I have never met Anne Lamott, never heard her speak, yet when I read her work I hear the voice of my long-ago therapist, who with mordant humor acknowledged that all of humanity was deeply flawed but urged me to smile and muddle through anyway. Like her, Lamott seems deliciously warped yet deeply sane. Whether her subject is motherhood (Operating Instructions), writing (Bird by Bird), or faith—as in bestsellers Traveling Mercies and Plan B and her new book of essays, Grace (Eventually)—she has a gift for recognizing life's impossibility, laughing at it, and along the way maybe catching sight of grace.
Faith and grace are words that tend to make people's eyes glaze, make them discreetly check their watches and sidestep away, but Lamott isn't looking for converts. She's after bigger game—connection. She has an abiding reverence for all things coupled with an irreverent shoot-from-the-hip wit bound to offend someone (including ardent Bush supporters). She's a Christian, but, as she writes, "with a somewhat bad attitude, a black sense of humor, and tendencies towards gossip and character assassination." She's my kind of girl.
Writing essays on faith wasn't Lamott's chosen niche. She began as a novelist in 1979 with Hard Laughter and has written five other works of fiction, which like her first are wry, tender, and largely unread. She's kept on, anyway, and if that's not a lesson in faith, I don't know what is. Still, you can understand why Lamott once had a wee drinking problem.
Now 20 years sober, Lamott isn't afraid to bring up the bad old days here. She's willing to expose herself, and in doing so, exposes all our vulnerabilities, the whole untidy human condition. And she still finds reason to keep going.
The author doesn't tackle much new subject matter here, but she doesn't need to. Lamott is most successful at getting at the big themes—death, life, forgiveness, love—by addressing the small ones. This includes wrestling with what aging has done to her body in "A Field Theory of Beauty" and a fight she has with her son in "Samwheel." Both seem unlikely paths to forgiveness, but that's the author's point. Grace is never where we think it is.
"I wish grace and healing were more abracadabra kinds of things," Lamott writes. "Also that delicate silver bells would ring to announce grace's arrival. But no, it's clog and slog and scootch, on the floor, in silence, in the dark."
A few of these 23 essays start out great only to fizzle, miss the mark, and fail to provide that ah-hah sense of resonance and closure. But others like "The Muddling Glory of God" take odd particulars—a binge-eating episode, how her young son weaned himself away from sleeping in her bed—then lift you above life's daily messes just long enough to feel the sure-heartedness that comes of faith.
Searching for faith can be inelegant and arduous, but reading Lamott makes me believe that if you stick with it, you can find shimmerings of grace (eventually).
Ellen Kanner also contributes to Pages, The Miami Herald, and food magazines, including Bon Appétit and Vegetarian Times. She lives in Miami.