Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Zinn of Alice Walker

        So what do I believe? That I was born to wander and I was born to sit. To love home with a  sometimes almost unbearable affection, but to be lured out into the world to see how it is doing, as my beloved larger home and paradise.
                 The Cushion in the Road. (New York: The New Press, 2013)

So concludes the introduction to Alice Walker's newest book, The Cushion in the Road. Inspired listening to her talk to thousands of librarians a fortnight ago in Chicago, I checked it out of our library and have sauntered through the first quarter of it this week. What a voice!! What a presence! What a life portrayed and remembered from the inside out. This morning reading of her friendship with and mentoring by Howard Zinn, mourning his death and recalling a piece he wrote years ago that has such staying power today:


     In this awful world where the efforts of caring people often pale in comparison to what is done by those who have power, how do I manage to stay involved and seemingly happy? I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning.

     To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world. There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people's thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible....

in this essay, The Optimism of Uncertainty, Zinn goes on to catalogue, as a historian might, the many surprises of the past century. He continues...

     No cold calculation of the balance of power need deter people who are persuaded that their cause is just. I have tried hard to match my friends in their pessimism about the world (is it just my friends?), but I keep encountering people who, in spite of all the evidence of terrible things happening everywhere, give me hope. Especially young people, in whom the future rests. Wherever I go, I find such people. And beyond the handful of activists there seem to be hundreds, thousands more who are open to unorthodox ideas. But they tend not to know of each other's existence, and so, while they persist, they do so with the desperate patience of Sisyphus endlessly pushing that boulder up the mountain...

... Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society.
      We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don't "win," there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope. An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. 

       What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places-and there are so many-where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Walker and Zinn remind us that a better world is possible, not probable, not guaranteed. But it will take something from us to make it so. Are we ready to give ourselves to it, mindfully, with daily efforts big and small. Or is the comfort of our habitual lives too compelling to get up from the couch. I get different answers when I ask myself this fundamental question, although I know where my aspirations rest. maybe they are resting too much.