Adding my 2 cents to the outpouring of love and stories that are flowing in the wake of Maya Angelou’s death this week.
I first “met” Maya Angelou when she appeared on Bill Moyer’s Creativity special on PBS. The Cooperman’s were not a TV watching family; from the time I was a kid, parameters were set on how much television we could watch, and it wasn’t much: just two hours a week. There were exceptions: good educational programming (to a pre-teen, read: booring!), the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz, and Cinderella with Lesley Ann Warren and Celeste Holm, and we also got to see the Apollo land on the moon, and the NY Mets win the ’69 World Series. If we managed to get up before our folks on Saturday morning we could sneak in some cartoons or the LSD-like wackiness of Syd and Marty Croft. But those were exceptions.
So when my father sat me down to watch this show with him, I knew it was a BIG DEAL, even though I didn’t know why.
I can’t remember what year it was, but I was at a horrible stage in middle school or junior high when – as a tall, lanky girl with boobs (real obvious ones too. the guys-staring-and-snickering, girls-teasing kinda boobs) – while the rest of my classmates (and my older sister) were short, cute and with no real chests to speak of - I’d begun to feel awkward, strange and terribly out of place in the world.
And then I “met” Maya.
Tall and powerful, Maya had endured huge personal challenges during equally challenging times in US history, yet here she stood (still i rise, she said): a poet, writer, actor, dancer, teacher … and I was just fascinated.
The way she spoke – the cadence of her voice — and the way she persevered and forged her own path in so many different worlds: entertainment, writing, politics, feminism — that I, a blonde, lower-middle-class Jewish girl in the suburbs of New Jersey felt a kindred to this older, once poor, struggling black woman from Stamps, Arkansas, and she became a touchstone of hope, power and strength for me.
I bought I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and each one of her autobiographies after that (i still describe happy times as “singin’ and swingin’ and gettin’ merry like christmas” – the title of her 3rd autobiography). I then moved on to her books of poetry; I devoured whatever she wrote.
So when I heard that she was going to speak at my college my senior year, I was beyond excited. I was rock-star excited.
I loved Kenyon – a small liberal arts college set on an idyllic campus in the middle of farm country in Ohio – but my entire experience there wasn’t always idyllic. I had some tough times during my four years and I vacillated between a growing self-understanding and confidence, and a comparison habit that kept a low-grade anxiety and depression always threatening to grab hold. By the time my senior year rolled around, I was pretty happy (way better than the year before when i’d had my first bout with real depression), but my nerves about “what are you doing after college” were starting to creep in, and I was worried that the tentacles would take me down again.
For some reason, none of my closest friends wanted to go to the lecture, so I headed to Rosse Hall alone. I arrived early so I could get a good seat: house right, down front, on the aisle, and waited for the house to fill.
I don’t remember all the details of her talk, but I remember my excitement to actually SEE her in person. To be in her presence and hear her talk live. And I remember the feeling of recognition, delight, and longing she lit within me – as she did the first time I’d seen her on the Bill Moyer’s special.
When she recited Phenomenal Woman, she spread her arms wide and filled the whole hall with her bigness, grace and power; I was completely transfixed.
I was so moved by the talk and her presence, I remained in my seat after it was over and everyone was filing out of the hall; I just wanted to stay in that energy as long as I could. She was joined by someone on the stage – who was obviously a friend, and some folks from the college, and they just stood talking for a while. When they started gathering up to leave, instead of walking toward the side door next to the stage, she walked down into the hall and right up the aisle toward me.
And then she stopped.
At my seat.
“Did you like the talk?” she asked. I could barely speak for the shock and excitement, but I managed to stand up and squeak out “Oh, yes.” She talked with me for a minute and god help me, I can’t remember a word she said, until the moment when she reached out and put her arms on my shoulders, leaned down just a little bit to look right into my eyes, and with that beautiful lilting voice of hers smiled and said: “Be happy.” She hugged me (ohmygodohmygodohmygod, i was thinking and crying as it was happening), and then she smiled, tilted her head in a way that seemed to telegraph: Good? then touched my shoulder again and lightly smiled before she turned and walked out the hall, leaving me feeling blessed by a true Goddess or Fairy Godmother.
It was just a couple of moments. But big, generous amazing moments. So brief and so wonderful. Probably nothing much for her, but huge for me. That this graceful, amazing, giant of poetry and compassion saw me sitting there – saw something – and took the time to come over, chat briefly - but so generously – and hug me … and shine some light on a funked up girl-woman in the middle of Ohio getting ready to launch into the unknown.
And, try as I have over the years, it’s hard to articulate just how much this meant to me – how much it inspired me at a time when I needed inspiration – but today I had to try.
Still, I think this poem of hers says it better than I ever could.
When Great Trees Fall
By Maya Angelou
When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down
in tall grasses,
and even elephants
lumber after safety.
When great trees fall
small things recoil into silence,
eroded beyond fear.
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
Great souls die and
our reality, bound to
them, takes leave of us.
dependent upon their
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed
and informed by their
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.