My Most Unforgettable Character: Maya Angelou

Thirty years after meeting her, I can still feel the electricity that fizzed through my body as I registered what Maya Angelou had said to me.

maya angelou
Miko Maciaszek for Reader’s Digest

When I went away to college, I chose to go to a large school in a state other than mine in an attempt to disappear into 20,000 coeds and never again see the tormentors of my adolescence. These were the popular and perfectly mean girls, the ones who drove quiet girls like me headlong into the comforting arms of dusty books.

If you lived in your head at that age, as I did, the campus library was your refuge. One person during those years reached in and planted something that would take decades to flower. She was, of course, a writer.

Since I didn’t know a soul at this large university, I volunteered for a campus club to make friends. That’s how I ended up one winter evening shivering outside on the steps of the student union, waiting for the night’s famous speaker to drive up. My assignment was to escort her inside to the auditorium where her fans—certainly every English major and professor on campus—eagerly waited to hear Maya Angelou, author of a book that was required reading then, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

As showtime neared, Angelou’s car pulled up to the snowy curb. When its door opened, Angelou and a female friend exited, each wearing high heels, shining smiles, and, in a sight rarely seen on campus, head-to-toe fur coats in shades of chocolate and caramel. They—the coats and the women—were spectacular. I nervously ushered the pair inside and backstage.

Angelou quickly sized up the venue and was ready to sweep onstage. But first, there was her fur coat. I meekly offered to babysit it backstage to make sure it was safe. She shrugged off the coat, and I held it in my hands, the yards of luscious fur still warm from her body. She moved toward the stage but then halted and looked back at me. She met my eyes square.

“No,” she said. “No, you need to get out there.” She smiled widely and looked out at the audience. “You need to get out there and live.”

Thirty years later, I can still feel the electric short circuitry that fizzed through my body as I registered what she’d said. With the fur coat safely stashed in a dressing room, I squeezed into a vacant front-row seat and heard, for the first time, a book come alive in an author’s own voice. Angelou inhabited the passages she recited, her voice rising and dropping in her unique singsong cadence. The audience clapped and howled as they went along on the ride of this performance, while I sat silent and spellbound, eyes likely wide.

I wish I could say that my life changed then. But out of college, I went deeper into my interior self, taking a job that required little human contact. I was a newspaper copy editor, working the night shift and silently picking over commas and participles, words a comfortable blanket.

From time to time, I remembered the warmth of that fur coat and Angelou’s injunction: “Get out there and live.” In a few years, lured by the promise of telling my own stories rather than fixing other people’s, I mustered up the courage to become a reporter, a profession that demands bravado and charm. I had to force myself to become that person who could ask anyone just about anything, unblinkingly. With every interview, I felt like I was stepping onstage and projecting a confidence that I hoped no one would see through. Offstage, I’d collapse into the shelter of a good book.

I learned. I got out there, even as I quaked inside. I rose through the ranks to become a newspaper editor. The job required talking to many people—sometimes a group of employees or, worse still, an auditorium full of unfamiliar faces. For those times, I leaned on stacks of index cards scripted word for word. But as I reminded myself now and again, Angelou hadn’t used notes when she’d spoken to us after her reading. She’d stood onstage and let her words come straight from the heart.

As I came into my 40s, I began to change. By then, I’d accumulated years of professional experience. I was leaning less on index cards and speaking comfortably about what I really knew to be true. At around the same time, I became a mother. I stumbled upon Angelou in the children’s section at a Barnes & Noble. Here she was again, speaking directly to me—or so it seemed with the title of her tiny poetry book Life Doesn’t Frighten Me.

Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hall
Life doesn’t frighten me at all.

This time it was a different, middle-aged me hearing her words. Rather than being a nudge out the door, they were an affirmation of how I was finally beginning to live.

Today, I’m the other side of 50. A few times a week, the girl who once spent Friday nights in the college library stacks now stands on a stage in a fitness studio. Scantily clad, I face two dozen or so students. I encourage them to suck in their abs, lift their weights higher, and, always, breathe deeply.

I get out there now. I lead, and I live.

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