February 1999

An unorthodox look at religion

By Anne Lamott
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She doesn't preach. She says the two best prayers she knows are "Help me, help me, help me," and "Thank you, thank you, thank you." And the amount of swearing she does would make a trooper blush. But in her latest work, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott shares such poignant tales of her journey toward a relationship with God that even non-believers could find their emotions stirred.

Don't fear that she drained some of the poison from her pen to enter God's good graces. Lamott's trademark honesty, sass, and mettle are in full command in this collection of autobiographical anecdotes. She may be among the most sharp-tongued Christians you ever come across. For instance, she describes a right-wing Christian novel as, "paranoid, anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynistic propaganda—not to put too fine a point on it." But she is also unapologetically religious, describing herself as, "about three months away from slapping an aluminum Jesus fish on the back of my car."

The Lord leads her, not just through bulimia, drug-abuse, and the death of beloved friends, but through stage fright, traffic jams, and toddler tantrums. She often calls on a higher power via quickly scribbled notes placed in a cardboard box or ashtray to be read at God's convenience.

You better believe Lamott's wicked sense of humor is a godsend. She is the queen of the quirky metaphor. Only she could compare yelling at her doe-eyed young son to "bitch-slapping E.T." In Lamott's hands, God becomes Sam-I-Am, from Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham; her little boy in a pink wet suit becomes a cross between Jacques Cousteau and Pee-Wee Herman; and her pale, flabby thighs become beloved aunts.

Fans of Operating Instructions, her journal of her son's first year, will recognize many of the people who helped Lamott steer through the "swamp of fear and doubt" that characterized her life for many years. Also familiar is the writer's biting self-deprecation on topics as diverse as her child- rearing ability to the size of her aging rear end.

Her story is riveting because it runs the gamut through the depths of sadness, fear, and anger, and the heights of joy, peace, and awareness. Yet Lamott refrains from glamorizing her conversion. There is no evangelical underscore. Though it is subtitled "Some Thoughts on Faith," Traveling Mercies is really some thoughts on life. Lamott doesn't tell you how to live yours. And she doesn't claim to have taken the wisest paths getting through her own. She merely speaks of where she has been, and shares what she calls the profoundest spiritual truth she knows, "that even when we're most sure that love can't conquer all, it seems to anyway."

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