Dear Maya Angelou,
They say grandmothers are filled with love and give wisdom that will last a lifetime and your fecund imagination gave birth to a body of work that is full of so much wisdom, it will no doubt be read by my children’s grandchildren. It was indeed a sad day in May when the world lost you, one of the most beautiful souls to have walked the earth. And as we said our goodbyes, I reflected on why I would never forget how your words made me feel, even though we never met.
Growing up reading became a habit instilled in me by my mother. I still remember the books of my childhood. I remember the Enid Blyton books especially. And even though the stories are of distant memory, the cover illustrations are etched on my brain. As an only child, reading was my escape. I was able to lose myself so easily. I was away from home at boarding school missing parents who I thought had abandoned me and didn’t love me. Little did I know that in fact they loved me so much that they sacrificed our family life in order to give me the best education that they could afford. They missed me just as much as I missed them but it was a tough choice between my future and my present and they chose to secure my future.
I was in new territory. I had become comfortable in our perfect trinity; mummy, daddy and me. Then suddenly, here I was all alone, finding myself, discovering new emotions, trying to figure out a lot. No longer a little girl with mummy and daddy at her beck and call, I was now a young woman in a world that was full of many shocks and hard knocks. The ‘real’ world. I no longer had my mother telling me how beautiful I was and I realised I never believed her anyway because in this ‘real’ world I felt ugly, insecure and unwanted.
I had lived a very sheltered life. Tucked away in our suburban castle, except for when I was at school, this princess was shielded from the harsh realities of life. To go from the security of that, to meeting all sorts of people, from the playground bullies who called me ugly, to the boys who were more like wolves in sheep’s clothing even though my dad had told me they would be like ants on sugar; his euphemism for sex which I was too pure and innocent to understand, the realisation that we weren’t the Huxtables and there is no such thing as a perfect family, navigating my way through friendships, having to make grown up decisions and basically be an adult with responsibilities, the growing up pains in general. It all seemed a bit too much.
No one had given me a handbook or told me what to expect. I was young and naive and often got it wrong. This depressed me greatly. I allowed myself to be burdened by my mistakes and imperfections. I wanted to be flawless and pure in everyone’s eyes. And in my quest for perfection, somewhere along the way I lost real friendships, I lost my innocence, I lost the truth and gained confusion. I lost my authentic self. I went from being the young woman who would recite The Desiderata at the school talent show to a midriff baring choreographed Destiny’s Child wannabe member.
It was during this period that I discovered you. I was growing into an inquisitive and very opinionated and outspoken young woman, writing had become the natural progression. Writing not reading, was now the escape route. It became a way for me to express myself when I felt I had no one else to talk to or confide in. On the outside I had become “cool”. No more name calling. I had more “friends” and more fashionable clothes. I was “wanted”. But on the inside I was tormented, confused and struggling with the demons that came with the new me. The demons that created the new me. Desperate for a keen listening ear, I’d write shockingly morose poetry. I’ll then shred up the paper into tiny pieces and throw it away. To distract myself from myself, I started writing about other things. I was encouraged to enter writing competitions by my English teacher. One entry was on the war in Sierra Leone but I wasn’t happy with the way it ended. It seemed incomplete. I needed something more hard-hitting. I searched and read all sorts. Bearing in mind there was no Google then, this just meant long hours in the library. Eventually I discovered your gem that is Still I Rise and there it was!
“…Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, let us rise into a daybreak that is wondrously clear. Let us remember we are the hopes and dreams of the slave…”
I went on to win the competition. It wasn’t my first win but it was the first published win, thanks to you I’m inclined to say. I still have my certificate and though the tuck shop vouchers have since been spent, I kept photocopies. Still have a copy of the IB World Magazine that published it. Still remember the poetry recitals. Still remember the radio interview that followed as the Lome Peace Talks were ongoing at the time. Still remember how for a while my smile was a little brighter, my head was held up a little higher. I stood up straight and walked a little taller as though I truly believed that I could “tower above my circumstances”. This was my kind of “cool”. At some point I am pretty certain I was holding an imaginary Pulitzer.
It was you who taught me that poetry simply had to be powerful in its delivery. It didn’t have to rhyme. Still I Rise and Phenomenal Woman made enough of an impact for me to want to find out more about you. And so I discovered I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I must now confess that I didn’t read it all. I skipped a few pages. Blame it on immaturity; I lacked the patience needed to savour the story with each turn of the page . Blame it on my eagerness to find out how the story ended. But I read enough to remember the abandonment, the racial discrimination, the rejection, the rape, the resentment, the guilt, the reclusion. In between all of that, there were the divine moments of self-discovery, forgiveness and love. I would later find out more about your life as a single mother and the sacrifices you made to provide for your family. And this is where I promise that I will one day go back and read it all over again, page by page this time.
Something about your story made me realise that I too can let go and rise. One painful experience didn’t have to define me or determine my path. I can choose to be “cool” on my own terms. That hurtful words didn’t have to pierce through me. That I could be my own best friend. I didn’t have to follow fashion and I definitely didn’t have to belong to contrived friendship circles that looked like they had been lifted out of the pages of a Sweet Valley High novel. I felt like I had been given permission to be my true assertive, confident but also perfectly imperfect self.
Even though your story resonated, it would take another couple of years for me to finally surrender to myself. I came to the realisation that I was trying too hard to attain the impossible. I accepted that things will not always go my way but so what? Why should I put myself above the vicissitudes of life? I began to find strength in my weaknesses. My glass gradually became half full. I knew that no matter how terrible things may seem, they could be worse. A lot worse. I accepted that everything happens for a reason. I accepted that it wasn’t my fault. I forgave myself. I let go of the pain and forgave my afflictor. I learnt when to build walls and when to break them down, when to put on my armour and when to aim and shoot. When to attack and when to retreat and surrender. I uncaged myself. I became a survivor and not a victim. I became a Souljah who fought adversity and won. I learnt from my mistakes, took responsibility and gained strength in so doing.
My diary entries continued to chronicle my emotional growth. At the time I wrote for me. I had things to get off my chest and that was that. I realised that good can come out of evil because out of the pain, my writing voice was born. I found writing very therapeutic. It gave me freedom. Sometimes, internal conflicts may stem from a fear of being judged or misunderstood. I realised that I can fight that battle through words on paper. I not only rediscovered myself, but I also liberated myself through writing.
Your writing inspired and uplifted me. You taught me that the mind has no boundaries. That I can create, explore and develop a whole new world and then get totally lost in it. I can be in control. I can be me. I remain a work in progress. Life is teaching me and I am still learning. Just over two decades after first hearing her say them, I can now honestly say that I believe my mother’s words. I am beautiful. In my entirety. “Beauty is not perfection,” she kept telling me. To her I am the most beautiful star. She would say; “You have to believe in yourself before others will believe in you and when you do trust me your star will shine brightly from within. That is when you will come alive.” The way I see it, I had to lose a piece of myself so that I can love my whole better.
I will never be perfect. You too Grandma Maya have said that I don’t have to be. You said that “courage is the most important of all the virtues”. Because without courage I cannot practice any of the other virtues consistently. Consistency not perfection is what I now aspire to. Every day I pray for the courage to consistently be me. I pray for the courage to believe in me. I pray for the courage to be true. I pray for the courage to come alive. I pray for the courage to humbly accept my purpose. I pray for the courage to strive. I pray for the courage to thrive through the strife. I pray for the courage to shine. “Just like moons and like the sun, with the certainty of tides, just like hopes springing high”, for you I will continue to rise. And if ever I am too weak to rise, I pray I will be courageous enough to soar through the cloudy skies. As I do, may your spirit soar to the highest heavens and rest in poise and peace supreme.
Yours in Love and Truth,
An Uncaged Bird.
WATCH: Maya Angelou on Courage