Sunday, March 10, 2013

Live! At The Oakland Paramount

ORIGINAL POST 02/16/2007:
i am still marinating in her words, her message, her presence

the lady to my left i think was representative of many others in the audience; a long time "speaker series" ticket holder, only vaguely familiar with the name Maya Angelou

so didn't i just beam when she asked me, "so why does the caged bird sing?" -because this gave me the opportunity to reach inside my red bag, pull out the complete collected poems, open directly to page 194 and let her (and her husband) read for themselves.

and i watched their facial expressions change as they took in her words, and listened to their whispered, wow's, and new that they, like my mom to my right, would be blown away by the presence, voice, personal stories, humor and inspiration of one of america's greatest poet's
her life story is extraordinary, but it's how she delivers her message, how she so generously turns her traumas and blessings into bread and wine for all of us to feed and grow on
i often think of Maya Angelou when i hear k.t. tunstall's song:
"she makes me feel like i could be a tower, big strong tower, yeah"
but here's the thing.. not only can she make us everyday people feel like we can be towers..
if you're feeling like dirt
she'll remind you you are the very soil; the foundation from which greatness can grow
in the retelling of stories about her uncle willie, paralyzed on one side of his body, black and uneducated, living in lynchville, usa
we learn that this everyday black man, despite his significant obstacles, and with every good reason to be bitter and unkind, instead helped people much as he could with the limited resources he had
and as a result, extraordinary experiences and opportunities are bestowed upon his niece because, over and over again throughout her life, "your uncle willie was the only one who once helped...."
and as we listen in utter stillness, then laugh out loud, and wipe away occasional tears
a dormant truth is being awoken in each of us: our significance.
the wide-spread, far-reaching, positive consequences of our smallest sincere gestures.
and she takes such beautiful, sweet time in giving due credit to all -the many, many neighbors, teachers, friends (and foes), family, police, congressmen, employers, staff, acquaintenances, on and on- who have touched and shaped her journey
her journey - which includes being stuck on a train at around age 5 with her older brother bailey, each of them with only a tag around their wrist noting their grandmothers name and address - no adult supervision - but somehow arriving
and the blessings from uncle willie's care and attention
but then also a rape by her mother's boyfriend, who spent one night in jail, and only days later was kicked to death
and then - having realized that her telling resulted in the murder of a man,
for some 5+ years she is mute. afraid to say another word in fear someone else might be killed
her journey - which includes falling in love with poetry, and the teacher who challenged her:
"you do not love poetry. you cannot love poetry until you sing it out loud and it crosses your own lips" -and how this helped her speak again "i left my voice, but my voice never left me."
her journey - which includes great financial and emotional poverty, a teenage pregnancy, being the first black female cable car conductor in san francisco, traveling on broadway as a singer/dancer and playwright, helping side-by-side Dr. Martin Luther King Jr among others in the civil rights movement, one son, two divorces, traveling the world, learning seven languages, earning 60+ doctorates, careers in news/television/movies/radio, reading at clinton's presidential inaugration, national best selling memoirs and poetry and sold out, standing room only speaking engagements around the world
her journey is poetry
and she sings it for us, on this night, with this refrain
"i am human. and because i am human, nothing human can be alien to me."
a fresh version of "we are more alike my friends, than we are unalike"
over and over, with grace and determination and humor and love she reminds us what we all have in common as human beings; always uniting; always shrinking the gap
and in the hour and a half she captivated, educated and inspired she told so many different wonderful stories, and not in chronological, but in spiritual order it seemed
there was a story about a mom who hugged her and cried "i want to thank you for saving my daughter's life" -which takes a wild emotional turn, because it turns out in the handwritten thank you for saving my life letter from this young, white, racist and suicidal girl, she also writes how very ugly and frightening she found Maya Angelou's appearance
and we feel deeply sympathetic.. taking into consideration Maya Angelou's 6ft stature and remembering the long, painful history of blacks ridiculed for their full lips and generous derrieres
she says, "reading that letter made me want to commit suicide!" and then follows that up with a loud, abrupt, burst of laughter
"oh, but if i was going to commit suicide, i wasn't going alone! i wanted to find that girl and help her get the job done"
and then the entire theatre fills with relief and laughter
and a fun story too, about her leaving a high paying position w/20th century fox because of some derogatory statements made about blacks
how they offered to pay her more if she would just come back, but she kept right on walking down the hallway, past numerous executives and celebrities, out the door, one foot after the other, head held high, proud and determined to stick by her principles,
around the corner she goes, out the door, across the lot, marching to her car
and then realizes she left her purse with her car keys in her office.
"so i did what any proud women in my situation would do," she tells us wearing a bright, wide smile
"i hid in the bushes until everyone left."
and weaved throughout these endearing and inspiring stories, she does not arrogantly recite but joyfully sings shakespeare, langston hughes, delighting us with her unique rhythm, breathing new life into the overlooked and forgotten
reminding us how we are each and everyone, free to do our own composing
compose our lives, our families, our communities, our world
every thought and gesture a note that carries on.
she was thanked with a long and loud standing ovation.
she is 78 years old now. there is no calculating how many lives she has touched and transformed in this short time frame, but i'm grateful to count myself, my mom, my children, many students and several friends among them.


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