When I was a kid, after Saturday chores were done, I was allowed to go “bike riding”. Bike riding usually meant taking off on my bike and riding to wherever I found myself for an entire afternoon. Times were different back then if you were a trustworthy kid. You could take off on your bike unsupervised safely as long as you stayed within the specified area.
Sometimes I would toss a peanut butter and honey sandwich and an apple in my bike basket and armed with my library card and a few quarters in my pocket for a soda, I’d take off . I’d ride around my neighborhood, visiting my favorite neighborhood dogs and their owners or sometimes exploring beyond; new streets, discovering new parks to ride in, new places to experience.
More often than not though , I’d ride the few miles to our neighborhood library and get lost in words and new and different worlds, surrounded by the scent of well-read pages and the sound of librarian’s skirts whooshing around their nylon clad knees as they answered questions in hushed, friendly tones. Libraries were my solace and my escape back then; comforting with their stillness; the books they housed, my friends and confidants. I would comb the stacks, pulling the titles that appealed to me and diving in to Chapter One.
It was on one of these Saturdays, that I spied “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” and pulled it off the shelf. I sat down at a table and spent the rest of the afternoon reading it. I finished it, checked it out and took it home. I read it over and over, and at 12 years old I was empowered. I knew I was not alone in my deepest thoughts and darkest secrets. Her words and wisdom provided light and eased my young, confused and conflicted soul and comforted my bruised and broken heart in later years.
I have read nearly everything published by Maya Angelou. Her autobigraphies, her memoirs, her essays, her poetry. The stories she shared about her life have provided me with hope, inspiration and motivation throughout my entire life. She gave me my love and passion with poetry. Passages from her memoirs have come back to me as I wade through the muddy spots in the road. Her resolve to not only survive but thrive gave me my desire to move past surviving life and into living it. Her strength, her hope and her perseverance provided me with a role model when there so few accessible to me.
Through her work, she taught me about language and the profound significance of words- why they are so important to me. I once had the opportunity to hear her recite Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I A Woman” during an interview in a documentary about women’s history and on it’s tail she recited her own poem, Phenomenal Woman. It was clear how much she loves English, how she relishes the spoken word. We need language. We need the words on the page, the words on the screen and the words in ears. I really love language. I love it for the way it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and the delicacies of our existence, what it does for us. It allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit, show humor. Her writing taught me how to wrestle words to the ground and bring them into focus; her talent taught me to tease language, to work with it, make it sing- make it seem like it wasn’t reading at all.
She taught me that I know when it’s the best I can do, whether I am writing, creating visual art, even living my life and that it’s okay that it may not be the best there is. Someone else may do it much better. But her writing, her dance, her song and her life taught me that I know when it’s the best I can do. And I know now, with confidence and resolution that one of the greatest talents that an artist can develop is the art of of saying, ‘No. I’m finished. I’m done. Bye.’ -then leaving it alone and letting it be what it is. I’ve learned not write the life out of it. I will not write it into the ground. I just don’t do it. And don’t ask me how I know this. Creativity is greater than the sum of its parts and I don’t think we’ll ever completely dissect it. I don’t want to. I don’t know that we should. All I want to know is that creativity is there; the how or why of it doesn’t concern me.
Without ever meeting her, Maya Angelou taught me these things by putting pen to paper in a hotel room devoid of all art and distractions, on a made-up bed with, a dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus, yellow pads, an ashtray, a Bible and a bottle of sherry to celebrate the words “The End”.
And so today, on the day of her passing, I lit a candle on my ancestor altar and allowed myself to become choked up with emotion and as I wrote this blog post, my eyes filled with tears. Not tears of sorrow but tears of gratitude and the overwhelming enormity of what one poor, black girl accomplished with her life and what she threw back into the world. Amazing. Breathtaking. Phenomenal.
As I watch the single white candle burn strongly and merrily in her memory, if I drank sherry, I would drink a lot to celebrate “The End” with her.