a review of Alice Walker’s Living by the Word

Every once and a while, I read a book that reminds me of the forces outside myself, the power I have over myself but not other others, and the tender way that I want to live with beings of the world — humans, plants, animals, and processes like the rising and setting of the sun. This is one of those books. Alice Walker has come into my life once again, just like she did when I picked up The Color Purple last year, when I needed this message, for which I am grateful. I love this series of essays, journal entries, and speeches. They are a powerful reflection on change and growth over a decade of Walker’s life and have helped me reframe my time now as one of growth and change rather than of anguish and lostness. Through her commentary on people’s critical responses to The Color Purple, her daughter’s smoking habits, her changing relationship to her hair as a Black woman, and her own slow journey to a plant-based diet, Walker teaches the first step towards justice in our world is choosing to live with intention and attention toward ourselves and our communities in the natural world — people and animals and plants and all. “Teach yourself peace. Pass it on.” (193).

“For a long time, from babyhood to adulthood mainly, we grow physically and spiritually (including the intellectual with the spiritual), without being deeply aware of it. In fact, some periods of growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize growth is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would not occur to us that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger, spiritually, than we were before. Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening. I remember the waves of anxiety that used to engulf me at different periods in my life, always manifesting itself in physical disorders (sleeplessness for instance) and how freightened I was because I did not understand how this was possible.

With age and experience, you will be happy to know, growth becomes a conscious recognized process. Still somewhat frightening, but at least understood for what it is. Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually become the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize we are being prepared for the next phase of our life, and that, in all probability, a new level of personality is about to be revealed” (70-71).