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

IMG_4729

IMG_4745IMG_4730

Advertisements

“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.

“A gentle heart …”

Prompt: 15 minutes: “A gentle heart….”

A Gentle Heart

A gentle heart is what I have sometimes, what I show to the world. I hide the dark part of my heart, my soul processing shameful feelings secretly, purging them of any power over me. The self-doubt, the insecurities, the grief, depression, desperation, feelings of futility, despair.

I breathe. Deeply. Remember to do as I’ve been taught — let those darker images pass, like clouds on a windy day. Breathe in love, breathe out fear. Fill myself up with so much love, so much light; breathe out any resistance, any darkness, any remnant of any fear. Cultivate a loving heart, a  compassionate heart, a gentle heart.

me at 3-4In my mind I picture a little me, about three or four years old, and I take that little girl in her handsewn powder blue light cotton nightgown onto my lap, wrap my strong, warm arms around her. “Shhh…,” I say. “It is all alright. I’ve got you now. You can relax, just be.” And I clutch that little Ginny to my breast so I can hear my own heartbeat. It slows, beats steadily, then more quietly, strong but reassured as I relax and relearn to just be.

Be, like a perfect newborn, no expectations, so no disappointments. Inherently worthy. Without. Doing. Anything.IMG_7921

So hard, sometimes, to remember I am still this perfect child of God, even with all my imperfections. I am not Jesus Christ! I don’t have to be perfect to be worthy! As a matter of fact, that is the Easter message, as I prepare my heart during this Lenten season, opening myself again and again to the abundant grace of God.

A gentle heart. Thank God God has a gentle heart for all Her children. I crawl up into the lap of God and listen to the steady beating of His gentle heart. I breathe along with the breath of God until our hearts beat as One. I close my eyes and inhale deeply the Oneness, and I fill myself up. Then I slide off my Father/Mother’s lap and prepare to go about my day with a quieter, gentler heart.

Six Weeks

Six Weeks

In six weeks I’ll be a grandmother and I don’t really know what to think about that. Everyone says, “Congratulations! It’s so much fun being a grandmother! Bet you can’t wait to get your hands on that baby!”

I do love babies. I consider “the nurturing mother” my strongest archetype. Yet for some reason the expectation of this first biological grandchild has me feeling a bit unsettled, and I’m not sure why.

Image

The Mother’s Journal I kept when my daughters were in utero and growing up.

I love to hold newborns. I do so easily, naturally, swaying back and forth automatically. Whenever I stand up to hold a baby, cradling it in my arms, immediately my weight wants to shift side to side like a metronome. My eyes take in the little one, peering into those innocent eyes, or admiring the sleepily closed, rosy eyelids. I stop momentarily to lift the little bundle to my nose to breathe in that heavenly, sweet new baby smell they lose after a while, when they become bigger children.

And they do grow — so quickly. It seems like yesterday when I held my own babies in my arms, swaying, and sometimes I was just so tired that I longed for a night of uninterrupted sleep.

Sometimes, in the moment, it’s hard. You’re tired and she cries and you don’t know what she needs, what she wants, and she can’t tell you yet, and so you give her everything you’ve got, I mean everything you’ve got, and sometimes she settles down and you sigh with relief and resume the loving, natural, relaxed stance, but sometimes … sometimes it’s just not enough.Image

Like when she’s in middle school and you hate those catty girls she seems to care so much about, who say mean things to your precious one and you want to tell her it doesn’t matter, that in ten years you won’t care, if you even remember at all that they laughed at the new haircut you were so delighted with as you smiled at your reflection in the mirror that very morning before school.  Image

Like when she’s in high school and thinks she’s grown up and doesn’t need to be in by 11pm, no one else has to be in so early, I was only ten minutes late, you can’t ground me for that, oh yes I can, give me your car keys. Now. I hate you, well, I still love you, but we’ll talk about this later, go on to your room. Now.

Image

God, it’s hard to grow up. It’s hard, sometimes, to be a kid, a teen, a young adult, a parent, a mother, especially a “good” mother, whatever that is, and it changes with each child, with the times, and there are no rule books, there just aren’t. Maybe I’m scared it’ll be hard to be a grandmother, too.

Breathe. Sigh.

It always turns out all right. Perfectly, really, since there is no one “right” way, only choices, then more choices that add up to one’s life — infinite possibilities, and they’re all okay. Really, they’re all okay.

Perhaps it’s best I don’t know what to expect in six weeks. Sure I’ve heard, I’ve read, and mostly it sounds terrific. But will she love me as much as she loves her other grandparents? Will I have the energy to be present in my granddaughter’s life the way I want to be? Health challenges limited and defined so much of how I ended up mothering my own, but we lived under the same roof so at least I got to be with them, reading books in bed, inhaling the Johnson’s baby shampoo smell on their clean toddler heads. Will I have the physical energy to drive to see this new baby, to keep her overnight when her parents go out-of-town or need a break?

It blows my mind to see my little girl all grown up now, round with child, resting her arms on her belly, wondering if she might have “an outie” before her daughter sees the light of day. It amazes me to see her organized home, where decoratively painted and ribboned wooden 3, 6, 9 numerals hang on the rod in the nursery closet, already separating by sizes the matching outfits and dresses others have graciously given them or they’ve already bought from Baby Gap. It touches some part of my heart I cannot name, do not know, when I am shown the inside of the drawers of the dresser/changing table given to them by friends and now filled with freshly washed and folded onesies, teeny tiny socks, soft pima cotton swaddling blankets, hooded bath towels. Was I ever this organized? If so, it was definitely when I was awaiting the birth of my own firstborn, this now-almost-mother who is no longer “mine.” Ahh…maybe this is what threatens my peace in some way — a feeling that this milestone will somehow end a chapter of my own life, when really it should just open up a new one.

photo-99

Me with my firstborn.

Now, in my own home, I sway with anticipation, cradling my doggie (my dogs have always consoled me) and I wait, tentatively, for the birth to be behind us, for all to be healthy and well and on the other side of this momentous occasion. How strange to know this new little life will fill all our hearts with more love than we can imagine, stir feelings in me I’ve never known, complete some part of the circle of life I don’t even feel I’m missing. All I know is that my own grown up little girl better be all right. God, may she have a smooth labor and delivery, a healthy baby, and the strength and good health to enjoy the abundance of rewards that come with the blessing of motherhood. Keep her safe, God. Just keep my baby safe.

“Somewhere else…”

Prompt: 10 minutes: “somewhere else…”

Somewhere Else

Somewhere else is where I went when I tried to relax yesterday. Get it? Tried to relax! Who else has to try to relax? Have I been uptight my whole life? Has the need to appear confident, in control, “together” ruled my life all these decades?

No, surely not. There must have been some times before the self-conscious playground days when I loathed recess for fear of looking stupid or getting hit with the ball I had no natural athletic ability to either hit or avoid. I do remember moments, faint moments … of something else, somewhere else…

At the Quaker Church where I went to kindergarten in 1964, there was a delicious, sweet clover-smelling grassy hill we used to play on while our mothers held babies and chatted before collecting us to take us home for lunch and naps. We’d look for lucky four leaf clovers, of course, that would grant us fantastical wishes. We made clover chains to wear as crowns upon our heads, necklaces around our necks. And sometimes, if I’d worn pants that day, which wasn’t often for girls in 1964, I would seek the rush of rolling down the big, scary hill like the boys.

With my hands by my bony hips, my arms pressed to my sides, I pretended I was a log, let myself go, and I rolled and I rolled down that bumpy hill, eyes closed, losing myself in the exhilaration of the feeling of green, earthy freedom, innately trusting gravity to keep me safely tethered to the ground. With a thud, I would come to a stop at the bottom, giggling, spent, just resting there, opening my eyes to see puffy, white clouds. I’d make pictures in my mind of their ever-changing, cotton ball shapes against the deep blue background of the sky, while other kids hopped up to make the climb to do it all over again. images

I wonder how long I stayed there, allowing myself to go somewhere else? To enter the cloud castles or climb the cloud beanstalks? Or did I hurry back to Mama to see what I’d missed that day when I was at school and my little brother had all of her attention?

Gratitude

November, being the month of Thanksgiving and all, inspires many folks to record a list of things for which they are grateful. Also, November is the lead-in to Advent, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus, the ultimate gift for those of the Christian faith, which tends to also turn our hearts outward toward thinking of others.7a49af57391bbe83cbdf4676168f6a64

My Kundalini yoga teacher, a Sikh, encourages her students to maintain “an attitude of gratitude.” I think the idea of gratefulness for all the many blessings we see on this earth around us can only contribute to our personal happiness and, therefore, ooze out of us and add to the happiness of others with whom we come in contact. In other words, gratitude encourages us “to share the love.” And Lord only knows this world can use all of that we can muster.

Since I am trying to do the NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month), it makes sense to include this practice of naming blessings daily during the month of November. I wrote most of this yesterday, but I didn’t get it posted, so I’ll do two for today!

For November 1st, I hereby record the obvious: I am grateful for Jesus Christ in my life, who taught me there is so much more than meets the eye – that the Spirit realm is where it’s at. When the chips are down, this message always lifts me up. When pain engulfs my body, I hold on, knowing there is something more, much more, to this life than just the physical.

For November 2, I declare my gratitude for my daughters, Caroline and Hallie, who have taught and continue to teach me about love, trust, holding close and letting go. When God entrusted them to my care at their births, something innate and beautiful began to blossom in me. Painting of me, C & HIn some ways I felt so unprepared to be their mother; in other ways instincts that surprised me took over and I just “knew” what to do in various situations. I basically took motherhood one day at a time, sometimes one temper tantrum at a time, for what “worked” with Caroline often did not with Hallie — evidence of the individuality of life! But at the root of it all was and is a kind of natural, unconditional love so big it fills my heart and overflows even now that they are adults making their own ways in this world. I am ever so grateful to have healthy relationships with each of them, and that they share their hearts with me. H on C at beachI am grateful every time I get to talk to them on the phone or get a text message with silly emoticons, or just a check in “just landed back at RDU! Love y’all!”

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.

FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)

I’m “Pressing” this, meaning I did not write this post, but I do think it is interesting reading, especially for parents of teenagers. Those years can be rough – for parents of both teenage sons AND daughters. My heart goes out to all of you, including those teenagers trying desperately to figure out who they are as individuals while also trying to fit in. Life has a way of unfolding for each of us. We are a composite of all our experiences and our choices and our responses to whatever is thrown at us. You don’t really get “do overs” in life, though you can certainly learn from mistakes. Love yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to all – you never know where life will lead you, but you can be sure it is better to have others’ respect than their disdain; others as friends instead of enemies. Namaste.

FYI (if you're a teenage girl).

“Supposed To”

July 9, 2013
Prompt: 15 minutes: “supposed to”

Supposed To

She was supposed to get a lot accomplished today, piles of vacation mail littering the kitchen counter, dirty clothes on the laundry room floor, wilting calla lily plants screaming for water from their old pots, long leaves drooping. She turns the pots occasionally, angling them away from sunny windows so they’ll reach out, stretch outward in another way, filling out, not so lopsided from years of inattention save the weekly dousing when she had too much on her mind to cherish every little moment, every little thing.

Life is supposed to last long, keep on going, the canvas unfurling indefinitely, inviting one to pick up brushes full of color and paint your heart’s desire.

But it doesn’t always go that way now, does it? No, sometimes we get so busy we’re like Little Black Sambo running around the tree so fast, fleeing from the tiger, whipping himself into butter he did, I did, we do.

When you are young, it seems like forever between Christmases, you wanting to fit into your mother’s dyed to match green high-heeled pumps, their chunky heels clomp clomp clomping along the hardwood floor, headed for the kitchen where your mother is fixing you and your stuffed friends a tea party.

all dressed up

all dressed up

As a mother, you make a mental note of your daughter’s living in the moment joy while pretending she is all grown up. You snap a picture of her in the netting skirt atop her size 4T jeans, the old burgundy velvet hat that was your grandma’s, the white kid gloves all the ladies wore back then, back when you’re sure time must have passed more slowly. You take the tiny plastic Strawberry Shortcake plates your daughter brings so trustingly to your care for her own “pea darty.” You place equal numbers on each of Cheerios, pretzel sticks, grapes and cheese, knowing she will eat it all, helping out Big Bird, Sally, Ga Ga and Snowy. Life is supposed to be this good and it really is! It really is!!!

Until some days it’s not, it’s just not.

You analyze and debate inside your head what’s missing, what might be if things were even better. If you could be more of yourself in this marriage, if life is supposed to be this conflicted, this painful, this small. You smile at your children during the day, singing soulful lyrics with Amy Grant, Carole King, Carly Simon, Carly, Carol, Amy CDsas you drive your kids on errands. They learn the words and sing refrains in their little voices, legs kicking, oblivious.

You come to dread 5 pm some days, then weekends, living for Monday mornings, quiet midnight hours when you can fold hot, clean smelling towels fresh from the dryer on the carpet in the hall all by yourself, sometimes weeping. How did it get like this? Surely this is not the way it’s supposed to be, is it? Is it?

That first marriage was supposed to be the only one. They were supposed to live happily ever after. They were supposed to grow old together.

But time can heal old wounds. How nice that finally, they can laugh and break bread together again in their grown daughters’ homes, new partners by their sides, all “one big happy family.” Maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be — multiple sets of parents and step parents all together toasting graduations and marriages of their grown up children, reminiscing together about the good memories of the days gone by.