A great voice and inspiration in our generation has passed away. To hear that Maya Angelou had died at 86 yesterday was heartbreaking for me. Of course, I didn’t know Maya personally, which makes that statement sound rather silly, but I have met her. Two years ago, I was working for my campus newspaper, The Murray State News. When we got word that Maya Angelou was giving a speech as a part of our annual Presidential Lecture Series (which has brought in speakers like Spike Lee, Ben Stein, and Bill Nye (you know, the science guy)), I was ecstatic to get the opportunity to meet and interview her. Excitement soon led to unashamed nervousness as I realized I would get to not only be in the same room as the woman whose works I had poured over in high school, but that I would get to speak to her personally. Amazing. I did my research -- I examined interviews from Maya in her younger years; I looked for interviews from her more seasoned years. I watched the way she really spoke to her interviewers; I focused on her ability to impart wisdom.
When the day came that I was to meet her, I was sick. No part of me wanted to go to work, to put my heels on, and pull out my recorder. It was a great opportunity, I knew, but there were other things to do. Lay in bed, actually, sounded the best at the time. But, I was working. It was my job. I ran across campus in my wedges which later rubbed blisters the size of quarters in my heels. Every time I wear those shoes, I think of that day, sprinting through the parking lot in a dress. I was warned that tardiness would not be acceptable (that's a bit of a problem for me). I waited outside the concourse that led to the room where she apparently was waiting. In the mean time, I met one of my very best friends, who I'm still incredibly close to today. Maya had interviews with the local newspapers, The Murray Ledger and Times, The Paducah Sun, they were all there and much more versed than me. I looked at my prepared questions, and began to tremble. This was a big deal. She was a big deal. She is a big deal.
“What’s your name?” she asked me as I walked in the room where our student body president, our adviser, my soon to be best friend, a cameraman who I'm also close to, stood. My pen jiggled in my hand. I told her my name.
“And you have questions for me, Ms. Russell?” What could I do but stammer yes?
My first thought when I saw her was that she was much older than I had anticipated. She was on oxygen, and was continually on the cameraman to “put that thing away” when it strung up to her nose, intertwined in a long, gold necklace. She did so nicely, of course. The woman doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. Her eyes were masked by shaded lenses, but she looked at me as she spoke slowly and deliberately. Her hands were manicured and laid delicately across her brown dressed lap. She was in a wheelchair. She was 84 years old.
Looking at my notebook, which fit perfectly in the palm of my left hand, I read my first question. I could hardly hear myself I was so nervous. But she began talking, and that made all the difference.
She told us to be an inspiration, no matter what our age. The words she used? A rainbow in the clouds. She explained that our age didn’t matter. “Not enough adults tell you that you are the best we have,” she told me. “We need your courage; courage is the most important of all the virtues.” I scribbled, my hand still shaking. She was the kind of woman you wanted to drink coffee with. I wanted to absorb what she was saying, never forget it. What Maya Angelou said to me that day was insurmountable. What I remember, though, is the way she said my name every time she answered a question. Her answers were long and thoughtful and as she looked at me, spilling out words of reassurance, she said my name. And she told me, quite simply, to be a rainbow in someone else's clouds.
Today, I am sad. Maya Angelou is gone. But, her words will be with us always. They have changed and shaped the nation and forever, I am grateful.
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive, and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor and some style.”
“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be bettertomorrow. I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life. I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life. I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw some things back. I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. I’ve learned that everyday you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. 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.”
“Listen to yourself and in that quietude, you might hear the voice of God.”
“You alone are enough. You have nothing to prove to anybody.”
“I believe that each of us comes from the creator trailing wisps of glory.”
“We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated."
“Nothing can dim the light which signs from within.”
Maya, you were quite a woman. And you will be dearly, dearly missed.