It’s one of those things that reminds me that there is mystery in the universe. One of two epigrams in We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For? “It was the best of times , it was the worst of times, etc. ” A Tale of Two Cities. Now, I understand that AToTC is a popular, widely quoted book. But what are the odds that a book of essays published in 2006 by an African-American woman would quote a Victorian white guy’s book from the mid-1800s that I just finished reading? Not a scary coincidence, but still strange.
This book is a collection of essays. The title refers to a theme that runs thru this book (the line is from a poem written by June Jordan, the other epigram) that we may be the generation that has all of the skills and tools to put an end to the horrors still left on Earth – war, poverty, ignorance, discrimination and the like. And that is where the to connection to AToTC lies. There was war, death and upheaval all around, but it was the result of a desire to end oppression and suffering. Alice Walker sees our generation as uniquely qualified to end them once and for all.
Alice Walker is skilled at finding unusual metaphors for common themes, mostly those dealing with race and caring for the planet. When giving a commencement speech, she refers to the I Ching. In a talk given to an alliance of midwives, she invokes a Vietnamese poet, Native American poetry, the work of an M.D., some of her own poetry and essays, and discussions of Osama bin Laden and the war in Iraq. And somehow everything comes together as a whole that is new and illuminating.
One of the reasons I love Walker is because she believes in things powerfully and is not afraid to express an unpopular opinion. And many of the things she believes in are things I believe in, and it seems that in each new book I find something new that we have in common. In this collection, she talks about honoring ‘the pause’ – those times in life when something big has been accomplished or is changing, and the need to sit still with that change rather than just reacting (my paraphrasing). Apparently a part of the I Ching encourages this as well – so it’s not just me and her. I used to be a very reactive person, and as a result I did things that didn’t really make me happy, and people who knew me could easily push me into doing what they wanted by telling me not to do it. I’ve mostly gotten rid of this button in my life, but it still pops up in times of stress. If you can’t pause and reflect on your decision, then it is difficult to figure out what all the choices are and which one is right for you at any particular moment in your life. These are the reasons I read Walker, to remind me that the choice is always mine, and the results are mine as well.
I read her daughter’s memoir Black White Jewish, also well-written. It does not gloss over how her mother’s preoccupations were not always a good thing for her young daughter. But I still find comfort and inspiration from Alice’s words – maybe because she doesn’t always make the right decision any more than I do. I used to read Living By the Word regularly to help me remember that I was not the only person trying to live by the guidance of the voice in the back of her head. My favorite novel of hers is The Temple of My Familiar, a book about people trying to live a life that feels true to themselves and the interconnected nature of human life.
When I read Walker, I have to remind myself occasionally that, when she speaks at length of the horrors visited on the underprivileged in the past and present, that she is not just speaking of displaced Africans and their descendents, but also Native Americans, women and, yes, poor Caucasians. Her focus is often on the African-American experience – understandably so – but she was also poor, and is still a woman and has experienced discrimination because of all of them.
For me, it’s clear that her writing is as much therapy for her as anything else, and the fact that the rest of us want to read it or hear her speak about her life is just a bonus. It allows her to live a life that makes her happy and support herself at the same time. And isn’t that what we all want?