"When it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds..."
One afternoon, back in 2007, when I was a junior in college, I was sitting alone on a bus after dropping my then long-distance boyfriend off at the airport. After a few minutes, a stranger filled the empty seat next to me and asked, "Why so sad, pretty girl?" Oh great, I sarcastically thought to myself. It's a talker who is not only disrupting my much-wanted silence, but he's disrupting it with the words ''pretty girl." It caused me to suddenly eye the seat across the aisle. I didn't want to answer his question. I wanted to tell him to leave me alone and let me drown in the misery of missing my boyfriend, but what came out instead was a slightly forced smile accompanied by a mutter of "Oh, nothing. I'm just tired." "Well that's just a pity ain't it?" was his response. His second question proved two things: This guy wasn't moving and he wasn't letting me off the conversational hook. It seemed I had no choice but to accept this and it surprisingly led to a memorable exchange of words throughout the bus trip.
He went on to ask me if I was a student, what school I attended and what I was studying. After telling him I wanted to be a writer and someday publish a book about some experiences I've been through, he seemed impressed and excitingly asked, "Who's your favorite writer?" My answer came without a moment of hesitation. "Maya Angelou" I responded. "I'd really love to meet her one day." We talked about Dr. Angelou's long line of work and her influence in the writing community. As the bus ride came to an end and we parted ways, the stranger, who turned out to be a kind and smart man, wished me luck in all my endeavors and said, "I'll be on the lookout for your book in bookstores and as part of Oprah's book club in the future!" I smiled a genuine smile this time and thanked him.
Seven years later in the present day, I'm happy to say I'm currently in the process of writing the book I've always wanted to write, but I'm also saddened because I never did get to meet my favorite writer. Since her passing at the end of May, the grief expressed for Dr. Angelou from all around the world has been constant. Many high-profile people ranging from Oprah to J.K. Rowling to Cyndi Lauper have said nothing but kind and gentle words in her memory. Since she has touched my life in so many ways, it seemed appropriate to honor her in the best way I know how. So, this blog post is dedicated to her.
Maya Angelou was one of the greatest writers and one of the most essential human beings of our time. So what can be said about her that hasn't been said before? Not a whole lot. However, the point of this post is not about trying to say something different or outstanding. It's about honoring one of my most influential role models by sharing my own personal story of inspiration. Dr. Angelou always said she was not a writer who liked to teach, but a teacher who liked to write. No matter what you considered her title to be, she certainly went on to use both outlets as a way to make her mark on the world. From the first words of her debut autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I could already see not only exquisite writing, but also an inspiring reflection of myself in the form of a nervous tongue-tied little girl cast under a dark shadow of ridicule and humiliation.
You see, Dr. Angelou's voice was a very powerful force for the African American community, but she also had an amazing ability to affect people of all races including me -a young, white girl born 56 years after her in New England. Although I haven't had to go through the same racial struggles she often wrote about, I have gone through similar struggles both as a little girl and as a human being. In her first book, her depictions of herself as an embarrassed young girl struggling to remember her words during a poetry reading in church and as a traumatized young girl who "lost her voice" after being raped at eight years old caused me to remember my own challenge as a little girl with a social anxiety disorder called selective mutism. Although the disorder is caused by inherited anxiety and not a traumatic event, I also often struggled to find my own words in a classroom full of children just waiting to capitalize on my fear. My lack of a voice in certain social settings as a child was due to fear of possibly saying the wrong thing and in turn, being condemned. Dr. Angelou's lack of a voice as a child was also due to fear of possibly saying the wrong thing and in turn, causing harm to others. I felt her pain, her vulnerability and through the beauty of her vivid descriptions and her ability to jump out and touch my heart in the brief minutes of reading those passages, I felt like I had a friend.
She seemed to be a friend to all of us. In her 86 years on this Earth, she exhibited not only a genuine quality of hope in a sometimes hopeless world, but an exuberant amount of strength in a black illusion of weakness solidified by an ancestry full of never ending bigotry. Her words reflect such an honest indication that we often have to shield our eyes from reading for fear of her fearless truth. She taught us that it is only when we look despair dead in the face that we have the ability to see the one way out is not to freeze our halt, but to continue going through with our hearts. And go through she did. Again and again and again in every waking, struggling moment of her extraordinary life. Like the sun, she rose every morning with her eyes set on a welcomed challenge of the unknown.
Her philosophy of life could be summed up in one of her many well-known quotes: "If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." To have an attitude of gratitude is often overlooked in such a privileged generation, yet it is one of the most important characteristics needed to obtain a fulfilling and happy life. Dr. Angelou's graceful way of embracing the many consequences of life has allowed many people to take a step back, reexamine what is in front of them and fit it into the bigger picture. There is always a bigger picture waiting to be seen in the stimulating journey of life.
Another important trait she has taught me about is courage. She believed it was the most important virtue to obtain. "Without courage," she said, "we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can't be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest." Throughout her life she displayed courage in many forms. She became a single mother at the age of seventeen and worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight against racism. Her courage was always at the forefront of her legacy.
Dr. Angelou has been an inspiration to me since I was a teenager, but never has her inspiration touched me like it does today. At a time when I'm learning what my role is in this world and how to become the person I was meant to be, I find myself living by her words with every thoughtful action I take. Her presence at this pivotal moment in my life is proof that what she left behind is bigger than any tangible book. Her spirit has soared above and beyond her already warm demeanor into a radiance of light that illuminates the world's infinite sky. She has paid her dues and paved the way for the next generation which is something she so often stressed the importance of. She opened my eyes and helped me to see that it's my responsibility to live my life not for myself, but for those who come after me. Living is about giving and what Dr. Angelou has given to those who have come after her is nothing short of spectacular.
Two of the best pieces of advice I've gained from Dr. Angelou are contained in the video below. They are:
1. Be a rainbow in someone's cloud. Life is full of dark, cloudy moments, but we can all be kind to one another by casting out those clouds and letting the bright colors of our soul shine out to others from within.
2. Bring your own rainbows -everyone that's ever been kind to you (dead or alive)- with you whenever you have something important to do. This is how we can draw strength and confidence through our own self love and the love and kindness of others. Love always conquers fear and with love, we are never alone.
I want to thank Dr. Angelou for her grace and her many words of wisdom. She has helped me strive to become my own version of a phenomenal woman and understand that the true heart of a woman can only be known when she reaches inside her core being and listens to that internal compass seeking to guide her in the right direction. For this, I am forever grateful.
I conclude with this final quote from Dr. Angelou: "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." Thank you, Dr. Angelou for making me feel like my own voice matters in the most significant way. Your beautiful soul can rest with the literary angels now and rise like never before.
* Credit to David Schram for the rainbow photo included in this post. Thank you!