Since learning of Maya Angelou’s death on May 28th, I’ve been trying to find my photographs of her and I together when I met her at a book signing in 2004. Most of my photographs, books and mementos are still in boxes, having moved so many times over the years.
I also asked myself how I first discovered Maya. It’s funny how sometimes we can’t remember something and we send that question out to the universe and the answer comes flying back.
Suddenly it came to me, fresh as that day nineteen years ago. It was 1995 and I was eighteen, working a temp assignment in Valencia, CA where I grew up. It was one of those one or two week assignments and this one was a telemarketing job with Shield Healthcare.
I was on my lunch break, sitting with another temp who was also a teenager. She was also a blond haired, blue eyed girl who had grown up in sheltered Valencia like me. Valencia in the 80’s & 90’s was 99.9 percent White. The residents were middle to upper class, many of which drove Volvo’s & BMW’s. It was the epitome of Yuppie Suburbia.
The young blond was reading I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings during her break and she was engrossed in it. I can’t remember if we discussed the book or not, but seeing her reading it, sparked my curiosity and I went out shortly thereafter and bought the book.
It was a quick read. I finished it in a couple days and that was it. I was hooked. I had to learn more about this amazing woman. I wanted to learn more about her life. I bought her book of poems. Then I bought every Maya book that was in print at that time. I had already been writing poetry and songs for years before I discovered her, but Maya inspired me to write more poetry, and more than anything, she inspired me to start writing down the events of my life on paper…and I did. I started keeping journals and started writing down events as they happened. Especially when I started reading my poetry at bookstores in Los Angeles in my early 20’s. I met so many colorful characters, I didn’t want to forget anything. I was inspired by how vivid the scenes of her life were in the books.
In 1996, I moved out on my own into this little guest house in Topanga Canyon. I was the epitome of a teenage Californian hippie girl and proud of it. I had hair all the way down my back. I was a vegetarian. I wore long skirts from clothing boutiques in Venice and a good majority of my clothes were from thrift stores. My favorite pair of shoes at the time were a pair of Birkenstock clogs that were a size too big, but I loved them so much, I bought them anyway.
My little guest house was a small studio on the side of a 3 story house. I had to walk down a steep rickety wooden staircase to get to my door, and I would walk this staircase in my clogs that were too big. I’m lucky I never killed myself! The studio had two walk in closets, one of which was made into a kitchen with a small fridge and microwave. I paid $350 a month!
Shortly after moving into my own apartment, I started dating a significantly older man who also happened to love Maya Angelou. In November of 1996, he and I drove up to Santa Barbara to attend one of Maya’s speaking engagements at the beautiful old Arlington Theatre. During the show, he turned to me and said “You’re going to live a life like that.” I told him he was crazy. I certainly would never experience many of the trials that Maya had, but I knew what he was saying. I knew he was telling me that I would lead a full and productive and beautiful life and that I would have a lot to write about. And he would be right.
In October of 2004, I stood in line for hours to meet Maya Angelou at her book signing for her new release Hallelujah!, at what was Borders Books in Westwood, CA. I was working in Westwood at the time on Wilshire Blvd, and just happened to stop in the bookstore on my lunch break one day when I saw the posters. I could not believe it. I had the chance to meet one of my greatest heroes.
While I was waiting in line, I made friends with a woman named Carol. This was long before we all had smartphones with cameras and Carol had her camera with her so we made a deal. If I took photos of her and Maya together, she would take photos of Maya and I and she would mail me the photos.
Maya was precious, very friendly. I remember her being in a very good mood. She had several female security guards around her. I asked her what advice she would give a singer/songwriter/performer. At first she seemed thrown by the question and paused for a moment to think about it. Then she told me that I should be sure to speak my lyrics out loud and listen to how the lyrics sound spoken, before ever attempting to sing them. Thinking back, that was very interesting, given that I started doing poetry readings in Los Angeles to get over my fear of performing, long before I started performing my music live.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve found all of my beloved Maya items; my program from that speaking engagement at the Arlington Theater in 1996 and all of my Maya books. The very first ones I ever bought, when I was eighteen, that have yellow pages now, as well as my autographed books. And I finally found those photos of Maya and I together, taken 10 years ago. I will cherish them for the rest of my life.
I could not remember what Maya had written in my books that night in 2004. I hadn’t looked at them in years. This may sound odd but, as I opened the books, I could feel her presence. It felt like she was there with me. I smiled when I saw that she had written “Joy!” with an exclamation mark!
One of the many things I’ve always loved about Maya is that she always seemed to embrace life with the same excitement and passion that I do. She seemed incredibly positive and joyful, confident and loving. I’ve always said that I’m just trying to squeeze every ounce of joy out of life as possible. Joy is something that I’ve always had to guard closely. I’ve learned that some people will try to take it. Much of what I hold dear in life, whatever is important and sacred, I guard fiercely and joy is sacred.
Thank you Maya for inspiring myself and so many. Inspiring me to detail the stories of my life so that I never forget them. Thank you for inspiring me to live life to it’s fullest, to never complain about my situation, to either make a change or change my attitude if I’m unhappy. I will never forget your voice. Both your spoken voice and your written voice. Your spirit and life lessons live on. I greatly look forward to teaching my daughter your greatest quotes as she gets older. I hope to meet you again one day, but not for a real long time. I have a long, full life to live like you did and my work here is far from done.
Your spirit will be alive and present in my life as I live everyday with an abundance of Joy.
That’s Joy with a very big exclamation point!