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A conduit for life

Times Staff Writer

Alice Walker’s duty as a self-proclaimed apprentice elder beckons, here at a Santa Monica beach, on a gentle spring day, in a lazy wind. Walker, 59, rolls up cotton pants the color of goldenrod, wades into the surf up to her ankles. With her burgundy top billowing, she lobs a question, the eyes-locked-on-eyes kind, each word weighted with demand: Do you take care of yourself?

Well, you know how it is with work....

For the record:

12:00 AM, Apr. 24, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
Spelman College -- An article in Friday’s Calendar about writer Alice Walker misspelled Spelman College in Atlanta as Spellman.

I know, Walker says, her voice resigned but kind. She brightens when she gets to probe, to teach, to take on an elder-in-training role -- by her definition a person who explores matters of spirituality, nature, indigenous cultures or any avenues in which she can figure out how to inform and inspire younger people to respect each other and the Earth. (Walker admits she isn’t ready for the full status yet so she calls herself an apprentice.)

On this afternoon, sporting an antiwar button on her corduroy jacket, she is a bit impatient, her manner less engaged, when she is asked to address the topic at hand: why she decided to give up writing for good -- and then changed her mind.

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Her new book, “Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth” (Random House), is her first collection of poetry in more than a decade.

Walker tends to steer talk away from her public identity: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author of “The Color Purple.” The 1982 novel was controversial at the time for themes including incest and her unsettling portrayal of African American men. Walker is one of the country’s best selling writers of literary fiction, known for her strong narrative voice. More than 10 million copies of her books are in print, including six novels and five other volumes of poetry.

But a few years ago, Walker, who divides her time between houses in Berkeley and Mendocino County (she also has a place in Mexico), decided simply that she had been a writer for long enough. She didn’t stop writing because her literary career bored her or because she no longer had anything to say.

“You know, it doesn’t totally define me,” she says. “It couldn’t. And, also, I think there is a magic in giving things up. There is a magic in being willing to let go of something that has been your identity. I let go of my identity completely, and it was so freeing, so lovely.”

Instead, Walker had imagined herself as a “wandering inspiration” -- a mentor and an activist, inspired partly by the spirit of her great-great-great-great-grandmother, a former slave who lived to be 125 and attended many of the funerals of people who once had owned her.

Born in Georgia to sharecroppers, the youngest of eight, Walker also was encouraged by such mentors as Langston Hughes. When a student at Spellman College in Atlanta, in 1963, she perched in a tree to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.

Since then, she has been active in causes including the anti-apartheid and civil rights movements. In her mid-50s, Walker, who is divorced and has a grown daughter, began to envision another role for herself. “As I see it,” she writes in the introduction to her new book, “this is the work of an apprentice elder: to travel to those realms from which might come new (or ancient) visions of how humans might live peacefully and more lovingly upon the earth.”

Walker spent a year studying such practices as a meditation technique from Tibetan Buddhism and another year exploring indigenous cultures and medicinal plants, traveling to places that included the Amazon. She gathered with men and women to eat “healing” mushrooms, the kind promoted by the late Maria Sabina, a Mazatec Indian shaman from Oaxaca, Mexico. In her book, Walker writes that Sabina “left a legacy of an amazing freedom, the foundation of which is absolute trust in the goodness of the earth.” (In 1985, Sabina’s obituaries noted that she was famous worldwide for her use of hallucinogenic mushrooms in her pursuit of spiritual consciousness.)

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During her break from writing, “I just discovered amazing, amazing wisdom,” Walker says, “and that’s what it is to be an apprentice elder -- you go around and try to learn what it is that people have left for us.” While she had no plans to formally teach what she had learned, she does like to talk to younger people informally, at gatherings, “just being around.”

Walker was sure that her life had spun in a new direction, but “having said that and having done that, then writing tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Well, you’re not done.’ ”

In the sadness that enveloped her after Sept. 11, she began to write the poems that make up her new book at her winter retreat, an ocher-red house on Mexico’s central coast called Casa Madre. As it turned out, only a few poems relate directly to the terrorist attacks.

Some poems speak of aging -- she doesn’t mind the fact that her dreadlocks are threaded with gray -- and such simple pleasures as wild grapes, autumn leaves and her dog, Marley, a Labrador named after reggae singer Bob Marley. And there are poems about the bend in her path. "..now / As I approach / Becoming / An elder / I find I want / To give all / That I know / To youth.” The poems, written in free verse, are short and have a clipped rhythm, with usually no more than two or three words to a line.

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Arrested at protest

These days, Walker is back to combining the writer-activist’s life with other pursuits. In March, she was arrested in an antiwar protest outside the White House. (After her release, a police officer helped her relace her shoelaces, which were taken away in jail. Once home, Walker sent the officer’s kids a few of the children’s books she has written and threw in some books for him too.)

Meanwhile, Walker says she is helpless to stop the prose that still spills from her brain. Her next book, a novel partly set in the Amazon, is scheduled to be published next year.

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On this afternoon, she pulls down the brim of her floppy straw hat. She isn’t ready yet to talk about her time in the Amazon except to say how joyous it was to wake up every morning in her hut by a river and to be known simply as Alice, a traveling student. “Honey,” she says, “it’s like sinking back into the vegetation.”

Now, in a walk to the beach, her step brisk, Walker wants to pass on a lesson about letting go. “I would expect at some point you will want to give yourself a period in which you just don’t [write], in which you say now is my time to go to Nepal, wherever,” she says. “Just to go somewhere and just be. Don’t be there as eyes attached to a pen trying to explain something that already puts you at a distance. You can’t really give yourself to the experience.

“I love being in life, I totally adore it, and that’s the seduction, to be so in it that you wouldn’t even think of trying to analyze it.”

Walker kicks off her sandals and heads into the water. “Look at this!” she cries, grinning from ear to ear. “This is the ocean!”

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She turns her face to the sun and opens her arms.


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