Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV


May 30, 2014

Lessons from Maya Angelou

— — That voice. It is the voice that first captured me. It was rich and deep but tender and compassionate, like rolling thunder wrapped in warm, soothing honey.

Then it was the majesty of her bearing that captured me second. How she stood, all six feet of her, like a queen, president and goddess regally rolled into one statue of flesh and heart. No one else seemed to carry themselves with such power and distinction and yet also respectful humility and modesty.

Then I was enthralled by her resilience. Raped at age 7, she chose silence for several years. Then, resiliently, she chose words and she soared. Resilience, not surprisingly, seems to be the characteristic I currently hold in highest esteem. The ability to move forward, sometimes dragging and stumbling, through bitter cold darkness and into warm light — it defines the word “life” for me. Resilience of others proves to me there is still much good life to live. Resilience is the strength to wait and watch, hunt and scrape, plan and grasp the future that will be better. Resilience is a day to day exhibition of the word “hope.”

Finally, I was captured by Maya Angelou’s words. We are all captured by her words because they free us, no matter our circumstances, just like the caged bird. The caged bird sings of freedom. Ms. Angelou’s words translate the songbird’s notes for the rest of us.

The title of her first autobiography and theme of her poem, Caged Bird, actually came from a poem written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, an African-American poet whose work she admired. The poem, Sympathy, features these lines:

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,

When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,

When he beats his bars and would be free;

It is not a carol of joy or glee,

But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core, But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —

I know why the caged bird sings.

Early last week, I copied into a document on my computer some quotes of Ms. Angelou a friend emailed. I often like to write columns inspired by the brilliance of others. I simply titled the document “mayaangelou,” planning to return to it when I had time.

Last Friday, at the end of yoga, the instructor coincidentally shared one of those quotes I liked best: “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.” My friend who sent the email was on a mat next to me and we smiled at each over the timeliness of the email and the yogi message. Then, just two days ago, the CNN app on my phone shared the sad news of Ms. Angelou’s passing at 86 years of age. Her final tweet, sent to her 400,000 followers on Twitter just last Friday, was, of course, perfect: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

We have listened to her wisdom for decades. She has made us painfully aware of the sins of our prejudice. She has courageously revealed the impotency of hate when faced with the power of the human soul.

Now, she is truly listening to the voice of God — and poignantly left us with the reminder to listen not to her, not to others, but to ourselves to hear him above the ugly, craven, cacophonous din of daily lives infected by that sin, hate and pain.

Many of us who love words and who have loved her words are writing about her now. I never imagined that computer document titled “mayaangelou” turning into an obituary — and certainly not just days later. I only wanted to pass on the simple wisdom she reportedly shared several years ago during an interview with her friend, and devoted fan, Oprah Winfrey. She was talking about what she had learned in life so far:

“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.

“I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

“I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.

“I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as ‘making a life.’

“I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.

“I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw some things back.

“I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.

“I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one.

“I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back.

“I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.

“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.”

No, we won’t.

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at

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