Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

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by Anne Lamott

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Anne Lamott claims the two best prayers she knows are: "Help me, help me, help me" and "Thank you, thank you, thank you." She has a friend whose morning prayer each day is "Whatever," and whose evening prayer is "Oh, well." Anne thinks of Jesus as "Casper the friendly savior" and describes God as "one

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Anne Lamott claims the two best prayers she knows are: "Help me, help me, help me" and "Thank you, thank you, thank you." She has a friend whose morning prayer each day is "Whatever," and whose evening prayer is "Oh, well." Anne thinks of Jesus as "Casper the friendly savior" and describes God as "one crafty mother."

Despite—or because of—her irreverence, faith is a natural subject for Anne Lamott. Since Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird, her fans have been waiting for her to write the book that explained how she came to the big-hearted, grateful, generous faith that she so often alluded to in her two earlier nonfiction books. The people in Anne Lamott's real life are like beloved characters in a favorite series for her readers—her friend Pammy, her son, Sam, and the many funny and wise folks who attend her church are all familiar. And Traveling Mercies is a welcome return to those lives, as well as an introduction to new companions Lamott treats with the same candor, insight, and tenderness.

Lamott's faith isn't about easy answers, which is part of what endears her to believers as well as nonbelievers. Against all odds, she came to believe in God and then, even more miraculously, in herself. As she puts it, "My coming to faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers." At once tough, personal, affectionate, wise, and very funny, Traveling Mercies tells in exuberant detail how Anne Lamott learned to shine the light of faith on the darkest part of ordinary life, exposing surprising pockets of meaning and hope.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Even at her most serious, she never takes herself or her spirituality too seriously. Lamott is a narrator who has relished and soaked up the details of her existence, equally of mirth and devastation, spirit and grief, and spilled them onto her pages." —The New York Times Book Review

"Life-affirming...Lamott fills her text with remarkable detail and a refreshing sense of humanity that has you guffawing on one page and bawling on the next." —People

"You'll love Traveling Mercies for Lamott's unblinking confrontation with God's love, and you'll buy copies for all your friends struggling with faith." —USA Today

"Exuberant and captivating.... shifts from laugh-out-loud wisecracks to heart-wrenching poignancy. At one point she seems a reincarnation of Erma Bombeck; at others, she could be Annie Dillard or Kathleen Norris." —Chicago Tribune

"Compares with the witty and moving Christian apologetics of C. S. Lewis.... Lamott is a fine writer who combines theology with humor, compassion, and practicality." —The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Applies passion, wisdom, and intensity to a scorchingly personal look at the road from spiritual apathy to ardent belief.... Traveling Mercies, like Ms. Lamott herself, is a consistent delight." —Dallas Morning News

"Lamott has developed an entirely new genre of religious writing. Gritty, stark, and humorous, she catches the reader by surprise when she points her pen heavenward.... Anne Lamott [is] the patron saint of struggling sinners, a woman who loves God enough to be divinely human."—Religion News Service

"Anne Lamott is walking proof that a person can be both reverent and irreverent in the same lifetime. Sometimes even in the same breath." San Francisco Chronicle
Anne Lamott, the author of such novels as Rosie and Crooked Little Heart and the fiction writer's bible, Bird by Bird, has written a new memoir, Traveling Mercies, about her own journey toward spirituality and the way her faith has influenced her life.
Thomas Fields-Meyer
Hallelujah...a refreshing sense of humanity that has you guffawing on one page and bawling on the next. —People Magazine
Entertainment Weekly
Much of Lamott's writing is delightful...
New Yorker
Anne Lamott is a cause for celebration. [Her] real genius lies in capturing the ineffable, describing not perfect moments, but imperfect ones...perfectly. She is nothing short of miraculous.
Lamott writes about subjects that begin with capital letters (alcoholism, motherhood, Jesus). But armed with self-effacing humor and ruthless honesty—call it a lower-case approach to life's Big Questions—she converts potential op-ed boilerplate into enchantment.
Los Angeles Times
Smart, funny, and comforting...Lamott has a conversational style that perfectly conveys her friendly, self-deprecating humor.
Seattle Times
[She is] sidesplittingly funny, patiently wise, and alternately cranky and kind.
Women's Review of Books
...[C]ontributes to a growing literature of self-disclosure by women that unites the worlds of feminism and addiction...
...Lamott's greatest gift is making [readers] feel their own imperfect lives are worth salvaging, that it's okay to be bitchy, confused and selfish.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Lamott (Bird by Bird) reads a collection of her autobiographical essays, each a heart-wrenching detailing of a life grown up in a world of obsessions: food, alcohol, drugs and relationships. She tells of her childhood and early adulthood in Tiburon, Calif., where she started drinking and drugging young in a permissive 1960s-era disheveled household. The title essay, "Traveling Mercies," dwells on things "broken," such as her body, when she became a bulimic. Lamott's writing is honest and direct, and in her reading she presents her words with emotional insistence. She recalls episodes from her life with vivid ferocity, noticing how "everything felt so intense and coiled and M bius strip-like." As she has a son, sobers up, her search for awareness turns spiritual. The sum effect comes across like a hipper version of Melody Beattie's self-help classic, Codependent No More. Simultaneous release with the Pantheon hardcover. (Feb.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
A best-selling author explains how she came to believe in God.
Gail Jaitlin
Anne Lamott has a way of making anyone who reads one of her books feel like her best friend. Her tone is so intimate, so knowing and self-aware and humble that it is hard not to like her. So when they came across one of her references to prayer or God in Bird by Bird or Operating Instructions, nonbelievers may have been inclined to dismiss it as perhaps just a quirk, a new age affectation of hip spirituality.

Traveling Mercies, Lamott's latest book, will disabuse readers of the notion that her faith is just a side interest and not to be taken seriously. Lamott is actually quite serious about her Christianity, although she is aware of the seeming incongruity between her faith and her feminist, gay-friendly, bohemian/artistic lifestyle. But this is not a book that tries to convert its readers -- she is not trying to convince any of us to become Bible-thumping Christians. In a way, this book is Lamott's attempt to reconcile, in her mind and the minds of her readers, her faith with her attitude. She wants to tell us the story of how she got here.

The book is made up of 25 sections, each of which tells a particular story; the chapter entitled "Overture," which is the first and longest, gives a sort of overview of Lamott's life and family. Her parents, who were products of a Christian heritage but did not believe in God, raised her in a progressive, hippie-ish, 1960s household. She found solace by going to church with Catholic friends and in the home of a Christian Scientist friend.

By the time Lamott reached her teens, her parents weren't speaking to one another, and all their friends were smoking dope and sleeping with each other's spouses. Lamott thinks this may have something to do with her parents' general lack of faith in any kind of God. Lamott herself felt a kind of pull toward faith -- she said grace silently at the dinner table -- but was embarrassed to admit it to her atheist parents (especially her father, whom she idolized and whose unhappy religious upbringing had hardened him against Christianity).

It's not until she was in her early 30s, and in the very depths of an alcohol-and-drug dependency following an abortion, that Lamott wandered into a local church for the songs and ended up staying for the sermon. It was during this period that she literally felt the presence of Jesus Christ in her bedroom one night, huddled in a corner, offering her his love. This might seem a bit much to the average reader, but Lamott handles it with grace, eloquence, and charm, and not a little self-deprecating humor. "I'm probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus-fish on the back of my car," she says at one point, meaning, don't be fooled by my left-leaning politics, East Coast college education, or dreadlocks. I really am a Christian, just like Jerry Falwell. Well, maybe not just like him.

Most of the book consists of anecdotes from Lamott's life that are told through the lens of her faith. Perhaps "anecdotes" is too trivial a term: Many of these stories are of ordinary life crises (the terror of thinking her son might be seriously ill), and some are of extraordinary ones. During one very short span of time, Lamott loses both her father and her best friend to cancer, she struggles to maintain faith in her own writing, she is thrown by the burdens of motherhood, and she comes precariously close to falling off her rickety wagon of sobriety. Through all these things, it is her belief in God and God's love that carries her through, that buoys her -- and although she doesn't want to convert us, she does want to illustrate for us what faith has done for her.

Lamott's humor and candor are endearing, and this is a fun (if not always persuasive, to this reader) book. In the way that so many memoirs do, it offers us a glimpse into the author's life at its most difficult, illustrating how she was able to find the strength to go on. In Lamott's case, instead of 20 years of analysis or aromatherapy, she turned to religion. Certainly for those of us looking for something spiritual in a world that seems to be less and less about loving one's neighbor than about outconsuming him, Traveling Mercies might be nothing less than inspirational.

There aren't any chakras or foo-talk here—labeling Traveling Mercies a book on faith almost does it a disservice, dissuading people who hate that sort of thing to pass it by. But the book is about much more than God and spirituality...Whether dealing with her fear of flying, the loss of a friend to cancer, or learning to love her crazy hair, Lamott's essays are infused with charm and a calming grace.
Chicago Tribune
Funny, poignant...wise and insightful...truly inspiring.
San Francisco Chronicle
Hilarious and genuinely moving...her best book yet.
Alexandra Hall
Lamott is a narrator who has relished and soaked up the details of her existence, equally of mirth and devastation, spirit and grief...
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Brutally honest, sometimes funny vignettes about affirming faith and community in the midst of drug-induced angst. Novelist Lamott's third autobiographical book (Operating Instructions, 1993; Bird by Bird, 1994) follows her usual pattern of cutting wit and wretched frankness. This memoir, though, is more spiritual than religious: Like many in her boomer generation, Lamott doesn't hold much truck with churches but has found a meaningful congregation all the same. It is a small, interracial community which lovingly incorporates pariah elements. Lamott circuitously chronicles finding the church (for months, she stayed only for the music, leaving before the sermon) just as she approached a crossroads in her life, finally admitting her alcoholism and other addictions, and starting out on the long road to sobriety (these chapters are among the book's most chilling, along with her struggles to overcome body-loathing and bulimia). When she was on the verge of becoming a single mom in the late 1980s, the church truly came through for her, with members slipping ten- and twenty-dollar bills into her pockets after Sunday services. Lamott remains an active participant, demanding that her son, Sam, attend church with her most weeks. "I make him because I can," she explains. "I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds." Lamott also takes refuge in a wide assortment of friends, many of whom have to deal with life-threatening illnesses as the narrative moves along. In the face of these tragedies, Lamott is refreshingly silent about questions of theodicy, choosing instead just to be there for people in need. Friendship, she claims, is the best salve for anyone's pain, anyhow. Sheshould know; she's obviously been through a lot of it. Still, nothing here is self-indulgent. An anguishing account that also heals. .

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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First Anchor Books Edition
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5.18(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.64(d)

Read an Excerpt

       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 pads, 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, and 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.

That One Ridiculous Palm

        The railroad yard below our house was ringed in green, in grass and weeds and blackberry bushes and shoulder-high anise plants that smelled and tasted of licorice; this wreath of green, like a cell membrane, contained the tracks and the trains and the roundhouse, where engines were repaired. The buildings rose up out of the water on the other side of the bay, past Angel Island, past Alcatraz. You could see the Golden Gate Bridge over to the right behind Belvedere, where the richer people lived; the anise was said to have been brought over at the turn of the century by the Italians who gardened for the people of Belvedere.

Tiburon, where I grew up, used to be a working-class town where the trains still ran. Now mostly wealthy people live here. It means shark in Spanish, and there are small sharks in these parts. My father and shy Japanese fishermen used to catch leopard sharks in the cold green waters of the bay.

There was one palm tree at the western edge of the railroad yard, next to the stucco building of the superintendent—one tall incongruous palm tree that we kids thought was very glamorous but that the grown-ups referred to as "that ridiculous palm tree." It did not belong, was not in relationship to anything else in town. It was silent and comical, like Harpo Marx with a crazy hat of fronds.

We took our underpants off for older boys behind the blackberry bushes. They'd give us things—baseball cards, Sugar Babies. We chewed the stems off the anise plants and sucked on them, bit the ends off nasturtiums and drank the nectar.

When I was five and six, my best friend was a Catholic girl who lived about fifteen minutes away, on foot, from our house—kids walked alone all over town back then. I loved the Catholic family desperately. There were dozens of children in that family, or maybe it just felt that way, babies everywhere, babies crawling out from under sofas like dust bunnies. We only had three kids in our family; my brother John, who is two years older than me and didn't like me very much back then, and my brother Stevo, who is five years younger than me, whom I always adored, and who always loved me. My mother nursed him discreetly, while the Catholic mother wore each new baby on her breasts like a brooch. The Catholic mama was tall and gorgeous and wore heels to church and lots of makeup, like Sophia Loren, and she had big bosoms that she showed off in stylish V-necked dresses from the Sears catalog. My mother was not much of a dresser. Also, she was short, and did not believe in God. She was very political, though; both she and Dad were active early on in the civil rights movement. My parents and all their friends were yellow-dog Democrats, which is to say that they would have voted for an old yellow dog before they would have voted for a Republican.

I was raised by my parents to believe that you had a moral obligation to try to save the world. You sent money to the Red Cross, you registered people to vote, you marched in rallies, stood in vigils, picked up litter. My mother used to take the Greyhound out to Marin City, which was a terrible ghetto then, and volunteer in an after-school program for boys and girls from impoverished families. She tutored kids in reading while other grown-ups worked with them in sports. My mother majored in the classics in college. She always brought along little paper candy cups filled with the fanciest candies from Blum's or the City of Paris to give to the children after their lessons. It used to make my father mad that she'd buy such expensive candies, but this didn't stop her.

My Catholic friend and I used to spend hours sitting on the couch with the latest Sears catalog spread across our knees, pretending that we got whatever was on our side of the page. I played this game with anxiety and grief, always thinking that the better dresses and shoes were on my friend's pages and that I would have been OK if they had just been on mine—and if I'd had her tall stylish mother, with the wonderful cleavage showing like the bottom of a baby in her low necklines. I knew I was not pretty because people were always making jokes about my looks. (Once, at a pizza joint, a stranger had included me in a collective reference to the Catholic children, and you would have thought from the parents' outrage that he had included a chimpanzee.) And I knew I was not OK because I got teased a lot by strangers or by big boys for having hair that was fuzzy and white. Also, I got migraines. I got my first one midway through kindergarten and had to lie down with my face on the cool linoleum in the back of the room until my father could come get me.

My friend and I gathered blackberries from the bushes in the train yard, and her mother made pies. She made apple pies too. We peeled each apple with precision, aiming for one long green spiral of peel, and my first memory of watching someone be beaten was on a night after we'd prepared apples for pie. My Catholic friend and I had been left with a baby-sitter and all those babies, and after we had sliced up and spiced the apples, we'd gone to bed without throwing out all those green snakes of peel, and I awoke with a start in the middle of the night because my friend's father was smacking her on the face and shoulders, fuming alcohol breath on the two of us in our one twin bed, raging that we were slobs, and I don't know how he knew to beat her instead of me because I don't remember there being any light on. We both cried in the dark, but then somehow we slept and in the morning when we woke the mother was frying up bacon, a baby slung over her shoulder, and the dad was happy and buoyant, thunderous in his praise of the pie now in the oven.

It was Sunday morning and I got to go to church with them. All the children got dressed up. The parents looked like movie stars, so handsome and young, carrying babies, shepherding the bigger kids, smooching in the car.

I loved every second of Catholic church. I loved the sickly sweet rotting-pomegranate smells of the incense. I loved the overwrought altar, the birdbath of holy water, the votive candles; I loved that there was a poor box, and the stations of the cross rendered in stained glass on the windows. I loved the curlicue angels in gold paint on the ceiling; I loved the woman selling holy cards. I loved the slutty older Catholic girls with their mean names, the ones with white lipstick and ratted hair that reeked of Aqua Net. I loved the drone of the priest intoning Latin. All that life surrounding you on all four sides plus the ceiling—it was like a religious bus station. They had all that stuff holding them together, and they got to be so conceited because they were Catholics.

Looking back on the God my friend believed in, he seems a little erratic, not entirely unlike her father—God as borderline personality. It was like believing in the guy who ran the dime store, someone with a kind face but who was always running behind and had already heard every one of your lame excuses a dozen times before—why you didn't have a receipt, why you hadn't noticed the product's flaw before you bought it. This God could be loving and reassuring one minute, sure that you had potential, and then fiercely disappointed the next, noticing every little mistake and just in general what a fraud you really were. He was a God whom his children could talk to, confide in, and trust, unless his mood shifted suddenly and he decided instead to blow up Sodom and Gomorrah.

My father's folks had been Presbyterian missionaries who raised their kids in Tokyo, and my father despised Christianity. He called Presbyterians "God's frozen people." My mother went to midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Episcopal church in town, but no one in our family believed in God—it was like we'd all signed some sort of loyalty oath early on, agreeing not to believe in God in deference to the pain of my father's cold Christian childhood. I went to church with my grandparents sometimes and I loved it. It slaked my thirst. But I pretended to think it was foolish, because that pleased my father. I lived for him. He was my first god.

My mother and her twin sister had come over from Liverpool with their mother after their father died, when they were twelve. My mother had a lifelong compassion for immigrants; she used to find people waiting for boats to their homeland or waiting for money to be wired from the East so that they could catch a bus home, and she'd bring them to stay with us until everything was straightened out. She and my aunt Pat had been confirmed as Episcopalians in England—I have their confirmation picture on my mantel, two dark-haired beauties of twelve or so in long white baptismal-style dresses. But that was the last of their religious affiliation. My aunt Pat married a Jew, with a large Jewish family in tow, but they were not really into Moses Jews; they were bagelly Jews. My closest cousin was bar mitzvahed, but other than accusing you of anti-Semitism if you refused second helpings of my uncle Millard's food, they might as well have been Canadians.

None of the adults in our circle believed. Believing meant that you were stupid. Ignorant people believed, uncouth people believed, and we were heavily couth. My dad was a writer, and my parents were intellectuals who went to the Newport Jazz festival every year for their vacation and listened to Monk and Mozart and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Everyone read all the time. Mt. Tamalpais loomed above us, and we hiked her windy trails many weekends, my dad with binoculars hanging around his neck because he was a serious bird-watcher. He worshiped in the church of Allen Ginsberg, at the Roger Tory Peterson Holiness Temple, the Tabernacle of Miles Davis.

We were raised to believe in books and music and nature. My mother played the piano most weekend nights, and all of us kids knew the words to almost every song in the Fireside Book of Folk Songs. When my parents' friends came over on the weekends and everyone had a lot to drink, my mother played piano and everyone sang: English ballads, spirituals, union songs, "The Golden Vanity," "Joe Hill," "Bread and Roses."

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Meet the Author

Anne Lamott is the author of Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird, and of five novels, including Rosie and Crooked Little Heart. She lives in northern California with her son.

Brief Biography

Fairfax, California
Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
San Francisco, California
Attended Goucher College in Maryland before dropping out to write

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Traveling Mercies 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 59 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm a college freshman who was required to read this book for my freshman seminar class, and it absolutely blew me away. The writing style, humor, depth, and honesty hooked me early and held me until I finished. This book isn't pretty; but it makes you think, and it leaves you feeling good, and more importantly, thinking. I strongly recommend this book to anyone looking for a new perspective on faith.
bookjunkiesmom More than 1 year ago
Although this is the second time reading this book, I do not get tired of it. It is the first of three books that seem to comprise a trilogy of sorts,regarding Ms. Lamott's life. This author uplifts without preaching. Although I am not a fiction fan, since reading her autobiographical books,I have been so entranced with her style of prose,that I bought all of her novels. They did not disappoint. Ann Lamott uses humor to get her through life's large and small tribulations,of which there are many,some self-inflicted,some merely everyday bumps in the road of life. I cannot say enough about Ann Lamott. I think everyone can identify with some part of this book. I highly recommend this as a must read. When you are done with "Traveling Mercies", read the second and third books in this quasi series, "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith" and "Grace Eventually".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anne opens up and lets you inside her life, the good, bad and ugly.
WendyMc More than 1 year ago
When talking about her books she wrote somewhere "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." She accomplished her goal. Great Medicine! cured me of several maladies ;-)
Guest More than 1 year ago
This certainly does not sound like a book on faith. At least nothing like I am accustomed to. That is the main thing that kept me reading it. The book was referred to by Gigi Graham, a friend that I admire, but I was shocked this book would be on her referral list, her coming from a 'holy' family and all. I had difficulty getting past the multitude of four letter words, and at times peaked over my shoulder to see if anyone was watching me read it as I sat in the waiting area and after boarding my flight. Then when I gasped or burst out laughing I know I received some prunish glances form the annoyed or sleeping co-travelers. Anne's disprespect for the reader was unnerving. A violation at times. So, I simply kept reminiding myself, 'I'm a big boy.' - it's not like I haven't heard these 'terms' before. Still her journey is stimulating and her writing, well she's a kind of Meryl Streep really, very versitle and somewhat intoxicating. Careful what you reccomend - this is not for the faint of heart - but I still pick it up once in a while - just for the creativity and all.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As usual, Anne Lamott never seems to disappoint. This is the third of her books that I have read, and I still can't get over the way she writes -- as so many people have said already, reading her work is akin to having a deep conversation with an old friend (or a new friend who instantly feels as though she's always been a part of your life). If you're anything like me, you won't be able to help yourself from laughing out loud, as well as shedding a few tears of empathy, because all of us can relate in some way to her tales of both triumph and woe. I would, however, like to point out to Christian believers that her understanding of spirituality is a bit off at times and she has a tendency to use strong language. Nevertheless, you will find many positive insights in her writing as long as you keep an open mind (just remember to keep the ol' filter turned on). And if you enjoy Lamott's style of open, honest writing, check out Donald Miller's book, 'Blue Like Jazz.' He is also an excellent author and, like Lamott, has a way of slipping into your unconsciousness until you are sure that you and he would be instant best friends should you ever meet.
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One of the best ever for it's refreshing honesty. Thank you Anne, for putting yourself out there so those who can relate to your storey may feel less alone. Just wonderful.
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