There are many people who inspire us on our life’s path; that guide us when we lose our way and of course there are those that have the gift to light us up when we didn’t realise we needed it most.
But sometimes it isn’t the living that reach out, it’s those that have walked the beaten path before that call out and ask us to join them for a while.
As someone that’s always hidden themselves in the pages of books when I’ve wobbled on life’s tightrope; I was surprised to hear Maya Angelou call my name one turbulent day in 2016.
Only now can I honestly say when I first read the words below, I never thought I’d become her silent companion as I walked through all the pages of her life. Nor did I realise she would then become mine on my journey.
‘What you looking at me for? I didn’t come to stay…’ Maya Angelou (1928-2014) – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
I first met Maya in a church in Stamps Arkansas. I wore my white broderie anglaise dress with little red strawberries and a pretty red bow in my hair. I was so excited to wear my mother’s creation but the heat was suffocating. With every breath I was sure I’d pass out. I endeavoured to keep boredom at bay by swinging my legs back and forth, up and down, but one stern look from an old lady put a stop to my antics instantly.
I looked across at Maya in her lavender taffeta dress. She looked so graceful with her ballerina legs but I knew she was disappointed with her dress and any comment from me would not be welcome. It was her turn to get up. She glanced at me for a brief second for reassurance and I smiled. Unlike me, Maya was quite introverted, until you got to know her. My smile wasn’t enough to comfort her, she just stood there. A couple of the other kids started to giggle but I didn’t join them. Maya was my friend.
“Ijustcometotellyouit’sEasterDay” stumbled out of her mouth; it was met with the stoney silence of the congregation. She made the signal to be excused and I watched her tip toe carefully down the pew. As she reached the end, she fell face first; my heart stopped but there was nothing I could do. Before anyone noticed, she had dusted herself off and disappeared into the mid-morning sun.
Everyone thought she ran because she was about to wet herself but I knew better; she ran because she wanted to be free and I made the decision right there and then, that I was going to run free with her.
I spent many years with Maya as she went about living her life in the light and in the shadows. She took me on her travels through Europe and Africa, exposing me to the beauties of people so different from myself yet I would call them brother and sister if she called them so.
I was even lucky enough to meet great people along the way such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, James Baldwin and so many others. She showed me their humility which history books failed to provide and gave me a glimpse of the struggles she fought against as an American black woman in a world trying to make change.
But it wasn’t the bright lights, travel or even celebrities that kept me glued to her side. No, it was something far more simple. It was the love she had for her family which was plentiful and unconditional.
I watched Maya’s relationship with her mother unfold into something beautiful and I came to admire Vivian Baxter as the sunshine that helped Maya bloom into the great woman that she would become. I connected with Vivian’s passionate energy most because she reminded me of my own mother in so many ways I can’t even begin to list the similarities. I’m blessed to have such a strong woman in my life and I’m proud to call Jeanette Wanstall my mother.
When Maya fell pregnant in her teens, she let me into the delivery room where she gave life to beautiful boy called Guy. At first, I was worried for her as a young single woman, but I also knew she was Vivian’s daughter and would work it out.
And that she did.
As mother and child grew, they did so together. Their lives intertwined as they learnt more about each other and even when apart, Guy was never far from her thoughts. He was her calming influence, her yin to her yang…her soulmate.
But her love didn’t stop there, Maya saw all of us as her children. To be encouraged and guided to grow in an organic way; such as she lived her life. Maya’s humility was her greatest gift to us and it will be one that I will carry with me all the days of my life. And when I’m in doubt I will remember her words ‘just do right’ and I know I’ll do just that.
Life isn’t a perfect plan to be followed and ticked off. It’s often a messy and unpredictable path that has no destination. That doesn’t mean you can’t find happiness.
Look inside and see what makes you smile; your heart sing. Then do just that. Surround yourself with people who make you laugh. Use your senses to guide you and do what you feel is right to do. It will soothe your soul.
I loved getting to know Maya Angelou and I was truly heartbroken as I neared the final book knowing that she no longer was with us. It was only after I finished that last sentence did I realise her intention wasn’t to just tell her life story, she wanted to show us her life so we wouldn’t be afraid to live our lives fully. I will always be grateful for the unspoken lessons she gave and I will never let the fear stop me from living my life, even during the more uncertain moments.
She might have been a civil right activist, writer, dancer, singer, fry cook amongst other things but her gift of storytelling is what I’ll remember her for.
Never underestimate the power of storytelling, for it will be your story that will guide future generations during their times of need. But more importantly, live your life now, don’t wait or worry about mistakes for those that really love you will always be by your side.
Make every moment count today.