Friday, July 1, 2011

Alice and Her Chicken Angels: Still Learning, After All These Years

From Alice Walker, The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the Angels Who Have Returned with My Memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, the Gladyses & Babe: A Memoir (NY: New Press, 2011):

On one of his tapes, my teacher Jack Kornfield talks about what we are likely to think about as we're dying.  The most important question we will ask ourselves--having long given up asking such questions of others--is "Did I love well?"  After all, we're the only ones who could know.  I think an acceptable answer is: I loved as well as I could (p. 31).

I'm posting this email from Houston, where Steve's doing some work (some real work for his job) and we're both visiting my uncle, the widower of my father's sister, whom we haven't seen in some time now.  As we flew yesterday, I read Alice Walker's new book and found it--as with all she writes--refreshing.  Wise.  Spiritually insightful. 

And in these days of visiting family, I may find less time to write.  But I've earmarked several passages from Alice's book I'd like to share here, so more will probably be forthcoming in a day or so.

One of Alice Walker's primary themes is how interconnected we all are, around the world--and her "we" includes, of course, animals, so that she says she will not write about her chicken angels or any other animals as "they" but as "who."  And how much we stand to learn from the least among us--in the case of humans, from our animal brother and sisters, including Alice's chickens.  Or the elephants she has befriended in India.

Or the mother spider with young attached that she mistook for a cockroach and flushed down the toilet, noticing to her dismay what she had done only after she pulled the lever and sent the spiders to their death.  An incident that makes her think about the fateful human tendency to kill--to despise and kill what we regard as threatening, weak, handed over to our baleful circle of influence to be used as an object.  As Alice notes, she herself was regarded as one of those--one of those least--growing up, and has a horror of treating any other creature in this way, now that she has relative power to make the conditions of her own life.

The lessons to be learned still, in our advanced age, as a human community--and in Alice's (and my) case, as aging humans . . . .  If we will only stop and listen.  And observe. 

I love Alice Walker's sense of the interconnectedness of the world for another reason: everywhere she looks, everywhere her feet step in her nomadic wandering of the world, surprises bloom.  Angels hover.  There is nowhere that there are not lessons to be learned.  And there is no place that does not connect to another--no one anywhere who is not connected to everyone else everywhere else.

These lessons were already beginning to make their way into my own hard skull last week as I began preparing for this trip, and, while we had friends visiting last weekend, I went online and began googling some names of members of my uncle's family (back in time) who are, I suspect, also connected to the family of one of my visiting friends.

And as I did this, I found--the miracle of the internet, the angels it brings into our midst--several websites on which people had placed pictures of my uncle's grandfather and great-grandfather, both missionaries in the Southern states, about whom I heard many stories as a child, but of whom I had never seen pictures.  And now my surprise to see how strongly the family resemblance runs in this family, from my uncle back to his great-grandfather, who was born in Leicestershire, England, in 1790, and came as a young man with his wife, a relative of John Wesley, to do missionary work first among slaves in Jamaica, and then among the native peoples of Georgia.

I had known--I heard these stories as a child from my mother, who admired these ancestors of her brother-in-law--that, when the Indian tribes were expelled from Georgia, my uncle's great-grandfather refused to repudiate them, but chose, instead, to make the journey west with them, ending up in Indian Territory, and living in Arkansas, where he helped found the state's first Baptist college.  I had also known from nieces of my uncle, who told me this at my aunt's funeral in 2006, that the state of Georgia had finally--after almost two centuries--chosen to apologize only a few years ago to the descendants of the handful of missionaries who did not turn their backs on the Indians sent packing in the 1830s.  When almost all the other missionaries living among them did reject the native peoples as the state and federal government appropriated their lands . . . . 

And what wild eyes this missionary ancestor of my uncle has in his latter years--but, as one looks closely, it becomes apparent that these are the wild gentle eyes of a mystic, a dreamer, a man who believed so much in the possibility of the brotherhood and sisterhood of all people that he dared not only to cast his lot with and live among the people to whom he ministered, giving one of his children a Creek name, but he also shared the fate of these people when they were expelled from their homeland.  

And how funny to see a picture of my uncle's grandfather, a very proper gentleman (though a missionary like his father), properly attired in a waistcoat with watch chain properly displayed, tailcoat splayed out behind, one hand on a hip and the other clutching--what else?--a newspaper whose prominently displayed headline reads in bold letters, THE BAPTIST.

And to see how much these two men look like my uncle and like his father, whom I remember as a kind, humorous, but somewhat forbidding elderly man, tall and with an erect carriage, a retired general (and lawyer) who also carried on the family tradition by heading the Southern Baptist Convention in Arkansas for some years.  A connection my uncle has chosen to break, as the religious group in which so many of his family members played a significant role for so many years moves further and further to the right, making micemeat of the traditional Baptist principles of separation of church and state.

So that my uncle has joined, in these late years of his life, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship . . . .

And I'm not entirely sure where I'm going with any of this, except to point to the strangeness of the ties that bind us, so that, in searching for one set of ancestral names in my uncle's family that connect to the family of a friend of mine, I'm led to a whole other set of ancestral names in the same family.  And pictures of people about whom I've heard stories all my life, but whose faces I hadn't ever seen.

And I heard those stories largely from my mother who, it turns out--and she did not know this, nor did my uncle, until I discovered it and shared the information with him--is actually related to my uncle herself, though not on the side of these missionaries.  And so I have to wonder if something in the blood she shared, back in time, with her brother-in-law caused her to admire this family so intensely.

We just don't know, do we, all the ways in which we're bound to each other?  Not yet.  Not fully.

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