By Anne Lamott. Riverhead Books, 2017. 176 pages. $20/hardcover; $22/paperback; $10.99/eBook.
“I’m not sure I even recognize the ever-presence of mercy anymore, the divine and the human: the messy, crippled, transforming, heartbreaking, lovely, devastating presence of mercy. But I have come to believe that I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.”
Two guys are fixtures in my neighborhood. A handsome Jamaican, with a ready smile and warm greeting, sells me the New York Times every morning at my subway stop. I reward his industry with a big tip and get a fist bump in return.
The disabled panhandler on a nearby corner accosts everyone in reach of his electric scooter at any time of the day. His disposition is as sour as his face is pasty. No matter how often or how much I contribute, he reacts like I’m a giving machine.
First there’s love; then the love gets tougher.
Thus, Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy is like a mirror in which I can view this charitable two-step. The prophet Micah’s query is her agony and ecstasy: “What doth God require of thee but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God?”
The book consists of mountains—a trip to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, a young friend’s suicide, AA confessions, reports from the Hunger Project in Senegal; and molehills—fishing by her father’s side, experiments with tadpoles, shopping at Zoologie, envy of a colleague, a public speaking gaffe; with meditations in between—on Jonah, the prodigal son; Ruth, the good Samaritan; Lazarus, the thorn in Paul’s side; and the prostitute who gave Jesus water from a well.
Lamott hangs her hat on mercy, but her spiritual coat rack also displays sympathy, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, charity, kindness, and grace.
In nine short chapters, she packs more metaphoric punches than Muhammad Ali floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. The beginning of the book is slow going until you get her prose poem’s rhythm and rhyme. Her narrative proceeds neither by chronology nor logic but by free association akin to Jung’s symbolism of everyday life rather than Freud’s dream analysis.
You can dip your toe anywhere in Lamott’s literary waters and feel in touch with the whole ocean of her thoughts. So moving are the author’s words that, by fining me for every tear I shed on Halleluah Anyway’s pages, my library could afford to build a new wing.
To say “I’m kidding” is to invoke one of Lamott’s principal rules: Every time you hit readers on the head with a weighty insight, relieve their burden with a joke about how to lose weight. In other words, one good metaphor begets another, even if her wisdom is as bittersweet as the darkest chocolate.
Try “What if we know that forgiveness and mercy are what heal and restore and define us, that they actually are the fragrance that the rose leaves on the heel that crushes it?” Or “My humility can kick your humility’s butt.” And how about “Trauma … seeps out of us as warnings of worse to come.” Another of my favorites: “I often recall the New Yorker cartoon of one dog saying to the other: ‘It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail.’”
Just as recited poetry resounds in the ear before making sense to the mind, Lamott often stumps us with her Zen-like koans. Reviewers have called her “an icon of blessed imperfection” bearing “a conflicted message for a conflicted world.” She responds, “I’m the world’s worst Christian.” (Now that’s humility!)
Quakers will respond favorably to the way she weaves together the sacred and the profane. Lamott doesn’t swear oaths because she’s a seeker more than a refuge-taker. She characterizes her sermons as “Jesusy”—a relief for those of us who are spiritual fellow travelers rather than innkeepers of the faith—and gains solace from nature and science. Her words won’t let you center down easily for worship nor will they fit comfortably in a catechism.
But Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Famous” serves as an epigraph: “The loud voice is famous to the silence, / which knew it would inherit the earth / before anybody said so.”
The author of Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith; Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith; Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith; and Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Lamott keeps good company with such women seers as Maya Angelou, Julia Cameron, Edwidge Danticat, Annie Dillard, Shakti Gawain, Natalie Goldberg, Sue Monk Kidd, Maxine Hong Kingston, Caroline Myss, Nancy Mairs, Ann Patchett, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and Marilynne Robinson. (I’m partial to the feminine mystique.)
However, she possesses a unique sense of humor that’s sharp as a razor and will make you cry as her epiphanies pour like rain on a desert of disbelief.