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Anne Lamott: Traveling Mercies

My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another. Like lily pad, round and green, these places summoned and then held me up while I grew. Each prepared me for the next leaf on which I would land, in this way I moved across the swamp of doubt and fear. When I look back at some of these early resting places – the boisterous home of the Catholics, the soft armchair of the Christian Science mom, adoption by ardent Jews – I can see how flimsy and indirect a path they made. Yet each step brought me closer to the verdant pad of faith on which I somehow stay afloat today.

In April last year, when J.T. Oldfield of Bibliofreak Blog is clearing her bookshelf and I was drawn out from the lots to choose one book in the list. JT asked me to choose between The Savage Detective by Roberto Bolano and Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. I haven’t heard of Bolano then I have no idea what to choose. JT advised that I might like Travelling Mercies since I signed up for her World Religion Challenge.

I remembered between 1997 and 1999, I read a lot of books on Christianity and theology.  I was introduced to author who inspires and do good work, such as Corrie Ten Boom, Jackie Pullinger etc. Amongst my favourite are Max Lucado “When God whispers your name” and Philip Yancey’s many Christian must-reads. Also Tim La Haye, of the “Left Behind” Apocalypse series  fame, also wrote an interesting book about personality analysis which I love a lot. Since then it’s been a hiatus of 10 years since I last picked up a book which talks about faith and Christianity, until this one.

This is an honest account of Anne’s troubled life. Anne used to be an alcoholic, bulimic and basically in a big mess before.  Anne picks up fragments of her memories in this book, childhood, adolescence, fear of flying, making the hard decision whether to let her 7-year-old son Sam goes para-gliding, and her best friend’s death etc. and takes us on a journey through her troubled past to illuminate her devout but quirky walk of faith. Lamott tells how, against all odds, little by little, step by step, she came to believe in God and then, even more miraculously, came to believe in herself.

Far from being a holy and righteous account of faith, there are swear words in this one. Anne can be both reverent and irreverent. Rather than preach about not mixing with people of different yolk, Anne emphasised universal humanity and that “the people she know who have what she wants – purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy – are people with a deep sense of spirituality. The people in community, who pray, or practice their faiths: they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians – people who band together to work on themselves and for human rights”.

Anne wrote a lot of thought provoking and humorous passage, some of my favourites:

On her childhood

Over at my house, things could go any number of ways. I have read since that this is how you induce psychosis in rats you behave inconsistently with them; you keep changing the rules.

On Grief

All those years I fell for the great palace lie that grief should be gotten over as quickly as possible and as privately. But what I’ve discovered since is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief: the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it.

Grief, as I read somewhere once, is a lazy Susan. One day it is heavy and underwater, and the next day it spins and stops at loud and rageful, and the next day at wounded keening, and the next day numbness, silence.

On hair and dreadlocks

Industrial –strength mousse came along in my 20’s, and I could moussify my hair and bangs into submission with the space-age anti-frizz shit that may turn out some day to have been carcinogenic. I used to worry about this, but then i’d think, i don’t really care as long as they don’t take it off the market.

Perhaps to some people dreadlocks indicate confusion of thoughts and characters: good children have shiny combed hair, while bad children, poor children, lost kids, have bushy hair.

On Grace

I have read a lot of theology explanation about Grace, but none made me understand the feeling of it until Anne wrote this chapter about Grace and she said:

I understand that grace in theological sense, meant it as the force that infuses our lives and keeps letting us off the hook. It is unearned love – the love that goes before, that greets us on the way. It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you to from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be here.

I felt far from being a book that talks about faith or Christianity, it is first a book about a woman’s journey to self-acceptance and peace. Readers of different faith may relate with grieving, parental worries, loss of a friend etc. in the book. For example: I didn’t know how a bulimic actually feels like. Until I read Anne’s experience and she said a bulimic doesn’t know when one is hungry, an unawareness of the sensation of appetite; and to reverse that you have to notice when you first feel hungry and feed that hunger. Teaching your body to detect hunger and feed it all over again.

The chapter Aunties is my favourite. Anne tells a hilarious account of comparing her bouncing “Aunties” with those of the young girls who are firmer, and eventually learn to accept herself clinically and objectively beautiful. “Sometimes you start with the outside (make-up and wearing something beautiful) and you get it right and tend to your spirit through your body”.

Rating: 4/5

I know this is not a book one would normally read, but if you ever need to feed your soul with a little laughter while feeling a little blue; curl up with a warm cup of coffee and read this one, it may prove to be a remedy.

“Travelling mercies”, the old people at our church said to someone when she left. This is what they always say when one of us goes off for awhile. Travelling mercies: love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.

I am reading this for World Religion Challenge – Christianity, and glad that I have chosen this book over The Savage Detective, otherwise I wouldn’t know about Lamott. Thank you J.T. Oldfield for sending this over to me. Big thanks.

Other view: The Blue Bookcase

Paperback. Publisher: Anchor Books 2000.  Length: 275 pages, Setting: San Francisco Bay Area, USA. Source: Own. Finished reading at 7 December 2010.

About the writer:

Anne Lamott (born April 10, 1954) is a novelist and non-fiction writer. She is also a political activist, public speaker and writing teacher. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, her nonfiction works are largely autobiographical. Marked by their self-deprecating humor and openness, Lamott’s writings cover such subjects as alcoholism, being a single mother, depression and Christianity.

Lamott was born in San Francisco, and is a graduate of Drew School. Her father, Kenneth Lamott, was also a writer. His death was the focus of her first published novel Hard Laughter. She has one son, Sam, who was born in 1989 and a grandson, Jax.

Lamott’s life was documented in Freida Lee Mock‘s 1999 documentary Bird by Bird with Annie: A Film Portrait of Writer Anne Lamott.  Because of the documentary and her following on Facebook and other online networks, she is often called the “People’s Author”. Lamott has described why she writes: “I try to write the books I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness—and that can make me laugh. When I am reading a book like this, I feel rich and profoundly relieved to be in the presence of someone who will share the truth with me, and throw the lights on a little, and I try to write these kinds of books. Books, for me, are medicine.” Lamott is cited as a writer who captures well the style of narrative nonfiction called particularism, coined by Howard Freeman.


About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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