Download Living by the Word: Essays PDF

TitleLiving by the Word: Essays
File Size1.6 MB
Total Pages159
Table of Contents
Journal (April 17, 1984)
Am I Blue?
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
Document Text Contents
Page 2

Living by the Word

Alice Walker

Page 79

greets you with “Elbow.” I fantasize that my “nee-how” probably sounds like,
say, the Chinese word for “foot” to them. So all during this trip I’ve been
smiling and saying “hello” and they’ve been hearing “foot, foot, foot.”

Looking closely at this picture I see that I am also wearing very baggy
pants. In fact, everything I’m wearing is several sizes too large. I realize we were
asked by our tour leader not to wear tight, uncomfortable, or revealing clothes,
but the overall looseness of my attire appears extreme.

I suspect, looking at this picture, in which I look ridiculous, but regal, that
this outsize dressing is typical of people—especially women—who grow up in
families whose every other member is larger than they are. Which is true in my
family. We can’t believe we’re as small as we are. And so, we dress ourselves as
if we were they.

This is a picture of a university dormitory in Guilin. It is early evening as
Susan and I walk across the campus on our way to visit families of Susan’s
Chinese acquaintances in Portland. As is true everywhere in China, there is no
wasted electricity (lighting is mellow rather than bright; forty watts rather than a
hundred) and no unused space. In rooms smaller than those two U.S. college
students would share, five and six students bunk. Freshly washed clothes hang
everywhere inside the rooms, and outside the windows on long bamboo poles.
The students we meet on the path are returning to the classrooms, which double
as places of study at night. We watch rows and rows of them bent silently,
intently, over their books.

Of course I think of Hampton Institute, Tuskegee, the early days of Morris
Brown, Morehouse, and Spelman, black colleges started just after the Civil War
in barracks and basements: poor, overcrowded, but determined to educate former
peasants and slaves; schools that have also, like the Chinese schools, managed
against great odds to do just that.

You would never believe, from this photograph, that I am sitting on the
Great Wall of China. I look bored. I look unhappy. There is that tense line
around my mouth that means I’ll never come thousands of miles to see more of
man’s folly again. What I hate about the Great Wall is the thought of all the
workers’ bodies buried in it. I hate the vastness and barrenness of its location. I
hate the suffering the women and children attached to the builders endured. I
hate its—let’s face it, I hate walls.

Susan dashes ahead of me looking for the best view. But the wall tires me,

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instantly. It is the concrete manifestation of so much that is wrong (a kind of
primitive MX). What a stupid waste, I am thinking, in the photograph. A lot of
flowers never sniffed. A lot of dancing never done.

The brochure about the wall says that the invaders, finding the Great Wall
indeed impenetrable, simply got over it by bribing the guards.

The Great Wall is redeemed by only one thing: over each battlement portal
(through which hand-propelled missiles must have whistled) there is a tiny
decoration, serving no purpose whatsoever except to refresh the eye. And here is
where the writer could benefit from having had a camera other than herself,
because I feel deeply about this decoration, this modest attempt at art. I send
mental salutations to the artist(s). But now I cannot remember what precisely the
decoration is: is it a curled line, horizontal and short, like those on the windows
of brown-stones? Is it the missing flower? Or is it two straight lines from a
hexagram symbolizing war, which I have mistaken for peace?

This one is of me and Susan walking across T’ien An Men Square looking
at the many fathers out for a stroll with their female children. They all look
interested, relaxed, happy. Susan stops one little girl and her father and asks if
she may take a picture. At first he looks suspicious, or, more accurately, puzzled.
We begin to ooh and aah over his child, a serene three-year-old with an
enormous red ribbon in her hair. He understands. And beams with pride. Then
we notice that street signs at crossings between the Forbidden City and the
square depict just such a pair as we photographed: pearl gray against a blue
background without letters of any kind, the outline of a father and daughter
holding hands, crossing the street.

We are made incomparably happy by this: I think of my daughter and her
father. Susan, I know, thinks of her husband, John, at home with their girls. We
look at each other with enormous grins. Thinking of fathers and daughters all
over the world and wishing them luck.

This one shows us sitting down in the middle of the square looking
dissatisfied. We look this way because we both really like Beijing. Miraculously
feel at peace here. It is true that the dust gives us coughing fits and my eyes feel
gritty from the smog, but overall we are pleased with the wide, clean boulevards,
the rows of linden trees that sparkle like jewels in every breeze, the calm,
meditative motion of thousands of bikers who pedal as if they’re contemplating
eternity rather than traffic. At night we, like the Chinese, are drawn to the streets.

Page 159

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