Read Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart Online

Authors: Alice Walker

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #African American, #General, #Contemporary Women

Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart



Alice Walker


To Anunu and Enoba

Everything in the universe has a purpose. There are no misfits, there are no freaks, there are no accidents. There are only things we don’t understand.
Mutant Message Down Under
So far, there is no law against dreaming.


With this writing, whatever its faults, I express my gratitude to all devas, angels, and bodhisattvas who accompany, watch over, and protect explorers, pioneers, and artists.

My father’s mother was murdered when he was a boy. Before she married my grandfather, Henry Clay Walker, her name was Kate Nelson. This novel is a memorial to the psychic explorer she might have become. It also made clear to me in the writing how much I miss her. And have always missed her.

Cool Revolution

Kate Talkingtree sat meditating in a large hall that was surrounded by redwood trees. Although the deep shade of the trees usually kept the room quite cool, today was unseasonably warm and Kate, with everybody else, was beginning to perspire. They had been meditating, on and off their cushions, for most of the morning, beginning at five-thirty when they roused themselves, at the sound of the bell, from their beds. When they broke from meditating inside, they quietly made their way outside and into the courtyard. Up and down the path that led to the front door of the hall they did a walking meditation that had been taught them by a lot of different Buddhist teachers, some from America and some from Asia. It was a slow, graceful meditation that she liked; she enjoyed the feeling of a heel touching the earth long before a toe followed it. Meditating this way made her feel almost as slow as vegetation; it went well with her new name, a name she’d taken earlier, in the spring.

Ever since she was small she’d felt a wary futility about talking. At the same time she realized it was something that, in order for the world to understand itself at all, had to be done. Her old last name had been Nelson, and for a time she’d thought of calling herself Kate Nelson-Fir. She loved fir trees, especially the magnificent, towering ones that grew on the Northwest coast.

When it was time for the dharma talk to begin Kate made her way to a spot close enough to see and hear the teacher very easily. He was a middle-aged man of southern European descent, with an ecru complexion and a shining bald head. His brown eyes twinkled as he talked. Every once in a while he reached up and stroked the silver earring in his left ear. Because of the earring and because he seemed spotless in his flowing robes, she mentally dubbed him Mr. Clean. She had been coming to his talks every day for more than a week, and had enjoyed them very much. Today he was talking about the misguided notion that a “hot” revolution, with guns and violence, such as the ones attempted in Africa, Cuba, and the Caribbean, could ever succeed. He seemed unaware that these revolutions had been undermined not only by their own shortcomings but also by military interference from the United States. The only revolution that could possibly succeed, he maintained, smiling, was the “cool” one introduced to the world by the Lord Buddha, twenty-five hundred years ago.

Something about this statement did not sit well with Kate. She looked at him carefully. He was certainly a well-fed-looking soul, she thought. Not many meals missed by that one, except by accident. Quietly glancing down at the program on the floor beside her, she saw he had grown up in an upper-middle-class home, had had educated and cultured people as parents and as grandparents, had studied and lived in Europe as well as in the East. Was now a prominent professor at one of the country’s most famous universities. Easy enough for him to dismiss the brown and black and yellow and poor white people all over the globe who worried constantly where their next meal was coming from, she thought. How they would feed, clothe, and educate their children. Who, if they did sit down to meditate, would probably be driven up again by the lash. Or by military death squads, or by hunger, or by . . . the list was long.

Looking around her she noticed most of the meditators shared the teacher’s somewhat smug, well-fed look. They were overwhelmingly white and middle- to upper-middle-class and had the money and leisure time to be at a retreat. In fact, she noted, she seemed to be the only person of color there. What was wrong with this picture?

Her mind, which had been clear as a reflecting pool just minutes before, now became cloudy. This was exactly what meditation was meant to prevent. She took a deep breath, labeled her thoughts “thinking,” as she’d been instructed to do if her mind wandered during meditation, and settled herself more firmly on her cushion. She would listen to this teacher, whom she indeed respected very much, and she would not be critical. Besides, she knew what he meant. There was a way in which all “hot” revolutions defeated themselves, because they spawned enemies. Look at those crazy ex-Cubans in Miami, for instance, who never recovered from having some of their power taken away, and the endless amount of confusion, pain, and suffering they caused.

After the talk she began to think in earnest. She felt she had reached an impasse on the Buddhist road.

That evening and the next day and the next she found herself unable to meditate. She kept looking out the window instead, just as she had looked out of the window of the Church of God and Christ, as a child, when she had been unable to believe human beings, simply by being born, had sinned. The redwood trees looked so restful, their long branches hanging down to the earth. Each tree created a little house, a shelter, around itself. Just right for a human or two to sit. She hadn’t realized this before, how thoughtful this was. But on her very next walking meditation she slowly, slowly, made her way to the largest redwood tree and sat under it, becoming invisible to the dozens of people who continued their walking meditation and slowly walked all around her.

When everybody else returned to the meditation hall, she did not.

To Kill or to Thaw the Anaconda

She dreamed she was emptying her freezer and there among the forgotten leftovers lay an alive but perfectly frozen anaconda. A huge orange and spotted snake, ashen, until she poured water on it and its ice sheeting began to melt; the color of the sun. She felt she must kill it before it thawed. She ran to others for help. None could help her; they were busy with their own lives. Their own anacondas. She cried out to one person after another:
Necesito ayuda! Puedo?
I need help! Can I help? She thought she was saying, Can
help? But she wasn’t. Only on waking, all outside help refused her, did she realize dealing with the anaconda was an inside job. Whether to kill it or let it thaw and live was entirely up to her.

And wasn’t she always saying what Grandmother Yagé had taught her: We are all on the back of a giant anaconda. It is slithering and sliding, darting and diving, like anacondas do. That is the reality of the world.


She woke up remembering a story from her days in the Black Freedom Movement. When she and her companions sought to encourage voting in a population that had been terrorized all their lives for trying to do so. An old woman had said to them, as they walked their weary miles across Alabama and Georgia and other outposts of the soon to be dubbed “New South,” Let me tell you a story about a man and a snake. They put down their notepads and melting-in-their-hands pens, the heat was so intense, and hiked up their jeans, took a seat on a stump in her yard, and listened. She was so old she smelled like greens. And so real a number of them swooned. There was this man walking down the road, you see. And she pointed to the long dirt road down which they had trudged, looking for her house. And it was a very, very cold day. They looked into one another’s profusely perspiring faces and couldn’t begin to imagine it. And what do you think he saw just ahead of him on the road? Well, she carried on, without waiting for them to guess, there right in his path was a snake. Kinda a cute snake. You know, probably had hair like most people want and long eyelashes. Her audience smiled. It was frozen solid though, it was. But still, some part of it could talk to the man. You know how that is. They chuckled. And it said: Please, Mr. Man. I’m just a poor little ole snake nearly ’bout froze to death out here in this weather! Please take pity on me and warm me by putting me in your bosom. Now, the man wasn’t usually no fool. But you know how it sometimes be. That one day, well. He thought about it. And he was after all a Christian kind of a man. He stood there thinking how amazing it was that such a cute snake could talk. And then he stood there a good five or ten minutes thinking about what Christ would do. If I was to pick you up, he said, leaning over the snake so that his own shadow became a part of it, and he, being a sensitive soul, started to feel a connection, If I was to pick you up, how do I know you wouldn’t bite me? Oh, no, Mr. Man, if you would be so kind as to warm me up and let me live, why, it would be a horrible thing for me to repay your kindness by biting you! I wouldn’t dream of such a thing.

So after a while, the snake looking at him so pitiful, he picked the little ole thing up, and he put it in his bosom, in the pocket of his overalls. Just behind his package of Brown Mule chewing tobacca and right next to his chest, close to his heart, which was beating warming blood all through his sympathetic body. And they walked on. The man thinking real good things about himself and the little snake beginning to feel like him or her self again. Pretty soon the snake was warmed clear through. The man could feel it slowly uncoiling, slithering behind his hansker pocket just a tiny bit. It make him smile, to tell you the truth. It tickled him to think that something as humble as himself could bring something frozen almost dead practically back to life. He reached up to pat the snake. And the snake bit him.

He bit him on the jaw. And the man knew he was in the middle of Alabama or Mississippi or Georgia or north Florida or somewhere there wasn’t likely to be no speedy help. He fell down in the middle of the road, just a cussin’. Why you do me like that? he asked the snake, who was now sliding nimbly across his pants leg. And the snake looked up at him and said, kind of shrugging his shoulders like those folks in France do: You knowed I was a snake when you picked me up. And the man started to die.

The old woman looked at the young people who had disturbed her peace to ask her to join their crusade. She had learned to live without picking up any snakes. She killed every one she saw, no hesitation and no questions asked. She did have a different ending for the story though, that she felt might do them good; for she could see they were understanding her to say what they were attempting was an exercise in futility.

She cleared her throat, which had as many wrinkles as the ocean has waves. Now listen, though, she said, most people stop that story right there. They act like the man was just a total fool, outsmarted one more time, like ole Adam. But when you think more about the story, about the man and the weather and the snake, you understand it differently.

How’s that? someone from the group asked dejectedly. They had walked all morning in the broiling sun just to be told they were picking up something whose bite would eventually kill them.

Well, said the old woman, think about the weather. It was still real cold. That snake, he was gonna freeze again. Once he froze again, he’d be helpless again. No kind of protection for a snake too froze to bite.

So? asked the same person.

So, said the old woman, this is an endless kind of a thing. Do we kill it or do we let it live? Do we ever believe its true nature and does that true nature ever change? And does ours?

She had given them some grapes that grew out behind her house. And some water from her spring. Bye, she’d waved to them, as contented as a girl.

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