A Handbook for Despair

A staple of storytelling is the road trip,

A staple of storytelling is the road trip, where the confused seeker sets off alone, determined to find herself on some lonely road without benefit of counsel or companionship (except maybe a dog). Anne Lamott instead writes from precisely where she lives, physically and emotionally. Sure, the years of alcohol and drug abuse she wrote about in Traveling Mercies, her first book of essays, may represent one form of this solitary journey, but ever since she said to Jesus, "All right. You can come in," some 20 years ago, the setting has been Marin City, California, with Mount Tamalpais in her backyard, a vibrant church, her son, Sam, and a loving collection of friends and family.

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith is full of what wise spiritual folks have known for centuries, that spiritual awareness happens when you’re in the thick of life, not when you’re off contemplating it. Lamott’s approach could be summed up in the advice she gives college graduates in her last essay: "Just be where your butts are, and breathe." Thomas Merton said basically the same thing; Anne Lamott is just a lot funnier.

Plan B’s 24 essays, many of which appeared on Salon.com, cover familiar territory - St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, the challenges of parenting a teenager she often doesn’t recognize, coming to terms with her inadequacies, which to her include her body, mind, and spiritual self. The book is really a continuation of Traveling Mercies, except here Lamott writes more about anxiety and despair, of living in a post-Sept. 11 world of terrorism, war, and the destructive policies waged by President Bush.

She writes about being a flower girl at a friend’s wedding; starting a Sunday school at her church even though she doesn’t really like kids; a friend with cancer; the gifts of aging; raising a son alone; and a hard relationship with her mother. "Scattering the Present" begins, "Most of me was glad when my mother died. She was a handful, but not in a cute, festive way. More in a life-threatening way...." But Lamott’s writing is easy and affectionate, like a friend who gently scolds you for being too hard on yourself. When you read her words about the effect her friend David has on her - "You laugh with recognition, with relief that your baggage and flaws are not vile, unmentionable" - that’s pretty much how you’ll feel about your own unmentionables.

LAMOTT TRIES to pray her way out of hate and fear. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. She tries really, really hard to pray for President Bush. She’s not there yet, but she wants to be. Mostly she tries to protect herself from the disaster of her own thinking. In the meantime, she takes action without being sure what the action will mean or whether it will be helpful.

Lamott tells those graduates of her last essay about having gone from lowly, unpublished writer to one with some stature, respect, and a little fame. None of it, she said, quiets the "throbbing anxiety inside of you." Her antidote is action: "Find a path, and a little light to see by. Then push up your sleeves and start helping. ...You do what you can, what good people have always done: you bring thirsty people water, you share your food, you try to help the homeless find shelter, you stand up for the underdog. I secretly believe that this makes Jesus love you more."

You don’t have to travel anywhere to know this is true.

Molly Marsh is an associate editor at Sojourners.

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