Saturday, November 16, 2013

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

Book: Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
Author: Ann Lamott
Edition: eBook from Library
Read: October 2013
275  pages
Rated: 2 1/2 out of 5

This is Ann Lamott's journey from hedonism to a person who is a seeker. The form of spirituality she ends up embracing is a liberal form of Christianity. The book recounts her family's relationships-both father and mother; her descent into drugs, alcoholism, and sex. She describes her rescue-not so much of intervention, but stumbling onto caring people. This is told with her typical flow of words, which carry a certain amount of grace in them. She does not hide her struggles-either past or current as of the writing of the book. But the book does not end at conversion, but talks about her continued struggles with living, and living a life of faith.

There is certain similarities between Traveling Mercies and Cheryl Strayed's book Wild. Wild talks about a woman who is tied to a destructive lifestyle-she knows it is destructive and still continues on with it. Strayed looks to a cathartic trip along the PCT to change her-and this is where the similarities end. As far as the book is concerned, Strayed does not struggle, but seems to slide along. With Lamott on the other hand, you can feel her struggles and her desire to change. Lamott found people who could help her get to a place where she would change--that is the grace she talks about in other books. Strayed does not find that grace in her book.

The very first paragraph is Lamott's best of the book. It gives an overview of her movements towards a place of safety and faith. It shows how a faith can be arrived at not only through a leap, but a series of erratic steps. Ones which she describes as like a frog going from lily pad to lily pad.

She talks about her early influences, which seems like this is what brings her back to faith. There is her Catholic friends, not perfect by any stretch, but the environment was one which wrapped her imagination with the images with spirituality. Her grandparents being Presbyterian missionaries to Japan. But as a counterpoint, her parents hostility to anything Christian.

Along the way, she has a high school English teacher who over the summer becomes a Christian. Many of her students convert-this is a widely liked teacher. But Lamott is consistent with her parents beliefs-only fools have spiritual beliefs, especially Christian ones. Still a germ of a seed was planted. Then in college, she takes a class where the professor teaches out of Kirkegard and the story of Abraham and his son. Some place in there Lamott understands she now has some belief in a god. So her Jewish friends arranges a bat mitzvah. But this is a conversion of the head, not the spirit. Her life continues on with the drugs and sex.

And as she descends into the gutter and insanity, she comes into contact with a couple of churches. The first one, the preacher makes time for her and listens to her. Not speaking deep words, but reassures her that  it is not she who needs to be good to have God come to her, but it is God which is good. The second is a run-down, black Presbyterian church, St Andrews. The singing first draws her in. Then the people's caring and reserved nature win her over. Finally she understands the message-it is God that is good.

But her life is not perfect then. It is one which she gets pregnant two years afterwards. She still has problems with  drugs and alcohol. Then her best friend has cancer and dies. What kind of Christian life is this? Isn't everything to be better by becoming a Christian-this is my question, not hers. Lamott only relates her experience. We  still need to work through our problems. But now it is with God's help.

One of the most telling lines in the book occurs on page 16 where she says ... I wanted to be loved and so I stood around silently, bursting with hope and secrets and fear, all skin and bone and eyes, with a crazy hair crown...  Later on she says this same thing, in a different way, if I could just do a little bit better, I could have the things I longed for--a sense of OKness and connection and meaning and a peace of mind... These are the basis for where she went later where she chase after drugs, sex and alcohol. Do these things really fill that kind of hole? Or do they just numb the feeling of emptiness? I think Lamott's ultimate answer is they numb the soul.

One of the stories Lamott relays is the question from her bat mitzvah, do they camp? The answer was no, because it is dangerous outside of the home-wolves and soldiers. It is this larger thought. It is hard to go on this life alone; you want your family, your extended family. It is this circle of faith which allows you to confidently navigate the turmoil which life presents us. We all need this being surrounded or we shrink down into a vegetable, unable to face the world. This point is reinforced later where Lamott tells a story her new pastor, Veronica, tells. The story says how Veronica was lost, a policeman found her. Once they got to her church, she had the policeman let her out because from the church, she could find her way home. This is how the church is to function-a place where you can find your way home.

She has an interesting thought-Jesus is like a cat following her. If you reach down and pick it up; if you open the door; if you feed it--it is now yours and you cannot get rid of it, it stays forever. (62)

Grief is one of those things which has punctuated Lamott's life. There is her father dying from a horrible brain cancer. Then her good friend Pam who also died of cancer. Around the same time, her boyfriend left her as well. How do you deal with this? Lamott relates the despondency, the depression of this time. While she does not have "answers", she does have a profound conclusion: ... I've discovered ... is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it. (80)This is something to think about, rather than trying to hide grief under a bucket.

Her faith tends to be on the simple side. And I count that to be a big plus-after all, it is those who are child-like get to see the kingdom. She talks about when she needed to make a decision concerning an activity of her son, there are two prayers she is well acquainted with: "Help me! Help me! Help me!" and "Thank You, thank you, thank you." This is much better in my mind than a women who Lamott knows whose morning prayer is "Whatever" and the evening prayer of "Oh, well!"  The there is the prayer of her son to his mom, "Pleeeeeeasssssse!" But she moves beyond this and gives a lesson of walking in faith. Her pastor Veronica talks about when she prays she prays that there will be a spotlight, just one step ahead of her. This is where she is to step. Faith is only going to the next step, not knowing the end game.The other advice was from a pastor when Lamott was considering an abortion: get quiet for a moment; think about what you are about to do; if you feel relief, pay attention to it. If you feel grief, listen to that.

Random Thoughts:
  • What does God smell like? We get a description of what he looks like, sounds like feels like. But no smell's like.
  • Tools life with: friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty
  • A friend of Lamott's lives a disease-threatening life. He has cancer.
  •  the gift of failure
  • Lamott's most spiritual truth: that even when we are sure that love can't conquer all, it seems to anyway. (293)

She mis-attributes two lines from a Henry Vaughn  poem to George Herbert. But the quote is very appropriate for her conversion:
by Henry Vaughan

UNFOLD ! unfold !  Take in His light,
Who makes thy cares more short than night.
The joys which with His day-star rise
He deals to all but drowsy eyes ;
And, what the men of this world miss
Some drops and dews of future bliss.

    Hark ! how His winds have chang'd their note !
And with warm whispers call thee out ;
The frosts are past, the storms are gone,
And backward life at last comes on.
The lofty groves in express joys
Reply unto the turtle's voice ;
And here in dust and dirt, O here
The lilies of His love appear !

Sometimes you get put off on a first reading of a book and miss certain things. As I was rereading the book to finalize my review and thoughts I saw things which I missed or skipped over the first time. Particularly towards the last, she talks a lot about living her life amongst the struggles to be a follower of Christ. Now there is no way her following Christ resembles mine. But I do not think that I have a monopoly on that-I am not the Way, only trying to follow the Way.

Still, when  I have read other books by Ann Lamott. I find her writings tend to be somewhat akin to a candle drawing a moth, me,  towards it. The moth may understand that he really is not interested in the candle, but is attracted anyway. With her other books I have thought why am I reading this, then suddenly there is a spark and I see why I should read the book. In Traveling Mercies I did not see that great attractive light.

I know that many others have seen that spark in this book, been inspired. So I suspect this is just one of those books which was not written for me. But one thing which this book does do is to give you hope. Hope that as you go through this life, not all is lost. If you can get that much out of a book, you cannot say the book is bad.
New Words:
  •  Cheever people
  • Oedipal (81) form of Oedipus
  • Jocasta (81) mother of Oedipus
  • tchotchles (119)  nicknack or trinket
  • zaftig (158) of a woman : slightly fat in an attractive way : having a full, rounded figure

Book referenced:
  • Kierkegaard, Soren  Fear and Trembling
  • Faulkner, William  Light in August
  • Lewis, C.S Mere Christianity

Good Quotes:
  • First Line: My coming of faith did not start with a leap but a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another.
  • Last Line: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
  •  I was raised by my parents to believe you had a moral obligation to try to save the world. (10)
  • (Referring to a Catholic Church)  it was like a religious bus station. (13)
  • Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. (59)
  • ... I've discovered ... is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will lessen the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it. (80) 
  • Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue. Eugene O'Neill from the Great God Brown, Act Four, Scene One (128) 
  • I know nothing, except what everyone knows - if there when Grace dances, I should dance. W.H. Auden from Collected Poems
  • I do not at all understand the mystery of grace-only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.
  • we are only as sick as our secrets. (215)
  • families are definitely the training ground for forgiveness. (245)
  • I was desperate to fix him [her son], fix the situation, make everything happy again, and I remembered this basic religious principle that God isn' there to take away our suffering or our pain, but to fill it with his presence... (268)

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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