Synopses & Reviews
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."
"Hallelujah...a refreshing sense of humanity that has you guffawing on one page and bawling on the next." Thomas Fields-Meyer, People Magazine
"...[C]ontributes to a growing literature of self-disclosure by women that unites the worlds of feminism and addiction..." Women's Review of Books
"[She is] sidesplittingly funny, patiently wise, and alternately cranky and kind." Seattle Times
"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." The New Yorker
"Lamott writes about subjects that begin with capital letters (alcoholism, motherhood, Jesus). But armed with self-effacing humor and ruthless honestycall it a lower-case approach to life's Big Questionsshe converts potential op-ed boilerplate into enchantment." Newsweek
"Smart, funny, and comforting...Lamott has a conversational style that perfectly conveys her friendly, self-deprecating humor." The Los Angeles Times
"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." Book Magazine
"Exuberant and captivating....Shifts from laugh-out-loud wisecracks to heart-wrenching poignancy. At one point she seems a reincarnation of Erma Bombeck; at other, she could be Annie Dillard or Kathleen Norris." Chicago Tribune
A chronicle of faith and spirituality that is at once tough, personal, affectionate, wise, and very funny. Anne Lamott claims the best two prayers she knows are "Help me, help me, help me" and "Thank you, thank you, thank you." Despite or because of her irreverence and wit, faith is a natural subject for Lamott. With an exuberant mix of passion, insight, and humor, in Traveling Mercies
she takes us on a journey through her often troubled past to illuminate her devout but quirky walk of faith. In a narrative spiced with stories and scripture, with diatribes, laughter, and tears, Lamott tells how, against all odds, she came to believe in God and then, even more miraculously, in herself.
Whether writing about her family or her dreadlocks, sick children or old friends, the most religious women of her church or the men she's dated, she shows us the myriad ways her faith sustains and guides her, shining light on the darkest part of ordinary life and exposing surprising pockets of meaning and hope.
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.
About 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.
Reading Group Guide
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?
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.