A great tree fell: Reflections on Maya Angelou’s passing


It seems only fitting that I spent some of yesterday saying good-bye to a phenomenal woman, Maya Angelou, as she sang her last song on earth before flying freely into other worlds while I am in the heat of trying to raise my own phenomenal woman. My girl and I are facing some hard times, some sort of predictable challenges that come with being a young woman but with a bent that is worrisome to me.

And so it is a blessing to see Maya’s name scroll through my Facebook feed along with some her most telling and provocative and empowering quotes. If there is one thing that we can take from Dr. Angelou’s journey, it is that she lived well and richly and deeply and with so much zest and passion that she was wrung dry- she had nothing left to take on her journey but a warm and juicy spirit that will live on forever.

I am soaking up so many of her words so that I can become them and use them and impress them into my own girl- one who feels vulnerable and fledgling and about as opposite as phenomenal as a person can feel. Becoming a woman is serious and tough business. I forgot that part. I forgot how that transformation from carefree girl to impressionable young woman is full of torment and self-doubt and insecurity. A girl you once thought of as invincible, secure, carefree becomes, seemingly overnight, uncertain, scared, driven by fears they can find hard to name. If I force myself back to her age, I feel glimpses of that. My skin tingles and my heart races just a bit with that feeling that the world has me under their magnifying glass. It is so hard to understand in these moments that somehow we go willingly without even realizing we have a choice.

And that is what I am trying to teach her now. She has a choice to live under this magnifying glass that only promotes ugly fear or step out into the sun of who she already is- smart, funny, kind, determined, and perfect just as she is.

It’s sort of crazy- this wild rumpus of parenting. You listen and you talk, you allow and you restrict, you shelter and you set free and you love with abandon and fierceness and still none of those things provides anyone with a free pass.

And so I am calling on my tribe and diving into Maya’s words and I am studying this quote from her book Wouldn’t Take Nothin’ From My Journey Now hoping it will sustain me.

“Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that as well.”

With my girl we are discussing the road that got her to this place she is in and where she wants to go. Of course I would be lying if I didn’t also admit I am doing some of my own self-examination. This journey with Lucy is all about her and yet, if I don’t make it about me, then what gift will I receive? I am open to the lessons this difficult road will offer me. And there is a part of me feeling grateful for the gift of discovery we are about to make together. I am not dumb; we will leave with different lessons and mine will not be hers. But we are learning and I would much rather it be together than her huddled alone against the world with nothing but an ipod and some half-baked ideas of what the world seems to require of young women. She will learn on my watch from the masters like Maya Angelou and the tribal force of good women I have built for just this occasion- strong aunts and mothers and friends and caring counselors and physicians and whomever it takes to show another strong face and voice that proudly proclaims, “This is what a woman is and you already have what it takes and we will guide you there.”

Maya Angelou wrote a beautiful poem called “When A Great Tree Falls.” We can make a strong case for May being one of those great trees. Her words and wisdom and life are simply irreplaceable. The molecules in our matter are better because of who she was on this earth. And I am clinging to these words,

“And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.

A great tree fell yesterday, and now I must water my own little sapling. She is reaching toward the sun eager yet scared to become something larger than herself not knowing she already is. But there is comfort in knowing I am better because Maya existed. Because of her, I am a better person and a better mom and Lucy will be better because Maya left her strong clear voice inside me that will coach and prod and demand and encourage me to keep at it. Being a phenomenal woman is no easy task. Raising one is even harder.

But I’ve got this because….what other choice is there?