"On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death." So begins PLAN B: Further Thoughts on Faith, a collection of delightfully honest and gritty essays from Salon.com columnist Anne Lamott.
Lamott, like the best essayists, finds most of her inspiration in the ordinary stuff of living: the exhaustion of parenting, the frustration over a middle-aged body, and despair over the state of the world. In OPERATING INSTRUCTIONS, Lamott gave us a window into her life as a new single mother and her battle to kick her addictions. In TRAVELING MERCIES, she chronicled her spiritual awakening (kicking and screaming) into Christianity.
In PLAN B, Lamott's Sam is a teenager, Sam's birth father is back in the picture (sort of), and she is moving toward a menopausal 50. With all the hormones rocketing around, "Sometimes the house gets crowded." Her faith has matured, but she quickly cuts through any notions of super-spirituality. Lamott refuses to put a "holiness filter" on her prose or her lifestyle; her language leans more toward truck driver than toward Tipper Gore. In an early essay, she writes of a talk she gives at church that receives enthusiastic applause, followed a few hours later by a rip-roaring fight with Sam. "It's hard to imagine things can get so ugly so quickly, just because the word "homework" has come up..." Any parent of a teenager will commiserate.
It's these moments when Lamott shares what she calls our "ugly common secrets" that make us keep turning the pages, sort of like rubbernecking at an accident site. Her language is vivid and fresh, whether she's describing a ham she wins unexpectedly at the market as "ten pounds of salty pink eraser," or the hills behind her house where she walks almost every day, "a quiet and holy space."
Some of Lamott's best observations are on prayer. "The problem with God --- or at any rate, one of the top five most annoying things about God --- is that He or She rarely answers right away. It can take days, weeks." She reminds herself that when you pray, "you are not starting the conversation from scratch, just remembering to plug back into a conversation that is always in progress." Some days, she refreshingly admits, she hardly knows what to pray for. "Peace? Well, whatever."
When she starts a Sunday school, she unearths some unpleasant truths. "It turned out that I did not like children, or at any rate, they made me extremely nervous, and I had almost nothing to share with them, except that Jesus loved them, and I did too, even when I was in a bad mood." Teaching Sunday school also unexpectedly spawns racial tension. After working toward reconciliation, she philosophically concludes, "Time, and showing up, turn most messes to compost, and something surprising may grow..."
Reconciliation isn't easy, as we see when Lamott reflects on her departed mother. "While she was alive, I spent my life like a bitter bell-hop, helping my mother carry around her psychic trunks...For a while I did not miss her at all, and did not forgive her a thing." Forgiveness, she finds, comes not as a landslide, but rather as small "mosaic chips." The ability to do so arrives as a gift: "Grace means you're in a different universe from where you had been stuck, when you had absolutely no way to get there on your own."
It's this same grace she claims for herself; "God must see me as so many people at once: beloved, nuts, luminous, full of shadow." Whether she is reminiscing about her persona at 48 (the Menopausal Death Crone), participating in a peace march, lamenting the loss of a beloved dog, or nicknaming the jiggly areas on her legs and butt "the aunties," we see her as she believes God does, full of flaws and creativity, insecurity and pride, and rage and love. Someone a lot like us.
Like any collection of essays, this one is a bit uneven in spots (one chapter is a commencement address of sorts), and the time frame skips around. Savor it a chapter at a time rather than gulping it down in one long narrative read. Less ardent Democrats may also find the continual Bush-bashing a too-easy device. But what makes this book sparkle is Lamott's signature voice, wrenching honesty, willingness to look at our "ugly common secrets," and authentic, hard-won faith. Don't miss it.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby. Contact Cindy at firstname.lastname@example.org. on January 18, 2011
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith