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A Package of Confusion, Experience, and Faith
BY SHELLY BRYANT I November 10, 2009
Anne Lamott. Traveling Mercies. New York: Anchor Books, 1999. 272 pages.
The writings of Anne Lamott were recently introduced to me by some friends who loaned me their copy of Traveling Mercies. And I have fallen in love.
Lamott writes with a whimsy that keeps the profundity of her observations from getting too heavy and the depth of emotion from becoming merely cloying. Her work is fun. It is smart. It is deep. And, sometimes, it is even a little silly. What more could you ask for in a collection of essays?
Traveling Mercies takes us through Lamott's personal, inward journey. Subtitled "Some Thoughts on Faith," it records a sort of spiritual journey. But in saying that, I don't mean to imply that it is something luminary or anything like that. Her spirituality is right at home in this world — on the beach, in her home, at her son's school, and in hospital rooms. It's even right at home in her past struggles with drug and alcohol addiction as well as in her daily struggles and difficult relationships with family and friends.
What is perhaps most attractive about Lamott's writing is her tendency to be just a tad self-effacing. Though she is obviously a bright, well-read woman, she is not in the least afraid to let her fears and insecurities run wild on the page. She doesn't force the profound to come to the surface of whatever topic she discusses, though it often seems to make its way into the conversation one way or another. Her contemplation of a ritual cleansing, a baptism that gives one a sense of new beginnings, is couched in a much longer, funny train of thought about how unruly her hair gets in wet or humid weather. She traces her perpetual fear of the bad hair days through to her decision to let her hair be what it will, finally letting it grow into dreadlocks. With this approach, an idea that is often presented in a rather holier-than-thou meditation is put forward in a way that makes it unprepossessing and hospitable. It feels close. It feels real. And in that way, it lets the reader easily partake in the profound moments of epiphany as they come about.
In saying this, I almost feel that I've done an injustice to Lamott's writing. It is true that she is profound and deep, but she is equally entertaining. She has seen and done a lot and perhaps not always in the wisest of ways. And she isn't at all afraid to share those moments. Her typical presentation often includes three things in equal portion: insight, humility, and humor. She describes her experience with writing about her spiritual development like this:
Life does not seem to present itself to me for my convenience, to box itself up nicely so I can write about it with wisdom and a point to make before putting it on a shelf somewhere. Now, in my early forties, I understand just enough about life to understand that I do not understand much of anything. You show me a man with one leg climbing up a trapeze ladder, and the best I can do is to tell you that when I saw him, he was very focused and in a good mood.
And this is true — most of her insights are not at all boxed up as a point sprinkled with wisdom to be put on a shelf. Rather, they come in a package of confusion, experience, and a mind ready to accept life as it comes. Lamott doesn't pull any punches, seeming to prefer to own up that life sometimes doesn't feel all that great to those of us who have to go on living it. But she does really live it, and that comes through rather nicely on the pages of Traveling Mercies.