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Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith  by Anne Lamott

Some of my favourite excerpts…

I was usually filled with a sense of something like shame until I’d remember that wonderful line of Blake’s—that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love—and I would take a long deep breath and force these words out of my strangulated throat: “Thank you.”

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It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools—friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty—and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.

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“Traveling mercies,” the old people at our church said to her when she left. This is what they always say when one of us goes off for a while. Traveling mercies: love the journey, God is with you, come home safe and sound.

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It turned out that this man worked for the Dalai Lama. And he said—gently—that they believe when a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big and lovely that is trying to get itself born—and that this something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible.

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I believe this to be true. And I especially believe it when other people’s things are breaking down. When it’s my stuff, I believe the direct cause is my bad character. For instance, not long ago a car I was leasing broke down irretrievably, and while trying to find a secondhand car, I rented a car which broke down two days later. I did not find this very inspiring: I did not look around to see what lovely thing was trying to get itself born. I was just deeply disturbed.

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Eugene O’Neill’s line, “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue.”

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Now. Maybe you think it is arrogant or self-centered or ridiculous for me to believe that God bothered to wiggle a cheap bolt out of my new used car because he or she needed to keep me away for a few days until just the moment when my old friend most needed me to help her mother move into whatever comes next. Maybe nothing conscious helped to stall me so that I would be there when I could be most useful. Or maybe it did. I’ll never know for sure. And anyway, it doesn’t really matter. It was just such a blessing to have been there helping Bee bathe her mother’s body with beautiful soaps, smooth her skin with lotion, working as thoroughly and gently as Mimi must have done forty-three years ago, when Bee had just been born.

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Sara very calmly watched her girls go, and I could see that these days, her daughters were the wall with the donkey on it. We stood outside for a while longer, talking about this last flare-up, how frightened she’d felt, how tired. And I didn’t know what to say at first, watching Olivia go chasing after the big kids, coughing. Except that we, their friends, all know the rains and the wind will come, and they will be cold—oh, God, will they be cold. But then we will come too, I said; we will have been building this barn all along, and so there will always be shelter.

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I spent the next two days taking care of us. We ate a lot of muffins in lieu of hearthcakes, and drank a lot of water. I went into the bathroom a lot to pray for patience. People came by, and sometimes they sat with me on the floor of my bathroom. It was like the old days when we were all on LSD and sat close and breathed together. It would be great if we could go in and out of this place without needing drugs or Ahab on our trail—go into the mystic or the eternal present or whatever we might call it out here in California. But mostly it seems like we can’t do it when we have our act together, because we can’t do it when we’re acting.

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The other was the realization that I knew their secret: that they didn’t think they were OK. They were already in the hyper self-consciousness of the American teenage girl, and this meant that they were doomed. The smallest one probably thought she was too short, the other one too tall. The most beautiful one had no breasts, the buxom one had crisp thin hair. My heart softened, and I could breathe again (although I would have killed for a sarong). I felt deep compassion for them; I wanted to tell them the good news—that at some point you give up on ever looking much better than you do. Somehow, you get a little older, a little fatter, and you end up going a little easier on yourself. Or a lot easier. And I no longer felt ugly, maybe just a little ridiculous. I held my head a bit higher; I touched the aunties gently, to let them know I was there, and that made me less afraid. Ugliness is creeping around in fear, I remembered. Yet here I was, almost naked, and—to use the medical term—flabbier than shit, but deeply loyal to myself. I forced myself not to check out their butts.

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“Why do you have to do that when I’m starving to death?” He wouldn’t understand: he looks like a cross between God and Cindy Crawford. And I don’t understand entirely either. But I knew to put on my favorite earrings. I wasn’t thinking that I looked awful and wanted to look like someone else; that is the point at which you can come dangerously close to female impersonation. I just remembered that sometimes you start with the outside and you get it right. You tend to your spirit through the body. It’s polishing the healthy young skin of that girl who was here just a moment ago, who still lives inside. It’s saying that sometimes maybe one looks a little pale and wan and wants to shine a little light on oneself. Then, when you’re in that honoring place, it’s almost like makeup becomes a form of light, just as on those days when a little cloud cover makes you really notice the sun’s rays that come slanting through. Maybe the key is simply a wry fondness for the thing you’re slapping this stuff onto, instead of a desireto disguise; so it’s not that you’re wearing a coat of paint, but a mantilla.

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The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. JOANNA MACY

 

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My mother turns to Sam. “Let’s go for a walk,” she says. He doesn’t want to. He always wants to race down to the shore and just plunge in. But he’s glad to be with her. The fact that she’s wearing a sweater does not seem to annoy him. I watch carefully. I tell you, families are definitely the training ground for forgiveness. At some point you pardon the people in your family for being stuck together in all their weirdness, and when you can do that, you can learn to pardon anyone. Even yourself, eventually

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Sam was grievously disappointed but was being very brave. I was desperate to fix him, fix the situation, make everything happy again, and then I remembered this basic religious principle that God isn’t there to take away our suffering or our pain but to fill it with his or her presence, so I prayed for the health simply to enter into Sam’s disappointment and keep him company.

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And it was about one moment later that the extraordinary happened: dozens of seals started swimming up to us. “Ahhh!” Sam cried, as the first seal bobbed a few feet away, and this time his cry was one of total amazement. And then another seal emerged a few feet away, right next to the first one, and they bobbed near each other, looking right at us with their moist doggy compassion. Sam started laughing, and I felt the moment go from cramped to very spacious. Sam cried out with laughter. The seals’ heads looked like old men’s bald pates that you wanted to pat. As they bobbed up and down in the water, hiding from us, then emerging again, I shook my fist at them and called out, “Hey—what d’ya think you are—a couple a comedians?” They kept swimming up to us for the next fifteen minutes, popping up out of the water like furry lightbulbs of a good idea.

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