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The Boston Phoenix Her Way Home

Anne Lamott talking about faith

By Michael Joseph Gross

MARCH 15, 1999: 

TRAVELING MERCIES: SOME THOUGHTS ON FAITH, by Anne Lamott. Pantheon Books, 276 pages, $23.

Don't think of Traveling Mercies as a book. Think of it as a series of phone calls that wake you up in the middle of the night, where the friend on the other end of the line won't stop talking because she has to tell you about something that's just happened to her -- maybe good, maybe bad, undeniably urgent -- and you just listen, and say "okay, okay," and then after you hang up you can't go back to sleep because you realize that her confessions, which you thought you were just humoring, also offer a weirdly perfect key to some of the hardest problems of your heart.

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith is a baggy, funny, annoying, lovable collection of Lamott's autobiographical essays (many of which originally appeared in her weekly column at http://www.
salonmagazine.com) about single motherhood, alcoholism and bulimia, dreadlocks, and anything else that crosses her mind. Lamott suffers all the signature weaknesses of a contemporary columnist, including splendid self-absorption, punch line-driven opinion-mongering, and deadline-induced desperation for closure.

If you try to read Traveling Mercies straight through, it will be like getting five of those rambling confessional phone calls in one night. You will chafe at Lamott's habit of interpreting every eternal problem through the experience of her preadolescent son Sam, her eager braying of high-pitched, spiky punch lines every second or third page ("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"), and her tendency to end an essay with a helium-balloon-floating-heavenward final sentence ("And I am glad"; "They believe").

Yet your criticisms of Traveling Mercies will be blunted if you take it slow. Reading these pieces one at a time, once or twice a day, renders Lamott's jokes less harsh and more human; it almost makes you want to meet cute little Sam; and you'll probably even be persuaded to let go and groove on the way she lets go of those balloons.

"My coming to faith," Lamott begins, "did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another." The opening pages of Traveling Mercies describe Lamott's childhood as the insecure, stick-skinny daughter of rich proto-hippie secular liberals who moved in a world of "1950s Cheever people, with their cocktails and affairs." As a little girl, Lamott was racked with shame because she thought she was ugly. Her peers -- and even her parents' friends -- made fun of her nappy blond hair and heavy-lidded eyes. ("There must have been a nigger in the woodpile," was a common quip.) Her mother was preoccupied with public service and later-life law-school studies, so Lamott took solace in the affection of her father, whose magnanimous character was mingled with a staunch and belligerent cynicism regarding religion. Yet from early in life, Lamott had a vague but profound religious sensibility: "I believed -- not in Jesus -- but in someone listening, someone who heard."

Lamott's childhood faith was nurtured by her fondness for family friends and surrogate mothers whose religious commitments ranged from Catholicism to Christian Science. Her descriptions of these characters are vivid, gracious, and full of insights regarding the early evolution of her faith. Of Lee, a close friend's mother who was a Christian Scientist, Lamott writes, "[S]he believed two of the most radical ideas I had ever heard: one, that God was both our Father and our Mother; and two, that I was beautiful. Not just in God's eyes, which didn't count -- what's the point if Ed Sullivan was considered just as beautiful as Julie Christie? She meant physically, on the earth, a visibly pretty girl."

Lee's second lesson took powerful hold of Lamott, and it's the seed of a central theme of Traveling Mercies. For Lamott, faith stems not from a moral imperative, but from a physical fact. It starts with the realization that you are beautiful, which allows you to move in the world unafraid, with confidence, because you belong. The security of belonging in the world allows Lamott a degree of doctrinal immunity much ballsier than most confessing believers ever attain. Questions of providence (When your car stalls on the way to an appointment, is God responsible?) don't concern her. She's so caught up in counting the blessings of physical presence that she doesn't have time for theological abstraction.

What's groundbreaking about Traveling Mercies, however, is not its facility for finding revelation in physical life. Lamott's articulation of this achievement is far from original. Rather, it's the fundamental premise of Christianity -- God created a world that He takes so seriously that He becomes a person in Jesus. Lamott's unique talent, among 20th-century spiritual writers -- and the one that makes her really important, in a post-Freudian world -- is for redeeming her wicked childhood.

There is a gnawing absence of good writing about family in Christian spiritual literature. The most popular Christian spirituality writers -- Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, C.S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, and Kathleen Norris -- have plenty to say about the search for truth, the beauty of nature, the problem of pain, and the vagaries of romantic relationships. None of them, however, say much about how family relationships help form a believer's faith.

The more-or-less universal relevance of Lamott's life story is this: much as parents try to love their children, we spend our early lives learning how to live without real love -- because we think we're ugly, or stupid, or otherwise messed up. As adults, therefore, we spend most of our energy searching for the home and the love we didn't have when we were kids.

Traveling Mercies is about how Anne Lamott's search for love -- as launched by her anger at her mom for being absent, and her rage at her father for not defending her against his friends who called her ugly -- led her to become a Christian. She wasn't persuaded to convert, the way you get persuaded to vote for one presidential candidate instead of another. She was loved into it.

She goes to church, she says, not because it gives her some hotline to the Truth, but because "no matter how bad I am feeling, how lost or lonely or frightened, when I see the faces of the people at my church, and hear their tawny voices, I can always find my way home."

She doesn't mean this in a merely figurative sense. She also means faith is literally leading her home. The best chapter of Traveling Mercies comes late in the book. It's called "Mom," and it's about how the sense of belonging in the world that faith has given Lamott is now leading her to recover a sense of belonging to her family -- even nudging her toward loving her selfish, needy, semi-senile mother. She's starting to see family as a "training ground for forgiveness." She asks, "Who was it who said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past?"

Whoever it was before, it's Anne Lamott now. It looks like maybe she'll even be able to do it. And if she keeps calling out in her erratic, emotional, desperate way, maybe some of the rest of us will, too.

Michael Joseph Gross is a freelance writer in Boston.

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