Maya Angelou

May 28 is the 10th anniversary of the death of Maya Angelou. It is also 55 years since the publication of her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Both the date and year are intricately connected in my life.

1969

In 1969 I graduated with honors from Wagner College, had a job teaching kindergarten starting in the fall in the lovely town of West Caldwell New Jersey. My childhood was officially over. I was launching into what was a planned, graceful entrance into adulthood. 

Of course it didn’t turn out smoothly as planned. But still, the launch was on. The true north in this early adulthood era  was the “job” which became a beloved 28-year career, guiding, teaching young children, and being taught, in turn, by being with them.

I spent the summer of 1969 drifting from a friend’s home with her folks to the upscale Barbizon Hotel, “a boardinghouse hotel for women” in NYC. It was a drifting with a knowing of what and where I wanted to settle, but needing to first drop off some baggage of beliefs and misplaced loyalty to “shoulds” and cultural expectations of a “good girl” before settling into womanhood and my first studio apartment on Staten Island, New York.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

In 1969 I was also in the orbit of Malachi Lee, a charismatic black martial arts champion and his friends, acquaintances, and karate students in NYC. It was either Mal or his friend Ron who showed me I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “She broke out of her cage. You can break out of yours too.” I read it. Got my own copy. Read it again-underlined phrases. Cried and started a journal about my own cage. 

Only over years have I seen, felt, and understood the cage I was in. I remember what was described as a sentimental song from childhood, I’m Only a Bird In a Gilded Cage. A beautiful woman married for money (security), not love. Seeing a black and white film clip of this – the woman had long flowing hair, a sweet face; she is swinging gently in her cage. As a young girl I was confused- OK she’s beautiful, she’s got money- two quite nice attributes. But the money wasn’t hers , and only her physical beauty was appreciated. How is that a good thing?

 A far different cage from the one Maya Angelou was thrust into. How did she find the strength, the courage to be brave, to keep going in the face of all that blocked her path- racism, abuse, poverty? She had survival strength, the fight to break out. And so began decades of following the life of Maya Angelou through her books, newspaper articles, and as time went on – films, interviews, videos, Oprah, YouTube.

Who are Your Rainbow People?

It was one of Maya Angelou’s masterclasses, “Be a Rainbow in Someone Else’s Cloud” that gave me a tool I still use today.

“Be a Rainbow in Someone Else’s Cloud” is metaphoric talisman that gives me the courage to get through my tough times. One line from a 19th century African American song is the treasure in Maya Angelou’s talk: “When it looks like the sun won’t shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.”

Maya Angelou: I’ve had a lot of clouds, but I’ve had so many rainbows.

Big nod of recognition at that.

Everyone has tough times in their life. This is not to diminish the pain and dehumanization anyone’s experiences. I frequently feel a visceral  anger about the cages in which others are imprisoned.

I think only each individual can define what’s tough for them. “Tough” for one friend was saying no to her parent’s supporting her financially (with many strings attached). Some toughies for me: Tough: quitting drinking (not trying to quit. Who was it who said, “Trying is lying”?), when someone dies, recovery after a stroke, the deep mourning at the loss of a friend or relative, addressing the ignorance of remarks like “girls can’t do that,” and on and on along the spectrum of tough times, fear, and pain.  

Here’s my version of what Maya Angelou suggests, aka, the Rx, to prepare for the tough times.

First: List all the crap that happened. Brainstorm; don’t spend hours on this. The times, situations, remarks will come pretty fast. 

Then: List all the people who listened to you, supported you emotionally, gave gifts of friendship, a safe home, kindness, honesty, affirmation, time, respect, or love during tough times. They are your rainbow people, or heroes, or angels, or spirit guides. At some point in your life, thank those people (in person, in writing, by living the way they showed you) I can be someone’s rainbow in just the same ways.

Finally: “Take”  some of your rainbow people with you to the tough times.

Instead of all the old stuff I 86’d along the way, most days I mentally bring a few of my rainbow people with me. When I get up on stage to tell a true story, when I get in my car, when I go to the doctor to question a decision they deem best for me, when I share non-traditional ideas in a workshop. 

When I had a decision to make concerning my friend’s drinking, I struggled with the question: Do you want to be her friend or sponsor? If you have this difficult conversation and reach out a hand to help as a sponsor- that conversation will always be between you. The conversation required a whole entourage of rainbow people. There were far more hours spent with her than we might have spent as friends. We did not go shopping or have lunch together. We read, talked, cried, laughed, wrote, and I came to find I held her in my heart and learned and loved myself more from this connection. I became a sponsor mainly because a rainbow woman did that for me and it worked!

When I say no to protect my boundaries, to avoid the bars of a cage descending that will block my physical, emotional, spiritual or financial security, I take some rainbow people with me. I have the memories of courage and kindness from my family, KB, MAB, EM, KM, J., AA, MQ, FQ, L., EC, some people whose names I never knew. I know they’ve got my back. And it feels good.

Who are your rainbow people? 

Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about people, the power of words, and her writing life. She retired after 30 years of teaching, and semi-retired from coaching, and professional editing. Founder of the Eastside Writing Room based in Tucson AZ, she’s posted 100s of blogs, and is the author of Thinking of Miller Place, and Seedlings, Stories of Relationships. These days she writes to inspire, to connect with folks, teaching about the power of words, gather writers together, and for the pure enjoyment of it. Ethel enjoys speaking and storytelling at Odyssey Storytelling, Artists Standing Strong Together, Center for Spiritual Living Tucson, and anywhere there’s a mic or a Zoom room.