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We Live in the Best of All Times: A Conversation with Alice Walker
David Swick interviews Alice Walker
This is the best time to be alive, says Alice Walker, because there is
so much work to do—so many poor to house and feed, so much opportunity
for self-realization, the earth itself to be saved. The Pulitzer
Prize-winning novelist, poet, and essayist talks about her spiritual
practice, the importance of resolve, and the charming perfection of her
Alice Walker is a writer and activist, meditator, and mother. The youngest of eight children born to a farm family in rural Georgia, Walker grew up to become one of the best-loved writers in America. Now 63, she continues to see life as a holy adventure packed with exploration and learning.
The major themes of her writing remain unchanged. Walker is fascinated by community: its integral place in our lives, how it can be destroyed and achieved. She continues to contemplate suffering, especially among black women facing both sexism and racism. She calls her Pulitzer Prize-winning The Color Purple “my Buddha novel without Buddhism.”
Now Walker has written what may be her most revealing book, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. Subtitled Inner Light in a Time of Darkness and Meditations, it offers heartfelt considerations of the worst troubles of our time—environmental crisis, sexual abuse, poverty, injustice, war, despair, racism.
While her writing often deals with horrifying subjects, Walker manages to accentuate the positive. Casual, precise, and fiercely honest, her contemplations read like letters to a friend. The word “love” comes up repeatedly. So do the compassionate Buddhist practices of metta and tonglen. Meditation is especially praised, and called a “loyal friend.”
We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For is rife with grave concerns, yet when I spoke with Alice Walker, it was clear that she remains full of hope. She believes that with greater awareness than our ancestors possessed, and thanks to our tremendous capacity for insight, knowledge, and empathy, we can create positive change—in ourselves and the world.
David Swick: While your new book has a lot of pain in it, you work through the pain and come to a place of hope and peace. Is pain an important teacher for you?
Alice Walker: Pain is a great teacher. You can work through pain and come to a place of peace when you accept that you will need to work as hard as you can. If you can be at rest with the fact that you will do your utmost under all circumstances, what else is there but peace?
David Swick: A lot of people, though, feel that no matter how hard they try, they are not going to be happier. They feel they cannot overcome their problems.
Alice Walker: That’s because they believe in trying rather than in doing.
David Swick: How do you mean?
Alice Walker: If you just try to do something, you’re not actually accomplishing anything. But if you resolve to do it, you accept that it is there for you to do and that you’re perfectly capable of whatever it is. And of course there’s no point in trying to do something you’re incapable of. Then you use every conceivable atom, sinew, and instinct available to move whatever it is you’re trying to move. There’s a world of difference between that and simply trying to do something.
That is basically how I work. I think if I had started out simply with the idea that I was going to just try to make the life that I have made for myself—and the work that I have made for myself, and for my community and the world—it’s very possible that I would not have accomplished very much. Instead, I simply set out to do it. And to do it incrementally, so that I could do just the amount that
I was able to do each day.
It reminds me of what Ernest Hemingway used to tell people when they asked him how it is possible to write a novel. He would tell them that it’s a matter of “across the river and into the trees.” You resolve to get to the river, which is like the end of a chapter, and then, maybe in your dreams, you cross the river at night. Then, the next day, it’s on into the trees. You do it in stages, rather than saying, “I’m going to just try to write the whole thing.” You simply do what you can do today, and that’s fine.
David Swick: Is perfection one of the things we have to let go of to live like that?
Alice Walker: But everything is already perfect. And if you can accept that everything is already perfect, the imperfection is a part of the perfection. What’s to worry about? (Laughs)
David Swick: So often we think if we can’t do it perfectly, it’s not worth doing.
Alice Walker: That’s a terrible mindset! I look at my cat. My cat lived a very rough life before she arrived in my home. She has one tooth that’s broken and another that’s kind of long on the other side. She’s snaggle-toothed. A stranger might look at her and say, “Oh, she has imperfect teeth.” But I look at her and see the absolute perfection—the charming perfection—of her imperfection. It gives me so much information about the kind of life she has had, and the kind of soul she has probably fashioned.
David Swick: In your book you stress both yoga and meditation as essential practices for people living today. Do you think of yoga and meditation as complementary practices?
Alice Walker: Oh, yes, very much so. I’ve recently started doing a type of yoga that brings both of them together. Each pose is held for five minutes, which leaves you plenty of space and time to consider the pose, what it means to your peace of spirit, and to just breathe in, breathe out, in the way Thich Nhat Hanh talks about.
David Swick: What part does yoga play in your life?
Alice Walker: It is relaxation from stress. Yoga allows us to be calm and more present and not be physically overwhelmed by the calamities that surround us and the messages of disaster we’re constantly exposed to. In one of the talks excerpted in the book, I was speaking to a yoga group and telling them about how I learned of all these horrible abuses on Native American reservations and boarding schools, and how that connected to my own Native American ancestry. I told them it was so overwhelming that all I could do, really, was yoga.
David Swick: What would you say meditation means for you?
Alice Walker: Many things. In the early days, I almost always disappeared in meditation and found it just delightful. Now, sometimes I can disappear, but I have reached a place, I think, where the meditation often happens spontaneously. At times that means a lot of attentiveness to something, and letting it fully develop, and then having real insight into it. On the other hand, meditation could arise as a calming, spacious feeling of connection with everything, dissolving into the all.