Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

I’ve never read anything by Anne Lamott before, although I’ve heard her name.  So when a member of my book club suggested Traveling Mercies, I was excited to see what her writing was all about.  And I’m glad I did.  Lamott is from the San Francisco Bay Area, a place I’m familiar with having been born and lived in Northern California for several years.  It was refreshing to hear mention of places I knew or could relate to her experiences at the beach while looking at mountains.  But I connected with Lamott on a different level as well.

In this book, Lamott explains how she came to find her way into the Christian faith and her journey discovering God and strengthening her faith.  I’ve been born and raised a Christian and made the decision to be a Christian at 13 and have never looked back.  Sure, I’ve questioned God, been angry with Him, but I’ve never wanted to walk away.  Lamott came to Christianity from a completely different angle.  She wasn’t raised in any faith and only came to Christianity when she was at the lowest point in her life.  From there her experiences with God have been difficult, but seeing faith and God’s love through her eyes, renewed my own faith.

The beauty of Lamott’s writing is that she is able to capture such everyday moments and make them sound surreal or supernatural.  She has a command of language that is able to take a discussion of how she battles with her hips and thighs and yet sounds reverent when she realizes God doesn’t love her for how she looks but for who she is on the inside.  I think sometimes I make the mistake of thinking that the language I use with God has to be formal and complicated and that I can’t discuss everyday things with Him.  But Lamott challenges that idea and seems to argue that it’s the discussion of the everyday things that draws us closer to God.

One of the most poignant moments is when she is hiking with a friend and they end up walking through the trails in a marsh.  They are attempting to climb a berm, but can’t get a grip on the muddy slope.  As they catch their breath and clean up the mud on their clothes, Lamott describes the silence that exists in the marsh.  It’s in this silence that she is able to listen to God and help her process emotions and conflicts that she’s been avoiding dealing with.  There’s many times in my life I run from the silence because I know what I’m going to see and hear and I don’t want to face it.  But the encouraging thing is that, like Lamott discovers, God is in the silence.  He’s sitting with us in the silence comforting us and letting us relieve ourselves of baggage that He’s willing to take for us.

I highly recommend this book whether you’re a spiritual, religious, agnostic, or atheist.  Even if you disagree with her journey, you can still appreciate the scenery along the way.

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Sochi 2014, or Berlin 1936?

I had my doubts about Sochi.  Not necessarily because it was in Russia, although that was part of it.  Mostly because Russia has had problems with Georgia (2008 attacks on Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and an ongoing conflict with the Chechnyans.  Both groups happen to live closer to Sochi that Russia’s center of culture and government in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  So with all of this in mind, I was waiting with baited breath for something to happen at the games.  Thankfully nothing did and the games came to a close.  However, the games didn’t connect with me as they did in Vancouver or previous Olympics.  I blame some of this on NBC’s coverage, but there was an overlying feeling that I was being made to like these games and I think I was wasn’t having any of that.

The opening and closing ceremonies were good, not great, but I got the feeling that I was supposed to somehow be awed and appreciative of the Russian culture as if I owed them something. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against the Russian culture, but it just seemed heavy handed.  Maybe it’s because I don’t know a lot about Russia or that Russia doesn’t have a lot of influence in my life, but I just didn’t connect with the opening and closing ceremonies.  And I think that this is why the games as whole didn’t seem to stick in my mind as previous ones.

And then the conflict in Crimea happened.  I know a lot of people have been talking about it and the comparison has already been made, but the rhetoric and actions of Putin’s government just seemed to echo the actions and rhetoric of Hitler’s government in 1938-39 when they annexed Austria and the Sudetenland.  I hadn’t seen the news or really heard much commentary on the events of last week, but in talking to my wife I made the same comparison.  This was based on my own interests in studying the events leading up to and during WWII, but also because my Dad, the history teacher, was like a game show host would would rattle off questions and my brother and I would quibble over dates and order of events.  I digress.

I was glad that I wasn’t the only one making the comparison between Putin and Hitler’s actions.  I don’t like to think that I’m a conspiracy theorist, but in this case the comparison just begs to be made.  And most media outlets are making that comparison.  Which leads me back to Sochi.  Was Sochi the Russia pageantry to show the world what Russia could do and how it had rebuilt itself from the rubble of the collapsed Soviet Union, just as the games in Berlin, 1936 were the pageant of the Nazis to show the world what had been rebuilt out of the failed Weimar Republic?  I’m not saying that Putin planned the events in Ukraine (although I’m not convinced he’s all together sorry they coincided with his Olympic games), but I feel that the events are being used in similar patterns.

The distinction that I see is that while Hitler used the games to show the world the power of the Aryan race and what the German nation had become, Putin seems to be regressing when he goes back to the pre-WWII era in which to assert his authority.  It was years later that Hitler annexed Austria in order to create a German state made up of the Aryan peoples of Germany and Austria and would then annex the Sudetenland in order to save Germans (i.e. Aryans) from the hands of the Czechs.  It’s this same rhetoric that Putin is using in order to save Russians (who’ve never lived in Russia) from the hands of the Ukrainians.

It goes back to this question of nation vs. state.  Something that Europe seems to still struggle with.  Look at Spain and how many nations are combined into one State.  Belgium and it’s two conflicting nations the Flemish and the Walloons.  It wasn’t until I lived in Europe that I realized that Europe is not as united as one would think.  Nations (ethnic groups) live in many different States (countries) all over the continent.  The way Russia is spouting this “Russia for the Russians” makes me fear that we are going to see similar outcries from ethnic groups all over the continent.  Will French speakers in Belgium choose to align themselves with France?  Will the Portuguese speaking Galicians leave Spain to join with Portugal? 

And what about the non-Russian groups that the Russian Federation is made up of?  How can Putin claim to protect the ethnic Russians of the Crimea while he’s running a country that has absorbed a cadre of ethnic groups?  My hope is that enough people have studied their history so that while there is some resonance between past and current conflicts, we can change the tune and avoid the same mistakes we’ve already overcome.