazy relationships. She tracks her spiritual development from her California childhood in a nonreligious home with a father she adored. As an adult, she let her spirituality go underground. This book is the story of finding it again, her life in a church in Marin County, and the link between her recovery from drinking and finding her place with God.
Her essays are like delicious moral tales. Wise and wacky, they often leave me thinking, “Well, if she can survive life, so can I.” No matter how bad things get (and having her father die of cancer, being bulimic and alcoholic, having a baby without a partner, and then having her best friend die of cancer is pretty challenging) she finds hope, humor, wisdom, or compassion.
Her recovery from alcoholism led her to St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, a predominately African American church across the street from her favorite flea market. She says it was just the right place to go when recovering from a hangover–the flea market, not the church. But the singing from the church drew her in, and eventually she was sitting inside listening to the music and to God. Now she talks to God regularly, and in Traveling Mercies she lets us listen in.
Lamott is not pious at all. And yet, she has a deep, abiding faith and strong sense of God’s presence in all the parts of her life. She leans on God. She talks to God all the time and asks God for what she needs.
She speaks of her relationships with men. In the section titled “Dad,” she talks about the of breaking up with a man she adored and says, “I understood that it was going to have to do once again with having tried to get a man to fill the hole that began in childhood and that my dad’s death widened.”
In an essay called, “Mom,” she says that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past.
In “Forgiveness,” she shares her attempt to actually forgive someone. Instead of starting with someone she’d been mad at for a long time, she decides to try to forgive a woman who shows up at her son’s school “wearing latex bicycle shorts nearly every day, and I will tell you why: because she can.” Pretty quickly Lamott realizes she needs to worry less about forgiving the woman and more about how judgmental and insecure she is being.
Everything about Annie Lamott is quirky–even her hair, which she now in blond dreadlocks. In “Sister,” she remembers her long struggle with her hard-to-manage curly hair. “I don’t think you’re supposed to devote so much of your prayer life to the desperate hope that there not be any weather.” She is brilliant at making the details of her life match feelings many of us have. My favorite part of this essay is when she remembers something her friend Pammy said shortly before she died. They were at Macy’s. Pammy had lost all her hair and was in a wheelchair. Annie was modeling a short dress. “But then I asked whether it made me look big in the hips, and Pammy said, as clear and kind as a woman can be, `Annie? You don’t have that kind of time.'”
Learning to accept ourselves is a theme that comes up over and over in Traveling Mercies. In “The Aunties” (a term of endearment Lamott assigns to her thighs) she describes trying to feel like a beautiful human being in her bathing suit on the beach in Mexico with teenage girls wandering around.
Finally, mercifully, a van came along and took us up the hill. The girls got off before me and walked toward their rooms. God–they had the most incredibly small butts. It made me want to kill myself. When I got to my room, I took a long, hot shower and then stood studying myself naked in the mirror. I looked like Divine. But then I thought about the poor aunties, how awful it must feel to have me judging them so harshly–the darling aunties!”
Do yourself a favor, read Traveling Mercies and let this brilliant, witty, funny, moving, insightful writer offer you support for the life of faith.
Reviewer Jeanette Stokes is an ordained Presbyterian minister living in Durham, NC. She is a graduate of Smith College and Duke Divinity School. In 1977, she founded the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South and serves as its Executive Director. Jeanette likes to write, paint, dance, and lead workshops on women, spirituality, creativity, the labyrinth, and social justice. If you’d like to know more about her work and the Resource Center’s publication, South of the Garden, you can contact her at the Resource Center for Women & Ministry in the South, 1202 Watts St., Durham, NC 27701.
© 1999 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus volume 23 number 3 fall 1999