A conversation with Maya Anjelou was one of three conversations that first opened my eyes.
It was a flight from Dulles to San Francisco. She was sitting in first class, seat 7B, back near the galley of
the stretch DC 8, and I was working as "galley slave" preparing food and carts for dinner service.
After dinner was over and the movie was being shown, somehow
Maya and I started talking. The movie
didn't interest her and without warning, this kind-faced African American woman began to talk to me. "You've been busy this evening?" Her voice had a depth and resonance I'd not experienced before. But I was exhausted with no sleep from the night before and feeling stressed by all the responsibilities: getting the food warmed, organizing the china and glassware, mixing drinks, asking for dinner selections, and trying not to appear uncool and distracted. Yet this woman with the interesting voice wanted to talk and because I couldn't be rude or unprofessional, we slowly began an exchange that continued over almost an hour.
What I remember was her ability to turn our experiences into a most satisfying exchange. I found myself sharing my story while encouraging her to do the same. And as we stumbled along, she fascinated me. Her ideas about writing and art, her experiences with trauma, her period of withdrawal. She told me there was a time she chose not to talk, a time when fear had trapped her fully inside herself. By my asking questions, she generously gave of herself, telling me things I somehow needed to know. And as she gave, I was inspired by her passion and felt connected to it as she explained how making art had become her mission and purpose.
With her, I shared my love of painting and dance, my bout with mental illness and anorexia, my love of flying. As she listened to me, her expression and words of encouragement cheered me on. Yet I didn't know her. I didn't know her name and, even if I had, her name and reputation were not familiar to me. What I did know was that she was accomplished and remarkable. Her
grace and presence were palpable even to a tired and self-absorbed flight attendant she'd never talked to before. Whoever she was, she transported me to another state of being: a place where I felt comfortable and honored by her attention.
As our conversation began to close, she mentioned having written a book and encouraged me to read it. She said she
wrote it to make sense out of senselessness. She wanted it to be read as a way of reaching out and of showing that a life full of lemons can be made into lemonade. On my layover in
San Francisco, I went directly to the book store. Her book was waiting for me on the shelf. "I Know
Why the Caged Bird Sings."
To be continued ...