Hero. Icon. Trailblazer. Activist. Storyteller. Poet. Dancer. Singer. Speaker. Inspiration.
There are many words that describe Maya Angelou and since her passing yesterday, not one seems to capture her essence. She lived a life and influenced generations with her words and passion. Physically, she is described as having a warm smile, and having a significant presence. Inconsequentially, she was six feet tall.
The first time I read any of her books was for a Women in Literature class. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captured my attention and I finished it long before the assignment was due. Over the years that followed, I absorbed her poetry and her stories. Her voice reading “On the Pulse of the Morning” came over the radio as I sat on a bus going to school, the driver had turned it up to hear it better. I rode two extra stops so I could listen until she finished.
Her words touched me, made me believe in myself, a too-tall, shy girl who was a writer in my heart. I hadn’t learned what it meant to become a phenomenal woman, but I wanted to, especially as I towered awkwardly around my cute friends. I didn’t have her history; my childhood in a small California beach town was a world away from hers growing up in Chicago and Arkansas, but I didn’t need it. Her words in her books and in poems like “And Still I Rise” made me appreciate her hard childhood and her strength. If this prolific, beautiful woman could love herself – her size and strength, then perhaps I could learn to do the same. This incredible woman became one of my role models as I struggled to find my words, to find my way, to find my balance and embrace my similar six-foot height.
A few years later, employed and on my very first work trip, I had a chance to meet her.
For once I was left speechless as Maya Angelou held my hand in both of hers. I’d interrupted her small but lively dinner group at the Chicago O’Hare airport hotel. They were celebrating after the launch of the Oprah book club. Her book was to be the first book, the book that started it all. The only words I could manage to say was, “Thank you…thank you.”
Me, still a young secret writer who had read all of her books and who daily was exploding with words that had no purpose. Her, with a lifetime lived, a history and world changed, and more words, passion and love than I’ve ever seen in one person. Her soft hands clasped mine and held on, her eyes didn’t let me go. She took my thanks and said, “no dear, thank you. Thank You. Thank You.” with a smile that made me feel like she had hugged me, one that I could still see through my sudden tears. Her warmth, sincerity and strength I still remember and appreciate years later.
She was more than a tall woman, she was larger than life with her passion and accomplishments. She taught me what is possible when you dream and what can be possible when you try. She taught me women can be strong and still be women. She taught me women can be very tall and still be sexy, confident and unapologetic. She taught me to trust my words and to share them. She taught me all of this and more.
Rest in Peace, Maya Angelou. Thank you.
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
– Maya Angelou 1928 – 2014