Poet, writer, civil rights activist, professor, filmmaker, dramatist, singer, Grammy Award winner: Maya Angelou, 83, has also been called the nation’s premier memoirist. She was in Washington last week speaking about her long, rich life. Having come to prominence in 1970 with the publication of her acclaimed first memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Angelou still teaches, still writes, still travels, though she is physically more limited these days. In February she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her lifetime contributions.
Appearing at a conference organized by LeadingAge, an advocacy and education group, Angelou recounted stories of her childhood, broke into soft song, told jokes and read from her poems, including “The Health-Food Diner,” an ode to her previous life as what the poem calls a “carnivore smoking”:
No sprouted wheat and soya shoots
And Brussels in a cake,
Carrot straw and spinach raw,
(Today, I need a steak).
Her audience loved it, applauding and laughing.
Angelou, who speaks English, French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and the West African language of Fanti, spent a few minutes before her appearance talking with The Washington Post about aging.
When did you start feeling your age?
(She laughs.) This morning, getting in and out of that bus. Generally, I feel good.
What is the best part about aging?
Wisdom. Enough wisdom to thank your creator, if you believe there is one, or your luck, if you don’t.
What has been the hardest?
Finding I had muscles I didn’t know I had, and joints that I didn’t know could be so recalcitrant. The physical discomfort is probably the worst.
Has aging changed your creative process?
Not at all. I am just finishing a new book. It will be my 32nd book. [My mind] is good. It’s a good mind, and I keep it active. I play word games and do crossword puzzles, acrostics and word jumbles. And I speak a few languages. I take every advantage to use one of the languages. That keeps the brain active.
What do you hold most dear?
Love. I don’t mean indulgent love. I mean that condition of the human spirit that is so profound that it can allow us to look at people and not eat each other up, to accord each other some rights and to go further than that, to try to love them, whatever that mystery is. To love people who don’t look like us, who have different complexions and different hair, and to love them. To feel empathy for pets and wildlife. It’s amazing.
And what of friends?
That is love. I don’t mean sexuality. I mean sensuality.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
My greatest blessing is giving birth to my son. [Guy Johnson, born in 1945, is a writer.]
I wish I had known more, but I didn’t. I only knew as much as I did at that time. The most wonderful thing, as soon as possible, is to forgive yourself. People do only what they know what to do, not what you think they should do. Not because they were experienced or were exposed to this and went to this school and have this degree. We think they know, but not necessarily. Intellectually they might memorize certain statements. But they don’t know, in fact. When I have made mistakes, I forgive myself. I forgive anyone who comes in my earshot. I try to make sure I don’t make that one [mistake] again.