Blessed by the Life and Legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou

IMG_4730I just finished watching the two-hour Memorial Service for the esteemed Dr. Maya Angelou held at Wake Forest University, thanks to our Time Warner Cable local TV station, Channel 14. I was recording it, planning to go up to the local Wake Forest (the town, not the university) Farmer’s Market, but I could not tear myself away from the screen. I was simply too moved to move.

 

 

IMG_4726 - Version 2 Cicely Tyson, Bill Clinton, Oprah, Michelle Obama, and others delivered eloquent tributes; singers praised the Lord and moved us to tears; her generous family spoke of sharing their beloved mother, aunt, cousin, grandmother, great-grandmother with the world. Wow. I have nothing to add. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Dr. Maya Angelou, for touching so very many lives. Thanks to her family for sharing this fine lady with the rest of us. Thank you, God, for loaning us the gift of Dr. Maya Angelou for 86 years, and for welcoming her home. May she rest in peace.IMG_4736IMG_4734IMG_4753

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“Soar Home, Maya Angelou. Rest in Peace.”

I Know Why The Caged Bird SingsI Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was my introduction to the concept of rape. I was mortified. Especially that it could happen to a girl younger than me. And to one who hadn’t even started her period. I was young enough when I read that book not to have started my own, but I knew that milestone was imminent. I was a bit afraid of being a girl then, vulnerable to what I perceived as a violation only possible for females to experience.

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was my introduction to the idea that mothers didn’t always take good care of their children. I was mystified. There were wicked stepmothers in fairy tales. There were orphans who never knew their mothers. There were mothers who died in childbirth or when their children were young. But I was naive at that age, presuming all living mothers loved their kids and, therefore, took good care of them. I was mighty glad then that God made grandmothers and that Maya and Bailey had such a wise, kind, respectable one of those to look after them. I worried about them when they were with their mother. I hated that boyfriend that raped Maya, whose death rendered her mute for a while. But I was glad when he was dead. And I was glad she had Bailey. I was glad I had a brother, too. Who knew when we might need each other? Maya Angelou in 1972

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings was my introduction to memoir, the genre I’ve always prefered to write. I’d read biographies. I’d read fiction. But I’d never read a true story that captivated me more, that wove the truth with suspense, that read like fiction. I devoured it. And when I’d finished, I clutched it to my chest and cried, not really even understanding the depth of the emotion I was feeling. I was simply moved to tears. The next day I turned back to page one and started rereading this important book. Any other book would have seemed … petty, inferior, would not have held my attention. I needed to reread this one. The writing was compelling. It affected the way I looked at the world, society, the times in which I was living, and my own white, female life. Maybe Maya Angelou’s classic is why I’ve always preferred writing memoir, having experienced at such an impressionable age, the power her personal narrative had on me, let alone a whole generation.

When I was a college student at UNC-Chapel Hill, I think I might have heard her speak. I know I heard Cicely Tyson, and I think perhaps Maya Angelou spoke there also, both having appeared recently in the TV mini-series, “Roots.” The program had taken the nation by storm, my own white but liberal household included. It was 1977 and I sat in our den on our shag carpet, leaning up against the olive-green corduroy sofa petting my dog, Buttons, while my mother and brother and I sat glued to each episode. Mom had been active in the Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina in the ’60’s and early ’70’s and I would graduate from the famous Little Rock Central High School the following year. I was drawn to the study of the social disparities of the day like a moth to the light. At Chapel Hill, I had access to many fascinating and thought-provoking lecturers, speakers, and professors. Maya Angelou’s childhood in Stamps, Arkansas intrigued me, and her books, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and We Are All Gathered Here, had made indelible impressions on me. If she came to speak in Chapel Hill between 1978 and 1982, I know I was in the audience.

Maya at Clinton's InnaugurationOf course I’ve heard her since in countless interviews on national television, at President Clinton’s inauguration, even on Sesame Street when my kids were young. And, today, on the day of her death, I have been drawn to Facebook posts and internet memorials, unable to work on my own memoir-in-progress that takes place here in North Carolina, the state which has been blessed to claim the amazing Dr. Angelou since 1982. Thanks to Maya, we know why the caged bird sings. Now, even as we mourn, we bless her as we throw open the doors of this earthly cage and release her into the glorious realm of heaven. Rest in peace, Maya Angelou, rest in peace.

 

 

Maya on Sesame St.

Fingernail Moons

Crescent-Moon My kids used to call crescent moons “fingernail moons.” When I see those luminous, thin, curved lines gleaming in a dark night sky, I smile, remembering Caroline’s delight at this original analogy. Back then, I was slim and had nice legs. Back then my bum was perky despite two pregnancies. Back then I wore short skirts and running shorts, not at all self conscious.

But something began happening at age forty. Doing laundry, the type on the clothing tags began to blur and I struggled to discern “tumble dry low” from “hang to dry.” At forty-five, I began to gain weight, especially around the middle. At fifty, well, let’s just say gravity really started playing cruel jokes with my body.

First to change were my arms. What used to look like triceps morphed into what my kids affectionately started calling “bye bye arms” — because “they look like they’re waving bye bye when you hold them up, Mama.” Vainly, I shied away from sleeveless shirts that revealed my flaccid arms, until hot flashes started drenching me in unannounced moments of torrential wetness and I practically stripped off my clothes wherever I was. Clearly I needed to dress in layers, with only the slightest of sleeveless shells next to my skin, even in winter. By that time, I didn’t much care about my bye bye arms.

Then one day while toweling dry after showering, I looked into the mirror at my naked body and it hit me where I’d seen such a sight before. I now resembled a disturbing image I’d accidentally discovered in a Playboy Magazine in the bottom of a basket in my granddaddy’s bathroom when I was just a girl. But not those of the fold-out variety. No, I looked just like a female cartoon character which had puzzled me at age ten. Not only had the joke itself escaped me back then, but I had questioned the talent of the cartoonist and how he (it had to have been a he) illustrated that woman’s elongated breasts. Years later, looking at the effect of gravity in my own reflection (when had this happened?!), I cackled out loud at the sudden “aha” moment. I lovingly gathered up my precious girls, one filling each cupped hand, and I thanked God I still had them, that I’d been able to nurse my two babies, that I’d survived breast cancer, and that I was happily married to an older man now. No matter how old my body gets, it will always be thirteen years younger than his.

Last weekend I was at the beach with my “bridge girls.” When our babies were little we played bridge. For the past fifteen to twenty years, however, those of us who are local get together once a month for dinner, drinks, and laughter — basically free therapy. Twice a year Connie flies back from Nashville, Susan returns from Phoenix, and we take a long weekend trip together, often to my little beach house. These are, we think, the equivalent of pricey therapeutic women’s retreats. I think this fall’s jaunt was our 51st trip, so you can imagine how comfortable we all are with one another, how accepting, yet lovingly candid. Well. Well.

We had loaded up my husband’s aluminum fishing cart with our sand chairs, beach towels, coolers with wine, peach daiquiris, Susan’s “wine coolies,” cheese and crackers, and bottled water (you know, for my dog). We were partway through solving the world’s problems when I got up and walked over to the cart to get more libations. Just when I leaned over to open the cooler my best friend of, count em, 35 years, burst out laughing.

I knew immediately what had set her off and I jerked straight up. I’d responded exactly the same way the week before when I’d been at a dental conference in Las Vegas with my husband. For some ungodly reason, every hotel room in Vegas seems to sport walls of mirrors, the spacious bathroom of our swanky hotel room notwithstanding. Bent over at the waist, drying my long hair with the loudly whirring, burnt smelling hotel hair dryer, admiring my still agile flexibility, my ability to touch the floor beyond even flat palms thanks to yoga, I peered out between the triangle of my straight, veiny naked legs. Without warning, my eyes suddenly caught sight of myself in the mirrored wall above the Jacuzzi tub across the room. Two pale “fingernail moons” peeked out at me — milky white crescents which had escaped the sun’s summer rays while the rest of my thighs had a nice, golden tan. Really? Really?!

I turned to Connie. “I know! I know! Isn’t that hysterical?!” I tried to cover my embarrassment. “I just got a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror at the hotel in Vegas last week and thought I would die!

“I’m sorry.” Connie tried to stifle her unfiltered outburst, not very successfully. “It’s just … it’s just you used to be …”

“I know, right? My what gravity does to us as we age.”

And in that moment, I let my pride go yet again, just like I had with the bye bye arms.

“Shatter”

July 8, 2013
Prompt: 15 min “Shatter”

Shatter
Shatter. Shatter the glass ceiling, we women were offered, encouraged to do when we were mere girls living in a man’s world. The 1960’s, ’70’s, a time when, every now and then, a brave soul would rise up to shatter the glass ceiling previously owned, dominated by men, our patriarchal society. We watched the first female astronaut, CEO, swimmer crossing some large body of water.
Ginny interviewing Geraldo Rivera 1977
Blacks, now called African-Americans, knew about shattering glass ceilings, too. We punched those white male dominated worlds together. Raised to fight for civil rights, to support the underdog, my mama identified glass ceilings, pointed out inequality, applauded the shattering. The shattering. Not with violence, glass shards flying everywhere. No, with firmness, sticking to your guns in the face of resistance, obeying the laws, but standing up to the systems she deemed unfair.

Little Rock Central High

Little Rock Central High


I thought I might be one to shatter some ceilings. Little Rock Central High honors poising me to shoot out into the world with gusto, a degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill preparing me for greatness. But I became a stay-at-home mom with two little girls to raise. Determined to stretch beyond the confines of homemaking, this undervalued, traditional role, I started my own PR and marketing consulting business on the side, working nights and weekends so I wouldn’t shirk my maternal duties. Superwoman, I became, my People Pleasing tendencies pushing, pushing, pushing me to do more, be more, give more.

Shatter. And then my world shattered. Slammed me down into the bed, the deep, dark cavern of ill-health I never expected, didn’t see coming, thought I was immune to, actually never even considered.

Now, twenty-three years later, my immune system weakened and so much of my life spent in medical appointments, not shattering any big, bad glass ceilings, my perspective changed, I can only strive to shatter what I perceive as small victories — performing normal daily chores with both shame and a sense of accomplishment: the dishwasher unloaded, the bills paid, the bank statement off by the same amount as last month and the month before, dare I add back in the $537 the bank says I have that my checkbook disagrees with? Combing back through the statements, the checkbook is just too much, just too much. It’ll be all right. I don’t think the world will shatter if I don’t find my error.