We watched American Master’s Beauty in Truth last night. The life of Alice Walker, best known for writing The Color Purple. She goes to the top of my list of people I’d love to spend an evening with. She joins a list that includes Kathryn Hepburn, Carl Sagan, Woody Guthrie, Malcolm X, Dorothy Parker, Hypatia, Da Vinci, Socrates.
At the same time she makes me feel shame. More of that in a moment. The Contrarian said ditto for him in the shame department for much different reasons. He’s neglected women writers over the years. We talked a while of all the issues she raised.
How she said that “activism is the rent one pays for being alive”, or how she noted that “even the monk who meditates in a cave contributes to the world.” How she was puzzled that anyone would marry anyone “forever” since people come into your life to teach you something, and if we are growing, we grow out of relationships and we move on. As she moved from marriage to a white lawyer to a “partnering” with another man, to relationships with three women. How she birthed a girl and now doesn’t know who she is any more as that daughter streaked the tabloids with “why my mother no longer cares about me.”
How she traveled the world, dipping her hand into causes that fought for women’s and people’s rights, never caring what apple carts were upset. How she suffered the agony of aloneness when her own ripped her apart for seemingly forever over her depiction of Black men in The Color Purple.
How she writes, and how she lives, and loves, and continues to smile gently and get on with the messy business of life.
And how she writes! How the voices of the characters chatter in her head and she seeks the quiet of aloneness and busily writes down “their story”. She upsets me whole idea of writing novels. She makes me rethink my writing.
Such a powerful presence in our world. And she makes me feel shame.
Shame that it took me so very long to begin to be who I am, and not who I was supposed to be, and desperately wanted to be for far too long.
I mentioned recently that I never saw myself in the house with the white picket fence, standing at the door with lunch boxes, apron, and a lipsticked mouth, waiting on three or four passing blazes of pre-teen energy bodies, to run by with a grab at the lunch as they tumbled forth to school, with a man in a suit and briefcase bringing up the rear, jutting his head to one side to peck me on the cheek as he sauntered off to enter the male world of “business”.
I kept this all to myself, feared that I was strange, and did my damnedest to act like everyone else. Being a bit on the chubby side and wearing glasses put me at a distinct disadvantage which meant I had to try even harder. Add in the fact that I went to a small county school where cliques were EVERYTHING and not being “in” was definitely out, and you can understand that graduation was met with a sigh of relief and the ever-present optimism that college would be better.
Indeed I did not ever see myself as mommy stuff. I was way more comfortable in those young years even seeing myself as Captain Kirk’s First Officer than I was being Donna Reed or The Beav’s mother, June. I mean no disrespect to mothers everyone and anywhere, but having charge of squalling smelly babies was not my idea of a good thing, and I gritted my teeth through a handful of babysitting jobs just to prove that I could.
Don’t get me wrong, I think kids are great, also necessary, delightful at times, undeniably wise sometimes, funny, and all that stuff. As long as they as they belong to someone else.
But I was raised in the time and place that I was and so even though I saw the world from a “liberated” perch long before I heard the word, I did my best to want what I was told I was supposed to want. I scoured the countryside and cities and located the men I was supposed to, and had all the relationships one would expect. Some loved me to death, others enough, some not at all. And I returned that favor. Some were dear friends, some sweet encounters, some were frantic matings between two who just got the instant hots the minute they laid eyes on each other. (I even did it in the police station once.)
They tell me that during her last sickness, my mother was told that I had married. She smiled.
I’m not surprised. She never thought much of my lawyering. Marriage was and would always be the defining feature of womanhood to her. My appellation switched from failure to success with a ring on the left hand, third finger.
I bought into that stuff for so much longer than I care to admit.
I got lucky. Found a great man. One who loved me madly. One who, as the months and years went by and I peeled off the scabs of long- ago received wounds, and showed him all the sore spots, uncovering the ugly scars of things I’d said and done that I’d kept hidden in that secret organ we all have inside that almost no one knows about, one, who, still loved me even then. The flawed me, he loved. And I loved him back a thousand times a thousand for that.
This is all to say that I was not the child, not even the adult who gives less than half a shit what you or anyone thinks and does what they want. I was not the Alice Walker kid who declared at age 13 that she was through with “formal religion” and made it stick. Such people have some hidden lake of self-esteem that they can run to and drink deeply from whenever needed. I knew it not, and so I tried to be as I was “supposed to be” because being liked meant everything, being normal was everything.
I’ve gratefully moved off that stuck spot. I’m me and glorious. I admit I like to play a few games of bingo every day, and I’m reading about feminist criticism as a methodology of biblical scholarship. I care passionately about a host of issues am a true bleeding-heart liberal, feminist (with the facts to back it up), and tell people what I believe and argue with them when they don’t agree with me. I cook, don’t clean, and engage in more crafts that is sane. I was bored with law about the time I figured out I was doing it right. I’m smarter than most, but no genius by far. I know that education opened me up to a world that my provincial little auto town never would have.
I consider myself better than no one. My choices are mine, meant to make me right with me. Your choices might well horrify me, but I make no judgement about why you chose them. That I truly mean. Until your choices impinge on mine or others right to make their choices. Then, Houston, we got a problem.
And I love Alice Walker, and somewhere in the shadows of my soul she’s been mentoring me from afar, and somehow I heard her, albeit it took a long time to get through.
She makes me proud to be a woman. Hell she makes me proud to be human.