Revisiting Fear Through Walker’s Essay “Everything Is a Human Being”

Book cover for Alice Walker’s Living by the Word: Selected Essays 1973-1987.This spring I’m reading Alice Walker’s Living by the Word slowly, mindfully, as part of my “Contemplative Writing” course. I appreciate this book of essays for many reasons, including its title, which makes an argument that we live by the words we put into the world. As a writer committed to everyday living for justice, I am taken with this idea of “living by the word.”

I am taken, too, with Walker’s reflections on her many relations, including with her father and daughter, readers and publishers, ancestors and elders, horses and snakes. Across her essays, Walker shows the interconnectedness of all beings, tracing lineages of trauma and healing as well as fear and (in)justice.

Recently, the essay “Everything Is a Human Being” stood out to me. As a keynote address Walker gave at the University of California, Davis, in 1983 for MLK Day, this piece weaves together reflections on fear and humans’ destructive impact on the earth and each other. I found myself lingering over words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and pages …

In class, several students read aloud from the following passage, one I’d earmarked, as it spoke to my recent blog post on interrogating fear (fear of spiders and people alike).

Screenshot of blog post “Do Vegans Kill Spiders? Recognizing Fears and Others’ Right to Exist”

Here’s a bit of Walker’s reflections on fear, which resulted in a neighbor killing a small garden snake:

“Everything I was taught about snakes—that they are dangerous, frightful, sinister—went into the murder of this snake person, who was only, after all, trying to remain in his or her home, perhaps the only home he or she had ever known. Even my ladylike ‘nervousness’ in its presence was learned behavior. I knew at once that killing the snake was not the first act that should have occurred in my new garden, and I grieved that I had apparently learned nothing, as a human being, since the days of Adam and Eve.

“Even on a practical level, killing this small, no doubt bewildered and disoriented creature made poor sense, because throughout the summer snakes just like it regularly visited the garden (and deer, by the way, ate all the tomatoes), so that it appeared to me that the little snake I killed was always with me. Occasionally a very large mama or papa snake wandered into the cabin yard, as if to let me know its child has been murdered, and it knew who was responsible for it.

“These garden snakes, said my neighbors, are harmless; they eat mice and other pests that invade the garden. In this respect, they are even helpful to humans. And yet, I am still afraid of them, because that is how I was taught to be. Deep in the psyche of most of us there is this fear—and long ago, I do not doubt, in the psyche of ancient peoples, there is a similar fear of trees. And of course a fear of other human beings, for that is where all fear of natural things leads us: to fear ourselves, fear of each other, and fear even of the spirit of the Universe, because out of fear we often greet its outrageousness with murder.” (Walker, Living by the Word, p. 143)

Walker’s words not only touch my heart but also remind me of the deep work I have to do with confronting, befriending, and watching for fear. I notice, for example, that fear of snakes is close-at-hand when hiking. I’m fascinated by and try to learn all I can about snakes, yet I still have much to do to quiet the learned/internalized fear that drives me to keep watch along trails.

Similarly, fear of myself and other humans is never far away. Such fear leads to literal and figurative murder—from police and state-sanctioned violence to dehumanization and discounting others. It erupts in microaggressions and denial of anger and grief. It leads to destruction of the earth, disproportionally impacting people of color. It’s also why we all (and white folks especially) need to strengthen emotional literacies for racial justice.

Fear blocks the ability to see beauty, the potential for human connection, and the work of striving for justice. Fear tears down instead of building up.

In Walker’s words: “[W]e should be allowed to destroy only what we ourselves can re-create. We cannot re-create this world. We cannot re-create ‘wilderness.’ We cannot even, truly, re-create ourselves. Only our behavior can we re-create, or create anew” (p. 151).

With humility, I commit again to revisiting destructive fear and re-creating behaviors aligned with justice. To do so, I see the value of “living by the word”: words of relationality, connectedness, and kinship. Kinship with spiders and humans, snakes and structural change. Kinship linking why I’m vegan with why I’m committed to social and racial justice. Kinship toward blocking destruction and creating anew.

View of the book’s inside binding coming loose and pages falling away.
Speaking of destruction and re-creation, here’s my well-loved book on its way to physical destruction, but ingested as nourishment and fuel for ongoing action.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For related posts, check out “Do Vegans Kill Spiders? Recognizing Fears and Others’ Right to Exist,” Refueling with Feminists of Color,” and the series of posts on why I’m vegan. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

5 TED Talks for Developing Emotional Literacies for Racial Justice

Today marks the final day of the 40-day practice I’ve been leading for a local, predominantly-white church on developing emotional literacies. We’ve been focused on building and strengthening emotional awarenesses, knowledges, intelligences, and response-abilities for racial justice. As part of this practice, I’ve been sharing resources, including TED talks that provide language for understanding emotional literacies.

View of TED.com Talks Search Page

In this post, I share five of these talks that are helpful for acknowledging a fuller emotional range, for building emotional courage, and for leveraging emotions to take action.

1. Jay Smooth’s “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Talking about Race”:

Hip-hop DJ, cultural commentator, and videoblogger at illdoctrine.com, Jay Smooth breaks things down in a really accessible, engaging way. In this talk, he offers a simple-yet-powerful framework for thinking about feedback on racist beliefs and actions as similar to having something stuck in your teeth. Lowering the emotional stakes can help with countering white fragility, resistance, or defensiveness that block this work.

2. Susan David’s “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage”:

Psychologist Susan David defines emotional courage, rigidity, and agility in this talk, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging rather than denying tough emotions. She shows the individual and systemic harm that comes from denial, reflecting on experiences of processing her father’s death and growing up in white suburbs of Apartheid South Africa.

3. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “The Danger of a Single Story”:

One way to notice more in everyday life is to ask the question: “What single story am I being told about _______?” Then fill in the blank with just about anything: from the story of normative skin color told by bandaids to the story of imagined business leadership (restricted by race, class, and gender) told by clipart. Author Chimamanda Adichie’s talk is especially helpful for thinking about the narratives we’ve inherited and hold within ourselves. To rewrite narratives, we need to make them visible and to see the danger of continuing to tell them.

4. Valarie Kaur’s “3 Lessons of Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage”:

How does rage impact the capacity to love? Civil rights attorney, activist, and filmmaker Valerie Kaur describes fierce, revolutionary love as an “antidote to nationalism, polarization, and hate.” She describes revolutionary love as the “call of our times” and as the work of “birthing a new future.” Kaur attends to the connections of anger and joy, rage and love—asking us to understand emotions as action-oriented and actionable.

5. Luvvie Ajayi’s “Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable”:

Writer, activist, and “professional troublemaker” Luvvie Ajayi (of Awesomely Luvvie) explains how she’s learned to push through discomfort and still to speak out, arguing that “silence serves no one.” She describes the work of “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” underlining the importance of speaking even/especially when there is risk and consequence. In this way, emotional courage is not about leaving behind fear, but still acting when scared.

Together, these TED talks call us into self-inquiry alongside continued, committed action. As I close the 40-day practice, I commit to flexing my emotional muscles, to sitting with discomfort, and to speaking/writing up, especially when shaking. May these TED talks give fuel and inspiration for the continued work of developing emotional literacies for racial justice.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Snapshots of Support,” “Blogs I Love: Reading Suggestions for Women’s History Month,” and “What Is Justice?” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Triangulating the Heart, Head, and Hands for Justice

This spring I’m teaching a new course titled “Contemplative Writing.” I’ve visualized the course design through triangulation, or three intersecting points that rely on the others for fuller understanding. Like a compass, triangulation helps with navigating complicated terrain. It shows locations (or ideas) in relation to each other, highlighting multiplicity. In the case of “Contemplative Writing,” triangulation brings together three semester-long focuses, audiences, and goals:

  • 3 intersecting focuses = writing, justice, and contemplation/mindfulness
  • 3 audiences (or spheres of interaction) = self, others, and institutions
  • 3 goals = rhetorical flexibility, self-awareness, and courage in writing/speaking

To cover this complicated terrain, the students and I are journaling and doing regular (almost-daily) contemplative practices, while also pursuing “Projects That Matter” (research and activist writing). To keep me writing and practicing alongside the students, I’ve been doing some form of contemplative journaling, meditation, or movement daily.

Some days, I’ve been responding to the writing prompt that gives this blog its name, checking in with my heart, head, and hands:

  • Heart: What am I feeling?
  • Head: What am I thinking?
  • Hands: What am I going to do?

Through these check-ins, I have been triangulating intellectual, emotional, and embodied knowledges.

Recently, I discovered a yoga-asana (movement) video that essentially asks the same questions through a 25-minute “Head & Heart Reset”:

This Yoga with Adrienne video has resonated with me because I want to build physical strength to carry a hiking backpack, and it includes several strength-building poses. While I typically prefer gentle and super slow asana, this flowing practice seems to be opening the energetic pathways connecting my heart, head, and hands (as well as my gut, tear ducts, and held-within knowing).

The practice opens with wrapping arms around the shoulders, giving myself a hug, as I’m striving to do daily. It ends with deep breathing to carry energetic connectedness off the mat and into all communication.

While in the past I’ve practiced yoga through writing, now I’m channeling writing through yoga. I’m reminded of the importance of nurturing my body and its wisdom in order to create and share wisdom through writing.

Such realizations are also showing me that triangulation is much more than a navigation tool, research method, or course design. Triangulation is why I understand writing as connected with embodiment and everyday living. It’s why I associate yoga and other contemplative, spiritual practices with the work of countering injustice and investing in more equitable relations. And it’s why I strive to connect the heart, head, and hands.

Said differently, triangulation helps me not only navigate complicated terrain but also remember that no guiding principle stands alone. May I continue to learn and make meaning in multiple ways. May I continue to open to what emerges through varied contemplative practices. May I continue to weave triangulated webs of striving (with an attitude of try-try again) to live a life for justice.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Gentle Yoga for Releasing Burdens,” “40 Days of Yoga Nidra,” and “Practicing Yoga Through Writing.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Reading Martin Luther King, Jr. as a White Woman in the Work for Racial Justice

Each year, celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Day in the United States brings new opportunities for mis-appropriating, mis-remembering, and mythologizing Dr. King’s legacy and the broader Civil Rights Movement. White people get the history wrong in many ways.

Each year, celebrating MLK Day also brings new opportunities for re-reading Dr. King’s words and re-seeing the work that he—and so many people working for racial justice—have envisioned.

MLK offers visions of the ought to be, of engaged activism, and of multi-racial movement-building. Such visions are essential to avoid getting stuck where we are and to spark imaginings of new and more equitable futures.

As a white woman witnessing, learning from, and participating in MLK Day, I’m reminded at this time of year how Dr. King’s legacy and wisdom can guide me in the work of visioning. His words keep me focused on what’s possible rather than thinking only about what’s problematic.

Specifically, three of Dr. King’s often-cited quotes keep me focused on my role in taking steps and speaking up, even when inevitably and always falling short of what I can, should, and want to do. With gratitude and humility, I hope to amplify these words and share how they provide guidance in my life today.

1. “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Though I have trouble placing this quote’s origin, the King Center in Atlanta describes how Dr. King combined two scriptural verses into one to create this line. I’ve been repeating it for years, since noticing how white colleagues ask for professional development as a prerequisite to taking action. Ongoing learning is always important, yet I’ve seen how it can be used to delay, dismiss, and excuse away the responsibility to act.

Instead, taking some action, any action, matters. It helps us learn, gets us started, gives us practice, makes feedback available, and opens opportunities for additional actions. It helps us join and build relational networks, and it helps us develop habits or routines for taking action.

Taking a first step and a second and a third and so on adds up to sustained action, and the importance of “Doing Something Small and Sustained” is part of why I’m vegan for social, environmental, gender, and racial justice. Certainly, there are many more steps to take, but a daily commitment to taking steps helps grow momentum, while allowing for rest and self-care along the way.

2. “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

As part of the Steeler Lecture in 1967, these words remind me of the importance of breaking white silence, as silence does real harm. I remember the gut-punch I felt when watching many white friends and family remain silent after Charlottesville. After writing “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville,” some sincere conversations emerged with white folks who expressed “a loss of words” and the fear that they could do more harm by saying the wrong thing than by saying nothing at all.

Just as a fear of doing it wrong and the desire to “learn more” blocks taking action, a fear of saying it wrong and a desire to “listen more” blocks speaking up.

To these fears, I’d say that there are many ways to speak by amplifying the voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) who are already speaking up and leading the way. If you’re not reading and reposting feminists and womanists of color, consider doing so. Sharing the work and words of activists, scholars, and leaders of color help promote and make widely visible their leadership. Amplification is an important form of speaking and one that invites listening and learning too.

As a white woman, I also need to remind myself again and again and again to let go of perfectionism. The possibility of a “perfect” or even “right” way of speaking is another lie of internalized inferiority and superiority. I’m sure to trip over the words. I’m sure to do it wrong. I’m sure to confront my own limitations. But I’m also sure that I must speak up in order to practice, to get feedback, and to learn by doing (with the attitude of “try-try again”). And more than the importance of learning, the costs of complicity are too high.

3. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I end with this line from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” because it reminds me of the costs of failing to act or speak up. It reminds me why I must keep the reality of white supremacy and the commitment to racial justice at the fore throughout everyday living. It reminds me why an intersectional approach to justice is needed and why I have a role to play in this work. And it reminds me why imaginative, creative, critical visioning is so deeply needed.

As I spend MLK Day this year tuning into myself, I’m reminded that, like Dr. King’s words of wisdom, our embodied, lived experiences have much to teach us about how to act and speak up in the world. I’m resolving in 2018 to “Speaking Up by Speaking Aloud Embodied Responses,” even or especially when my body hurts and my voice shakes. I’m resolving, too, to use inner listening to learn more about when and where I can direct my energies, knowing that I have a role to play in the work for racial justice.

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Photo taken during one of several pilgrimages to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice” and “Refueling with Feminists of Color.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Expect Miracles

Of the many lessons I’m still learning, an important one is to trust life as it unfolds. I struggle with trust because I struggle with letting go of perfectionism and perceived control. Despite these struggles, whenever I soften attachments to my preferred timing and open instead to possibilities, miracles occur. And the more I open to miracles, the more I find HOPE, which is so greatly needed on the long haul toward justice.

Recently, I’ve had an important reminder to expect miracles (or at least miraculous timing) in everyday life:

A few weeks ago, I lost a mala that Marty Tribble custom-made for me after several Reiki sessions of discussing my desire/need for greater grounding, spiritual connectedness, and trust in divine protection. Marty created this garnet bracelet and shipped it in a box with stenciled arrows, at the same time that I’d had an arrow drawn onto my hand during a summer retreat (pictured here).

2017-07-03 21.17.56

I took the arrows to be a sign of the mala’s significance for decision-making and directional guidance.

The mala must have been helping me trust, because when I lost it, I trusted that it was where it needed to be and would reemerge at the right time. I was somehow sure that the mala wasn’t lost to me, but just buried from my view or consciousness.

This loss happened about a month ago, before I started 40 days of yoga nidra—a meditative practice that I’ve been doing at bedtime. I often fall asleep during the guided practice, and I’ve been having especially vivid, symbolic dreams. These powerful dreams, I believe, have been a continuation of yogic sleep in actual sleep.

Through this process, I’ve become more aware of how much self-work and self-healing happen through dreams and sleep. I’ve also become aware of the mala’s hiding place.

Just before leaving town for a full month’s travel, I changed my bed sheets and moved my mattress away from the headboard. That night, when practicing yoga asana on the floor, I saw the mala under the bed. It had likely been tucked within the bed frame, near my head for the past weeks of yoga nidra. Despite my perception of having “lost” the mala, it was exactly where it needed to be: physically in my bed, supporting yoga nidra practice, and present for self-work during sleep.

The timing of its re-emergence has felt divinely orchestrated, too. Since I’m now traveling for a month, my home bed is no longer my practice space. By making its presence known, the mala is able to travel with me. I’m again wearing it as a bracelet during days and keeping it near my bed at nights.

I share this story of the lost-and-found mala because it’s the sort of everyday miracle that gives me hope at this time. It’s a reminder, especially in this week of the winter solstice and many religious celebrations, of the importance of trusting divine timing, especially when choosing to tread another path.

I share this story, too, because it’s opened for me a series of new questions:

  • What needs to change in my approach to everyday living if I am to act as though miracles are already present and possible?
  • What does it mean for miracles to be present at this time of great injustice? Might the recognition of miracles help with recognition of other often-dismissed phenomena like microaggressions, systemic racism, and epistemic injustice?
  • How do we undermine or block ourselves from noticing miracles and other magic that can give us life, even in the toughest times?
  • How might the expectation of miracles (or at least miraculous timing) aid in building resilience, commitments to justice, and long-term staying power?

I am excited to see what emerges as I learn to expect miracles. I hope you, too, will look for the miraculous in everyday life.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Everyday Divination,” “Attending to Anger,” or “Sieving Life: Keeping What Nourishes and Releasing the Rest.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Reclaiming Childhood Power with Coloring Books

There’s a story that I’ve told for years, a story that represents my early disappointment and dislike of school.

In kindergarten, I was assigned to color a bird brown, but I thought brown was too typical. I’d been reading Zoo Books and learning about parakeets, toucans, and other birds at home. I knew birds could be practically any color or any combination of colors. I decided, therefore, to use my creativity, knowledge, and the tools (crayons) available to me to create a colorful bird.

A few days later, I received my teacher’s response: a frown face at the top of the coloring assignment. I had failed to follow instructions, and following instructions was what mattered in school.

I was crushed that my teacher didn’t like my imaginative attempt at art. I was sad, then discouraged, and finally angry. In the years that followed, I felt largely disconnected from school, stubbornly refusing to do assignments if I couldn’t see their value. I’d sit still with arms folded, embodying the stubbornness of a bull (yep, I’m a Taurus). Instead of learning to follow instructions, I learned to question schooling.

The stubbornness and questioning have largely served me well, especially as I’ve become invested in unlearning inequity, injustice, and social conditioning that we’re taught in and out of school. If I’d been too attached to school or too invested in following instructions, I might not have spent time analyzing what felt or appeared unfair. And I had a lot of time to reflect while not doing assignments.

Recently and randomly, I felt called to coloring again. I ordered a coloring book of forest trails, extending my love of hiking into art and looking again to tread another path. When the book arrived, I opened it to the first page and began adding color to birds on a branch:

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It wasn’t until I’d colored birds yellow, blue, and purple that I realized I was recreating this early childhood memory. I was choosing colors based on intuition and inhibition. I was creatively following my own path, calling back my early identity as an artist.

I share this story because it’s got me thinking about the power of recreating, re-enacting, and ultimately rewriting early experiences. Rather than being trapped in old narratives, it’s possible to remember and revise them. Now, when I’m adding color to each bird, I’m seeing myself as an artist with power, as an artist whose intuition can contribute to personal and collective healing.

As a child, I wanted my artwork to bring joy, and I was sure that colorful birds could do that. Then the teacher’s frown face communicated the opposite: her dislike and disappointment with the work. It’s taken me years to sort out her response from mine and to appreciate—deeply value and feel gratitude for—the disconnection I felt with school.

Now I can see that early school experiences rooted in me the courage and conviction to stand TALL for justice. They helped me question authority and value self-determination. They fueled my desire to be an educator, but one who’s never quite comfortable in school. They allowed me to understand ageism and were surely the origin of my alignment with ecofeminism.

Rather than swinging from one extreme (following instructions) to the other (resisting assignments), I’m wondering what it might mean to value the wisdom and reclaim the power from these early childhood experiences. I’m wondering how I’m recreating these early experiences and the stories I tell about them as I keep coloring bird by bird. I’m wondering how this work of reflecting on the past helps with articulating and acting on commitments. And I’m wondering how the adult/teacher self might be more accountable to the kindergarten/student self and to all selves looking for their artist + activist efforts to be nourished.


This post is written by Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. For more posts like this one, you might try “Answering the Call for Artistic Activism: Yes, I’m an Artist!” or “Disrupting the Mind-Body Split.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Why I’m Vegan: Normalizing Plant-Based Options

Traveling can present real challenges for eating vegan. Recently, though, I’ve been encouraged by several kind and curious interactions. Here are three scenes to illustrate:

Scene 1: When ordering off-menu at a local café, the café owner says, “You know, we should really have more vegan options. I’ll work on that.”

Scene 2: When placing an order with modifications, the waiter asks me to explain: “What’s vegan?”

Scene 3: When visiting a chain restaurant, the waiter reveals she’s also vegan, and she uses my modified order to talk with the manager about their menu, something she’d been wanting to do but was waiting for a customer to provide the rhetorical exigence.

These scenes depict some of the ways that when traveling and eating out, I inadvertently signal the importance of offering plant-based options. Such foods are linked with histories, cultural practices, and religious observances. For many people, myself included, eating vegan is an everyday spiritual practice, and recognizing it as such helps us move away from the language of “accommodations” and toward the necessity of offering food that works for everyone.

By simply asking for soy or almond milk, I hope to contribute to the normalizing of plant-based options. In turn, normalizing can help us rethink inherited and typified ways of doing things, or “business as usual.” Instead of keeping things the way they are, we can ask what is just and equitable for all people. We can ask:

What does it mean when food options work for some, but not all, community members?

Truly, food offerings indicate who belongs and who doesn’t. In workplaces or at conferences, for instance, when halal, kosher, vegetarian, and other dietary practices are not observed, then Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others are marginalized. Alternately, if meeting organizers offer and label food for a wide-reaching population, then community membership can also be conceived as wide-reaching.

Too often we think of food as “only food,” but food is socially constructed in relation to religion and other organizing social systems. When I ask for vegan + gluten-free options, I see myself de-marginalizing, normalizing, and working to make central foods that can be eaten by people with varied backgrounds, varied food sensitivities, and varied histories with food.

There’s potential within each interaction around food, as food can connect and deepen relations, just as it can fracture or reveal fissures within communities. So, one of the many reasons I’m vegan is that there’s power in everyday conversations and the everyday act of asking for vegan food.


This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Heart-Head-Hands.com. Feel free to check out other posts in the series “why I’m vegan” or vegan + gluten-free recipes. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!