Like many people, I was deeply saddened to hear of the death of Maya Angelou this week. Her voice – both her speaking voice and her literary one – were unique, rich and resonant. I’ve always wondered if God did not grant her such a special voice in order to make up for all the years she didn’t speak, the story she recounts in her classic, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
I had the great fortune of hearing Ms. Angelou speak in person a number of years ago. I still have the notes from that evening. One thing she said was that each of us was a teacher: we were all teaching those around us by the way we lived our lives. She challenged us to make sure that we were good teachers, to show others what it meant to live a good life. It is safe to say that she herself was a good teacher.
Michael Hyatt does a nice job of summarizing some of the most important lessons Maya Angelou taught us. First, she taught us that faith in God was the source of courage:
When I found that … I was a child of God,” Angelou told an interviewer about her faith, “when I understood that, when I comprehended that … when I internalized that, I became courageous. I dared to do anything that was a good thing.”
Maya Angelou (like any poet) sought excellence. For her, excellence was not about money or fame, but about love. “Pursue the things you love doing,”she said, “and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.” We all know passion and excellence when we see it.
She also knew a thing or two about work. Much of her early life was a struggle, and it taught that work was both necessary and good.
Being a natural writer is like being a natural concert pianist who specializes in Prokofiev!” she said during a talk at Johns Hopkins. “To write well one works hard at understanding the language. I believe it’s almost impossible to say what you mean and make someone else understand.”
Ms. Angelou’s life is not one that instantly inspires confidence: she was abused as a child, abandoned by her mother, was as dirt-poor as one could get, had a baby out-of-wedlock and was seriously impaired when it came to picking good men. But she was optimistic.
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Optimism puts us in control of negative events. Sometimes the only thing we can control is our reaction. And refusing to let the tragic and unfortunate get the upper hand is the best response if we want to rise above.
Finally, Ms. Angelou knew when to step out of not only her comfort zone, but the comfort zone others had created for her. Fellow writer James Baldwin once said that if you wanted Maya Angelou to do something, tell her it wasn’t possible. She would rise to the occasion. In fact, her editor, Robert Loomis, was trying to get her to write her memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, not as a biography, but as literature. He told her it simply wasn’t possible. Her response, “I’ll start tomorrow.”
For a time, I soaked in Maya Angelou’s words and poetry. I could always hear her voice rolling of each syllable, making music of each word. She taught me many lessons about a life that mattered, the life of a phenomenal woman:
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman