In 1997 I was watching Oprah.
Of course I was—1997 was full of Oprah, first crushes and all things new and different as a freshman in high school.
It was there that I heard the first piece of wisdom that really resonated with me. After my first heartbreak, I met Dr. Maya Angelou through my TV set. Deep in the despair of my first heartbreak I heard Dr. Maya tell Oprah, struggling with what seemed to me and my young mind as similar heartbreak, “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time.”
“Wait, what?” my young impressionable mind questioned. “I am supposed to believe people the first time and not impose my own narrative that I have created on other people?”
What Dr. Maya Angelou told me was that I should listen very closely and deeply to people’s words and watch them closely. She taught me about my own arrogance and how not to let my own ideas about someone trump reality and their own self-knowledge. It goes without saying that I felt like a very enlightened freshman in high school and my crush moved quickly from that young man to a full-blown love affair with Maya Angelou.
Dr. Maya Angelou’s words consumed me—not just her prolific written work and inspirational poetry, but the kindness with which she handed out the nuggets of wisdom that I soon hoarded.
I turned to “Letters to my Daughters” for my next heartbreak: facing and overcoming chronic illness at a young age. Again, her words narrated, encouraged and moved me. She said, “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.” Indeed, in my illness I knew that although it changed me profoundly, physically, emotionally and spiritually, I would never be a woman reduced by a diagnosis.
Soon came the first time I hurt someone deeply and irrevocably. I was so sorry and plagued with guilt. Nothing I did, said or expressed could change the feeling. I couldn’t send enough balloons, orchids or singing telegrams to undo my harm. Again, Dr. Maya Angelou shed some light on the situation, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
He would never forget how I had made him feel, and I had to accept that. Dr. Maya had never led me astray before. I trusted that since I now knew better, I would do better, per her edict: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
And then I got fired. Not just a little fired, but totally unequivocally irrevocably fired. Blockbuster fired. Almost miraculously, “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” Out of this quote I built a business, I began to take names and kick ass and learned to grab life by the lapels and advocate for people often underserved and maligned by society.
Thanks, Maya, again, for the ultimate encouragement.
She taught my what success was supposed to feel like as opposed to just counting doubloons in the bank, saying “Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.” There came a point in my entrepreneurship where I had the trifecta: I liked myself, I loved what I did and I so liked how I did it.
Again, Maya Angelou gave me words to explain and notate the experiences of my life.
Finally she encouraged me, even on her birthday to write this article. She said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” The story of how Dr. Maya Angelou has positively shaped, morphed and inspired me was indeed burning inside of me and I can think of no better birthday tribute than telling this story for her and inspired by her.
So on this birthday, I honor you with the words of another. Sir Rudyard Kipling said, “I, myself, am a dealer in words, and words are the most powerful drug ever known to humanity.”
Dr. Maya Angelou was our quintessential dealer in words and she created a drug through her striking and beautiful words, wisdom, kindness and simple grace.
Author: Katie Schellenberg
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Wiki Commons
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