Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott (Takeaways)

Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

This is one of the core literary sources for my church; it gets referenced often. Though Anne Lamott is clearly Jesus-centric in her beliefs she came about it the best way: through pain, addiction, death, failure, and the loving devotion of humans who refused to give up on her. Though I tend to be Jesus-phobic (and really scared of anything echoing classical Anglo-Saxton sensibilities) I could relate to most of everything else. It’s a great reminder that whatever you call it- spirituality, faith, religion, even Jesus- it’s all the same thing. Which is, of course, how I got to join my faith in the first place.

And, side note, but I'm not sure I've ever heard such an equally charming and accurate description of UU: "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." Of course, she's not actually referring to UU there. Well, at least not consciously. But it describes my faith pretty damned well so I'm taking it.

This was my first exposure to this author and I can understand the praise I've heard for her from several different sources. Her prose is beautiful. At times poetic, other times purely perfunctory. Alternately achingly painful and hilarious. Deeply personal always, in a way that lets you sit right next to her through these encounters and stories of hope. She never sells herself as someone with answers- she confesses to being a deeply flawed, perfectly fucked up human being. And that is, of course, what makes her lovable. And what lets you feel as close to her as you end up feeling by the end.

She shares stories of everything from her bohemian childhood to her early dive deep into addiction to alcohol and substances. Her eating disorder. Her first exposures to church. Her unplanned pregnancy and the child that ultimately saved her. Her deep, deep grief over the loss of her father as well as the pain she inflicted on herself by trying to fit every man she ever loved into the hole his death left in her heart. She lays everything bare with humility and acceptance. It's inspiring to see someone own up to so much without shame. Or rather, having come through the shame with a new owned sense of identity and acceptance that only comes from looking the darkest parts of yourself straight in the eyes and saying 'thank you'.

Which isn't to say that she doesn't have a lot of deeply poignant and powerful insights about spirituality. She does. But in my experience most of the powerful insights about spirituality come from humanity- not from the heavens. And sure enough, all of hers come from her own deeply flawed and perpetually imperfect existence.

For instance, her thoughts on grief: "I'm pretty sure that it is only by experiencing that ocean of sadness in a naked and immediate way that we come to be healed- which is to say, that we come to experience life with a real sense of presence and spaciousness and peace." Or on Grace: "Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there." Or failure: "it breaks through all that held breath and isometric tension about needing to look good: it's the gift of feeling floppier."

While clearly contained within the timeline of her own life the bulk of these stories feel timeless. Or at least, the wisdom within them does. I can see myself going back to these pages again and again searching for that one highlighted line that perfectly and gorgeously sums up a thought or an insight or a desperately needed reminder during dark times. It's an encyclopedia of pain and wisdom I can easily reference: a gift. And I'm grateful to myself to have finally read it.

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