While in college, I attended a book reading for Alice Walker’s then new release “Now Is The Time To Open Your Heart”. I wrote about the experience and have rediscovered that piece today.
I felt helpless when I saw her walk in, unprepared. A short, stout, sweet woman who crossed her arms across her chest and bowed humbly before the huge crowd gathered at the tables amidst the bookshelves in the coffee shop. She was introduced and approached the podium warmed by a standing ovation. Her voice was soft and slow. Her hands, at her shoulders, were larger than I had imagined. Her graying dreads hung thin and stringy from her head. When she laughed, it was guttural. In every movement, word, and look was sincerity. I watched her constantly. The stuffy heat of the store didn’t bother me. I hadn’t even noticed it until someone complained afterwards.
When she did finish reading, she opened the floor to questions. My sister nagged me to ask a question but I didn’t have one. I watched her engage in individual conversations with people and yearned to have that undivided attention lavished on me for the duration of a thought-provoking retort. Yet how could I be so selfish? How could I present myself to this woman, like a man consuming the glory of being acknowledged by such a big name? She is not only a big name to me. This clairvoyant woman would have seen the motivation in me for asking a generic question.
I stepped outside to wait for the green group to be called to the signing line. In order to get in line, one had to buy her new book, which I already owned, from their store at bombastic prices. My sister bought me my opportunity.
Those who attended the event with me expected me to burst with excitement like a teenage girl seeing Elvis for the first time. I couldn’t express anything. I was content to be quiet, let her voice and persona stick by me, to settle my mind on her. Speaking would further me from this contentment.
Soon my group was called to the signing line to which I approached from the back. I took my expensive new release, my second new release and two other books out of my backpack. An employee checked my group tag and opened each book to the title page for signing. The line sped along and I found myself standing at her table, nearly losing my composure. My chest was heaving and my eyes burned. She began signing my books, swiftly from monotony, but stopped to look at me. Her eyes were dark through her small glasses and her grin was calming like a contented grandmother. All I could purge from my chest was “Hi” as I held out my shaking right hand. We embraced. She said “hello” with her mouth and “Be strong, it’s okay” with her eyes. The store keepers kept the books coming and she signed my last one. I held out my letter, one I’d written to her months ago, and asked if I could give it to her. She extended both of her hands, took it from mine, and said, “Of course”.
I left the table and the store, in the warm, summer evening air, and stood at the curb holding back my tears. Tears. Why tears? How did I feel? I was in the presence of a woman who knows how to love, fully, individually. Her attitude towards life is archetypal for any functioning society. She demands towering respect, and as my reader-relationship with her developed, I found that we see the world similarly. We think similarly. She has found words to define and convey thoughts, simple sensations, that I can’t articulate; though they seem to be the answer to so many problems. Her spirit comes through in her books but now I am overwhelmed to think that I’ve been in it’s presence, which seemed to permeate and humble my own self to the point of tears.