Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Traveling Wilburys

Er, I meant Traveling Mercies, a very funny and touching book by Anne Lamott, who no doubt has written other good stuff-- I haven't read anything else by her, but this is well-written enough, I find it hard to believe her other stuff sucks.

I'm much less than halfway through the book, but I had to blog this because of the very funny exchange she has with herself when trying to decide whether or not to let her seven-year-old son go paragliding for his birthday:

So what I needed to know up there in that beautiful valley was would a normal person—if there is such a thing as a normal person—feel that it was a good idea for a seven-year-old to paraglide in a harness with a tandem expert off a mountain fifteen hundred feet up.

Needless to say, there was no one around remotely fitting the description of a normal person; I was at a writing conference.

Lamott, p. 81

While she does write of her experience of converting to Christianity, it's handled carefully and thoughtfully, much more so than many others I've read. Fred Clark says, about writing about conversion experiences,

Stories of religious conversion -- or "testimonies," as we evangelical types call them* -- can be tricky. The convert wants to tell this story because she is convinced that it is important. Very important. But also deeply personal and, at some level, ineffable. Attempts to convey the ineffable often come across as kind of effed up.

He goes on to quote Lamott's description, a very quiet and almost resigned one, of her decision to become a Christian:

I hung my head and said, "Fuck it: I quit." I took a long deep breath and said out loud, "All right. You can come in."

Lamott, p. 50

It was this that made me want to read her book (this scene comes relatively early on in it). As in all effable descriptions of ineffable events, it either grabs you or it doesn't; somehow, for reasons I can't articulate, these two sentences said more to me than C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity or Augustine's Confessions. It's a moment of surrender, of giving in, that touches my heart in places I hoped I still had. Lamott says about her life prior to this moment:

I'd been like one of the people Ezekiel comes upon in the valley of dry bones—people who had really given up, who were lifeless and without hope. But because of Ezekiel's presence, breath comes upon them; spirit and kindness revive them.

Lamott, p.44

This process happens slowly; she doesn't immediately become "saved". I suspect she might claim she still isn't-- she describes continuing her alcoholism and drug use for a while afterwards, and even when she does become sober, she continues having affairs with married and unmarried men, and has a child outside marriage. Nowhere does she claim these are good things, though she doesn't explicitly condemn them as evil; they appear simply as steps along the path she's dimly beginning to see open before her.

I could probably recommend this book highly enough, but I don't think I could maintain my life whilst doing so. Lamott is an excellent writer, able to lay herself bare before her reader, with just enough humor and attention to detail to prevent that reader from feeling uncomfortably intimate with her. She also provides a great counterpoint to a lot of right-wing conversion stories, showing that it is possible to be a liberal Christian-- although she herself says several times that she doesn't consider herself a very good one-- which is something I, as someone who sympathizes more with the right wing than the left, am glad to see out there. Please read it.

No comments: