"Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God." - Maya Angelou
I am inspired to write my story. It is with choked back and confused tears that I release, as though slowly expelling the oxygen from a deep yoga breath, my story. The tears are in part due to my sadness at the passing of Maya Angelou today. What a terrible way to rise, to the text of a knowing boyfriend bearing the news of her death.
What she meant to me I cannot quite describe even to myself now that I know my sorrow at her being gone. No, I cannot describe how her truth sometimes told me the story of myself with different characters and settings. She began to unweave that scrupulously intricate story of a beautiful, complicated and pregnant South, smoking and separated by segregation. The birthplace of soul and a breeding ground for prejudice, Maya lived it. First hand, she walked through that part as a little girl with a deeply strong Grandmother who had to fight for something as small as her granddaughter’s right to dental work for a hurting tooth because of the skin color to which it was attached.
She lived it and now I’ll never be able to write her a letter. Another reason for tears, an author who has meant more to me that any other, and I was too late. I fantasized for years about a perfectly grammar-ed letter via cute typewriter, and true to my young naiveté, I blew it, I suppose. Better late than never :
Are you a Miss? I do not know. I should have done better homework on the present life of someone who I esteem so highly for their past. Your story, oh your story, I can’t even begin…I can’t fully articulate the importance of your story in my life. Your fiery mother I wished to be mine, your badass defense of your son, Guy, in a violent New York, fighting fire with fire, your bravery in tastefully dancing for a Burlesque; your words. Your words, I ate those beautiful sentences on the 1 train running down the Upper West Side and still seem to be digesting them in a less rhythmic but more soulful Nashville. Your stories from Stamps to San Francisco to New York to Venice to Africa, they dance like a musical vignette in my head, a red ribbon of your pride and honesty weaving its way through each colorful square of film.
Maya, I am so sad. I am so sad to lose someone I never met. You speak in your books of the true and open friendships you had with artists and writers and diplomats and neighbors and coworkers. How you welcomed them into your home over hot and painstakingly made food paired with meticulously mixed cocktails. These dinner parties that you held across the world. I overheard these stories as a fly on the wall, thirsting for more and partaking in the connection by proxy. When visiting San Francisco last year, I insisted upon walking down the streets that you describe in your books and I felt you there. I felt your heavy and proud footsteps on the way to that record store where you met a handsome sailor while listening to Charlie Parker. I reveled in your history and courage conducting a cable car, picturing your Mother bravely driving you in the dark morning hours to prove an important point. I feel your knowing over a strong cup of coffee when there is nothing else to be done and romanticized your season as a nightclub singer in Paris.
In a way, you taught me to live. You gave me a better perspective of the soil on which I was raised. Your conversations about culture and art and education and your joy in lapping up all that proved interesting as though taking your first drink from a well, that changed me.
On a dirty subway riding beneath my cranky and bustling and wonderful Manhattan, I read The Heart of A Woman and my eyes lit and sparkled as a 21-year-old coming of age story heroine, saying and doing all the things that you were doing in my imagination. This was during some serious heartbreak in my life, and I was profoundly relieved that it was okay for you in all of those confusing times, because it made it okay for me in mine.
Thank you for proving that you can be irreverent and holy, sexy and untouchable, both found and lost. This tiny white girl from Tennessee with roots unfortunately deeply embedded in a Birmingham racism thinks of you every day already, and probably more now that you’re gone. Bravo, Ms. Angelou, and still I rise.
Very best and so much love,
(please forgive all the grammar atrocities)