It’s a shame that a person has to leave for us to pause and consider the significance and weight of their lives. But that may just be the way we live, always racing ahead of the present and rarely pausing to consider those that surround us. Perhaps that’s the last gift we offer to the world; the opportunity for those that knew us or knew of us to sit and reflect and renew their sense of purpose.
Take that gift, offered by poet Maya Angelou, who passed away last week at the age of 86 in her home in North Carolina. Angelou’s life is a testament to the infinite possibilities that lie within us, regardless of the challenges and tragedies that afflict us. Though championed by many, Oprah most notably, the poet and author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings lived a remarkable life well before she became Oprah’s much deserved spiritual teacher.
Given away by her mother as a toddler, Angelou and her brother were sent to live with her paternal grandmother in the still segregated and dangerous South. At the age of seven, Angelou was sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriend, a childhood trauma that caused her to lose her speech until she was 12 years old.
As a teenager, she became pregnant. She had the child, a boy, and supported herself as a waitress. She later got involved with an abusive man who beat her so severely she nearly died.
You would think those experiences alone would see her become embittered and small, but rather than let them define her, she moved forward with courage and spunk. She became a writer and editor in Cairo and Ghana, she became a singer and mixed with legends like Billie Holliday. Later, she became a Civil Rights activist, befriending Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
And that’s just the first half of her life.
Her work, which includes her famous memoir as well as books of poetry and other autobiographical works, gives voice to her truly unique intellect. Neither bitter nor angry nor overheated, she possessed an infinitely calm and reasonable mind.
In the face of life’s hardships she was bold and rebellious, the ultimate survivor.
“I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it,” she wrote.
Even more inspiring, she lived that credo.