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And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

~ from When Great Trees Fall by MAYA ANGELOU (1928 -2014)

I first encountered Maya Angelou’s writing as a young teacher in America. In the English textbook provided to me by the school district was an excerpt from “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and even though it was the story of a black woman’s childhood in the South during the 1930s and 1940s, it resonated deeply with me, then a young woman from another generation, from a tiny country on the other side of the world. Maya Angelou’s story and its humanity reached far out into the universe and took up permanent residence in our hearts.

I remember reading aloud to teenagers from affluent white families, Angelou’s lyrical and clear-eyed account of the harrowing world in which she had been abandoned by her parents, abused, raped as a child by her mother’s boyfriend, left homeless, poor, and, for almost five years, unable to speak. But in this tumultuous life, she also fell in love with William Shakespeare and Dickens, with the written and spoken word.  And we are all the better for that. The lesson for my students? As Anne Frank wrote in her diary,

I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.

And such beauty. At 86, the indomitable Maya Angelou was active on Twitter, sending out to almost half a million followers, soul-stirring messages in 140 characters or less. Messages such as this, her final Tweet just six days ago.

Screen shot 2014-05-29 at 12.46.55 AM

– reminding me again of her ability to convey something intensely personal, yet public, in the same moment.

Over the years, I have collected pieces of home-spun wisdom that I turn to when the going gets tough (as it invariably does). Growing up, I was often told, “show me who your friends are, and I’ll show you who you are.” That has turned out to be true. With age, comes even greater discernment and wisdom, and with the death of Maya Angelou, I am thinking of advice she dispensed a time or two, advice I have not always heeded:

people know themselves much better than you do. That’s why it’s important to stop expecting them to be something other than who they are.

My hope for my daughter is that she will learn that the very first time a person lies to her or about her will be the first of all the other times; the very first time someone wounds her with indifference or arrogance, manipulation or meanness, acts merely as precedent. The same might be said for integrity and loyalty which I suppose is why betrayal hurts so much, or as Arthur Miller once put it, why it is “the only truth that sticks.”

When people show you who they are, believe them.

Yes. I should believe people the first time they show me who they really are, as opposed to the second or third or tenth. Then I will know, sooner rather than later, whether to walk this road with them or without them, dignity intact either way.

And for that perspective, Maya Angelou, I am forever in your debt.

maya-angelou-writing-vintage-black-and-white-portrait

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