What Maya Angelou Knew
It is a gray and misty day, hovering somewhere between lovely and lonely. I am sitting on my train, riding into the city, as to my right the Hudson river looms, placid and colorless, doing its best imitation of a lake.
The edges of a river are one of my favorite places to dwell upon, the mix of industrial rot and fecund growth coming together to create what is, to me, a most fitting analogy of the human condition. We cannot separate the death from the life, the waste from the blessing, the joy from the pain; these things are forever intertwined, and how we grapple with, deny or accept this truth, defines the shape of our lives.
No one knew this as much as Maya Angelou, whose work and words in her lifetime carved glacial paths in our collective consciousness that would have, could have taken centuries for us to come to know. She wrote of the ugliness of sexual abuse, rape, racism, poverty, with an open candor and dignity that is still breathtaking and new. Even the title of her first important work, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings" embraces the full arc of her beliefs: that the human spirit must prevail, through whatever pain, horrors, evil, and neglect is heaped upon it.
And I just learned of her passing, while on this train ride, through this landscape of juxtaposition and glory. I am awestruck by how deeply I feel this loss, of how indebted I know I am to her voice and personal power. She was a rare and stunning combination of pain and strength, of sense and emotion. I was and will forever be comforted by how she managed to live all sides of herself, and show them freely.
I still feel the bifurcation of my self, though the work I do in my writing is slowly erasing this artificial division, the division between "success" and ache, between fear and confidence, the gap between knowing what I must do and yet failing to do it. Dr. Angelou's word encompassed these eternal tensions, and she made me understand they were as natural as verdant springtime, as inevitable as empty, dark winter.She helped me see—and accept—my humanity. Which has made me a better writer, person, mother, friend, leader, daughter, sister, healer. And it is work that is never, ever done, if you are doing it right.
It would be easy to quote Dr. Angelou's gorgeous words and challenging statements about standing up and taking life at face value. There will be many, many quotes to read and love and like and favorite on social media and in the news today.
But please, please, please, honor her work and her memory and her bravery by diving into her work, to let her douse you in the river of being, to light your soul with the fire of indignation, to soothe your ache with the eternal truth of justice and dignity. Her writing was a critical beginning in paving the way for the power of story, before "story" became a buzzword.
For Maya Angelou, story was always, and obviously, the simplest way to tell the truth, the mighty truth of all we cannot know, and all we must continue to strive to understand, accept, and be.
The greatest art of all.
Thank you, Dr. Angelou. May hundreds of voices rise in the absence of yours, and continue to sing your song.