Revelations on the Passing of Maya Angelou

It must have been, perhaps, what most people imagine what it must be like to cast pearls before swine.

The pearls in question: the sage wisdom of Dr. Maya Angelou at a matriculation ceremony at Duke University in the mid-1990s.

The swine? That would be yours truly.

On hearing about the passing of Maya Angelou today, I remember vaguely having heard her speak in person. I couldn’t remember where it was and I couldn’t quite recall when it would have happened until I read a Facebook post from a fellow Duke alumna. It was an article in Duke Today, the online magazine of Duke University, which paid homage to Angelou’s frequent role as convocation speaker to the freshman class. She welcomed first-year students to the university twenty-four times.

After the completing the mental mathematics and clawing at the cobwebs in the recesses of my memory, I realized that I had heard her speak once. That I was one of those incoming freshmen who had the honor of receiving life lessons, poetically delivered, from Maya Angelou.

The sad part? That’s all I remember.

I don’t recall anything she said, although I have vague memories of feeling inspired by it at the time. The irony of that statement is conjured in the famous quote attributed to Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Then, I was a naïve college freshman taking her first steps into an adult-ish world, faced with making decisions on my own for the first time, dreaming of what my life might be like, and having no idea how to make the vision in my head a reality. Traces of that teenager are still here, now, in the adult, still dreaming of what my life might be like and still having little idea of how to bring those dreams to fruition.

I’ve written before about focus, about fixing on a few goals instead of spreading oneself thin chasing every interest. But I look at Angelou’s life–poet, writer, actress, singer, dancer, professor–who dared to dream beyond the expectations of a young black girl growing up in the Jim Crow-era South. She faced obstacles I never will, and yet she accomplished so much. What’s my excuse?

Her death today at the age of 86 has me feeling inspired again. Angelou wrung life dry by pursuing every one of her passions. I’m sure her life wasn’t perfect–whose is?–but it was full. So full, that the wisdom she gleaned from every life experience, both good and bad, overflowed in her words like too much water transgressing the boundaries of a bucket.

That’s the kind of life I want. That, ultimately, is the dream I’ve always had for myself. And now I know the formula to get there–it starts with following my passions. All of them. Maybe I won’t be the best ever at everything, but I do believe that by pursuing those things that have been a constant light sustaining me through all these years, that thing I want to be–that I’ve always wanted to be–will spring forth.

I don’t know if I’m right. All this pontificating may be for naught, but it’s a start. It’s a light. It’s a pathway. It’s a commandment to be as fully myself as I can be. And that is enough.

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