I met Dr. Maya Angelou in 2010 when I was a magazine editor covering her 82nd birthday — a grand garden party celebration. “We are all gardeners at our best,” she said then to me and others. We nurture (or hurt) humans just as we help or harm the plant variety. “When we accept the responsibility to look after something other than our very selves, we really become citizens of the world.”
Maya Angelou will always shine as one of the ultimate examples of such a global citizen. Underneath all her accomplishments and accolades, at her core she was the essence of light and love. As I came to know her more, my husband and I couldn’t help but also think of her as the ideal, uber-wise grandmother — the kind who hugs you tightly, prays God’s best for you, and tells you that you best act right because you’re too blessed to do otherwise!
In the time I was fortunate to know her, of all the wisdom she shared with me, here are five things I learned from her that we all should do:
1. Forgive (others and yourself). “Give for” people who harm you. “Forgiveness is one way not to drag the hurt around,” she said. Otherwise, “it becomes overweight luggage that you don’t need…So find someone who needs something, and I give in the name of the person who has hurt my feelings. The person doesn’t know it; the recipient doesn’t know; but God knows and I know. And once I do it I’m finished with him, too,” she said with a deep, low laugh. “Oprah asked me if it’s true that I forgive but I don’t invite them for lunch, and I said, Absolutely!”
2. Acknowledge change as loss—and gain. “I don’t think you ever get over a loss,” she told me last year. Whether a death or address change or job loss “you absorb it, and it becomes a part of your life’s fabric that you wear.” And if you wear it properly, “you become that much more interesting. And if you have courage, you also become more interested” in life and everyone around you.
3. Believe more (in your creator, yourself, and others). Faith was something we talked about during almost every conversation (and sometimes
she sang hymns, which I adored). “Everybody has something they do well,” she told me for an article a couple of years ago. “I agree with the poet who says that we come from the creator, trailing wisps of glory. Each of us comes from the creator with a talent. Sometimes people have forgotten, or it has been knocked out of them by the people around them. But find what you can do well, do it, and be grateful.”
4. Ride the elephant (aka embrace opportunities). Years ago when she and a friend had the chance to ride “a precarious pachyderm,” she didn’t hesitate. “Well, of course we will! How could we not?” she recalled in her signature molasses voice. She was given a plaque to commemorate the occasion; I bought a cuff bracelet not long ago with a metal elephant on it to remind me always to “ride the elephant.” Whatever the possibility or challenge, embrace what life is giving you. The culmination is more than the sum of your life; “it’s your legacy — all the things you’ve encountered and overcome and those which have overcome you. Every triumph and every fear, they all become a part of you. What you have to do with it, though, is you make the decision and choices of how to wear it” and share it.
5. Love, always. She repeatedly told me that having her son, Guy Johnson, was by far her best accomplishment. “Everything else falls behind him.” Family and friends (and adopted family who knew her best as Auntie Maya) made up the crucial foundation of Maya Angelou’s life. (And most everyone fell into that category to a degree, because she realized connection was key to knowing and loving others: “I believe if we could get children by the time they’re six years old to see that the world is made of all sorts of people, it would be very hard to teach them racism.”) Whether it was recalling her grandmother fixing cathead biscuits or sharing how she was so proud of Guy for what a “true knockout” of a person/son/husband/father he is, or telling me how she was “amazed but so thankful” for the millions of fans who followed her on Facebook…the common thread she chose to weave into her legacy was pure love. We should, too.
The last time I visited her Winston-Salem home (even sunnier on the inside than its exterior color), I strolled through her back yard and thought of the sweet basil plants she gave me and all her birthday guests in 2010; mine took up residence in my kitchen window, where I’d whisper “Grow. Thrive.”– my prayer for the herb and me and all of humanity. Dr. Maya Angelou was the best kind of gardener, sharing her knowledge and empowering others while sowing a rich life of words and deeds that took root, grew, and continue to yield harvests all over the world, in so many places and individuals. Now imagine how the world and the people in it will flourish if we continue her work and add to her legacy — and ours.
Emily-Sarah Lineback is a Piedmont Triad, N.C.-based writer and editor.
Former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey: The voice of Maya Angelou gave rise to others