I am keenly aware now that I began looking for mother and father figures at any early age. Teachers fit the bill beautifully. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Levine. My seventh grade teacher, Mr. Sutherland. Then poets began widening that circle when I was fourteen and hiding in the library every day during lunch at my new school – to avoid the practically cinematic “new kid” bullying. Anne Sexton. e.e. cummings. Strange parental figures, perhaps, but nonetheless…
The year my mother died, I was asked to read two poems at the Peace Pole Dedication Ceremony at the College where I teach. One of the poems I read was the one I mention above, “People” by Yevtushenko. There was another woman at the ceremony who was widely known for her long-term volunteer work in our communities. She had my mother’s face. She had my mother’s smile. When she spoke, it seemed to me, she had my mother’s voice. She spoke about the importance of community and helping one another. I thought about my mother’s volunteer work throughout her life. Soup Kitchens. Elementary school reading programs. I thought about how my mother most likely would not be asked to speak publicly at a Dedication Ceremony. It hit me that the major difference between this woman speaking and my mother was self-love and self-confidence. I thought about how quietly my mother’s own personal story moved through the world, not demanding or commanding much attention – and yet… how important she was to me, how powerful, how gracious, how beautiful. I wished desperately that she could feel those things about herself.
When I was in my first year at college, I found a book in the poetry section at a bookstore called I Shall Not Be Moved. I have no idea what attracted me to it. Probably the same thing that used to make me buy albums: the shiny interesting cover. I had already immersed myself in so much poetry but as I began reading Maya Angelou’s poems, I heard a slightly different, more secure, more forthright voice that wasn’t just “powerful” but literally full of some kind of power that felt to me like magic. At that time, it was my habit to read most (and sometimes all) of a book of poetry right in the store before I bought it. I stood between the shelves with Angelou’s book in my hands and I began reading. When I had made my way through every poem in that book, I found another And Still I Rise. I felt hungry for more of this poet’s words. I couldn’t have said why then. What attracts us to certain words is the same thing that attracts us to certain music or certain faces or certain bodies. There is something we need in them, something that comes from someplace inside of us that we are usually not even aware of at the time. I kept reading. By the time I was done reading the poem, “Still I Rise,”, I had found yet another mother.
“Still I Rise” is a poem spoken in the face of the oppressor, the person who wants to see you down, who wants to see you broken. For me, that “oppressor” was a ferocious self-hatred created by years of abuse – some physical but mostly emotional and sexual – that had left me full of misdirected rage, an amorphous and constant terror, and plain-old confusion. And into that face, that presence, Angelou declares an immovable self-love and refuses to be a victim. There was so much in me I was utterly unaware of when I began reading that poem, so much that brought me to that poem and through that poem that once I read I could no longer ignore. It was the moment Ranier Maria Rilke describes in his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” “for here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” I felt seen. I felt spoken for. Angelou’s voice grabbed me by the chin and lifted up my head and said, “stop letting anyone or anything steal your joy, baby.” And I finally started listening.
What I didn’t realize until only recently is that my real mother’s messages were not so very different than Angelou’s. My mother wanted me to love myself and be strong and “rise.” She wanted this for all of her children. Any decent mother (I know there are plenty of indecent ones) – if given the chance to access her highest self-- does. But some mothers are so deep down in their own self-hatred that the message doesn’t get through. My mother was wise. She possessed a wisdom that I almost always overlooked. She possessed a strength and perseverance that I grossly underestimated while she was still alive. I connect most viscerally to this strength, this unwavering spirit and the love my mother wanted me to feel when I am in the kitchen with her.
And so here we are, in the kitchen, beautiful Ramona and I, unashamedly shedding tears for the passing of another beautiful mother. There has been and will continue to be an outpouring of grief and mourning for Maya Angelou (let this be a lesson to the critics and uptight, pretentious academics who failed – and still fail-- to see the value in Angelou’s work – your opinion is small and insignificant and rooted in your own inability to feel compassion for the world around you or understand those people living outside your limited, privileged sphere) and, though the social-network-media-circus web we communicate in will undoubtedly annoy many of us (this blog post is no exception, I realize), I believe this outpouring of grief and mourning is natural and reasonable for a woman who was able to reach across every possible boundary and “mother” us all.
It is, of course, Angelou’s own, biological family that has the worst work to do now. This morning, while the birds are waking in darkness and my own daughter stirs and calls me away from the kitchen, I am adding my prayers to the universe that their grief is softened in some small way by the profound light their Maya offered the world.
And with love.