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Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
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am 9. April 2000
I read this book in about one day, couldn't put it down--am not now nor have ever been either Alcoholic or Christian. In fact, I seldom read books on religion, faith, or spirituality and chose this particular text because I am an Annie Lamott fan, not a believer (in the more conventional sense). I do, very sincerely, respect other people's beliefs, however orthodox or UN-orthodox, and I greatly enjoyed reading the way someone so totally unlikely to write about a spiritual journey nonetheless found herself on one when she became sober.
I was very moved, and actually envious of the comfort Lamott's faith has given her life. Not only has her spiritual awakening played a role in controlling her alcoholism, but it has lead her to a Christianity more resonant of the teachings of Christ than is true of many more "traditional" spiritual authors.
However, this book may in many ways appeal more to those who are TOLERANT than those who might find the word "faithful" as the first on their tongue to describe themselves. Even the deeply skeptical, or the totally without faith will enjoy this book if they are "tolerant", because it is about the faith of someone so unlike those one generally finds writing about spirituality. This fact also makes the book a great deal more interesting than one might expect of a text about a spiritual journey (for those who aren't wild about that sort of literature in general), because you get to see how Lamott sustains her faith despite a mind with little of the "obedient" nature one generally associates with religious fervor. This is particularly true for those of us who see the word "religious" and think more of Pat Robertson and the Religious Right than somebody we might like to talk with at dinner.
I read this book maybe a year ago, and was shocked to see it now on the best seller list, since it's really quite liberal, and is not the sort of book I would expect to appeal to a wide range of Americans, given the fact that so many people voted in primaries for the son of George Bush--a man for whom Annie Lamott has never had a good word (to put it MILDLY! ).
Anne Lamott writes for Salon.com, and is not your average American by a longshot. She's got an incisive mind, she is witty and articulate, but she is also wildly opinionated (in a way I find attractive), and so liberal that most right wing "Christians" (as opposed to Methodists or Episcopalians or Roman Catholics)will run in the other direction should they pick up this book by accident-- These are probably the people responsible for most of the one star reviews of this book.
For the rest of the reading public, however, this is a taste of Annie Lamott at ALMOST her best--(I do think that "Operating Instructions" is even better, but so few books in my life have been capable of making me laugh OUT LOUD in the New York City subway system during rush hour, that it may be the funniest book about motherhood on the planet--and motherhood is its own unique kind of spiritual journey.)
It is also true that this book is about religious faith--the sincerity of this woman's vision of God is very touching for those of us willing to admit more than one concept to the way in which God is defined. It's somewhat disturbing to read reviews on this page where the way Lamott talks about God is considered offensive--this book is definitely NOT for those into dogma, fundamentalism or thought control.
It is however, a delight for those of us who have not entirely lost the idealism of a generation much maligned by the numbers of its members who have become so conservative with age that they view their younger selves as the enemy--if that's you, avoid this book like the plague, because there's lots of things here that will offend you. And for those who find reading about one person's spiritual life interesting--a fairly self-destructive person whose faith has enabled her to cope without flipping her out into a person who believes her way is the only way--the book is an incredibly enjoyable, irreverant and sincere journey documenting her less than well-traveled path.
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am 20. März 2000
I resisted reading this book based on the many 1-star reviews it received on this site. I just knew that I would agree with all those readers who, clutching their stomachs, had pleaded with Anne to "ponder pride as one of the seven deadly sins." For some reason, however, I did read the book and I am here to tell you that, yes, it was relentlessly self-absorbed, but it is still a book that I feel has value. Part of the reason I may have enjoyed it is that I am a lot like Anne, except that I didn't have intellectual parents or a child out of wedlock, or become a Christian or an alcoholic (although my problem with bulimia -- on the vanguard before there was even a name for it -- was worse than hers). I thoroughly understand her need to refer everything back to herself, and the capacity to be prodigiously witty as long as one is looking in the mirror. For those people who don't have such narcissism, I am sure it is trying to endure a 15-page rant about her hair, which you just know she loves, and is only complaining about in order to flaunt. I understand the fragile gratitude which can turn all your particular friends and their children into the most amazing and singular people on earth, and your epiphanies and triumphs into the most breathlessly momentous. Sure, she was the architect of most of her own misery, but so was I, and that doesn't make it any easier to take, it just makes it more pathetic and picayune. The book must be approached as you would a diary, not a mature work of spiritual accomplishment. While several chapters were so overworked that they reminded me of Hawaiians making poi, others were gripping and direct. Ms. Lamott has a rapier-sharp wit, which is trained primarily on herself, and though her spiritual struggles may seem jejune to some, they are reported candidly. If you can cut her some slack, there is much to relish about being a voyeur to her inner workings.
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Life shouldn't be this difficult! Lamott, through witty, humorous, clear, concise writing and compelling stories shows us how, in many ways, we are our own worst enemies. But she also shows us ways out of the problems we create and gives us a glimpse of how our attitudes and perseverance can overcome even the problems of alcoholism, drugs, being a single Mom, and being poor.
On the surface, this is a very self-centered book, focused almost entirely on the feelings, friends, enemies, and weaknesses of the author. Yet, Lamott manages to use her story to demonstrate to us that through love and faith, one can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. If one reads these stories while keeping compassion in his or her heart for another suffering human being, then a spiritual journey unfolds with many wonderful lessons along the way. But it takes work to get by the feeling that we're learning far more about the author than we needed to.
Yet Traveling Mercies becomes a wonderful sermon since it afflicts the comfortable and gives some hope and comfort to the afflicted. And perhaps the discomfort one feels when reading it is the same as that of being around sick family members or friends. And how can one tell the story of love and compassion for others bringing grace into one's life without sounding self-centered and a bit self-righteous? In the end, Lamott does precisely that. The reader grows respect and admiration for this frail human being as she tells of her own spiritual journey from someone who could not stand being "in the same room with a Christian," to someone who can lean on God and accept Jesus. And she does so without trashing anyone else's faith system.
"I make him [her son, go to church] because I can. I outweigh him by nearly seventy-five pounds. But that is only part of it. The main reason is that I want to give him what I found in the world, which is to say a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want--which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy--are people with a deep sense of spirituality. They are people in community, who pray, or practice their faith; they are Buddhists, Jews, Christians--people banding together to work on themselves and for human rights. They follow a brighter light than the glimmer of their own candle; they are part of something beautiful."
I spoke of this book to a minister friend, and recommended it as good reading. He in turn mentioned it to a friend who was having difficulty with a wayward daughter. The daughter read Traveling Mercies and reported back that it had changed her life. That she was able to see how to get things back into control. Perhaps that is the only recommendation this book needs. It changes peoples' lives for the better.
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am 20. Juni 1999
Annie (I can call her that; the way she writes I'm sure she'll agree she's my new best friend) shares EVERYTHING with her readers. If you think your life has been rough, you haven't read this book. Annie Lamott spent many years worshiping a trinity of drugs, alcohol and writing. She managed to make a living, so to speak, as a writer. Hangovers and serendipity drew her to a ramshackle church in a poor suburb of San Francisco whose congregation would prove to be her salvation. And just in time, for she became pregnant with Sam, whom she would have and rear with an extended family of friends. In Traveling Mercies, Annie shares vignettes of her life, blending each tale with reflections of her faith. Her musings offer glimpses of wisdom every reader can treasure. I cherish one in particular. It was Sam's seventh birthday, and he had been invited to fulfill a long-held passion to go paragliding. What's a parent to do? Of course you want to say no. Of course, you want to say yes. Of course you ask every friend you know and trust for advice; in desperation you even ask perfect strangers. Finally, Annie found the answer in the only place she could find her truth: her gut. She drew on advice a priest gave her when she was choosing to have Sam, and the odds of success as a single mother weighed against her. "Get quiet for a moment," the priest said, "and then think about having the abortion: if you feel a deep and secret sense of relief, pay attention to that. But if you feel deeply grieved at the thought of it, listen to that." We know she chose to have Sam. You'll have to read the book to find out if Sam got his birthday wish. I'll only tell you this book has a wonderful ending. And a fascinating beginning and a very perfect middle. Anne Lamott is a vulnerable, endearing, talented writer who has generously shared herself and her vision of God. It's lovely summertime reading sprinkled with spirituality, humor and love.
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am 19. April 1999
If you're experiencing a lot of spiritual "static" as I am right now, this book will immediately make you feel better. It will assure you that you're not the only one to feel doubt and need and grief, and yet it will give you countless opportunities to release those emotions through laughter.
I have highlighted much of the book so that I can reread the great ways that Anne Lamott captures these experiences. She talks about grieving over her late best friend, saying she was, "thinking of how much we lose, yet how much remains." Then she says, "I thought maybe I wouldn't feel so bad if I didn't have such big pieces of [her friend} still inside me, but then I thought, I want those pieces in me for the rest of my life, whatever it costs me."
Lamott writes about trying hard to translate her spiritual beliefs into everyday treatment of others, and she's particularly funny when she writes about the mother of her son's friend. She berates the woman first for wearing bicycle shorts ("because she can"). Lamott says, "...she does not have an ounce of fat on her body. I completely hate that in a person. I consider it an act of aggression against the rest of us mothers who forgot to start working out after we had our kids." Lamott tries to be better, saying, "I tried to will myself into forgiving various people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years--four former Republican presidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree--it was "The Twelve Days of Christmas" meets "Taxi Driver."
I loved this book. I didn't want it to end. It made me laugh. It made me think. These are qualities I seek in my friends and my books.
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I know that I'm just an ant among billions of other ants, rarely stopping to reflect on the mystery of life and this faith inside us that somehow guides us and holds us close, but I need to stop NOW and express my thanks to Anne and Sam Lamott, to V. Goines and the St. Andrews congregation and, especially, to that Great Nameless Power behind everything that allowed this book to be born. While having my heart stirred by a book is not all that rare (I'm one of those sentimental fool types), this one stands out on it's own. Way out. Far out. It's art without artifice. Well, anyhow, the seams are invisible. It is deeply honest and shines with genuine wisdom that the author would undoubtedly deny of herself. Those of us reviewing this with glowing hearts probably seem like scarey shiney people to Anne Lamott (who, thinking we know the inside of her head as perhaps we may a tiny bit, has to be reading our comments after all). But, hey, this very personal book does leave hearts glowing. So, please excuse us for sounding like we want to put you on an altar and worship your toes. It's a genuine reaction... Love escaping from opened hearts can look gosh darn silly doncha know. Please read this book folks - it's a beautiful sandcastle on the beach surrounded by life's horrors. To Anne Lamott, thanks for the terrific Merwin poem in front and thanks for surviving the fires that melded such a great artist. To others who read this review, 3 other books that touched my religious sensibilities in meaningful ways were: "Quarantine" by Jim Crace, "Tao Te Ching" by Lao Tzu, and "The Essential Rumi" by Coleman Barks. Oh lordy, I may just have to find a way to write this author a personal letter. Then again, I bet she's deluged and she does need space to write. Thank You, Thank You, Thank You!!!
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am 29. Januar 1999
Once more, Lamott has applied a poultice for the soul with her words. She possesses the ability to make people laugh out loud, to incite a placid and mildly depressed reader to spew beef vindaloo over the pages of a book while discovering a hilarious passage from the pool of truth. This is an author who makes some of us queasy when one considers her first book, Hard Laughter, which was great and got great reviews and which was published at 23, an age when most of us are trying to find a waitressing job in a fancy restaurant. From then on she continued cutting her swath of Hell, with wonderful novels like Joe Jones and Rosie and All New People, which I've read three times. Ironically enough, this is a woman who has professed to knowing no cosmic reason why she should contiunue writing. If I, like all people created, am a part of God, and I've heard that I am, then I hereby decree that Lamott must continue to write books. Although she need not do it at breakneck speed, she must definitely do it (I would also like to abolish January and Howard Stern). So there's your cosmic reason, Ms. Lamott. Additionally, any of you out there who consider yourselves Lamott fans but have not read All New People and Joe Jones are not being completely honest...so read them after you read Traveling Mercies (its Tribute to Jennie Holzer book jacket must also be admired -- at least it's not a white dove in a shaft of sunlight or some other religious type book jacket, fleecy cloudy blue sky with a hand coming out of it or whatever.) Anyway read it. Read it all, preferably with Indian food.
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am 16. April 2000
I had no idea what to expect in this, my first encounter with Anne Lamott. The wide assortment of reviews convinced me to purchase the book--plus, the idea of reverence paired with irreverence, since we can all use a little humor to season the subjects that matter most...that therefore become so stinkin' divisive! Wow! When I'm not laughing at Anne's great writing and gritty insights, I'm pushing down that lump in my throat. Anne plants and waters the flowers of faith and grace, but pats down their seeds beneath the coarse dirt and smelly manure of life. I'm not trying to match her metaphors, I'm merely responding to the fresh light she's shone on my own recent experiences. This woman can write and, boy, does she have something to say. If she steps on your toes to get to the podium, so be it. Hear her out. She writes of a heartfelt belief in Jesus that I share. But she also drags out the skeletons that we born-again Christians are so afraid to let out. Ironic, isn't it, that those who follow Christ--the most amazing example of love and acceptance and forgiveness to the "unlovely"--are the very ones who insecurely point their fingers at those outside their box. I grew up in that box. I still love Jesus, still consider myself "born-again," but I, along with Anne Lamott, refuse to live in that box anymore. Jesus, speaking to the religious leaders of his day, called them "white-washed tombs full of dead man's bones." Anne, in her gracious, irreverent way, says the same. Mercy me! What a breath of fresh air!
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am 4. August 1999
Have been an avid reader for 30 years, but never before felt compelled to write a review or letter to an author before...This book, perhaps more than any of the thousands of others I have read, struck a chord in my soul. On the recommendation of a friend I had read "Operating Instructions" about three years ago. While thumbing through a Book of the Month Club type catalog I ran across the photo of a white woman in dreadlocks and was struck with admiration for the woman who would present such a public image. I was pleasantly surprised to read that her name was Anne LaMott. I ordered the book "Traveling Mercies" and was delighted and completely engrossed by it. Ms. LaMott puts words to emotion I cannot personally express when she speaks of her "Christian-ish" life-orientation, her likening of her personal experience of coming to the Lord as to that of a stray cat trying to enter her life, and the pain and sublime joy of rearing her Sam. Like Annie,(oddly enough the name my own mother, a story in and of itself, was called as a girl) I came to a personal relationship with God through voyeurism into a congregation of Black believers, and like her, was taught life lessons I didn't know I needed through my interaction in fellowship with them. I thank God for the talent with words he has bestowed upon Anne, ask his blessings upon her and her loved ones, and recommend this book to anyone who finds him/herself surprised at the move of the Holy Spirit in his/her life.
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am 20. Februar 2000
Unsuspecting people will buy this book because it appears to be a memoir of a troubled woman's journey to religious faith. Anchor Books promotes this impression by (a) on the cover, putting the title of the book on a signboard in front of a church -- as if it were the title of a sermon, (b) subtitling the book "Some Thoughts on Faith", (c) on the back of the book, classifying the book as "Memoir/Spirituality" and stating that the book "shows us the myriad ways [Lamott's] faith sustains and guides her", and (d) on the publishing information page, encouraging such card catalogue entries as "1. Lamott, Anne -- Religion" and "3. Christian biography -- United States".
This is false packaging. There is very little about religion or spirituality in this book; it is much more about gaining faith in one's self than it is about gaining religious faith.
So what is this book? It's part Fran Leibowitz, part Annie Dillard, and great dollops of self-indulgence. If you are looking for a book about faith, spirituality, or religion, then you have come to the wrong place. If you seek an "irreverent" book about growing up drug-addled, having a child without benefit of marriage, being obsessed with hair and cellulite, and how to come to terms with these assorted conditions, then this is your book.
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