Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Alice Walker never ages

Alice Walker walks onto the stage at Glenn Memorial Church on Emory's campus. She seems not to have aged a day since the photo on the back cover of my old copy of The Color Purple, dated 1982. The crowd jumps, literally, to its feet, applauding wildly. Ms. Walker is overcome and bows, nodding, to the audience. The applause continues. She makes a gesture that she repeats throughout the evening, something I call the "butterfly". It looks something like this:

Her appearance at Emory officially marks the joy with which the university welcomes her decision last fall to give her manuscripts to Emory, but on a more human level, it is a chance for Walker to return to her home state and come face to face with the people who will most benefit from her archives. The personal quickly overcomes the professional in Walker's reading, as those of us in the audience feel that we have been invited into her living room for a casual conversation.

Dr. Rudolph Byrd, professor of American studies at Emory and member of the graduate division of the ILA, introduces Ms. Walker, and at the mention of her archives being housed at the university the audience is once again on its feet, cheering and whistling. Walker nods and gives us the butterfly.

She opens her talk with a description of her relationship to the state of Georgia. She says that though it was and is "home," she has mixed feelings about the place, having lived such hard years here. But then she tells of her arrival in Atlanta the previous day, of getting off the plane and into a car, and driving through the city streets. She says "I saw the trees in bloom - dogwood trees, plum trees, peach trees - and realized how much I love the landscape of my youth. I love the peach trees, so here I am today, dressed as a peach tree!" With a flourish, she steps away from the podium to show us the colors in her flowing dress. Sure enough, the dress itself is the color of peaches, and the long middle portion, the color of bark. The audience applauds. She butterflies.

Ms Walker moves next into a discussion of the idea of building a monument to oneself, and how it goes against the idea put forth by a writer character in her novel, By the Light of My Father's Smile. That character follows the aboriginal belief that we should leave the earth as we found it: she burns her own memoirs. Reminded of this by fans of her writing, Walker justifies leaving her papers as a mark of her own journey by saying that growing up during segregation, she didn't have any idea how to proceed with her own creative life: "What if Langston Hughes had left something for me that I could have followed...how would that have changed my life?"

She prepares to read from her first selection, and tells us that she hates to do it, as it forces her to "leave us" and turn her eyes to the page before her. She invites us to close our eyes "so you will still feel like I'm looking at you,"thereby continuing the intimate nature of the first portion of her talk. The selection she is reading is a prose poem (or is it a very short story?) called "My Mother's Blue Bowl." It's about love and kindness, about motherhood and finding beauty in everyday things. It's about loss and release. We're teary when she stops. "How was that for you?" she asks. It was incredible. (See below for the entire story...you must read it.)

She then turns to The Color Purple, reading (as she has previously told us she would with all the selections, just because) the last page of the book. After reading, she mentions that she spent a year writing this book, and that during that time she was deeply in love with someone, and writing daily "in the presence of my ancestors." The book was thus a spiritual journey which left her exhausted, but also ready to move closer to the present. She strongly suggests that all writers (in fact, all people) keep a journal. She says that you'll find that your neuroses will stay the same, but that as you write, you'll chip away at them till one day, when you're faced with writing about them yet again you'll say to yourself "I just can't write about this anymore!" and guess what? You're cured!

After writing The Color Purple, she says she moved closer to herself in the present day. She tells us that she can't even read from "The Temple of My Familiar," her next book, because it's too personal. Instead she chooses the last page of Meridian, and discusses her involvement in the civil rights movement. She had to be organized and disciplined, to keep in focus and remain peaceful even when she was angry. She speaks of loving the "other" and keeping focused on the goal, not the fight.

She also moves past The Third Life of Grange Copeland, saying "It's too rough. Every time I try to read it I cry." Instead, she reads from In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, a collection of essays. She speaks of being a writer with a young child, living on her own with a small daughter. Saying she refused the stereotypical attitude that you had to either be one or the other, she chose a middle ground: "It was okay, we were just gonna be."

"How are you doing?" she suddenly calls out to us. "We're good," we holler back to her. She then moves into her "Earthling poems" taken from Her Blue Body Everything We Know. The poem she reads is "We Have a Beautiful Mother." While I am not a big fan of earth love stuff, hers is, of course, beautiful.

After reading from Living by the Word, she discusses dreams. When we find ourselves descending into anger, sadness...any emotion, really...we can find a way out by paying attention to our dreams. She tells of a dream she had once, where an ancestor came to her, a woman who was missing a finger. She said she reached out for her hand, and felt the missing finger. The woman said to her, just before she awoke "Live by the word and keep on walking." She feels that the innate concept that what you praise and give energy to will thrive has been lost by humankind, and we need to rekindle that connection and realize our power over what happens in the world and in our lives.

Ms. Walker continues this line of thought through the end of the reading, choosing to discuss the destruction to the planet and her steadfast opposition to the current war and all wars. She says that we must look into ourselves to see what we want, then connect with the fierceness in us to make it reality. "Perfect love casts out fear," she tells us. Stating that we must embrace the earth and all its inhabitants, seeing ourselves as a collective, not individuals with different needs, she comes full circle, ending with the title of one of her most recent books, saying "we are the ones we have been waiting for."

She leaves as she arrived, guided by Rudolph Byrd, bowing and butterflying as we applaud and cheer.

A beautiful soul, a beautiful spirit. I am honored to have been present at this reading, and for a change, I feel proud to be a part of Emory.

My Mother’s Blue Bowl

by Alice Walker

Visitors to my house are often served food—soup, potatoes, rice—in a large blue stoneware bowl, noticeably chipped at the rim. It is perhaps the most precious thing I own. It was given to me by my mother in her last healthy days. The days before a massive stroke laid her low and left her almost speechless. Those days when to visit her was to be drawn into a serene cocoon of memories and present-day musings and to rest there, in temporary retreat from the rest of the world, as if still an infant, nodding and secure at her breast.

For much of her life my mother longed, passionately longed, for a decent house. One with a yard that did not have to be cleared with an ax. One with a roof that kept out the rain. One with a floor that you would not fall through. She longed for a beautiful house of wood or stone. Or of red brick, like the houses her many sisters and their husbands had. When I was thirteen she found such a house. Green-shuttered, white-walled. Breezy. With a lawn and a hedge and giant pecan trees. A porch swing. There her gardens flourished in spite of the shade, as did her youngest daughter, for whom she sacrificed her life doing hard labor in someone else’s house, in order to afford peace and prettiness for her child, to whose grateful embrace she returned each night.

But, curiously, the minute I left home, at seventeen, to attend college, she abandoned the dream house and moved into the projects. Into a small, tight apartment of few breezes, in which I was never to feel comfortable, but that she declared suited her “to a T.” I took solace in the fact that it was at least hugged by spacious lawn on one side, and by forest, out the back door, and that its isolated position at the end of the street meant she would have a measure of privacy.

Her move into the projects—the best housing poor black people in the South ever had, she would occasionally declare, even as my father struggled to adjust to the cramped rooms and hard, unforgiving qualities of brick—was, I now understand, a step in the direction of divestiture, lightening her load, permitting her worldly possessions to dwindle in significance and, well before she herself would turn to spirit, roll away from her.

She owned little, in fact. A bed, a dresser, some chairs. A set of living-room furniture. A set of kitchen furniture. A bed and wardrobe (given to her years before, when I was a teenager, by one of her prosperous sisters). Her flowers: everywhere, inside the house and outside. Planted in anything she managed to get her green hands on, including old suitcases and abandoned shoes. She recycled everything, effortlessly. And gradually she had only a small amount of stuff—mostly stuff her children gave her: nightgowns, perfume, a microwave—to recycle or to use.

Each time I visited her I marveled at the modesty of her desires. She appeared to have hardly any, beyond a thirst for a Pepsi-Cola or a hunger for a piece of fried chicken or fish. On every visit I noticed that more and more of what I remembered of her possessions seemed to be missing. One day I commented on this.

Taking a deep breath, sighing and following both with a beaming big smile, which lit up her face, the room, and my heart, she said: Yes, it’s all going. I don’t need it anymore. If there’s anything you want, take it when you leave; it might not be here when you come back.

The dishes my mother and father used daily had come from my house; I had sent them years before, when I moved from Mississippi to New York. Neither the plates nor the silver matched entirely, but it was all beautiful in her eyes. There were numerous cups, used by the scores of children from the neighborhood who continued throughout her life to come and go. But there was nothing there for me to want.

One day, however, looking for a jar into which to pour leftover iced tea, I found myself probing deep into the wilderness of the overstuffed, airless pantry. Into the land of the old-fashioned, the outmoded, the outdated. The humble and the obsolete. There was a smoothing iron, a churn. A butter press. And two large bowls.

One was cream and rose with a blue stripe. The other was a deep, vivid blue.

May I have this bowl, Mama? I asked, looking at her and at the blue bowl with delight.

You can have both of them, she said, barely acknowledging them, and continuing to put leftover food away.

I held the bowls on my lap for the rest of the evening, while she watched a TV program about cops and criminals that I found too horrifying to follow.

Before leaving the room I kissing her on the forehead and asked if I could get anything for her from the kitchen; then I went off to bed. The striped bowl I placed on a chair beside the door, so I could look at it from where I lay. The blue bowl I placed in the bed with me.

In giving me these gifts, my mother had done a number of astonishing things, in her typically offhand way. She had taught me a lesson about letting go of possessions—easily, without emphasis or regret—and she had given me a symbol of what she herself represented in my life.

For the blue bowl especially was a cauldron of memories. Of cold, harsh, wintry days, when my brothers and sister and I trudged home from school burdened down by the silence and frigidity of our long trek from the main road, down the hill to our shabby-looking house. More rundown than any of our classmates’ houses. In winter my mother’s riotous flowers would be absent, and the shack stood revealed for what it was. A gray, decaying, too small barrack meant to house the itinerant tenant workers on a prosperous white man’s farm.

Slogging through sleet and wind to the sagging front door, thankful that our house was too far from the road to be seen clearly from the school bus, I always felt a wave of embarrassment and misery. But then I would open the door. And there inside would be my mother’s winter flowers: a glowing fire in the fireplace, colorful handmade quilts on all our beds, paintings and drawings of flowers and fruits and, yes, of Jesus, given to her by who knows whom—and most of all, there in the center of the rough-hewn table, which in the tiny kitchen almost touched the rusty woodburning stove, stood the big blue bowl, full of whatever was the most tasty thing on earth.

There was my mother herself. Glowing. Her teeth sparkling. Her eyes twinkling. As if she lived in a castle and her favorite princes and princesses had just dropped by to visit.

The blue bowl stood there, seemingly full forever, no matter how deeply or rapaciously we dipped, as if it had no bottom. And she dipped up soup. Dipped up lima beans. Dipped up stew. Forked out potatoes. Spooned out rice and peas and corn. And in the light and warmth that was her, we dined.

Thank you, Mama.


Chicken & Waffles said...

An inspiring and beautiful post, Jules. I envy you the opportunity to have been there to see Ms. Walker's visit to Emory. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Mary Saint Luke said...

Hey Jules:

Thanks so much for sharing. I saw the Alice Walker Exhibit. It moved me even more to write about her childhood which stands as an inspiration and symbol of courage.
Check out my blog as I progress with "Eatonton."