“anything that works against you can also work for you
once you understand the 'principle of reverse.'”
In the news of her death, a well-deserved online observance is occurring for Maya Angelou. Quotes, praise, and gratitude -- I hope her family and closest friends feels the support and honor. She deserves every letter of it. But it also makes me smile, a bit. People who could barely answer basic questions about her life, people who have never read one of her books, people who have no idea what she did with her 86 years, or where she came from are all of a sudden so interested. Most of us posting about her can recall popular tumblr .jpegs or pinned designs with words of hers, and perhaps didn't even know she said them. Hailing her as their hero! Inspiration! What an incredible legacy! (which, she IS all those things) implies that we, collectively, as a generation, know her life. I immediately felt foolish snagging a line from her, and vaguely inferring that I had been deeply impacted by her. I don't know Maya Angelou, or much about her. And maybe I'm one of the few. Maybe most people know that following her rape she went through five years of silence, until her teacher made the effort to go on a Marguerite Treasure Hunt and open the jewels in side her. Maybe most people know her real name is Marguerite Ann Johnson, and that she was the first San Francisco African-American cable car conductor. And that she was a professional dancer, had her one and only child while in highschool, worked in Cairo, Egypt as an editor, that before her the last poet to share at a presidential inauguration was Robert Frost. Maybe most people know that she composed, sang and recorded her own album which turned into an off-broadway review (she performed there, too). Did you know that she worked at the University of Ghana, in Ghana, and was a professor at Wakeforest? That she defied social norms and her mother to marry a greek man as a black woman? Did you know she has two cookbooks? (NewsOne) I didn't.
In the two or three days I've had the pleasure of reading more about this woman, I've been moved. She's far more than an aw-moment at midnight, and her thoughtful words come from decades of torment, risk, exploration and pursuing her happiest things. She, quite simply, can't be labeled by a job description -- she did a little bit of everything, and I would imagine that took some big girl panties. It took steel skin despite hate and shame. It took grace, poise and stubbornness. She writes with experience, and it's just plain lame to pretend like we know what she was talking about, or what she means. The beauty of life is that even without knowing her well, or understanding the depths of life she endured and rose above, we can commiserate with even a single sentence from her mouth.
Since mom and Ryan have passed away, a familiar refrain in my head and amongst loved ones is "I can't wait for heaven." And when I say it, I mean it. I can't imagine looking forward to the promises of "pain erased, joy full, faces unveiled" any more than I do right now. Yet, interestingly enough, as the days tread by and by I find myself with more hope for being alive on earth than I ever did before. Not just hope that someday earth will be gone, but hope here, now! Hope that is dumbfounded at the joy that comes through overcoming a challenge -- there will be no challenges in heaven (praise God!) I appreciate, "the period of silence [and pain] that actually allowed [us] to absorb [our] surroundings more intensely" (Maya Angelou) in a way I simply couldn't have before mom died, before I delivered a dead baby in a bathtub. My nerve endings are raw and to be frank, it feels "good" to learn. It feels good to progress as a soul and mind, and to know that in two years I'll look back and say "Oh, I was so different then. I'm so glad I changed." It's empowering to look at death in the face and make eye-contact. It's horrible. But I can only dream of how much more vibrant heaven will be thanks to staring at those wicked black eyes. Earth is more vibrant! And some nights, perhaps in the middle of May, at an acquaintance's lake house with my boys, I look around I am convinced the world has never been more beautiful. I silently absorb the weight of a baby signing "more" with his hands -- completely out of context, which makes me wonder if he has any idea what it means. Is it another "trick"? Like a high-five? "Sure, I'll do this... they seem to get excited and sometimes I get more food? Why not..." --, the weight of white against blue, air (air!) that is slightly pink, barbecue smoke, the clunk of water meeting a dock, my snow-man shaped shadow (I have the healthy body of a part-Italian-woman-mother), curious beetle-tap feet from a small boy and delighted laughs from a young dad. Can you feel it? Isn't it heavy on your back, warm over you in bed, whipping around you on a walk?
The concluding moral of this post: know people and life well. Don't fear the struggle, feel it instead. Take five minutes or five years of silence to learn, do soul-push-ups and come back stronger, whole-er, happier. The very things this life uses against you have the potential to be the strongest goodnesses. And perhaps when you die someone, somewhere will quote you.
"I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you...
The very first tear he made was so deep
that I thought it had gone right into my heart.
And when he began pulling the skin off,
it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.
The only thing that made me able to bear it was
just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.
And there was I smooth and soft as a peeled switch
and smaller than I had been.
Then he caught hold of me –
I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath
now that I’d no skin on —
and threw me into the water.
It smarted like anything but only for a moment.
After that it became perfectly delicious.
As soon as I started swimming and splashing
... I’d turned into a human again...”
cs lewis // voyage of the dawn treader -- a book i have read ;)
[ps. If you really did know Maya Angelou and her works well before her passing, high-five. You're the man. No judgement ;) ha!]