Soul Food: Rereading Anne Lamott

I first read Anne Lamott’s autobiographical essays on faith in about 2005, when I was in my early twenties and a recovering fundamentalist and Republican. She’s a Northern Californian ex-alcoholic, a single mother, a white lady with dreadlocks. Her liberal, hippie approach to Christianity was a bit much for me back then. I especially remember her raging against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. But even if I couldn’t fully get behind all of her views, her picture of a fumbling faith that doesn’t claim to know much for certain appealed to me. Jesus is for her the herald of a radical path of love and grace. Lamott describes herself stumbling towards kindness and forgiveness while uttering the three simplest and truest prayers she knows, “Help, thanks, wow.” I only own three of her eight spiritual books (though I’ve read them all), so I recently reread them one right after the other – the best kind of soul food binge in a stressful time.

 

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)

Her first and best collection. Many of these pieces first appeared in Salon web magazine. There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. Lamott’s father died of melanoma that metastasized to his brain (her work has meant a lot to my sister because her husband, too, died of brain cancer) and her best friend Pammy died of breast cancer – both far too young. A college dropout, alcoholic and drug addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until she was in her early thirties. Newly sober and with the support of the community, she was able to face unexpected motherhood and raise Sam in the church, clinging to fragments of family and nurturing seeds of faith.

The essays sometimes zero in on moments of crisis or decision, but more often on everyday angst, such as coming to terms with a middle-aged body. “Thirst” and “Hunger” are a gorgeous pair about getting sober and addressing disordered eating. “Ashes,” set on one Ash Wednesday, sees her trying to get her young son interested in the liturgical significance and remembering scattering Pammy’s ashes. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Barn Raising” are two classics about surviving a turbulent flight and supporting a local family whose child has cystic fibrosis. Each essay is perfectly constructed: bringing together multiple incidents and themes in a lucid way, full of meaning but never over-egging the emotion.

Like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, this was even better the second time around – I can see that the memoir-in-essays is now among my most admired forms.

Some favorite lines:

“The main reason [that she makes Sam go to church] is that I want to give him what I found in the world[: …] a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality.”

“You really do have to eat, anything at all you can bear. So we had smoothies, with bananas, which I believe to be the only known cure for existential dread.”

“most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of people.”

“even though I am a feminist and even though I am religious, I secretly believe, in some mean little rat part of my brain, that I am my skin, my hair, and worst of all, those triangles of fat that pooch at the top of my thighs. In other words, that I am my packaging.”

My original rating (c. 2005):

My rating now:

 

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2005)

Here’s the more political material I remembered from Lamott. Desperately angry about the impending Iraq War, she struggles to think civilly about Bush. “I wake up some mornings pinned to the bed by centrifugal sadness and frustration.” In the meantime, her difficult mother has died and it takes years to get to a point where she can take the woman’s ashes (with a misspelling on the name label) out of the closet and think of scattering them. Sam is a teenager and there are predictable battles of wills but also touching moments as they rekindle a relationship with his father. Lamott also starts a Sunday School and says goodbye to a dear old dog. A few of the essays (especially “One Hand Clapping”) feel like filler, and there are fewer memorable lines. “Ham of God,” though, is an absolute classic about the everyday miracle of a free ham she could pass on to a family who needed it.

I’ve been surprised that Lamott hasn’t vented her spleen against Donald Trump in her most recent books – he makes Bush look like a saint, after all. But I think it must be some combination of spiritual maturity and not wanting to alienate a potential fan base (though to most evangelicals she’ll be beyond the pale anyway). Although her response to current events makes this book less timeless than Traveling Mercies, I found some of her words applicable to any troubled period: “These are such rich, ripe times for paranoia and despair that each celebration, each occasion of tribal love and music and overeating glows more brightly … People are helping one another keep their spirits up.”

My secondhand copy has had quite the journey: it has a “The Munich Readery” stamp in the front and has sat text block facing out on a shelf for ages judging by the pattern of yellowing; I picked it up from the Community Furniture Project, a local charity warehouse, last year for a matter of pence.

Some favorite lines:

(on caring for an ageing body) “You celebrate what works and you take tender care of what doesn’t, with lotion, polish and kindness.”

“Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down.”

My original rating (c. 2005):

My rating now:

 

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014)

This is a sort of “Greatest Hits” collection of new and selected essays. I skipped over the ones I’d just encountered in Traveling Mercies and Plan B to focus on the newer material. I don’t have a copy of Grace (Eventually), her third set of essays on faith, so I wasn’t sure which were from that and which were previously unpublished in book form. More so than before, Lamott’s thoughts turn to ageing and her changing family dynamic – she’s now a grandmother. As usual, the emphasis is on being kind to oneself and learning the art of forgiveness. Sometimes it seems like her every friend or relative has cancer. Her writing has tailed off noticeably in quality, but I suspect there’s still no one many of us would rather hear from about life and faith. It’s a beautiful book, too, with deckle edge, blue type and gold accents. My favorite of the new stuff was “Matches,” about Internet dating.

My original rating (2015):

My rating now (for the newer material only):

 

Currently rereading: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Considering rereading next: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty

 

Done any rereading lately?

What books have been balm for the soul for you?

17 responses

  1. Along faith-lines, I recently read a book of lit crit, Longing for an Absent God, by Nick Ripatrazone, which explores the Catholic imagination in storytelling from practicing and cultural Catholic modern fiction authors–from O’Connor to Cormac McCarthy and others. In doing so, I ended up following Ripatrazone on Twitter and was invited to join a Jesuit book club (with 500 other readers) on FB to read Ron Hansen’s novel Mariette in Ecstasy together. I’d been meaning to read that one for years. It’s gorgeous in its poetic prose, if I bit Russian-like in its huge cast of characters (nuns in a cloister). Still reading so haven’t made my final determination, but it’s nice to read with others coming to the book from a similar background.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Longing for an Absent God sounds really interesting! I’d like to skim it for ideas. I happened to review Mariette in Ecstasy back in February: https://bookishbeck.wordpress.com/2020/02/14/love-etc-some-thematic-reading-for-valentines-day/. I could see it working well as a play.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ah, how did I miss that post from you? I agree Mariette would make a good play. Although some of my favorite passages have been about the summertime setting at the outset. Ripatrazone is especially good on O’Connor, having more than just her fiction (journal entries, I think) to go on. The ties are a little looser with the “cultural Catholics” including Cormac McCarthy, where Ripatrazone makes some assumptions based on the authors having been raised Catholic. Ripatrazone’s work has also been placed in magazines, so you might find good stuff around on the web. I’d be happy to send you my book copy, but it might take awhile!

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    2. That’s a very sweet offer, but international shipping is more expensive than you would believe! I’ll see what I can find of his work online.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved Bird by Bird and have always meant to read more by Lamott. I’m not religious myself but have no objection to reading about faith. Do you think Traveling Mercies would appeal to an agnostic non-Christian? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bird by Bird is the one I’ll reread next. If you like her voice in that, you should get on fine. Especially in the first book, it’s easy enough to ignore the ‘Jesus stuff’. I’m a little scared to try her fiction (she wrote a bunch of novels before she ever published essays), but I have a copy of Blue Shoe I picked up at a library book sale in the States years ago that happens to be signed, so I’ll read it at some point.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. “Help, thanks, wow” are some good prayers to live by. I am not usually drawn by spiritual books, but her way of writing about it is something I could get behind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m pleased you think so.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Traveling Mercies is really beautiful, I’ve always liked it. This is making me think I should go back.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you know it; I was going to recommend it to you if not.

      Like

  5. I love all of her books but agree Traveling Mercies is a five-star classic. I have never been able to enjoy her fiction as much as her nonfiction. I listened to Stitches on audio and would recommend that format, as she reads it herself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never listened to a single audiobook! (I can’t think where I’d fit them into my life.) It would be neat to hear her voice, though. My sister saw her in person about 6 or 7 years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this project of yours!
    I have never read one of her books, but it sounds like I should try one! Which one would you suggest for a newbie?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve reread more so far this year than in any year I can remember! Definitely Traveling Mercies or Bird by Bird, though that one is more of a writing guide.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. buriedinprint | Reply

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on these rereads, both for their own sakes and for the rereading of them. It’s also so interesting to me to think that she would be considered so objectionable for so many Christians. And I’m super curious why she’s no longer writing/publishing about politics in the same way, given that, as you said, the response to Bush’s policies and presentation must be even more the case in regards to the current administration. Maybe she simply can’t bear to do it! Bird by Bird is a real favourite of mine and I’ve tried a couple of her others along the way, but they didn’t stick.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some years back I gave my mother a copy of Lamott’s memoir of becoming a grandmother, thinking that since it wasn’t one of the religious books she couldn’t possibly object … but even that rubbed her the wrong way. She found Lamott “hippy-dippy” and “very California.”

      Lamott still talks about politics on Twitter, but it hasn’t made it into any of her recent books, which I’ve found disappointingly generic and more like self-help books.

      I’ve stuck Bird by Bird on the rereading shelf.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. buriedinprint

        Hah! Having recently gotten to know a couple of people from California who were startlingly right-wing in their thinking (to me, and exacerbated, I’m sure, by the current crisis there, as theirs was the first state to declare a lockdown, IIRC) I no longer have quite the same understanding of Cali and I doubt they would get on with Anne Lamott either. But we all have all ideas of what other places and people are like and we’re probably all mistaken as often as we are accurate.

        I’m missing the library for new writing books. If I hadn’t reread Bird by Bird so recently, I would join you. It was definitely worth revisiting!

        Liked by 1 person

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