Anne Lamott,
Traveling Mercies
(Pantheon, 1999)

Traveling Mercies is a collection of short pieces, many of which appeared previously in Lamott's column for the online magazine Salon. Lamott's spirituality is the tie that binds them together, and her faith is at once down to earth and uplifting.

The introductory section of the book is called "Overture: Lily Pads," and in describing her circuitous route to belief she writes that it was "... 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."

She describes growing up in a nonreligious family and how her exposure to different faiths is through the practices of her friends' families. In college, she is attracted to Judaism; while she doesn't convert formally, her Jewish friends hold a bat mitzvah for her. Later, living on her own in a houseboat in Sausalito, she is drawn to a small, funky Presbyterian church where she begins to hang out, listening in the doorway but leaving before the sermon.

She writes that while she believed in God, she was not ready for Christianity, saying: "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."

Conversion comes, but Lamott is not transported into a pious state of bliss. In the 24 brief essays that make up the rest of the book, she writes about the things that go wrong and the small and unexpected miracles, about sick kids and the mutual joy and pain of single motherhood, about pray and fear, and always about how God not only fits into the picture but is the picture.

The essays are organized in seven sections, loosely grouped around themes. It is soon clear that they are not presented in chronological order of writing, but this in no way detracts from the book. In fact, the essays mesh well, and the overall quality of the selections is consistently high.

Lamott's hallmark is her ability to capture and articulate ordinary and universal experiences. She is frank, funny, and infinitely wise. Reading Traveling Mercies is like looking into a pool of water -- at first, you might see only your reflection. The light shifts, and you are surprised by the clarity of what is revealed beneath the surface of the water.

The title is well chosen: in the essay of the same name, Lamott reveals that the phrase "traveling mercies" is what the older member of her church wish someone who is going away for a while. This is what Lamott ultimately conveys to the reader -- "Traveling mercies: love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound."

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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