Read Living by the Word Online

Authors: Alice Walker

Living by the Word

Living by the Word
Essays
Alice Walker

TO SUSIE AND HER CHILDREN

CONTENTS

Preface

Journal (April 17, 1984)

Am I Blue?

Father

Trying to See My Sister

The Dummy in the Window

Longing to Die of Old Age

The Old Artist

My Big Brother Bill

Journal (August 1984)

Coming In from the Cold

Oppressed Hair Puts a Ceiling on the Brain

Dear Joanna

In the Closet of the Soul

Journal (August 1983, October 1983, January 1984)

A Name Is Sometimes an Ancestor Saying Hi, I’m with You

A Thousand Words

Journey to Nine Miles

My Daughter Smokes

On
Seeing Red

Journal (February 12, 1987)

Not Only Will Your Teachers Appear, They Will Cook New Foods for You

Everything Is a Human Being

“Nobody Was Supposed to Survive”

All the Bearded Irises of Life

Why Did the Balinese Chicken Cross the Road?

Journal (June, September 1987)

The Universe Responds

Publishing Acknowledgements

A Biography of Alice Walker

The teachers told us quietly that the way of experts had become a tricky way. They told us it would always be fatal to our arts to misuse the skills we had learned. The skills themselves were mere light shells, needing to be filled out with substance coming from our souls. They warned us never to turn these skills to the service of things separate from the way. This would be the most difficult thing, for we would learn, they told us, that no fundi could work effectively when torn away from power, and yet power in these times lived far, immeasurably far from the way. This distance from the seats of power to the way, this distance now separating our way from power usurped against our people and our way, this distance would be the measure of the fundi’s pain. They told us there was no life sweeter than that of the fundi in the bosom of his people if his people knew their way. But the life of a fundi whose people have lost their way is pain. All the excellence of such a fundi’s craft is turned to trash. His skills are useless in the face of his people’s destruction, and it is as easy as slipping on a riverstone to see his craftsmanship actually turned like a weapon against his people.

… Our way, the way, is not a random path. Our way begins from coherent understanding. It is a way that aims at preserving knowledge of who we are, knowledge of the best way we have found to relate each to each, each to all, ourselves to other peoples, all to our surroundings. If our individual lives have a worthwhile aim, that aim should be a purpose inseparable from the way.

… Our way is reciprocity. The way is wholeness.

—Ayi Kwei Armah,

TWO THOUSAND SEASONS

The victory belongs to love.

—Daniel Ortega

PREFACE

This book was written during a period when I was not aware I was writing a book. Indeed, what I thought I had taught myself while writing
The Color Purple,
a novel, was that writing itself was no longer necessary. For years I’d longed to be alone in the middle of fields and forests, silent, without need of words. Knowing how ecstatic I can be simply lying on a hillside in the sun, I realized I will probably be happiest—anticipating all of my possible incarnations—as a blade of grass. Besides, the daily news of death and despair coming in newspapers and over the airwaves began to seem the very breath of the planet itself: ominous and foul. I started to wonder if the old planet onto which I had been born, and on which I had toddled so delightedly as a baby, and explored so appreciatively as a child—the planet of enormous trees and mellow suns; the planet of week-long days—still existed. If it did exist, then I wanted to be reconnected with it more than I wanted anything else in life. I wanted to tell it how much I loved it, before it was too late.

I set out on a journey to find my old planet: to gaze at its moon, to swim in its waters, to eat its fruits, to rediscover and admire its creatures; to purify myself in its wind and its sun. To my inexpressible joy I found it still there, though battered as an unwanted dog. But still beautiful, still mysterious, still with week-long days (if you turn off TV and radio for months on end), still profound. Still a
coconspirator
(from the Latin
conspirare,
i.e., to breathe together). I saw, however, that it cannot tolerate much longer the old ways of humans that batter it so unmercifully, and I spent many hours and days considering how it must be possible to exist, for the good of all, in what I believe is a new age of heightened global consciousness. For in my travels I found many people sitting still and thinking thoughts similar to my own. In this study I was taught by these other people, by the art and the history of past cultures, by the elements, and by the trees, the flowers, and, most especially, the animals.

This book, give or take a few of its pieces (I was distracted along the way by this or that thrilling event, challenge, or adventure, which I was also moved to record), is a map of my journey and my discoveries.

I wish to thank my friend Susan Kirschner and my editor, John Ferrone, for their patient and thoughtful work in organizing the collection. I thank Susan especially for lobbying for the present title. I wish to thank Rebecca Walker and Robert Allen for so often being my intrepid companions; without their love always beaming in my direction I know I would have lacked a lot of the light I needed to see by. I thank Belvie Rooks for sharing adventures and work with humor and common sense. I thank my friends in Mendocino for sharing sweats, lunar eclipses, food, dance, and music, flower gardens and serpent paths and home remedies for global ills of all kinds with me. I thank Quincy Jones for the music of his being, some of which informs the wandering trails of this book. I thank Karen Vogel and Vicki Noble for The Motherpeace Tarot Deck, a constant mirror through these years. I thank all my teachers, ancestors, and spirits, especially those who have recently shifted to a different reality: the great Chinese writer Ding Ling, the great African writer Bessie Head, and the great Native American activist Billy Joe Wahpepah. I thank Bob Marley, Winnie Mandela, and Nelson Mandela for the inestimable gift of their example. I thank creation for the optimism of my spirit.

JOURNAL

April 17, 1984

The universe sends me fabulous dreams! Early this morning I dreamed of a two-headed woman. Literally. A wise woman. Stout, graying, caramel-colored, with blue-gray eyes, wearing a blue flowered dress. Who was giving advice to people. Some white people, too, I think. Her knowledge was for everyone and it was all striking. While one head talked, the other seemed to doze. I was so astonished! For what I realized in the dream is that two-headedness was at one time an actual physical condition and that two-headed people were considered wise. Perhaps this accounts for the adage “Two heads are better than one.” What I think this means is that two-headed people, like blacks, lesbians, Indians, “witches,” have been suppressed, and, in their case, suppressed out of existence. Their very appearance had made them “abnormal” and therefore subject to extermination. For surely two-headed people have existed. And it is only among blacks (to my knowledge) that a trace of their existence is left in the language. Rootworkers, healers, wise people with “second sight” are called “two-headed” people.

This two-headed woman was amazing. I asked whether the world would survive, and she said, No; and her expression seemed to say, The way it is going there’s no need for it to. When I asked her what I/we could/should do, she took up her walking stick and walked expressively and purposefully across the room. Dipping a bit from side to side.

She said: Live by the Word and keep walking.

AM I BLUE?

“Ain’t these tears in these eyes tellin’ you?”*

For about three years my companion and I rented a small house in the country that stood on the edge of a large meadow that appeared to run from the end of our deck straight into the mountains. The mountains, however, were quite faraway, and between us and them there was, in fact, a town. It was one of the many pleasant aspects of the house that you never really were aware of this.

It was a house of many windows, low, wide, nearly floor to ceiling in the living room, which faced the meadow, and it was from one of these that I first saw our closest neighbor, a large white horse, cropping grass, flipping its mane, and ambling about—not over the entire meadow, which stretched well out of sight of the house, but over the five or so fenced-in acres that were next to the twenty-odd that we had rented. I soon learned that the horse, whose name was Blue, belonged to a man who lived in another town, but was boarded by our neighbors next door. Occasionally, one of the children, usually a stocky teen-ager, but sometimes a much younger girl or boy, could be seen riding Blue. They would appear in the meadow, climb up on his back, ride furiously for ten or fifteen minutes, then get off, slap Blue on the flanks, and not be seen again for a month or more.

There were many apple trees in our yard, and one by the fence that Blue could almost reach. We were soon in the habit of feeding him apples, which he relished, especially because by the middle of summer the meadow grasses—so green and succulent since January—had dried out from lack of rain, and Blue stumbled about munching the dried stalks half-heartedly. Sometimes he would stand very still just by the apple tree, and when one of us came out he would whinny, snort loudly, or stamp the ground. This meant, of course: I want an apple.

It was quite wonderful to pick a few apples, or collect those that had fallen to the ground overnight, and patiently hold them, one by one, up to his large, toothy mouth. I remained as thrilled as a child by his flexible dark lips, huge, cubelike teeth that crunched the apples, core and all, with such finality, and his high, broad-breasted
enormity
; beside which, I felt small indeed. When I was a child, I used to ride horses, and was especially friendly with one named Nan until the day I was riding and my brother deliberately spooked her and I was thrown, head first, against the trunk of a tree. When I came to, I was in bed and my mother was bending worriedly over me; we silently agreed that perhaps horseback riding was not the safest sport for me. Since then I have walked, and prefer walking to horseback riding—but I had forgotten the depth of feeling one could see in horses’ eyes.

I was therefore unprepared for the expression in Blue’s. Blue was lonely. Blue was horribly lonely and bored. I was not shocked that this should be the case; five acres to tramp by yourself, endlessly, even in the most beautiful of meadows—and his was—cannot provide many interesting events, and once rainy season turned to dry that was about it. No, I was shocked that I had forgotten that human animals and nonhuman animals can communicate quite well; if we are brought up around animals as children we take this for granted. By the time we are adults we no longer remember. However, the animals have not changed. They are in fact
completed
creations (at least they seem to be, so much more than we) who are not likely
to
change; it is their nature to express themselves. What else are they going to express? And they do. And, generally speaking, they are ignored.

After giving Blue the apples, I would wander back to the house, aware that he was observing me. Were more apples not forthcoming then? Was that to be his sole entertainment for the day? My partner’s small son had decided he wanted to learn how to piece a quilt; we worked in silence on our respective squares as I thought …

Well, about slavery: about white children, who were raised by black people, who knew their first all-accepting love from black women, and then, when they were twelve or so, were told they must “forget” the deep levels of communication between themselves and “mammy” that they knew. Later they would be able to relate quite calmly, “My old mammy was sold to another good family.” “My old mammy was— —.”

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