In June of 2012, the wonderful Nora Ephron died, and I wrote a piece about her impact and influence on me. I have, on paper, a ton in common with her: we are both from literary, hyper-verbal families, both born into non-religious but culturally Jewish communities, I grew up three blocks from where she lived, etc. We could be related (seriously, see: shtetl life). She was special to many many people, and her being special to me is not surprising.
Today, nearly two years later, I find myself trying to articulate the impact of another profoundly influential figure for me and for so many: Maya Angelou. She passed away this morning, and even though she was 86, it feels like a shocking loss.
But unlike Nora Ephron, Maya Angelou and I have nothing in common. When I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, it did not offer me identification as Heartburn had, it offered me access -- vivid, scary, and profound access -- to a place I had never been before. It allowed my imagination to activate, it built empathy, and it made a part of history real for me. There are words and images still burned on my brain from my first read, now nearly 20 years ago: the rough texture of the tea cookies, the cut of the phrase "it is an unnecessary insult," the relentless, sticky heat of those Southern summers.
I read Caged Bird many times as an adolescent -- a testament to the depth of the book (and perhaps my slightly odd penchant for re-reading). As I became a teenager and read her later autobiographies -- which are deeply adult in their unapologetic complexity -- she transitioned from being the person who wrote one of my most favorite books to an example of who someone could become, of what someone could transcend. For Maya Angelou, environment was not destiny, and childhood was not the predictor and constrictor of adult life. On the contrary, limitations were opportunities, psychic resistance bands built to catapult you into a better, stronger place. At least, that's how I saw her. What I learned from her.
In a world in which we tend to pathologize everything, Maya Angelou was a perfect patient. Except that she refused, throwing off the excuses that almost anyone would have gladly accepted. And in a world in which too many people require something happening to them in order to appreciate it, she offered -- both in her writing and in her living -- another way.
I think about the people who accept gay rights only once they have a gay child, the people who believe in gun restrictions only once they lose someone to that kind of violence. Better late than never, sure, but think of Maya Angelou! She offered a portal -- generous, honest, true -- into a world unknown to so many. She welcomed us in so that we might understand before we knew the painful way. For a kid on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in the 1980s, reading in my own bedroom within the safety of my family, her invitation both opened up and showed me my world.
Thank you Maya Angelou for your impossible and impossibly generous standards. Thank you for your writing. And thank you for letting me claim you, even though we are not related. Even though we have nothing in common.