The average life is full of moments; moments that you cherish, moments that you regret, moments of joy and others of pain. Every so often there are those moments that are more than you could have imagined they would be, like a moment spent in conversation with Dr. Maya Angelou. For an average guy like me, a conversation with Dr. Angelou is full of moments as well; moments of awe, moments of insight, and moments that are just like being home.
A little over 4 years ago two classmates and I drove 850 miles to meet and talk with Dr. Maya Angelou. We were doing a research project where Dr. Angelou’s autobiographies were the subjects so we requested an interview with her and she graciously accepted. So the three of us rented a car filled it snacks, luggage, and a heap of giddy nervousness and drove for two days to drink great white wine, tour an incredible personal collection of art, and encounter the most thought provoking discussion I have ever known. Meeting Dr. Angelou, I was overcome by how real she was. I believe that she is the most emotionally developed human being I have ever met. She was whole; balanced, focused, and empathetic. When we finished talking with Dr. Angelou and we left her home that day I remember very well that all of our heads were spinning but I also remember this impression of her, that I had never met anyone who embodies so many different values.
I have always believed myself to be a balanced person, and I have always tried to model myself after balanced people. It seems that balanced people are easy to spot. They are usually calm people, confident people. People who are able to laugh with their friends, appropriately conflict with their opponents, and take long walks with themselves. Dr. Angelou is all that, but she takes balance to a new level. Case in point, during our meeting Dr. Angelou invited an older woman who had come for a visit, in for lunch. I watched as Dr. Angelou listened to her, made polite conversation with her, and likely faked interest in some of her topics. And then I watched Dr. Angelou slam her fist down on the table and sternly give direction about appropriate conversation at the table, to a woman who probably was alive when Moses parted the sea. I could tell you that my jaw was on my lap but I don’t think that would capture the shock and discomfort I felt in that moment. The craziest thing of all was that the correction was made and the conversation just rolled on as if someone had only sneezed. Dr. Angelou turned to me once the moment had past, probably because she noticed that I had shrunk into the fetal position on the floor beneath my chair and she said “Now don’t talk to me about such things at the table, you wanna talk about that, we’ll go into the living room, and throw down.” I was so scared by the idea of arguing with her that I peed just a little. Dr. Angelou can be intimidating.
Lying in my hotel room that night, more distant from the trauma of that moment, I thought about Dr. Angelou’s ‘throw down’ statement and said to myself how much more inviting, welcoming, and warm would our homes be if we could maintain appropriate conversation as Dr. Angelou had. And how much more productive would our conflicts be if made room for them. Never in my life had I seen someone be so passionate in her politeness as well as her sternness. I think that the reason Dr. Angelou could move so easily from one to the other was because she whole hearted believed in the values that were leading her words and actions. She believed in being a polite hostess and she believed in keeping the table as a place of simple fellowship and she made no apologies for either value. She held both values sharply within herself ready to make use of them. This is without question the most memorable example of balance I have ever experienced. Dr. Angelou did not compartmentalize any part of herself she was polite, meek, directive, and passive in every moment. It was a true philosophical shift for me to know that a personality could be so diverse and yet still consistent and complete.
Another indication of her completeness is Dr. Angelou’s undeniable focus. When speaking to Dr, Angelou she demands your entire attention because she moves so seamlessly from one topic to the next and speaks with such passion and insight on every topic that every inch of your mind is captivated. I think that at many points I became afraid that I would miss something if I got lost even for a second, because she had so much insight to pass on to us. Every sentence was inspiring and every topic was given new meaning.
During that interview it became apparent to my friends and I just how present Dr. Angelou was, she never searched for words or waited to encapsulate her feelings. Her passions and ideas were constantly flowing through her and they were inspiring incredible expressions moment by moment. This ability to be present was so evident that we actually discussed it as a topic itself. It was at this time that Dr. Angelou expressed to us just how important it was to her that people be present in their present, focused on their what and where right now, and let tomorrow take care of itself. It is an idea that we all should carry with us. Though I understand the importance of that kind of focus, I still find it impossible to maintain. Dr. Angelou helped me see how I can never be wholly myself until I am wholly in the moment I am living.
I also think that because she is so ‘in the moment’ with a constant flow of passion and ideas, Dr. Angelou has an almost inhuman ability to empathize. Her ability to empathize makes her a powerful influence to anyone that would open themselves to her. In our conversation, I was given the opportunity, by my peers and by Dr. Angelou, to review with Dr. Angelou a particular part of her autobiography that I found to have a lot of meaning for me. This allowed me to hear the meaning that part of her history held for her. When I brought up this particular part of Dr. Angelou’s life she threw her head back and her arms up and she actually shed tears. She shed tears about a passage that she had wrote about 25 years ago and that she had lived about 25 years before that. Yet she seemed to feel the experience in almost the same way as when she lived it. And because she was able to find that place I truly felt connected to her in that moment, because I had a thread of that meaning myself.
Dr. Angelou’s ability to connect was evident for me even before I met her. I am not a big reader; really, if I saw this article I probably would not read it myself. But I read Dr. Angelou’s biographies and I enjoyed reading them, and I believe that it is her ability to empathize, even in her writing that makes her a compelling author. Dr. Angelou is able to ascribe meaning to her experiences and they are often meanings that we encounter in our own life life that we can not articulate ourselves. So we read Dr. Angelou’s work and her experiences, though often more dramatic than our own, connect with us and we don’t know why until she attaches meaning to her experiences, and it helps us to add meaning in our own experiences. In doing so Dr. Angelou is able to put her finger on our pulse and tells us we will survive despite our struggle. I cannot express how much I loved being understood so deeply, having my own meanings uncovered for me, and having my life lessons presented to me so clearly. It was quite a sensation.
I once heard a journalist talking about Michael Jordan and saying that Michael Jordan is one of those guys that lives up to the hype. Well reflecting on that interview with Dr. Angelou I realize that Dr. Maya Angelou is the Michael Jordan of authors. I imagine if I had the opportunity to speak with many of my favourite authors I would likely find that they are fairly average people, with average social skills, conversation, and ideas but simply have a gift for writing. Dr. Angelou is not that, she is a larger than life fountain of wisdom. No matter what is built up in your mind about what an encounter with Dr. Angelou would be like I promise you that it would be more, because she is more, more than the hype, and more than a figure in the media. She was so much more that I think that it was hard for me to pick out her balance, focus, and empathy as central parts of her character. Yet I did so in the hopes that by trying to keep these fundamental qualities in my life, the mountain of insights that she left with me will not completely fall away.