5 Quotes from Maya Angelou to Live By

Poet and novelist Maya Angelou addresses the audience at the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America - Mobile Chapter 30th Anniversary Celebration program, Tuesday, Sept 12, 2006, in Mobile, Ala. (AP Photo/Press-Register, John David Mercer)

Maya Angelou

Yesterday, one of my literary heroes passed on.

These days, I am fascinated, captivated by people who are extraordinary, who bump against the upper limits of humanity and are able to tap into a wisdom and creative genius approaching the divine.

I believe Maya Angelou was one of those people.  It was a dream of mine, a childish fantasy perhaps, to become a well-known writer and one day gain access to her, meet her in person and pick her brain, and until then I settled for reading her works and listening to her words of wisdom.  I gravitate toward women like Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Oprah Winfrey and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie because, like me, they are part of one of the most underestimated groups of people on the planet: black women. But the souls housed in those beautiful, black, female bodies are (and in Ms. Angelou’s case were) so powerful that they weren’t about to let something as trivial as centuries of social pigeonholing keep them back. Like a child playing dress-up in her mama’s shoes, I hobble after in their footsteps.

I could go on and on about Maya Angelou’s credentials for being a global treasure: her multiple degrees, her dozens of awards, her activism during the civil rights movement, but I’ll let her speak for herself. Here are some of the best pieces of knowledge Maya Angelou has dropped like life preservers on our floundering society. Whether you’re black, white or blue, man, woman, both or neither, I urge you to read on and gain some insight into what it means to live on a higher plane of consciousness, to see what humanity could be capable of if we would only stop getting distracted by the little things that, on our death beds, we realized never really mattered. Because as Ms. Angelou says, “I speak to the black experience, but I am always talking about the human condition.”

When someone shows you who they are, believe them.

Oh, how I have suffered from ignoring this head-slappingly simple advice. I’ve even played this theme out in my current novel. Too often, we let people dangle carrots in front of us or worse, imagine a carrot when one isn’t even there. It took a long time for me to stop ignoring the red flags when I saw them, so afraid of losing foes in friend’s clothing. According to Ms. Angelou, we need to recognize unacceptable behavior when we see it and just deal.

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

A lot of you will recognize this as the first stanza of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman”. It might seem like a feminist manifesto, but when you look closer these are the words of someone who, like I said before, is aware that she is something divine. That race or size or even gender can’t stop her from being phenomenal, and in fact only add to her magnificence.  I think if everyone viewed themselves this way, we’d be able to achieve utopia.

I love to see a young girl go out and grab life by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.

I’m trying, Ms. Angelou. I quit my day job, and now I’m an expert on Japanese instant ramen, the cheapest trains to work, and cutting and styling my own hair, all so I can write books that may never see the light of day. I might fail, but if I don’t try I will fail.

Now take young girl and replace it with underdog, because frequently that’s what we are, and Ms. Angelou knows this. Anytime the haters try to tell you who you are and what your place is, just go out there and kick some more ass.

I’ve learned that making a living is not the same as making a life.

Ah yes, I especially see this one played out on the streets and in the classrooms of Tokyo. I cringe when junior high or high school students tell me their dream is to become an “office worker”. I used to think this was due to a language barrier, but I’ve since realized that no, for some of these kids, the dream is actually just working in an office, doing any job.

Who am I to look down on someone’s dream of working twelve hours a day with no overtime pay, you might be thinking. People can want whatever the hell they want. This is true, but Japan does have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. The majority of the suicides are men ages 20-54, coincidentally the bulk of the Japanese workforce.

Maybe it’s just not sustainable for everyone to live their dream, but we’ll never know because we’ve never tried. I, for one, am literally sick of merely making a living. TMI moment, I’ve gotten ulcers, and daily nervous diarrhea from working jobs I hated. And people are out there killing themselves, so according to nature, this can’t be how we’re meant to exist. Which brings me to my final quote:

If you’re always trying to be normal, you’ll never know how amazing you can be.

For years, I was obsessed with fitting in. I’m so glad I’ve finally realized I never will. Mediocrity is overrated anyway.

I could keep going, but you really should check her out for yourself. You won’t regret it.







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