Today’s post by our Book Club Columnist, Melissa Hambrick.
In the thirteen years since Traveling Mercies was originally published in hardback, I estimate that I’ve purchased and subsequently given away at least ten copies of Anne Lamott’s non-fiction classic. If you’re a book lover, you know that doesn’t mean I have trouble keeping up with things, or that I can’t manage to get through this bestseller. It is simply a reflection of how much I love this book and want other people to read it, too.
So when our book club was looking for a book to read that we’d be talking about on our annual summer beach trip, Traveling Mercies was the perfect candidate. In fact, what we really wanted was to invite the amazing Ms. Lamott to hit the beach with us. So we packed up our sunscreen and the Aunties (more on that later) and headed South for four days of sun and surf.
If you haven’t read anything by Anne Lamott, who writes both fiction and non-fiction, Traveling Mercies is a great place to start. Subtitled “Some Thoughts on Faith,” she weaves her own intensely honest warts-and-all journey with insights about love, grace and forgiveness that are simultaneously gritty and sublime. Reader beware—you may not always agree with her politics, her language or even her life choices, but the good news is that she doesn’t expect you to. In fact, even on Lamott’s Facebook page, where she regularly posts wonderful ramblings about her daily life, she encourages people to speak their minds respectfully. And this book definitely gets you to think—not by trying to sway you to a certain set of beliefs, but by recognizing something so much bigger than you that it can’t be denied.
Our book club conversation about Traveling Mercies was just as frank, which could have been dangerous with seven women hurtling down the interstate in a Suburban on a seven-hour drive home. But we clung to so many beautifully written moments in the book, that what we ended up with was a candid discussion about the state of grace in our lives. And, of course, those moments where we hold it tightly in our sweaty little hands like toddlers with a palm full of M&Ms, and refuse to hand it out to others.
One of the most poignant stories Lamott relates is about a fellow parent who she considered her enemy—an Enemy Lite, she says, who was so warm and friendly that it might have astounded her to learn that we were enemies. Perhaps you, like us, would recognize a teensy, infintesimal bit of yourself in this story, eyeing the other mom because she was on time, worked out every day and managed to read all the notes that came home from the classroom teacher. Although we have our suspicions that a mom that has it all together like that is some kind of mythical creature who lives at the end of the rainbow, we loved to hear Anne’s journey into forgiveness, where she finally removed the burden of her resentments from the other person, and claimed them for her own.
“…like God and certain parents do, [she’d] forgiven me almost before I’d even done anything that I needed to be forgiven for. It’s like the faucets are already flowing before you even hold out your cup to be filled. Before, giveness.”
If you’re around me for any amount of time, you’ll hear me quote Anne Lamott. Specifically, I have adopted her favorite prayers, found in Traveling Mercies, for my own (with a slight adjustment).
“Here are the two best prayers I know: “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you thank you.” A woman I know says, for her morning prayer, “Whatever, and then for the evening, “Oh, well,” but has conceded that these prayers are more palatable for people without children.”
As I’ve gotten older, it seems that even among our little group, we have more friends whose marriages are falling apart, more cancer, more unemployment, more parents with Alzheimer’s—just more of everything that really stinks. So I have added a third prayer: “Help them, help them, help them.” Because we need each other, in prayer and in every day of life, to hang on to each other and hold each other up. Sometimes it feels like we’re just taking turns being the ones with the strong arms, and we know if we just wait a little bit, our turn will come around again to be held.
“Traveling mercies: love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.” Because a book club isn’t just about books, you know.
I could write a week’s worth of posts about the things that we talked about in Traveling Mercies, but there’s only so much space. So here are a few questions that came up for us as we read, and talked, and ate numerous packages of Red Vines. (A Red Vines sponsorship for our next beach trip would be lovely, thank you. And we’ll make room for our friend Anne, if she’d like to be part of our journey, too.)
1. So I mentioned the aunties. What’s real and important to you that society might not look at as lovingly as you’d like, or that maybe even makes you slightly embarrassed? “I got my suit on and waddled down to the beach. I was not wearing a cover-up, not even a T-shirt. I had decided I was going to take my thighs and butt with me proudly wherever I went. I decided, in fact, on the way to the beach that I would treat them as if they were beloved elderly aunties, the kind who did embarrassing things at the beach, like roll their stockings into tubes around their ankles, but whom I was proud of because they were important in every real and important way.”
2. Lamott quotes Eugene O’Neill: “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.” Talk about the broken things around you and the kinds of glue that have put them back together. What has your book club given you that has been glue?
3. Sometimes we want to be like Lamott’s “Enemy-Lite,” because what we see in the mirror and our heart is messy and disheveled. In Traveling Mercies, Lamott is very transparent about what she has seen in the mirror—bulimia, alcoholism, bitterness, fear. How can we look in that mirror without flinching at what we see? What part does forgiveness play?
About Ariel Lawhon
Ariel Lawhon is the co-founder of She Reads, novelist, blogger, storyteller, and life-long reader. She lives in Texas with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). Ariel believes that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart.