by Alice Walker
Expect nothing. Live frugally
become a stranger
To need of pity
Or, if compassion be freely
Take only enough
Stop short of urge to plead
Then purge away the need.
Wish for nothing larger
Than your own small heart
Or greater than a star;
Tame wild disappointment
With caress unmoved and cold
Make of it a parka
For your soul.
Discover the reason why
So tiny human midget
Exists at all
So scared unwise
But expect nothing. Live frugally
I was planning to write this post about graduation speeches, and I’m still planning to get to that, but right now I’m thinking about my daughter Lizzie, whose graduation was the occasion for this poem-elfing, and whose present whereabouts have me thinking about the poem entirely differently. Lizzie is in Cameroon, Africa for a month. I hear from her every couple of days, a few texted phrases about the heat, the rains, the mud, the lush green hills, the beauty of the children she meets, the likelihood of getting diarrhea. She’s tagging along with a crew that includes a dentist and an ophthalmologist, visiting villages to distribute the luxuries of toothbrushes, reading glasses and dental exams. Later, in a Cameroonian version of Call the Midwife, that wonderful BBC television series, Lizzie will be shadowing midwives who are also nuns, and living in a convent with them. Like the nuns in the BBC show, these nuns attend to the poor, to mothers who could not imagine creating a birth plan or getting to make the choice between a water delivery in a plastic baby pool and an epidural in a hospital bed.
If I had originally intended “Expect Nothing” to be a counterpoint to the world-is-your-oyster stuff of graduation speeches (you can see where I’m going with this), now I see how the poem operates on the assumption that oysters are readily available for consumption. Two weeks ago Lizzie filed into a graduation arena among peers for who take only enough is one of many lifestyle choices, and now she’s living among people who truly expect nothing.
So this poem becomes a luxury too. Because being able to make choices about how to live is a luxury of first world countries.
Speaking of choices, and getting back to graduation, a short film about David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College was going viral on blogs and Facebook until it was recently removed by the David Foster Wallace Trust. Too bad because it was a well-done excerpt from a great speech about the work of choosing. Post-college life, Wallace says, is full of “boredom, routine, and petty frustration.” The measure of education is how we choose to look at those tedious moments, how we can transcend frustration if we become more aware and less automatic in our responses, perhaps turning our eye to our “mystical oneness” with people who annoy us. It’s an inspiring speech for graduates (read the full text here, please, it’s great), but it’s heartbreaking too. As I read along, I kept wishing his own words had inspired him in his darkest hour. The popularity of the speech three years after his death brings me to another poem, his ex-lover Mary Karr’s “Suicide’s Note: An Annual” which has these lines:
I just wanted to say ha-ha, despite
your best efforts you are every second
alive in a hard-gnawing way for all who breathed you deeply in
The speaker at my daughter’s graduation, Twitter CEO and former comedian Dick Costolo, gave a more conventional speech, and that’s not a criticism. Most graduation speeches satisfy audiences in the same way Thanksgiving dinners do: by giving a good-enough version of what’s expected. We expect to hear, and if the speaker is charming and brief, we’re delighted to hear, a few nuggets of our collective cultural wisdom: follow your dreams, make your own path, give back, be grateful, the future is yours, live in the present, say yes, make mistakes, do work you love, do good work, thank your parents, eat whole foods.
Costolo was better than good enough, he was excellent, really funny with a compelling personal narrative and a solid message about making courageous choices and staying in the moment.
I put Alice Walkers’ “Expect Nothing” on the entrance to the stadium where graduation was held. Like any good graduation speech (not that Walker intended the poem to be one) the poem opens with an attention grabber. Expect nothing. If you skim the poem and separate the directives from the modifying phrases, it becomes a depressing if realistic guide for graduates burdened by debt and shrinking job prospects. Expect nothing, live frugally, take only enough, stop short. You can almost hear a mother of a certain generation or a certain personality type saying similar things to her children—be tough, don’t get your hopes up—all the while hoping silently in her heart that her children have the best of everything.
Which is the hope offered in the poem. Through a series of wonderful aphorisms (my favorite: Wish for nothing/larger than your own small heart), Walker suggests that anyone asking the big question—why are we here?—can have a big, big life, as big as a star.
Poet Alice Walker was born in 1944 in Georgia, the youngest of eight children. Her father was a sharecropper, her mother a maid. When she was eight, her brother accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun. Because the family didn’t own a car, it was a week before she got to the doctor, and she became blind in one eye. She went to Spelman College on a full scholarship, then transferred to Sarah Lawrence. She met Martin Luther King, Jr. as a student and was inspired to join the civil rights movement. She and her ex-husband, civil rights lawyer Melvyn Rosenthal, became the first legally married inter-racial couple in Mississippi. The harassment they faced makes it easy to understand why she advises, Stop short of the urge to plead.
Her 1982 bestseller The Color Purple was made into a movie and a musical. She’s written seven novels, several collections of short stories, essays, children’s books, and poetry. She’s won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship. She continues her work as a political activist.