Annie Lamott has had, by many standards, a rough life. Despite this, or perhaps because of her experiences with addiction and death and single motherhood, her book Traveling Mercies:Some Thoughts on Faith is funny, and real, and wise. She describes her experiences with drugs, alcohol and “unsuitable” men with the same wry humor used when chronicling her struggles with bulimia, nappy hair, and the onset of m-m-m-m-m-middle age. A mix between Erma Bombeck and Kurt Cobain*, she is irreverent, self-deprecating, and most surprisingly Christian. She claims that the two best prayers she knows are “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” In Traveling Mercies, she shares the miracles she has experienced; her writing is not the least bit preachy, but rather touchingly human, and hopeful.
I found Ms. Lamott’s book on a shelf in a church library. I’m not Christian; my recent journey into the world of AA and Al-Anon has brought me more frequently to more churches in the past few months, than I’ve been in since I was a child. I am trying to learn more about spirituality, and Traveling Mercies seemed like a good, non-threatening step in that direction. It’s time to return the book, now, but I want to remember some of the lessons and insights it contains, so I am recording them here.
"Grief, as I read somewhere once, is a lazy Susan. One day it is heavy and underwater, and the next day it spins and stops at loud and rageful, and the next day at wounded keening, and the next day numbness, silence. I was hoarse for the first six weeks after Pammy died and my romance ended, from shouting in the car and crying, and I had blisters on the palm of one hand from hitting the bed with my tennis racket, bellowing in pain and anger.
…I am no longer convinced that you’re supposed to get over the death of certain people, but little by little, pale and swollen around the eyes, I began to feel a sense of reception, that I was beginning to receive the fact of Pammy’s death, the finality. I let it enter me.
I was terribly erratic: feeling so holy and serene some moments that I was sure I was going to end up dating the Dalai Lama. Then the grief and craziness would hit again, and I would be in Broken Mind, back in the howl.
The depth of the feeling continued to surprise and threaten me, but each time it hit again and I bore it, like a nicotine craving, I would discover that it hadn’t washed me away. After a while it was like and inside shower, washing off some of the rust and calcification in my pipes. It was like giving a dry garden a good watering. Don’t get me wrong: grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit. Mostly I have tried to avoid it by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible. You can often avid the pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession. Martyrdom can’t be beat. While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn’t for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering. But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart. But since you life may indeed have fallen apart, the illusion won’t hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things; softness and illumination."
(Ms. Lamott is a single mom; when her son was 7, he was offered the opportunity to go paragliding—-for free--riding tandem with an experienced instructor.)
"Later that afternoon, Sam looked up at me beseechingly and said, “It has always been a dream of mine to fly.” I stared at him and thought, Oh, dear, he has begun channeling John Kennedy. Then I tried to figure out what to do. I would decide one thing—to let him fly, to give him his freedom, his wings. I’d remind myself that I usually feel deeply and philosophically that Sam is not mine, or at any rate, that he is not my chattel—that he is on loan, he belongs to God, but for whatever reason, he has been entrusted to my care—entrusted, rather, to my clutches. Then I would decide that I was crazy, that the world is aquiver with menace as it is, and one does not need to exacerbate this state of affairs by flinging one’s own child off a mountain.
…And I didn’t understand why as usual God couldn’t give me a loud or obvious answer, through a megaphone or thunder, skywriting or stigmata. Why does God always use dreams, intuition, memory, phone calls, vague stirrings in my heart? It would say that this really doesn’t work for me at all. Except that it does.
Then out of nowhere a memory bobbed into my head of the most important conversation I have ever had, and I understood that this was the next circle of light into which I might step. Many years ago, I was walking beside the salt marsh with a minister I had met recently. I was two months pregnant and had scheduled an abortion because I was alone and so broke. But I was having second thoughts. I decided to let this minister in on this, and after listening quietly, he said he thought I should have the abortion; he pointed out that there was no safety net underneath me at the time—no family money, no expected windfall—that there was noting between me and the streets or welfare.
But what about God? I asked. What about faith?
Well, yes, the priest conceded, there’s that. “But I’d like you to try something,” he said. “Get quiet for a moment, 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.”
I did what he said, thought about the abortion, which theoretically and politically I support. But I was stabbed with grief, and the grief did not pass, and I canceled the abortion. And seven months later I gave birth to the little kid who now wanted to fly off the mountain.
So right then…I got very quiet. I though about how I would feel if I let Sam jump: my heart leapt into my throat, as if to escape rising water. Then I thought about how I would feel if I called the paraglide pilot and canceled. I felt euphoric, like Zorba the Greek; I felt like getting everyone up on their feet so that we could all dance the mazurka and clink steins full of root beer. Instead I went off to find a telephone, and cancel." 2
Reading this book, I have been struck by the author’s intelligence, impressed by her strength and humor, moved by her willingness to look for miracles and continue to have faith. I like her. There is wisdom in her words, wisdom that I would like to hold on to. Then, reading this next section (on forgiveness, no less!), I decided that if I dealt with her personally on a day to day basis, I would have to kill her:
"Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I had a certain amount of trouble adjusting once Sam started first grade. I couldn’t seem to get the hang of things; there was too much to remember, too much to do. But Sam’s first grade teacher was so kind and forgiving that I just didn’t trouble my pretty head about schedules, homework, spelling lists, and other sundry unpleasantries. Nor was I able to help out in the classroom much. There were all these mother s who were always cooking holiday theme-park treats for the class; they always drove the kids—including mine—on their field trips, and they also seems to read all the papers the school sent home, which I think is actually a little show-offy. Also, it gave them an unfair advantage. They knew, for instance, from the first day of school that Wednesdays were minimum days, with school out over forty-five minutes earlier than usual, and they flaunted it, picking up their kids at just the right time, week after week." 3
Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with her personally. She can live her life and write her books unmolested by those of us for whom parents who do not read the notices sent home from school are a particular nuisance, and I, in turn, can go to the library and find the rest of her books, particularly Operating Instructions and Bird by Bird, and read them and learn from them. And contemplate the grace of that situation.
“I hate being the kind of person who tries to get someone with stage-four metastatic lung cancer to feel sorry for her because she has a headache. (Though it was an ice-pick headache.) But the way I see things, God loves you the same whether you’re being elegant or not. It feels much better when you are, but even when you can’t fake it, God still listens to your prayers…
Again and again I tell God I need help, and God says, “Well, isn’t that fabulous? Because I need help too. So you go get that old woman over there some water, and I’ll figure out what we’re going to do about your stuff.” Maybe Rick had told God (as he understands God) that he needed some energy that morning, and God had said, “Well, great, because Sam Lamott needs a ride to school. Could you do that for me? And I’ll be getting you some strength.” 4
"God: I wish you could have some permanence, a guarantee or two, the unconditional love we all long for. “It would be such skin off your nose?” I demand of God. I never get an answer. But in the meantime I have learned that most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of people." 5
1 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, Anchor Books, 1999, pp. 70-73.
2 pp. 81-86.
3 p. 129.
4 p. 120.
5 p. 168.
* Suggested by indestructible's w/u on Anne Lamott.