Excerpt from Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Traveling Mercies

Some Thoughts on Faith

by Anne Lamott

Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott X
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott
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  • First Published:
    Feb 1999, 272 pages

    Feb 2000, 255 pages


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Shelly's mother was a Christian Scientist. My father thought the Christian Scientists were so crazy that they actually made the Catholics look good. I was no longer close to the Catholics, as we had moved by this time into an old stone castle on Raccoon Straits on the north shore of San Francisco Bay. The castle had been built a hundred years before by a German man who wanted to make his new bride feel at home in California. It had trapdoors, a dungeon, and two caves in the back. My parents had bought it for twenty thousand dollars the year John Kennedy became president. My parents campaigned for him, my father looked like him, my mother quivered for him. She was like the preacher in Cold Comfort Farm whenever she talked about either of the Kennedys, trembling with indignant passion--"I'm quivering for you, Jack"--as if the rest of us didn't also love him.

We lived in this marvelous castle, but things were not going well inside its stone walls. My parents' marriage was not a very happy one, and everywhere you looked as the sixties traipsed along there was too much alcohol and pot and infidelity. But Shelly's parents did not drink at all, and their house was full of stability and warmth. Pammy and I were drawn to it like moths. Pammy's mother was an heiress and an alcoholic who weighed no more than eighty pounds and who had often passed out before breakfast. Her father was doing time in various California prisons for killing his mother's best friend.

So we came to this house on the lagoon where everyone looked so good and where the mother gathered her children (and any other loose kids who happened to be there) into an armchair, like Marmie in Little Women, and read to them from Science and Health or the Bible. She told you that you were a perfect child, that you were entirely good, and that everything was fine, all evidence to the contrary. She was kind, lovely, funny, an early feminist who wore huge Bermuda shorts and her husband's shirts and did not care what people thought of her. And she believed two of the most radical ideas I had ever heard: one, that God was both our Father and our Mother; and two, that I was beautiful. Not just in God's eyes, which didn't count--what's the point if Ed Sullivan was considered just as beautiful as Julie Christie? She meant physically, on the earth, a visibly pretty girl.

Now, I had skipped a grade, so I was a year younger than everyone else in my class, and at nine and ten and eleven was knee-knocking thin, with sharp wings for shoulder blades and wiry blonde hair that I wore short. All my life men had been nudging my dad and saying with great amusement that there must have been a nigger in the woodpile, I guess because of both the hair and my big heavy-lidded eyes. And my father, who never once in his life would have used the word nigger, would smile and give an almost imperceptible laugh--not a trace of rage on behalf of black people, not a trace of rage on behalf of me. I didn't even quite know what this phrase meant--I knew it meant that a black man must have been my father but I couldn't figure out how a woodpile figured in, since a woodpile housed only the most terrible things: snakes, spiders, rats, vermin, grub. The one time my older brother used the word nigger, he was grounded for a week. But when men whispered it to my father, he let it go. Why was this? Why would old lefties make this joke, and why would my dad act amused? Was it like spitting, a bad-boy thing? Did it make them feel tough for the moment, like rednecks for a day, so they could briefly sport grossness and muscles?

Lee, the Christian Science mother, smoothed my hair with her grandmother's boar-bristle brush, instead of tearing at it with a comb. She said that half the women in Belvedere would pay their beauticians anything for my hair's platinum color, and the roses in my cheeks, and the long skinny brown legs that carried me and her daughter into endless victories on the tennis courts.

Excerpted from Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. Copyright© 1999 by Anne Lamott. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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