February 25, 1999
Finding God Among the Ruins
"Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith" by Anne Lamott (Pantheon Books, $23.00).
In "Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith" (Pantheon Books, $23.00), a gentle and touching memoir, Anne Lamott tells a variation of an old story:
A man in a bar is telling the bartender that he completely lost his faith after his small plane crashed in the frozen Alaskan tundra.
"I lay there in the wreckage, hour after hour, nearly frozen to death, crying out for God to save me, and he didn't raise a finger to help."
The bartender responds: "But you're here. You were saved."
"Right," says the man, "because finally a damned Eskimo came along."
Anne Lamott is a survivor of more than a few plane crashes: the early death of her father, alcoholism, drugs, bulimia, the loss of close friends to cancer and AIDS, love affairs gone awry. Now in her early 40s and currently a contributor to the online magazine Salon, Lamott has written her eighth book. It is a generous, humorous and ultimately moving account of the many Eskimos who finally came along.
Lamott writes of the self-destructiveness of not forgiving people ("like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die"), the grief that accompanied her consideration of abortion ("which theoretically and politically I support"), and her ultimate realization that the voice of God at the entrance of the cave was the "imperfect love of people."
Despite its subtitle, the book, at its heart, is not Lamott's reflections on religion, but her gracefully written recollections of the unexpected grace that entered her life. To a friend who discounts the possibility that God was involved, she says: "Thanks for the input, but I know where I was, and I know where I am now, and you just can't get here from there.... So it was either a miracle...or maybe it was more of a gift, one that required some assembly."
Lamott is not an evangelical; she was not born again; she did not arrive at faith in a flash of emotion or enlightenment. She reached it through small moments of grace -- the realization that, for a friend in crisis, all she could do was show up, but that simply showing up changed things radically; that a sense of humor could protect her even from the most terrifying moments in life; that paradoxically she could feel the all-encompassing nature of God not through theology but rather by hanging out in ordinariness -- in daily ritual, in appreciation of the moment, in simply saying thank you, thank you, thank you to someone she was not sure was there.
Jews and Judaism play a small but important role in this book. Lamott's aunt married into a large Jewish family, "but they were not really Abrahamy Jews; they were bagelly Jews...other than accusing you of anti-Semitism if you refused second helpings of my uncle Millard's food, they might as well have been Canadians."
In a small moment of classic comic writing, Lamott includes a memoir of the faux bat mitzvah her Jewish college friends gave her (she remembers only one question the "rabbi" asked, to establish if she had sufficiently studied Jewish culture in preparing for her day: "do we like to camp?"). But behind the humor are some remarkable religious insights, including wonderful readings of the Binding of Isaac and the 23rd Psalm, and quotations from Micha and Martin Buber. And the book as a whole is as good an explanation of radical amazement as one is likely to find in a non-Jewish source.
This is a book that complements Naomi Levy's "To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength and Faith in Difficult Times." Lamott's memoir is a beautifully written example of the movement from false comforts to something truly miraculous. Even more, it is a portrait of someone who, nearly frozen and lost in Alaska, feeling abandoned, came back from the long, dark night to become a mensch.
Rick Richman is a member of Sinai Temple in Westwood.
An Excerpt from 'Traveling Mercies'
In college, though, most of the smartest, funniest women in our dorm, the ones who always had the best dope, were Jews and referred endlessly to their Jewishness. It was exhilarating, and I wanted to be one of them. I'd thought for a while, and especially since Pammy and I had become strident atheists, that Jews were better, smarter, hipper than the rest of us. If you were Jewish, you were part of the tribe that included Lenny Bruce and Bette Midler. Allen Ginsberg was one of you, and Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. The women we revered were Jews: Grace Paley, Hannah Arendt, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem. Ram Dass, who'd started out at Harvard as Richard Alpert but had just come back from India a Hindu convert, called himself a Hin-Jew. Most of the girls I wanted to be like were Jews, and in comparison, the rest of us looked like we'd come from Grand Rapids.
One of my friends in college took me home to visit her mother one three-day weekend. Her mother, Billie, was big and fat and unbelievably beautiful, except that she sported a heavy beard -- a real beard, like three-day stubble. She acted like she'd known me forever. When I woke up in her house that first morning, she shaved for the occasion and put pancake makeup over the stubble. It looked like she had a thousand blackheads.
She was a Zionist and convinced me that Israel should bomb the s--- out of Syria, and by the time I'd finished my grapefruit, I too believed this to be obvious. I asked her if she went to temple, and she acted as if I'd asked if she frequently used an escort service.
"Of course not," she said. "What's there for me? You sit, they don't speak English, only the men count for much, you wait forever for a song you might understand, you check out what everyone is wearing? And what's the pitch -- you're born, you die, you go into a box? What's so tempting there?"
"But, Mom," cried my friend, "you never let us go out on Friday nights."
"You should be out gallivanting on the Sabbath?"