Monday, August 4, 2014

My Moment with Maya Angelou

Murmur of the Mother Tongue, A. Díaz, 1993

            At the end of May the world lost a great person, a powerful woman, intellect, and humanitarian; the death of Maya Angelou was one of those events that left many of us speechless. Over the last two months, I have managed to write down an accounting of my personal moment with Maya Angelou, it was the briefest of meetings in the most appropriate place, a book store.

It must have been around 1980. I drove into Montclair village, an Oakland neighborhood, to shop at what was then known as Village Books. As I turned onto the narrow one-way block of Antioch Court, I saw a statuesque black woman on the sidewalk, gliding in the direction of Village Books.
            My eyes widened and my mouth went slack. “That’s Maya Angelou,” I said to the empty car interior.
“My God, that’s Maya Angelou.”
            “That must be Maya Angelou.”
            “I’m sure that’s her.”
            Following her with my intermittent gaze, I saw her enter the bookstore. I was lucky to find a parking spot on the always busy street, and as I pushed coins into the meter, the rhythm of my heart gathered momentum. Walking toward the bookstore, elements of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings came to mind.
“Oh my God,” I said silently, “Maya Angelou”. As I entered the store I wondered what I could say to her. Could I tell her how much the book meant to me? Should I single out a particular aspect of the book? Maybe I could ask her an erudite question. Then her voice floated forward from the back of the small shop as the saleswoman spoke with her. They exchanged sentences, I presumed, though exact words softened into a sweet audible cotton candy. Just the tone of her voice was delicious.
            Where is she exactly, I wondered, positioning myself in one of the outside aisles. Slowly I inched my way closer and closer, judging distance by volume. Then I realized I was creeping up on the woman as if I were about to snatch her purse. I stopped, straightened my posture, and regained my dignity, but my heart was pounding now, and the ability to form whole sentences seemed too ambitious an undertaking. I stood still a moment and just enjoyed my proximity to her. The sales person had gone and Maya was silent, obviously standing alone. I listened to her standing there. She was probably perusing the selections on the shelf. Finally, I took a few more steps pretending to be looking for a book as I turned the corner. Then, there she was, every tall inch of her. Every dignified, regal inch of her.
“Thank you for writing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said.
“It was very meaningful to me.”
“I am very glad,” she said.
I kept moving. In fact, I think I kept moving as I spoke, with no idea where I was going. I just needed to slide out of her line of sight as gracefully as I had entered it. When I found a spot alone, I took a deep breath and smiled. I knew I’d never meet her like that again, and I just wanted to savor the moment. I hadn’t reverted to being an adoring teenager, and this was not like being near a rock star. This was a new sensation. There was something nameless about Maya Angelou, something profound and timeless. Her presence was separate from her writing. With her, presence was its own talent. That is to say, presence was part of what she was. She wasn’t just a writer or a dancer, an actress, or a professor. She was being, and such a full manifestation of being that it made me understand that being can also be an accomplishment, something we work toward.

I think our planet survives the loss of stellar human beings because of the cumulative vibrational energy they leave behind. Maya Angelou was the kind of person who never should have died, but since we had to lose her, we must continue to connect with her presence through her poetry, her interviews, and the thoughts she left in so many forms. I will also cherish my memory.