It was scary to wake up this morning in a world without Maya Angelou. When I opened my eyes, I felt like an anxious child who just discovered she's been left home alone. It becomes difficult to stay calm and keep playing when you're wondering who will keep an eye on things now that the Wisest One is gone. Who will know what to do? I felt lonely and small. Then my thoughts turned to Oprah.
How must it feel for the ultimate student of life to have lost her best, wisest, safest teacher? For the one charged with nurturing millions to lose the one who nurtured her? I wonder if Oprah feels left home alone, too. I bet she does, because every woman needs an older, wiser friend -- one who has walked the trails we fool ourselves into believing we're blazing ourselves.
Two years ago I moved to Naples, Florida. Many people here are old. The median age at my church is 76, and as I'd sit in the pew and look at all the white hair around me, I wondered if I'd ever find friends. I used to choose friends based on similarity in age and life stage, but I've learned that those were the wrong criteria. Trying to live life exclusively alongside others our own age is like attempting to climb Mt. Everest without a Sherpa. It's a little dangerous. We each need a seasoned guide who knows the trail well so she can show us where we might trip, point to where fresh water flows, and offer warnings about where the bears live. We each need a Maya.
During the past year, I've found my Mayas. My Mayas are the women whose age and experience offer them a perspective I've yet to earn. They remind me that I am not reinventing the wheel with my life. They tell me that pain, loss, triumph, betrayal and redemption are not just my life story -- they are LIFE'S story. They remind me that the most personal experiences of womanhood are also the most universal experiences of womanhood. They help me fit my life story inside the greater context of the story of Womankind. They remind me to stop pretending I'm marching alone and instead to fall into line -- to take my place in the grand procession of women marching together through time.
Let me offer some specific examples of the wisdom My Mayas have offered to me:
Recently, my marriage fell apart. It felt horrifying and unprecedented and entirely unique to me. I felt very alone inside of all the pain. One Sunday morning I was wailing about this to my friend, Bette. Bette was not listening to me with wide eyes and OMGs! and NO HE DIDN'TS! like friends my own age do. I was getting very little feedback from her and in fact -- she looked sort of bored. So I said, "Bette, are you listening to me?" And she said "Oh, honey. Yes. I'm listening. And I'm sorry I'm not getting worked up with you. But the thing is that this stuff isn't personal sweetheart- it's just LIFE. You'll make it through." She gestured toward a circle of her white-haired friends and added, "all of us have." Then she squeezed my arm and went to pour us some coffee.
The following week I was at a church seminar wrestling publicly with a theological issue. I felt desperate to be understood, to prove myself right, to convince others to agree with me. Stifled and exasperated, I flopped down in my seat and sighed. Esther giggled softly next to me. Esther is brilliant and passionate and I knew that she sided with me on the issue at hand -- yet she didn't seem stressed, just amused. Esther wasn't wrestling at all. I whispered to her: HOW ARE YOU SO CALM? WHEN DID YOU FIGURE ALL OF THIS OUT???? And she replied, "Oh, you never figure it all out. But you do stop trying. That's when life gets good."
And this past weekend I hit the beach with Mary and Judy. I usually go with women my age, and so there's much covering up and worrying about cellulite and bellies and such. But my silver church friends -- whose skin hung loosely around their knees -- spent zero time discussing their bodies. They threw off their cover-ups, dug their feet into the sand, raised their faces to the sun and that was that. I told them about how the beach seemed to cause more stress than peace for my friends. And Mary looked at me and said, "Oh, I quit thinking about what I look like decades ago. Now I think more about what I'm looking AT. Just look at that crystal blue water! Heaven!" And then Judy added, "And listen, I've been around long enough to know how aging works. I look at myself today and say: Judy, this is the hottest you will ever be. Enjoy it!"
Join the procession. Find yourself a Maya to follow and Be a Maya to the woman marching behind you. "When you learn, teach." That's how Maya taught us to keep our mighty, sacred sisterhood rolling on. And while you march, remember: "You are a child of God. Stand up straight." -- Dr. Maya Angelou
I'm sorry for your great loss, Oprah. We will miss you, Mighty Maya.