It's the kind of book that the educated liberal might approach from a cynical angle, or at least with a generous shaker of salt. How to take the spiritual musings of a dreadlocked single mother? As meditative ramble, soulful lecture, or worldly-wise confession?
Anne Lamott sidesteps any category with the grace of a great feline, claws removed. Her thoughtful essays have slowly seeped into the mass consciousness and touched more disparate types than you can count: journalists and novelists, alcoholics and Christians, parents and loners.
Her 1999 book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith is one of those first-person narratives that actually deserves its best-seller status. Unlike the too-easy, feel-good Band-Aids of the Chicken Soup genre, Lamott's tales are laced with the kind of wit, grit, and curveballs that keep a reader firmly grounded in real life and its precarious connection to possible (and hoped-for) transcendence. This is far from preachy stuff: Cocaine abuse, acute alcoholism, affairs with married men, and literary poverty are not, after all, the easy roads to spiritual discovery, but they're damn sure the most adventurous.
At its gracious, self-amused heart, Traveling Mercies is the story of every man's search for answers and guidance -- a most basic and crucial human endeavor. Lamott was raised in a nonreligious, nonspiritual household that wore its intellectualism like a nametag, making Lamott's journey more than a bit random. She begins:
"My coming faith did not start with a leap but rather a series of staggers from what seemed like one safe place to another...When I look back at some of those early resting places -- the boisterous home of the Catholics, the soft armchair of the Christian Science mom, adoption by ardent Jews -- I can see how flimsy and indirect a path they made. Yet each stop brought me closer to the verdant pad of faith on which I somehow stay afloat today."
Not many of her passages pack so much big-picture weight. So much of what she's communicating surfaces through her individual stories: tales of an awkward and thrilling adolescence, experimental college years, reckless singledom, the death of a parent, the carefully forged relations with neighbors, and finally the birth of her son Sam. This is a woman who has experienced more during her half-lifetime than most of us would in several full lives, and her work is so unpretentious (and so often laugh-out-loud funny) that you're never daunted by her hard-earned insights. There's nothing here to alienate a reader. Even when she veers into tangible Christian territory, it never feels exclusive or presumptuous. Take Lamott as she is, because God knows she's a pro at accepting whatever and whoever comes her way.
Lamott comes to town this Thursday for the Dallas Museum of Art and Friends of the Dallas Public Library's Arts & Letters Live series. As part of the ongoing presentation of readings and performances by distinguished writers, Lamott will take the floor at the DMA and read passages from Traveling Mercies and likely take some questions from the audience and sign books. It's an excellent opportunity to witness the charisma of a writer whose work has reached such an impressive cross-section of America's cynics.