I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Maya Angelou over the past 30 hours or so since I read the report on her passing.
For some of us, there can be a desire within us to pay tribute to someone who influenced our lives, even if it is after the fact or something we fear will never reach the ears of those its meant for.
I choose to write of her, and for her, as my tribute to a life well-lived.
I grew up in a small New Hampshire town, fortunate in my family and finances. No sob story of any magnitude to be found in my childhood. No background of struggle that would lend to identifying with a life so affected by adversity and pain. So what happened when I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? Did I complain about it being boring required reading? Put up a fight that it was outdated or dull? Nope. Not once. I was blown away. I was moved. I was furious, hurt and scared. I was proud and then I was empowered. I connected with young Maya, with our shared love of the power of words and I felt her pain. I felt her anguish. How could I possibly feel that I could see so clearly through the eyes of someone so removed from my own life experiences? What right had I to feel like I could understand? Me, with my so-called-life and her, a vision of courage and strength?
Herein then lies, for me, the magic of Ms. Maya Angelou. She possessed the incredible ability to reach through the circumstances of anyone’s life, grab them by the heart and pull them directly into her writing. It didn’t matter where I came from, or what color my skin was, whether I was a boy or a girl or an adult. The burning desire of freedom from injustice can be felt by any human; if one can manage to pull back the curtain of differences that separate us and get right to the heart of it.
We are more alike, than unalike.
What is most often remembered about any incredibly influential author are the soundbites, the short quips and quotes that define a legacy. Ms. Angelou has hundreds, shared and re-shared across social media like wildfire over the past two days. And yet, are these the most profound words ever written? Maybe, but maybe not. Do they dazzle with complexity and mastery of language? Actually, they don’t. They are simple. Some of them are quite raw. But these words contain more power than literary prowess.
Maya Angelou understood how to turn her words into a mirror, so that each sentence became a reflection of your own knowledge. She could reveal to the reader truths held as self-evident, merely dormant, waiting to be uncovered.
A quick Google search presents two of her most oft-quoted idioms:
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
I find it difficult not to clench a fist and exult an emphatic “YES!” after reading these sentences. Because I understand them in my heart to be true. I’ve always known them to be true. Ms. Angelou reveals to us the wisdom we hold in our own hearts and allows us to move into the space to embrace these truths and apply them to live a path we are proud of.
I have always respected Maya Angelou for her courage. I respect her for her wisdom. For her passion. But what I appreciate now is how much she has influenced my life, helping me find my strength as a woman, teaching me to ignore the comments of others seeking to belittle my choices. What I have come to know is how she believed in me. She believed that a little girl in a small town could understand the adversity she faced throughout her life, regardless of the perceived gap between us. She believed that I would find her messages reflected in my own heart and use them to shape my journey through my own life.
I remember reading her poetry aloud in a middle school performance, clad as Harriet Tubman, in unison with girl friends of mine filling the roles of other notable women through history.
I am a Woman
I have learned much from this sage author, and I continue to find truth in her words today. I’m sure I always will. Her wisdom in words have been a gift to me, and the only way I feel I can show my gratitude is to continue in her medium. Ms. Angelou: Here are some of my own words to interpret one of your lessons.
To know another person’s struggle separates you from the person you are, thus revealing the path to the person you’re meant to be.
Thank you for the guiding light: past, present and future.