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I just found out that Maya Angelou passed today. I am deeply moved. And yet I cannot move from my chair. I feel like I am finally taking in the immensity of her presence in our lives. And I feel that her legacy has been officially handed to us, to continue in the way we choose to live our lives.
To me, Maya Angelou has been a role model of a fully actualized woman.
Yet she started out on shaky ground. Like many of us, she came through a difficult and painful early life disconnected from her true self, not knowing who she really was.
Her book I Know What Makes the Caged Bird Sing shows us the severity of that loss when, in the aftermath of being raped at age eight by her mother’s boyfriend, she became so afraid of the power of her voice that she stopped speaking altogether for years.
That is in stark contrast to the Maya Angelou we remember, whose powerful voice and full-self presence has touched and empowered people around the world.
How did she discover and reclaim her true self – and find the courage to share herself wholly and without fear to the world?
As you may know, I am writing my next book, The New Feminine Wealth: How Women are Redefining What Constitutes a Rich Life. I consider what Oprah and Maya talk about here to be at the heart of the greatest wealth: Knowing our True Self and being it, without holding back.
Oprah: As you know, my daily quest for the show and this magazine is to help women see who they are. Women tell me over and over, "I feel like I've lost myself. I don't know who I am." How is it that you know who you are? And have you always known since the first words in Caged Bird?
Maya: When I was 19 or 20, a wonderful thing happened to me—terrifying but wonderful. When I was younger, I thought my grandmother was probably God and she just wouldn't tell anybody! She was so strong and kind. And when my grandmother died, I realized that even if I had millions of dollars, I couldn't find her anywhere on earth. And my next thought was that I would die.
Oprah, I used to go into my house, see that my son was asleep, and after turning all the locks on the door, I would put a chair under the doorknob. I didn't realize that I was trying to keep death out. Then I began having trouble breathing. I didn't have asthma, but my breathing was labored. Finally, I had to come to grips with what was the matter with me. I looked at my life and thought, "I'm afraid to die." And I concluded that whether I was afraid or not, I would die. I don't think I've ever talked to you about this.
Maya: It was one of the most important crossroads in my life, because once I realized that no matter what, I would do this thing, the next step was to think, "If I am going to do the most difficult and frightening thing—dying—is it possible that I could do some difficult and maybe seemingly impossible things that are good?"
Oprah: Was this a conscious thought?
Maya: Yes. I thought, "Just suppose I could choreograph a ballet." And I did it. Suppose I could teach dance at the theater in Cleveland. And I did it. Suppose I could sing for a living—that I could stop these two jobs as a waitress and a salesperson.
Oprah: Had you thought about doing that before but didn't have the courage?
Maya: It had never occurred to me. I'm going to die. So why can't I do everything?