The first message I saw when I awakened was from Sweatpants & Coffee’s managing editor, Jordan Rosenfeld. It said, “Maya Angelou has died (and I’m crying).” Though it had happened hours earlier, I felt in that moment a change in the air pressure; the world had abruptly become emptier.
I haven’t seen any TV coverage, although I am sure there is plenty, and rightfully so. Mornings are too crazy in this house for television. So I’ve learned what I know about the way people are feeling the way one learns of most major events these days – through Facebook and Twitter. My feeds are a scroll of grief and beauty, indelibly inscribed as though scratched onto a roll of papyrus. Here is a moment of history: the passing of one of our great Mothers, capital M. We’re as sad and bereft as if we lost a family member, and this is her wake, where we all sit around and tell stories and share our favorite bits of wisdom.
It is no surprise to me that the staff of Sweatpants & Coffee have been so powerfully affected. It’s not like we ever got together and talked about how much we loved Dr. A, the way you would dish about an especially beloved professor. However, I can’t think of anyone who better embodies everything we are about. Naturally, those of us on a mission to spread the message of love, hope, encouragement, comfort, and downright fun would have found our way to Maya Angelou’s work at some point.
Wendie Burbridge: “Her book really got to me at a young age. I think I read it when I was still in elementary school. The raw emotion of it, the message it carried, the lessons it taught me– resonates within me even today. It was if she was speaking to me and reminding me that I MATTERED. I also learned that to feel pain, to be angry, to be hurt– didn’t make me a victim unless I choose to be one. I hope others continue to find her book and feel the same way. It’s just sad that they will only be able to witness what she did in the past and not be able to experience her in the present.”
Amy McElroy: “When I first read her memoir in high school, I was just learning that a person’s own voice–hers, mine, could be worthy of note, without fictionalization or dramatization. The truth itself could be worthy of print. It was so freeing. My sophomore English teacher assigned an “I Search” paper (as opposed to a research paper) not long afterward, and I would not have had the courage to write about my passion to become a dancer for Baryshnikov at ABT if I had not read her memoir.”
Jordan Rosenfeld: “As a young girl who sought solace in words, I looked for female voices in literature wherever I could. And even though Angelou’s and my experiences couldn’t have been more different, her words always went straight to my core, showed me what true power was: to speak the truth, no matter how ugly or scary. And in light of recent events in which violence and misogyny are clearly still rampant, her words, particularly her poem “Still I Rise” seem like an anthem for these times in which further awakening is clearly needed.”
Barbara Sirois Doyle: “We are bombarded in the media with images of what we should look like, with unattainable definitions of beauty. Women are starving themselves to be ideal, changing their bodies with surgeries they don’t need, injecting their faces with toxin and slathering them with chemical peels, and then Photoshopped anyway because they lack someone’s mysterious and ridiculous ideas of perfection. Our necks are too short. Our waists are too thick. Our hips are too wide. Our breasts are too small. I was, and never will be, the possessor of a body that will conform to those standards, and I still fight shame around that, wishing and hoping to be thinner. Younger. Prettier. Dr. Angelou, a woman so brilliant and beautiful in every sense of the word, taught me that that is nonsense. That I should carry myself with the pride I have earned. I learned the true meaning of sexy is confidence and mystery and knowing, deep in my heart, that I am someone to be wanted and cherished and sought after, just because I am unique. I am so, so grateful to Dr. Angelou for reminding me: ‘It’s in the click of my heels, the bend of my hair, the palm of my hand, the need for my care. ’Cause I’m a woman phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that’s me.’”
Tomi Wiley James: “I don’t remember the first time I read Maya Angelou, but it was sometime in my teens. While I have read poetry since I could string words together (my first Emily Dickinson collection was a Pocket Classic that was as tiny as my hands and perfect, thanks, Mom), I was trained in the more classical, almost Puritan verse. Angelou’s words were sexy and strong and real. I could smell that dirt, feel the gritty dust on my skin and nearly slid the oil from the wells of sass and confidence she evoked. Maya Angelou’s words, inspiration and legacy – her sheer radiance of spirit and lightness of soul, her persistent optimism (as our beloved Jordan Rosenfeld embodies as well) – colored my world and my words in my formative years as a writer as completely as any sharpened pencil or blank-paged notebook. She turned our mirrors upon ourselves and reminded us of our beauty, despite what society tells us. Beauty is within, it is ours to see and culture and accept and share with others. Our power is our own as our words are our own. Maya Angelou taught me to love my words and myself, and that cultivating that love in others is our blessing, our gift.”
As for me? My favorite lesson from Maya Angelou is the ubiquitous “when you know better, you do better.” I did. I am. That’s how Sweatpants & Coffee came to be.
The thing that’s striking about today is how personally and intimately people relate to Dr. Angelou. This isn’t the passing of a celebrity. People are thanking and mourning a teacher. Her words have soothed and calmed like a cool hand on a fevered brow and inspirited our weary hearts. She wrote beauty and bravery. It’s everywhere today, online, on people’s lips. People will continue to find her work, and love it, and take it inside themselves and allow it change them.
She hasn’t gone, not really.
Photo credits: “Courage” by Eric E. Castro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. “LaSalle Mural” by Derek Bridges is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” by Ben Sutherland is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. “Maya Angelou-9-by-Reynaldo-Leal” by thepanamerican is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.