blogathon: the temple of my familiar by alice walker (a book review)

copyrighted in 1989, alice walker’s the temple of my familiar is anything but new, at least to our way of thinking. to miss lissie, one of the book’s main protagonists, the 19 years that have intervened since then would be but a barely noticeable blip, seeing that she can remember lives back to the times when we were still living in trees.

this book is definitely not about paganism [note: this article was originally written for and published in the page of pentacles]. it is about how infinitely complicated, painful and inspiring human relationships are, human relationships of all stripes: mother/daughter, man/woman, woman/woman, black/white, black/black. it is about the possibilities we have for forgiveness and renewal.

for those of us to whom relationships are at the core of our human experience, what topic could be more important? many people start their walk on a spiritual path because they are confounded and hurt by what happens between people.

and while this book is not about paganism, most of the characters are pagan, in one way or another. their pagan ways are a natural part of their lives. this is one of the reasons why the temple of my familiar has been so important to me all these years.

it shows real people suffering, loving, laughing, cooking, eating, doing normal and strange things, and doing all of this in the presence of spirit, a presence that is just as normal as cooking gumbo, getting massages and sewing dresses. this is a spirit who does not make it all better. it does not promise a better life in the afterworld like the christian god that tried to comfort the slaves whose lives leave their traces all over this book. it’s also no fluffy-bunny new age spirit who promises all the sparkly riches of the world if we just say the right affirmations. it’s just there. and it’s that there-ness that keeps on speaking to me, the presence of spirit that shows that there is no other choice but to keep going, that we have to fight for justice, that we need to look for the ways in which we can understand each other.

it’s a spirit of which mama shug, a self-proclaimed priestess, who some of you may know from the color purple, said “that there was only one thing anyone could say about … and that was – it had no name.”

and what about familiars? in her casual explanation of the origin of that word, miss lissie first points out that there might be a reason why fairy-tale witches are always dressed in black – maybe they actually were black, those dark-skinned goddess lovers of africa who used to live somewhat peacefully in europe before the witch hunt. then she tells us that they never really forgot from their previous lives that people and animals used to be friends.

so there we were, the dark women, muttering familiarly to every mouse or cow or goat about the place … the animals and our children were our world. foolishly we thought the animals and our children, at least, would not be taken from us. but the inquisitors, set in place to control us, declared ‘consorting’ with animals a crime … there was something about the relationship she had with animals and her children that deeply satisfied woman. it was of this that man was jealous. the animals can remember; for, like sight, memory is renewed at every birth. but our language they will never be able to speak; not from lack of intelligence but from the different construction of their speaking apparatus. in the world of man, someone must speak for them. and that is why, in a nutshell, goddesses and witches exist.

and mama shug, who never invites anyone into her house again if they step on an ant without apologizing, takes her witchy mutterings further and writes down twenty-seven beatitudes, each starting with “helped are those …”:

helped are those too busy living to respond when they are wrongfully attacked; on their walks they shall find mysteries so intriguing as to distract them from every blow.

helped are those who love the entire cosmos rather than their own tiny country, city or farm, for to them will be shown the unbroken web of life and the meaning of infinity.

helped are those who create anything at all, for they shall relive the thrill of their own conception, and realize a partnership in the creation of the universe that keeps them responsible and cheerful.

helped are those who love all the colors of all the human beings, as they love all the colors of animals and plants; none of their children, nor any of their ancestors, nor any parts of themselves, shall be hidden from them.

yes, that-which-has-no-name helps.

this is an entry for my participation in the 2008 blogathon, a 24-hour marathon of blogging. please support the cause and donate – however much, however little – to the canadian mental health association (vancouver/burnaby branch). to donate, use this URL: you should be able to get there by clicking the link;if not, just copy and paste the link into your browser. it will take you to the appropriate location at canada helps. thank you!

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