Back in the early 90’s, my college boyfriend surprised me with a fairly amazing gift. He took me to see Maya Angelou. This was amazing for several reasons worth mentioning – like the fact that he had noticed that I was a fan AND had found out she was going to be speaking an hour away from where we lived AND he actually purchased tickets without my knowledge and got me all the way to the other town without letting me know what the surprise was…. That’s all pretty good thinking considering he was, you know, a college guy.
I saw the sign bearing her name and I screamed. She stepped onstage and I cried. I sat on the edge of my seat the entire time. And when she left the stage, I cried again. I was exhausted by the end.
I’m not really into poetry. I haven’t read many of her poems. I like Phenomenal Woman because it’s so proud. I liked her inaugural poem for Clinton but I know a lot of people criticized it. Or maybe they always do that. I don’t know. I’m just not all that into poetry.
But I loved all of her books. She wrote about her life (and it was a pretty extraordinary life) in a way that was warm and clear and easy. But what was important to me – what has stuck with me and changed my life – is that she wrote easily and freely about the times when she did things that were idiotic. She wrote about huge mistakes she had made and she did so without apology or embarrassment and with full acknowledgement and ownership. She fully accepted that she was the one who needed to be held responsible for any consequences, she faced those consequences with grace, and she moved forward with more knowledge. She accepted her failings and she didn’t believe that making mistakes and owning them made her anything less. In fact, she seemed to believe that they made her more. Because, as she has said many times, “When you know better, you do better.”
At the same time, she also has the ability to write and speak openly about her accomplishments. She is able to acknowledge them and take credit for them without embarrassment or false modestly. That’s a pretty great thing, too. An important thing - especially for women. I struggle with that as well.
I have always been my own worst critic. I have always worried and fretted about every mistake I’ve made. I have always been in awe of people who could say, “Oops. I totally fucked that up” and then laugh and move on. I have always wanted to be able to do that. Or, better yet, like Ms. Angelou, I would love to have the ability to look back on past mistakes with love and compassion for the younger, less experienced me who made them.
Ever since I read her books, I have been trying to be that person – bit by bit. I had forgotten, though, for a while. Life got hard and I got tossed around a bit and I fell down on the job.
I was not a perfect daughter or wife. I am not a perfect mother. I make mistakes every single day and sometimes I learn from them right away and sometimes it takes making the same mistake several times. But I try and I learn and when I know better, I sincerely try to do better. And, really, that’s all anyone can ask of me. Even me.
Thank you, Ms. Angelou.
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