Maya Angelou’s Gift of Gratitude
Sometimes we grieve the loss of a person we’ve never ‘known’ except through their public contributions to our world and our own lives. I feel this way about Maya Angelou, who gave our nation such truth and wisdom in her honest writings and public presentations. Often I have shared her story of a life-changing moment in young adulthood written in her memoir I Know How the Cage Bird Sings. She felt utterly distraught one afternoon, sinking under ravages of guilt heightened by her young son’s distress when she left him for a music tour in Africa. Fearing she was on the verge of suicide, she sought solace from ‘Uncle Wilkie,’ her beloved vocal teacher. With great lament and tears, she told him she thought she was going crazy and might kill herself.
Instead of the comfort she expected, he handed her a legal-size, lined yellow pad and a pen. He said, “Write down your blessings!” Furious that he didn’t understand her condition, she shouted, “Don’t talk nonsense, I’m telling you I am going crazy!”
Ignoring her rant, he said, “Write down that you could hear me say ‘write down’ and think of the millions who cannot hear the cries of their babies, or the sweet words of their beloveds, or the alarm that could help them seek safety. Write down that you can see this yellow pad and think of the millions on this planet who cannot see the smiles of their growing children, or the delight in the faces of their beloveds, or the colors of the sunrise, and the softness of the twilight. Write down that you know how to write. Write down that you know how to read.”
So she began to write, listing all the good that existed in her frazzled life. She found her mood lightened immediately as she gained perspective on the gifts in her world.
In her books and speeches, Maya often told how this story that happened over 50 years ago totally changed the trajectory of her life as she learned to live with a spirit of gratitude. Since then she has written 31 books, essays, plays, and lyrics for songs—all on yellow pads. She will be mourned and missed around the world, but we are immensely fortunate to have the writings of this inspirational woman that will live on, touching our lives.
I have found her memoirs immensely valuable for my classes with college students, for books I write, and for times when I am speaking. Her candid insights have taught me so much and I will be forever grateful that she shared her life with all of us.
Angelou’s words from Letter to My Daughter, a book of essays.
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.
Have you read any of her writings that spoke to you? If so, I’d love to hear about them!
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