Saturday, 31 May 2014

On Maya

On Wednesday 28 May 2014 Dr Maya Angelou passed away at the age of 86. Having just read and written a blog post about her Letters to My Daughter only a few days prior, she was already on my mind when I heard the news of her passing.

While I had the great pleasure of seeing her live and stood a mere metres from her towering frame, she never knew me. But her words spoke to me as if she did. Many times I have found myself recalling a line from her poems to make sense of my feelings or to brighten my day. 

Through her autobiographies and poems, I had a chance to know her. She was a wise, courageous and humorous woman with a generous spirit. Her words are inspirational and here are just a few of the many, oft-quoted, phrases that I love:

"People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

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

"If I am not good to myself, how can I expect anyone else to be good to me?” 

“Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.” 

“Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can't practice any other virtue consistently.” 

"Be a rainbow in somebody else's cloud." 

"If you don't like something, change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude." 

"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." 

"You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them." 

"...making a living is not the same thing as making a life." 

"If you're always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be."

Farewell Maya. And thank you for all your many gifts. You will not be forgotten...

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Phenomenal Woman

In the mid-1990s I had the pleasure of attending an evening with Dr Maya Angelou at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto. In her sing-songy way, Maya read her beautiful poetry and I left feeling enlightened, inspired and empowered. 

Over the years I have read many of her poems and her autobiographical books including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) Singin’ and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas (1976) The Heart of a Woman (1981) and Wouldn’t Take Nothing for my Journey Now (1993).  

Even now, as I read her words, I hear her voice from that long ago evening in Toronto. 

She has had a truly remarkable life and her autobiographies have a feel of sitting down to tea with a dear old friend.

It had been many years since I last read Maya Angelou so I approached Letter to My Daughter (2009) with a sense of nostalgia.  This book is a collection of essays in which she imparts eight decades of wisdom to “the daughter she never had.” 

Over 28 mini essays Angelou shares life lessons on philanthropy, honesty, childbirth, vulgarity, family and more. These tales often end with a lesson like “I learned that a friend may be waiting behind a stranger’s face” or  “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

Angelou had an extraordinary life and she has many pearls of wisdom to pass on. There were parts of this book where I felt delight by her writing, but others where I felt the gap between our life experiences and beliefs. 

While this is a short, easy to read book, there could have been more coherence in what was included so it was more like a true letter to her universal daughter and less like a disjointed collection of random scraps of writing. I would encourage those new to Angelou to start with some of her other writings as Letter to My Daughter is not her best.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

To the Lighthouse

In M.L. Steadman’s The Light Between Oceans (2012), protagonist Tom Sherbourne has returned to Australia after serving at the front during the first World War.  He seeks solitude and quiet where he can try to forget those dark days on the battlefield. The job of lighthouse keeper is a perfect fit for Tom, as he likes the order and responsibility of keeping the lights burning through the night.

After training and a series of posts, Tom moves to the lighthouse at Janus Rock, a remote island off the coast of Western Australia, with his young wife Isabel.  Over the next few years Tom and Isabel try to create a family for themselves on this isolated outpost, but have been unable to carry a child to term. A few weeks after Isabel’s third miscarriage, a dinghy comes ashore on Janus Rock, containing only an unidentified dead man and a small, crying baby. Isabel and Tom decide to name her Lucy and pass her off as their own.  This decision will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

I really liked the character of Tom, with his strong moral compass, precision and the way in which he gradually fell in love with Lucy. His wife Isabel was frustrating for her selfishness and obsession and towards the last third of the book she became increasingly one-dimensional and hard to like. I never truly understood what these two saw in each other.

Janus Rock and the Australian coastal towns of the early twentieth century were vividly created and the description of the lighthouse keeper’s responsibilities added realism to the tale.

The moral dilemma at the heart of the novel carries the story along. The reader can’t help but question what they would have done in the circumstances and wonder how to make things right. The story veers into soap-opera territory and has a strong emotional pull. While I could quibble about the necessity of some of Steadman’s expository writing and dodgy dialogue, the story itself was intriguing and I found myself reading quickly to find out how it would end. No great literary feat, but a very enjoyable read.