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Lions Roar : November 2013
laboring on someone else’s land to tend her beloved flower beds. The family belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal church and were, as Walker puts it, “deeply Christian. They really believed in the teachings of Jesus.” Whereas Walker’s siblings were made to attend services on Sundays, by the time she reached her teenage years—the last of eight children—her parents lacked the energy for enforcement. Walker fell away from the church and its gospel, drawn to the inspiration she discovered right outside her front door. She watched storms and the wind that carried them. She observed her mother’s gar- den bloom and fade. She strolled through the forest. “It was like walking meditation but without any trappings,” she says. “You were just there in the middle of a miracle, aware that everything was not only connected to you but coming through you.” Walker wrote from an early age—exploring what she calls the “foreign territory” inside the self—scribbling in the margins of catalogs. But the pivotal moment of her childhood, the one that made her a writer dedicated to truthful depiction of the world around her, was an accident she didn’t speak or write about for years. She was eight years old, playing cowboys and Indians, when one of her brothers shot a BB gun and pierced her right eye. The pain was excruciating, the scar tissue disfiguring. It took the family a week after the injury to gather enough money for a doctor. “He said—right in front of me and my parents—‘If one eye is blind, the other will become blind,’ ” Walker remem- bers. “It sparked in me a real desire to see before I could not see.” While she eventually had surgery to remove the scar tissue, Walker never recovered the vision in her right eye. “That in itself has been a discipline. To see clearly, to affirm what is actually happening as opposed to what you may be told is happening.” In 1961, Walker enrolled at Spelman College in Atlanta. Boarding the bus to college, Walker sat in front, and when a white woman complained, the driver ordered her to move to the back. Walker knew then she would join the struggle for freedom, and as the civil rights movement grew, the aspiring young writer and activist began to feel stifled at Spelman. After a favorite professor—historian-activist Howard Zinn—was fired, presumably for his progressive views, she transferred in 1964 to Sarah Lawrence College in New York State on a full scholarship. There, Walker studied with the poet Murial Rukeyser, who was so impressed by the poems her student pushed under her door that she forwarded Walker’s work to her own agent. The poems were eventually published in Walker’s first book, Once. Another pivotal moment came on Walker’s second day on campus. Browsing the bookstore, she discovered a Zen poem: Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself. It was a moment of recognition, of connection to her expe- rience of nature as a child. It was all right there, says Walker, a consciousness-raising in language so simple and direct. “In those few lines, you get the information and the wisdom that things are moving in their own way. Planting Seeds Each chair around Walker’s large dining table is a different color—bright hues of green, orange, and yellow. Artwork fills the room: a painting of Billie Holiday by an artist in Amster- dam and a wooden sculpture inspired by Walker’s novel The Temple of My Familiar. There’s a packed bookshelf in an adja- cent room. The house feels lived in, cared for. Just as we begin to discuss Walker’s early career—her civil rights work, marriage and motherhood, and ascent as a cel- Walker grows her own tomatoes, broccoli, kale, and other vegetables. She loves to plant seeds and see what grows, just as her mother did before her. SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2013 31