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.
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.