Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

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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...

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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 Barnes & Noble
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.
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

Women's Review of Books
...[C]ontributes to a growing literature of self-disclosure by women that unites the worlds of feminism and addiction...
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&#151call it a lower-case approach to life's Big Questions&#151she 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.
From The Critics
...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

  • ISBN-13: 9780385496094
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/28/2000
  • Edition description: First Anchor Books Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 52,845
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Anne Lamott

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.

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    1. Hometown:
      Fairfax, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 30, 1953
    2. Place of Birth:
      San Francisco, California
    1. Education:
      Attended Goucher College in Maryland before dropping out to write

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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Table of Contents

Overture: Lily Pads 3
1 Mountain, Valley, Sky
Knocking on Heaven's Door 59
Ladders 68
Mountain Birthday 79
2 Church, People, Steeple
Ashes 91
Why I Make Sam Go to Church 99
Traveling Mercies 106
3 Tribe
Fields 117
Forgiveness 128
Grace 138
4 Kids, Some Sick
Barn Raising 147
Tummler's Dog 155
Hearthcake 161
5 Body and Soul
Gypsies 171
The Mole 177
Thirst 184
Hunger 190
The Aunties 199
6 Family
Mom 209
Dad 221
Sister 229
Baby 238
7 Shore and Ground
A Man Who Was Mean to His Dog 247
Into Thin Mud 257
Altar 266
Acknowledgments 273
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Interviews & Essays

Talking with Anne Lamott

Q: In Traveling Mercies you are extremely successful at communicating the everyday occurrences of spirituality. But you write the book as a Christian. Did you write it for Christians? How universal is your God?

A: My God is so universal that it's mind-blowing. I just wrote it for everybody. I mean, I happen to be a Christian, but I know that there is one God. People worshipping goodness and love and kindness and truth are worshipping the same God. I didn't write it as a Christian treatise. God knows, I have never had an interesting theological thought or position, so there aren't any in the book. It's really about God, you know, goodness, kindness, a power greater than ourselves. I happen to be a devout, born-again Christian, so what are you going to do?

Q: You're talking about the goodness of God. There are times in the book where miracles occur. You talk about your recovery from bulimia as a miracle, and there's an incredible scene where you and your son Sam are in the sea surrounded by hundreds of dolphins, which also seems like a miracle. Do you remember having moments like that, great, good moments, before you found God? Once you found God, how did the meaning of those moments change?

A: First of all, I always believed in God. As a young child I believed in God. I wasn't a Christian until I was 31. I'm going to be 45 soon. I always believed that there was more here than met the eye, and that there was something bigger and more tender behind the scenes, which even as a young child I experienced as not being very tender or very coherent, or certainly not very touching.

I became a Christian before I got sober, so I certainly had a lot of druggie times, times on psychedelics and in the morning after a long cocaine or methedrine binge, where the world shimmered with a kind of light. But it was not always there for very long, and it didn't really hold up to much scrutiny, because it was probably chemical in nature, or else I was tapping into another world or another plane of existence or something. But because I converted before I stopped taking drugs, I had this wonderful year or so of believing in God, in really having a personal connection with God, and at the same time being stoned a lot. It was wonderful, because I sort of tripped out a lot on me and God, like it was Casper the Friendly Ghost, and we were kind of together at dawn taking cocaine or whatever I happened to be using that day.

But since I got sober and clean, which was 1986, I have seen what I would call miracles, not in the Medujigore sense or Lourdes sense but in the sense of things happening that really simply couldn't, that were just too good to imagine happening. I was so stuck in my bulimia. I was so locked into the obsessive madness and grip of an eating disorder and distorted body image that I believed I could never get free, and I had tried everything. Then, all of a sudden, it was lifted. I eat like a pretty normal person; I stay about the same, and I don't binge and I don't purge. I know I couldn't get to there from where I was, so I feel like something lifted me up and carried me.

Q:Where is religion when there is no hardship? What role does it play in a life where trouble isn't looming or knocking on the door?

A: I think that trouble's looming in most lives. I don't think drugs and alcohol and bulimia are any tougher than what most people are dealing with who are not addict types. Life is really pretty tricky, and there's a lot of loss, and the longer you stay alive, the more people you lose whom you actually couldn't live without. I don't know a life that I would say is easy on the inside. I know lots of people who are not addicts who have lots of money and happy marriages or seemingly happy marriages. I would say these lives are very hard and very frightening. It's terrifying to be a human on the earth, to give your heart over so entirely to a few people, and to take the risk of losing them. So I don't know those lives that you describe. I think that when things are going very well, when you're on a roll, you know that it will pass and that there's another side coming, because that's the nature of life; but that it's really easy to believe in God, to feel very blessed, and to have a great deal of faith and confidence that one is safe and protected beyond all imagining, because I think that's our reality. That's another thing I hope to do in the book: to help people understand how really safe they are, how really protected and loved and chosen they are, as seen through this one woman's perspective.

Q: Sam is growing up with much more of a formal spiritual life than you did.

A: Or more of an at-home one, because I found it in other homes.

Q: Do you think that he won't find faith because it's been handed to him on a platter?

A: That life hasn't been handed to him on a platter, though, is the point. He's been raised in a religious house, and he assumes that the Jesus stuff is true the way he assumes that gravity is going to hold up over time. I believe that he will leave the church and leave Christianity for a time, and I don't know if he will come back. I assume that like most healthy kids, he will have to reject a lot of it, if not most of it. But he has had unbelievable challenges in his life. He has had unimaginable loss. He has had several people that he absolutely adores die already. That's what I mean: Nobody gets off easy here. We have a very tiny house, these ratty, used pets, and it's all kind of funky here. But you take a gorgeous child in a very affluent, privileged home, with parents and a healthy, committed marriage, and you can't make a case for the fact that this child is having an easy time of it. It's just hard.

Q: A funny line in the book comes when one of the mothers says that Sam doesn't seem to like schoolwork very much, and you write that you want to scream, "No, but he makes inventions, you dumb slut, out of garbage. While your kid is an obsequious little Type A suck." This isn't what people usually think of when they think of born-again Christians. Has anyone reacted negatively to the spirituality you represent?

A: The people at my church don't sound like that either, I want to make it clear. They're all really lovely and soft-spoken good people. I can only tell the truth in my own voice. I can only tell the truth as I understand the directive inside me to do that. Part of what I have to offer is that I can be funny, and I can take this stuff that there's usually a lot of hush and reverence around and do my take on it. For you to say that it doesn't sound like a born-again Christian -- we would all agree with that, because born-again Christians seem to be part of the Moral Majority. The right wing in America has appropriated the Bible and its teachings for its own political purposes, but it doesn't have to do with what's real.

Q: In the book you say that you're "probably about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus-fish" on the back of your car. Have you done it yet?

A: Oh, this is so awful, this is going to make no one ever buy my books again. It's going to show what a fly-by-night, watery faith I have, but I did put a Jesus fish on our very old, funky Volkswagen convertible. I put a fish on because someone sent me one. I didn't actually have to go buy it, which would have put me over the edge, to sneak into the Christian general store to buy one. Then, see, cheap slut that I am, when I was trying to sell the car, I took it off. I thought, Only Christians will want this car. Then I thought, I'm like Peter when the cock crows three times, and all three times he denies ever having heard of Jesus: "No, no, I don't think so.... No, never heard of the guy...." And the car didn't sell. I should probably go buy another one.

Hilary Liftin is the coauthor of Dear Exile, due out this spring.

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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your reading of Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies. We hope that they will suggest a variety of ways to talk about this delightful and moving story of one woman's journey in faith.

1. Lamott explains, "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....Yet each step brought me closer to the ample verdant pad of faith on which I somehow stay afloat today" (3). Yet on page 51 she notes that there was a actually a moment of "conversion." How would you describe the process by which she came to religion? Is there necessarily a spiritual component to emerging from an addiction?

2. Lamott writes of her parents and their friends, "they were fifties Cheever people, with their cocktails and affairs" (10). Is this the reason for Anne's powerful girlhood desire to escape her family and to be "adopted" by the mothers of her friends? Judging from the evidence she offers in the section called "Lily Pads," what was lacking in her own home that she needed?

3. In her earlier book Operating Instructions, Lamott explored the enormous changes that the birth of a child brings to a woman's life. What do you think of her decision, after terminating an earlier pregnancy, to have this baby on her own, and what do you think of the response of the people at St. Andrew's? What does Traveling Mercies tell us about the role of of community in raising children? How does it expand our notions of what a family is?

4. What particular challenges does raising a child bring to Lamott's life as a Christian? How does she handle some of the crises of maternal decision-making, such as the episode of Sam's desire to go paragliding on his seventh birthday?

5. Lamott writes, "Families are definitely the training ground for forgiveness—when you can forgive your family, you can learn to pardon anyone" (223), and "Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past" (217). Do you agree with these two statements? Why is forgiveness so important in spiritual life?

6. If Lamott had not been an alcoholic, do you think she would eventually have found faith anyway? Is coming to faith a matter of fate for certain people, or is there a large element of chance involved?

7. At several moments in this story Anne Lamott speaks of the events she is describing as miraculous. What is a miracle? How does she take the miraculous out of the realm of the extraordinary and return it to common life? What is the effect, for you, of her doing so?

8. Of her spirituality before becoming a Christian, Lamott writes, "Mine was a patchwork God, sewn together from bits of rag and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew, everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus" (42). Do you find that, even after her conversion and formal baptism, her approach to Christianity is unorthodox? What do you think of her continued unwillingness to exclude the wisdom of other religions?

9. What rituals, celebrations, and memorial occasions are most significant in this story? Why are such occasions necessary in our lives?

10. Consider the structure of this memoir. What decisions has Lamott made in consciously shaping the story of her own life? What does she leave out? Are the choices a writer makes in writing autobiography different from those in writing fiction?

11. Anne Lamott gives the work of other writers an important role in Traveling Mercies. Verses of poetry or excerpts of prose are placed at the beginning of each of the book's seven parts, and the book as a whole opens with a poem by W. S. Merwin. How do these other voices contribute to what Lamott is trying to share with her readers? Which of these additional voices did you find most moving, most resonant?

12. Anne Lamott gives the work of other writers an important role in Traveling Mercies. Lamott is often preoccupied with her aging body and the cultural expectations of beauty. When she is worrying about whether a certain dress makes her hips look too big, her dying friend Pammy remarks, "Annie, you really don't have that kind of time" (239). Why is this such an important insight for Lamott? What sort of resolve is necessary to step away from the desire to be physically beautiful in contemporary American culture?

13. What role does Pammy play in Lamott's life? How does one adjust to losing a friend to cancer? How does Lamott arrive at the crucial insight that we should live joyfully in the face of death?

14. What is amusing about Lamott's efforts to impress upon her son Sam the importance of Ash Wednesday? Do you think that she was right in taking Sam to the ceremony upon the death of their friends' baby? How and when we should try to initiate children into the painful issue of our mortality?

15. What do you find most appealing about Anne Lamott's voice as a writer? Which aspects of her character do you most and least identify with?

16. What is the relationship between humor and faith in Anne Lamott's life? Is humor a necessary component of faith?

17. Why is community so important in Anne Lamott's life as a Christian? Is there a qualitative difference in a spirituality that is primarily private, and one that is part of an ongoing commitment to a group of fellow believers?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 59 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 59 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2008

    Not for the Faint of faith

    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.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2003

    Strongly Recommended

    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.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 26, 2010

    Anne Lamott is the best!

    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".

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2012

    Wonderful book!

    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.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    Great book! Takes the gloves off and tells it like it is.

    Anne opens up and lets you inside her life, the good, bad and ugly.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 1, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    My new favorite author!

    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 ;-)

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2006

    Likeable by far but...

    Faith based. Pretty much all there is to say about it. This woman has absolutely no confidence in herself therefore, she dismisses every great accomplishment in her life that she achived on her own and claims that it was miricale from God. Her spinelessness is disgusting. It is very important in collections as such to have a point to writing and publicly sharing movement to faith stories. Lamott does not have a point to get across to the reader. Perhaps one argues that it is the movement to faith she wishes to get across to the reader. Unfortunately for Lamott this is over done...she's joined the ranks of dime-a-dozen writers. Why should one read this collection? Because it will kill sometime and put 'pretty' images in one's head. Stylistically, Lamott uses unnecessary imagary and metaphor. In other words, she uses poetic devices for the sake of poetic devices and not to make a point (and perhaps to cover up the fact that she never makes strong points...not even implicitly). Anne Lamott is just another bad American author that makes people smile, and promptly forget what they've read a month afterward (kind of like a Hollywood movie) If you want literature or even a good biography do not waste your time on this collection.

    1 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 22, 2005

    Occasionally askew, but definitely inspirational

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 19, 2014

    It was OK.

    Not my type of book but it was one of my book clubs choices. It was hard to continue reading at the beginning as I felt the main character was always complaining. Toward the end of the book she was a better a person but by then I’d had enough. I may of expected too much from this but it did get better as i finished it.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2009

    great book!

    emotional, inspirational, and some humor. overall a great book

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 18, 2009

    more from this reviewer


    Imagine sittng with a noted writer, just you, no one else, and listening to her talk to you about her life. There is no baloney, no shame, no apology, no prescriptions, no lock on the truth. Better yet, there is unabridged humanness--that quality we try hard to keep in check.
    If you're still hurting and searching and nothing you've tried has helped, really, try again. Read Anne Lamott's book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2009

    Good Read

    Anne Lammott is a great writer. Her stories are very random. I love it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 15, 2008

    A Quirky Memoir that Speaks to the Heart

    Anne Lamott shares the stories of her spiritual awakening and transformation. Her memoir is frank and sparkling as she spins out her stories in a kaleidoscope of images and poetry. Lamott offers a candid look into her life, her search for meaning, her encounters with God, and her inner struggle with destructive addictions. She invites the reader into her personal thoughts as she reflects on her deepest fears, her painful losses, and her overwhelming desire for meaning and love in her life. Her tales are told with earthy humor, poignant insights and raw pain as she offers wit, grace and hope for living life to the brink and beyond. Traveling Mercies offers every woman and man, in search of meaning and spirituality, a traveling companion. For in Lamottâ¿¿s stories one can find connections to their own life struggles and questions while gleaning nuggets of wisdom and hope. Traveling Mercies offers a breath of fresh air for book clubs, prayer groups, coffee house conversation or anyone looking for a non-conventional book in which to explore the meaning of life, God, loss, and love.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2008

    I loved this book!

    I bought this off the shelf of a used book store without knowing what to expect. I loved it -- it is funny, wise, beautifully written, and her theology matches mine perfectly -- pretty rare! I passed the book on to a young woman right away who I thought could benefit from it (a Christian but very troubled), and have also given it as a gift to friends. Just a great read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2006

    Beyond Beautiful!

    Traveling Mercies was so engaging, I devoured it in two sittings. Thank you, Anne Lamott, for your courageous candor, unique perspective, and irreverant sense of humor. I laughed out loud, sobbed like a crazy person, and felt more deeply moved than I have in a long while. I cannot adequately express how much I enjoyed this book and how appreciative I am of your writing style. I can only tell you that I have been recommending Traveling Mercies to all my friends.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2006

    Faith Based

    'Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen'-Hebrews11:1 For anyone to state that she [the author] blames God for all of her accomplishments is just redefining what the entire book is about. The author recognizes that, if left up to her own devices, she would'nt be here today. So yes, it is faith based, but it is also her relenishing of power over to something greater than herself. That is what true strength is and I am glad to see more people are finding true strength.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 11, 2005

    This book gave me back hope

    I am traveling with a christian group right now filled with closed minded people. I got this book recommended to me randomly after walking into a tiny bookshop looking for more liberal christian books. I was getting really down and didn't know who to talk to and i started to read the book. I have cried and laughed and just felt relieved to be reminded that there are people out there that think like me. Please do youself a favor and read the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2005

    I've been gobbling books like this up lately

    I adore genuine witty folks who share their pain with us coated with humor for easy digestion. This book will make you laugh, and cry. It will also inspire and comfort you.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2005

    Heart to Heart

    Anne's voice is like that of an old wise friend sharing her thoughts on life over an afternoon lunch. She's real. I loved this book and the way it made me reflect on my own thoughts about life, love, and faith.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2005

    A wonderful, gutsy adventure into life

    This author really knows how to dig deep. It takes courage to confront your fears and overcome them. This book encourages all who read it to dig into themselves and find new meaning in life. A gripping read.

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