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Maya on My Mind

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MAYA ANGELOU
Jeff Daly/Invision/AP

"My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return."
-Maya Angelou

When some people die, the planet becomes a little less interesting of a place. In the case of Maya Angelou, it feels like "earth school" (as my brother calls it) has lost one of its greatest teachers. Every time that magnificent woman opened her mouth, I learned something. I'd always grab a pen and write down on whatever I could find the pearl that had fallen from her lips that spoke to me the most that time. And so it always went. I always wept whenever I heard her reading one of her poems or from one of her many books, her distinctive voice and delivery making the authentic words that much more raw and real for me. I have a small list of people I would have liked to have met, to have physically sat at the feet of and listened to, and she is most definitely one of them. But aren't I, we, lucky she shared herself with the world. I gasped and touched my heart when I read that she had died this morning, I think because I felt it to my core, and I knew the weight of the loss for all of us, I just wasn't ready for her voice to be silenced.

I used a quote of hers in my introduction to a book of essays I wrote called, Love is My Religio. This is from that introduction: "Maya Angelou said, 'I speak to the Black experience, but I am always talking about the human condition -- about what we can endure, dream, fail at, and still survive. Now, maybe I speak to the middle-aged white experience, but I surely write about the human condition, specifically my human condition."

In spite of all our vast differences, I related to so many of her words. They made me think about what I can endure, dream, fail at and mercifully still survive. I am currently writing about the life-long struggle with panic disorder I have endured and survived, and I open it again with a thought from Miss Angelou. I had seen her with Oprah on OWN'S Super Soul Sunday program and this was her quote: "Courage is the most important of all virtues, because without courage you can't practice any of the other virtues." This had hit me like a ton of bricks, especially in light of the fact that fear was at the root of my panic, and courage has been a life long, and at times elusive, pursuit. It is the virtue I grab by the throat and hang onto for dear life. I know, like Maya, that without it, it is very hard to be the person you want to be. She also said that day that "Courage has to be practiced." Say Amen somebody, I know that to be true with all of my being.

Maya Angelou always gave me hope, I love that line from her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" that she read at Clinton's inauguration, Each new hour holds new chances for a new beginning" (the line right after that being, "Do not be wedded forever to fear..." hello?) Whew, some days, some hours, I need to be reminded of this so badly it takes my breath away. Maybe that is a version of what it means to panic, to forget we continually have chances for a new beginning. How grateful I am to her for reminding me. I loved hearing more of her story that day on Super Soul, it also reminded me that no life goes unscathed, isn't messy around the edges, broken at times in ways that seem beyond repair -- what an amazing story she told: to have been violated so horribly and to stop speaking altogether at age 7. I'd have freaked out if my daughter did that. I'm sure it was a worry to those around her but her grandmother, whom she said she called 'Mama,' said to her one day, "Sister, people say you are ignorant and can't speak, but I know when you and the good Lord are ready, you'll speak, you'll teach sister -- you'll teach all over the world." Even Maya said she thought she was crazy for saying that, and yet... Our prophets always say things that seem crazy.

When my daughter graduated, I gave her and her close friends a present along with the poem by Mary Oliver that ends with the line, "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" I think it is one of the greatest lines of all time. As I sit here and reflect on Maya Angelou, I think of the wild and full and graceful and wise... precious life she lived. What a wonder. What an example. What a legacy. What a fragrance she left behind. She lived beyond well, on the collective wisdom of generations, with humility and with what her mother encouraged her: Pizazz! I want to live with pizazz. And courage. And faith. She believed when she prayed something wonderful happened. She believed love could raise the dead. So do I, maybe that's a better title for my book -- Love Can Raise the Dead. I like it. When she was talking about making it to her 80's she said that she had been grateful at every age, and that one of her secrets was 'moderation in all things... even moderation' that made me laugh. She was funny too. For me she embodies so much of what I want, and who I long to be. I will still sit at her feet and learn, long after they have left this earth.