“That crazy-ass English teacher was crying over some writer today.” I can imagine this was said by at least one of my students in my 5th period class the day Maya Angelou died. I remember catching my breath and walking to the huge poster of have of her on display in my classroom. WIth tears in my eyes, I told them one of my heroes had died. My 8th graders gave me typical responses – some were concerned, some laughed, some just stared.
“Miss, why did you like her so much?”
“Because she was the first poet to speak to me as a woman. She taught me about strength and struggle and joy.”
See, I once was a high school student whose literary diet consisted of mostly dead, white men. We gnawed on their words like sinewy chunks of meat, dissecting them until the flavor was gone. Poetry, especially, had become unpalatable drudgery, a force-feeding of vague and outdated notions of love and life.
And then I read Maya Angelou’s poetry.
Her words said what I couldn’t: the laughing joy of love, the meanings pressed between sighs and thighs, the careening heartbreak of separation, the howl of grief, the verbal fists raised against racism and the hypocrisy of the American Dream. When I was seventeen, all of these ideas were percolating in my life in so many ways: a first love who had to move back to Spain, friendships renewing, friendships decaying, my parents’ marriage disintegrating, noticing the inequalities around me in my small corner of Northeastern Pennsylvania and around the world.
Dr. Angelou was the first writer to show me the power of a woman’s voice. Yes, Emily Dickinson was delightful and her quirky, beautiful poetry was a welcome respite from the male-heavy literary cannon in my lit classes, and Angelou’s words had heft, and texture, and passion and hate and lust and anger. All of the ideas my teenage brain was just trying to figure out.
A few hours after finding out Dr. Angelou had passed, the universe sent me what I needed in the form of a simple email from my friend, Susan. Susan and I met in Peace Corps and even with life getting in the way as it often does with adult friendships, I still consider her a dear friend and mentor becuase she has taught me so much about taking chances, determination, success, and hospitality. Years ago, she and I had one of the most memorable conversations of my life, one where she assured me that feeling confused and overwhelmed in your mid-twenties was normal and I would be fine. She was right. In this particular email, Susan was responding to a message I sent to her about the arrival of her newborn son. I’d asked her about how she is managing her career and her new role as a mom, since if I become a mom, I’ll be an older mom, too. Here is part of her response:
“Every change in life is a step into the unknown — a new job, marriage, parenthood. They are all scary because they take us out of the comfort zone of our current lives. You ventured into a junior year in Spain, Peace Corps in Russia, moving to DC and then moving to PA, and you married Mike. Each of these decisions cuts off certain avenues in our lives, but then opens up others.”
These four sentences were what I needed. I’m at crossroads in my life and I needed that reminder to wade into the unknown again. I also needed her wisdom, whether she knew it or not.
Words written with intention and love from our wise sisters are so powerful. Our words are about sharing our experiences, our wisdom, our support. These are things Maya Angelou lived for. I’m so grateful to have phenomenal women like Susan in my life. To continue Angelou’s legacy, it’s important we honor and cherish the women in all of our lives and most importantly, we support our sisters as we reach for our dreams and sort out what life presents to us. Take the time this summer to write your phenomenal women (and men!) letters to tell them just what they mean to you.
I’d like to leave you with two of the bravest pieces I’ve read, ever. Follow these writers’ blogs and on Twitter. These women embrace the human experience, in all of its inconsistencies and joys and heartbreaks and belly laughs:
Let’s all write bravely in order to honor this phenomenal woman who taught us all about loving the span of our hips and the suns of our smiles.