“I believe the most important single thing beyond discipline and creativity is daring to dare.” — Maya Angelou
I never met Maya Angelou, never hugged her, never kissed each cheek, never told her “thank you” in person. I hoped that I would someday, but knew that I would not, given her fragile health these past years.
Though I never met her, I considered her a mentor. More than a mentor, through her unique love and hope and creativity, she’s helped me believe in myself and my choices.
There was an interview with her that I found on YouTube many years ago, and in it she tells a story. The interviewer asks Angelou about her days working as a prostitute. The interview seems to have been deleted from YouTube, because I haven’t been able to find it for sometime. In lieu of posting that now lost interview, I am liberally paraphrasing Angelou in the following, but the story’s heart and main details remain intact:
“I was at a book signing for [her latest book] and there was a long line, going nearly around the block. It was during the day, and I noticed a girl in the line. She was obviously a working girl. Her nails were long and painted brightly, she had the false eyelashes, bright lipstick, her clothes were a working girl’s clothes, but there she was standing in line, probably after working most of the night, to have me sign her book. I smiled to her when she came to the front of the line. She handed me her book and said softly, ‘you give me hope.’ That’s it, right there. That’s the whole of life. If I gave this one girl hope, I knew I had done well during my life.”
Angelou’s voice broke as she recounted the story, and her eyes teared.
Angelou brightly shone her faith in life and love through selflessness, and, from what I have read and seen, she never buried the working woman’s narrative under shame, or lied about it. Of all the tales she could have told about her years as a prostitute, she chose this simple story of hope. I believe that some of Angelou’s strongest moments as a writer and a human confident in her creativity may have come specifically from her work experience, in which her originality, sexuality, and ability to love deeply were expressed.
Her poem “Phenomenal Woman” seems to me to have emerged from those years, for it is a singularly redemptive expression of self-worth, and the radiant power of the creative self in the world, no matter the world. Though the poem can be read as a black woman’s affirmation of herself against a white class system, I believe the poem touches on deeper themes and realities, and it seems more akin to Whitman’s “Song of Myself” in its spiritual orientation and celebratory grandeur. Whereas Whitman locates his epiphany’s source in nature (“The Leaves Of Grass”), Angelou boldly locates her epiphany in her own being and body. In its deceptively simple swagger, Angelou fearlessly seizes self-splendor, the shining self that we bring to the world, when we’re connected to the mystery in ourselves, the transcended self beyond limits, the self beyond the “I”. Her life’s wounds dictated that Angelou dive into a profound center of love and spiritual luminosity, and spiritual beauty exudes from the poem’s seductive details, a work of singular grace and inimitable style.
Angelou will teach for decades to come, her courage echoing as a celebratory song to those finding their own voices. This past week, bemoaning my proofreading shortcomings in ‘Simplify, Simplify, Simplify,’ Angelou encouraged me to love my writing, embrace it wholeheartedly, and continue confidently, without second guessing myself. For a few hours after my posting my entry, I remembered the following line: “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.”
Thank you, Maya Angelou. Two kisses, and a hug.
And thank you.