I was in college and standing in the Student Life office when another student came in to say that they had extra tickets to hear Maya Angelou speak at a local business lunch. This person waved an envelope around carelessly and asked if anyone wanted to go. I gasped inside and tried to quell the rising excitement inside me. Kids walked around busily and no one seemed to know who Maya Angelou was or what this lunch was about.
Is that for anyone?” I asked.
“Yeah” came the reply. “You want a ticket?”
I looked around and wondered why people weren’t knocking each other over to grab one for themselves. Just a couple of years before Maya Angelou had been one of only two poets to have spoken at an Inauguration and the only African-American woman to do it. She was an accomplished and highly respected author, Pulitzer Prize winner, civil rights activist, friend of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King! She was Oprah’s friend and mentor, for heaven sake. I thought it was only a matter of time before these tickets disappeared and so I grabbed one for myself.
The lunch was that same day and I did not have time to go home and change. As I walked into the hotel lobby, I felt intimidated walking into the ballroom filled primarily with businessmen in suits. I increasing believed I really didn’t belong there in my shorts and t-shirt. I also knew I could not pass up this once in a lifetime chance to meet an icon who inspired my life. I wondered if the message of this poet would be lost on a room full of businessmen who thought in dollars and cents. After some preliminary speeches, Dr Angelou was introduced. She stood taller than many and spoke with a deeper voice than I had heard a woman speak with before; a voice filled with the conviction of the truth she spoke. She assembled her words differently than I was used to, and I had to adjust my ears to receive her message. In no time, the room was as one. We sat before this sorceress who wove words in an alchemy that cast its spell spectacularly. Ideas swirled and danced and with each rhythmic phrase, she pulled down walls and facades.
As this event occurred in 1994, I do not recall the details of her speech, however I do remember that the room was transformed and transfixed. There we sat, fellow humans, in awe of the greatness that was before us. Dr Angelou had an ability to speak to the soul, not the ego and we were humbled. For a brief time, we sat as children watching magic as her words came to life in hearts and minds.
After her speech ended and the applause and standing ovations subsided, Dr Angelou stood at a long table and graciously signed autographs. I brought along my paperback copy of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, feeling unworthy and wondering if she would sign my little book. Dr Angelou took my hand, which was at once dwarfed by hers. Her long fingers coming to rest above my wrist as we shook. I honestly thought I would pass out. Although I was raised to see people as people and no better or worse than me, this was different. She was a force. I remember too, the single gold ring she wore which appeared to have been sculpted in the shape of an elegant crane. An appropriate symbol, I thought, for this most regal of women. Cranes represent good fortune and I could not think of anything more auspicious than having this gift of listening to the thoughts of Maya Angelou over lunch. Lunch! In sunny Ft Lauderdale, Florida and for only a roomful of people, as the rest of the world went about its business as if nothing extraordinary was happening! She signed my book in swirls of black pen and thanked me as I gushed and fumbled my way through a rushed introduction. I remember walking back out into the radiant sunshine not believing my luck and just wanting to be a better person. Such was the power of Maya Angelou.
I’ve not spoken of this event much throughout the years and until today I was not sure why. I think it was so special and her words so beautiful that anything I could have said would not have touched the depth and breadth of it. It goes without saying that meeting Maya Angelou was an experience I will treasure always.
Tag Archives: writing
Frustratingly, my cat meows loudly when I am on the phone. She jumps up on the chair or sofa where I sit and attempts to climb up on me, meowing all the time. She can sleep all day and half the time I don’t even know where she is. But as soon as I start a conversation on the phone there she is “MEOOOOOWWW, MEOW, MEOOOWWW.”
I have to push her off of the furniture to get her to stop. It is very annoying. Everyone can hear her. “Wow, she’s loud” they say, “She must want attention.”
Thought number one: “What is the matter with her? Can’t she see I’m on the phone!”
Thought two: “I’ll Google and see how others have dealt with this and what they believe her behavior means. I felt there must be some biological or mysterious reason behind this specific behavior and more than a mere look at me, pay attention to meeeeee!
I began to type in why does my cat meow when I’m… and lo and behold the subsequent “on the phone” popped up. Aha! Others have had this same question and surely I will find my answer. I opened up the first website and the first thing I read was “she thinks you are talking to her.”
Thought three accompanied by uncontrollable laughter: My cat does not understand the concept of the phone and talking to another human being by way of telephone lines, modems, Bluetooth or routers. She hears my voice and assumes I’m talking to or summoning her! The simple answer “she thinks you are talking to her” was like the snapping up of a shade on a sunny day or as if someone threw cold water in my face.
Thought four: What an idiot! I just researched, RESEARCHED for an answer to a question I should have known! Correction. For an answer I already knew! I actually reminded myself to look it up. I typed in the question. Plenty of time to come to my senses! Surely I could have stretched the limits of my own mind to answer this myself!
I turned back to Google to find out how many results there were for this question. My ego scraping around for proof that I was not alone in this cerebral wasteland I found myself in. The answer was 18,500,000. I’m sure not all applied however I clicked on the 10th page of results which luckily still referred to cat behavior and the phone. Ego bruised but not broken, I scooped up my cat with better understanding and compassion for how confusing it must be to live with a human, especially when intelligence takes a vacation.
How does one write about not writing? I’m not referring to writer’s block. I’m talking about when a particular topic is off-limits. I’m talking about wanting to write about something so bad it hurts. It is right there in front of me, tempting me all the while. It’s like when someone tells the funniest joke you ever heard. You are about to burst with laughter when your boss walks in the room and you must reverse thrust to avoid being inappropriate. It is a lot of energy to hold back, like a sneeze. The kind of feeling that sort of implodes and you are left feeling somehow frustrated and unfulfilled. You knew it would have been such a good release but now the moment has gone and you are left alone waiting for it to kind of reabsorb. My writing is relegated to talking about things outside of my profession. If it wasn’t, I’d have an easy book to write, let me tell you.
I am ever the observer as sentences and images form in my head constantly. Images which have flown out and crashed to the ground as of late, grudgingly censored by me. So frustrating! My fingers have been twitching to bang out letters on the keyboard, illustrating idiosyncracies, inconsistencies, contradictions, kindnesses, heart wrenching tales which would make grown men cry and mind-blowing stories that have brought me to my knees. But I can’t! For this reason I have written fluff instead of substance. Why I can not compartmentalize and move ahead with other thoughts and projects I have no idea.
I have gone through a series of experiences recently which were overwhelming, exciting, scary, frustrating, stressful, invigorating and did I mention overwhelming? I am not permitted though to bring them into the public domain. I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants. I’ve jumped through hoops, I’ve been flexible and most of all, I’ve listened and learned. And, I hope my listening has helped.
Other ideas have paled in comparison and so I decided not to write about them. Writing about not writing and picking at the edges of this larger experience is helpful to a degree I suppose. Getting it out there to be able to move on is the goal.
What I can say is that doing something scary, that moves me out of my comfort zone, has in short order proven to be an invaluable experience. I have been honored to learn more about a group of people who have humbled me, to say the least. I so wish I could share the experience with you.
We rarely move out of our comfort zones and don’t realize that we have until we are shocked and horrified, usually with an accompanying “what was I thinking?” I think that making major changes in life will always be a rewarding experience, no matter what the experience turns out to be and I recommend it highly. As for this dramatic Italian though, the silence is killing me!
There was a plump, rose-cheeked man named Claus
He was jolly and cute but had flaws
He wore women’s shoes
When the reindeer would snooze
And a glimpse gave the Mrs to pause
This surprise though it wasn’t enough.
All sorts came from this man in red fluff!
He wasn’t opposed
To some knickers and hose
“And my best Christmas apron” she huffed!
My mother sent out an email saying we had to come to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebration at her house with a story or poem that she wants us to recite. Of course the email drew groans…but, I’m finding I need find humor wherever I can find it these days so this is what sprung to mind!
Wishing all my friends, old and new, a very Merry Christmas and Holiday season and all the best for a Happy New Year!
Crystal blue in its brilliance
The air breezy, light and warm
A beautiful day but not perfect
We remarked that there were no clouds
And wonder now, were they frightened away by impending
Horrors to come?
The bliss of our ignorance a comfort still.
A glorious backdrop
For a summer day thrown into sharp contrast
A decent into darkness, confusion and doom.
From ferries, bridges, building windows and street corners…
We came to identify, were slapped hard by, the worst within us
We came to know and taste the hate
We shook from the violation
We cried from the pain, the loss, the fear.
We saw what we should not see
We smelled what no one should smell
We felt, though we could not feel
Our senses blurred and betrayed
Our minds unable to conceive or believe.
A sleepless city silenced and stunned.
From near, explosions ripped through buildings and hearts
Fire and noise and glass and panic
Plummeting potential lost to despair
Then, billowing clouds of smoke and death
From far, the stillness remained for a time. For a time.
As news traveled, streets emptied
No traffic. No people. No noise and, no planes.
Unrelenting rays of sunshine attempted to warm blood run cold
An endless sea of blue sky our only shroud for man-made hell
Heaven a far away witness
As we reached out for desperate consolation.
Crystal blue in its brilliance.
It took me 3 years, after witnessing the explosions on September 11th, from a Staten Island ferry set to take off for Wall Street, to write this poem. What could not be conveyed on the Evening News was the smell of death that hung over the city for weeks as the fire continued to burn from within. That the National Guard stopped us in cars and buses to sweep for bombs before we drove over bridges and into tunnels or patrolled commuter buses, staring us down, to ensure there weren’t terrorists in our midst. That the only sound that we heard at first, and what persisted for weeks and months were sirens from police and fire department vehicles. That no matter where you went, from supermarket to library, there were pictures of those who perished, plastered everywhere. And so many funerals that whole streets were blocked off and traffic diverted, for them to take place. Funerals that went on for years. That FDNY firehouses lost large numbers of men, my fire department having lost 11 (11 in Heaven). That people were panicking-in subways when hysteria set in and in underwater tunnels when traffic was stopped on the FDR highway for the huge metal beams from the WTC to be transported to barges. That in a city with 3 major airports and constant air traffic, the resulting silence was deafening when that traffic came to a halt. And when planes took to the skies again, people held their breath or panicked when planes went overhead or seemed to fly too close. Not to mention that only two months after the attacks on September 11th, there was a major plane crash in Queens, NY, where another 260 people died and which sent us all over the edge again. And that if there was a possible threat, the city would shut down essential bridges and tunnels leaving people stranded or unable to return to their homes for hours. The effects of this day lasted years and for those who lost loved ones, a lifetime.
We Will Never Forget all who lost their lives and all who worked “the pile” to reclaim the World Trade Center and our city, piece by piece.
When I’d drive from New York to Florida or back, I’d often stop somewhere in the middle, the middle of nowhere that is. As far as I was concerned, there was New York, there was Florida. That made up the east coast. Then there was California on the west coast. I made weekend trips into Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and down to Washington but that was pretty much it-my America was made up of bookends really. My road companions agreed and if I got a call from someone checking on my status and they asked where I was, I never offered the name of the town or the handful of historical sites that I had passed. My answer was always the same. I’m in the middle of nowhere. Usually the caller would understand and express concern and offer the same advice. “If you get pulled over, don’t argue with the police there. Just say yes sir, no matter what. And get the hell out!”
Anyone who has made this trip knows about the signs for South of the Border. Pedro bombards you with billboards that start about 100 miles before you get to it and by the time you do get there, your expectations are through the roof. Wow, what is this South of the Border place? What’s going on? What a let down! It is a little place off the I-95 highway that is terrifyingly plastic with a mish mosh of plaster sculptures that don’t make sense. They have souvenir and firework shops. I never made the Mexican connection with this remote area of South Carolina but after all the signs one must at least stop in to check it out, especially when road weary. I remember getting out of the car and into an eerie stillness that was disturbing on many levels, especially when fake Mexicans and apes were staring me down. I wanted to scream and get back in the car. Apparently SOB has a website now, very high-tech, and they explain that they have several restaurants and motels. An added bonus is that they can host conferences and weddings. No thanks. If I want a Mexican wedding I’ll go to Cabo thank you very much.
Back to the point at hand, again, here is this Mexican hot spot, in the middle of nowhere with hardly a soul in sight. The other main attraction on this route is Cracker Barrel. When you are tired and cranky and hungry, this place is an oasis. Home cooked food, homemade desserts and a shop with interesting things to buy-from old-fashioned candy to picture frames, seasonal items and Christmas decorations. I love it.
I have since moved to the South and after leaving a Cracker Barrel one day and driving from one country town to another, it hit me. I have moved to the middle of nowhere! Oh my God, I’m one of them! One of these people who seemed like aliens to me before. People who didn’t live near the ocean, museums, ports or places where they make books. You know, civilization of any kind. Then horror of horrors I realized that any of the patrons at Cracker Barrel, who had done the same as I had years ago and exited the highway while en route to more exciting places, thought I was one of them too! Aw bless, she doesn’t know what a Broadway show is or what the Hudson looks like, poor thing!
They do have Barnes and Noble, oh I made sure of that before I came. And, as long as there is a Barnes and Noble in the vicinity, I can handle just about anything else. When the Bible Belt goes to church, I pop in to a quiet B&N and sip on a Chai Latte while flipping through books and magazines at my leisure. When the whole of the South is watching college football, I can meander through empty aisles at my favorite shops or enjoy not waiting at favorite restaurants. They also have Publix grocery stores here and anyone from Florida knows that once you’ve been in one Publix, you’ve been in all Publix (Publixes?) and it feels like home. Ok the pizza and bagels are crap but it is nice to drive with little to no traffic and to have open skies and green vistas. We even get Broadway shows. The road company but still Broadway. It’s not the same, no one could mistake a little country town for New York City, but it’s quiet for the most part. I have more than a postage stamp sized garden and I see birds that aren’t pigeons. We have outdoor symphonies and poetry night at the coffee place-come on! Would I move somewhere where there are Neanderthals? Many barbecue year round and take trips to the beaches and lakes in the summer. Even Starbucks and Trader Joes have found us.
Yes I do miss the mom and pop shops of New York and finding one of a kind items. Though what one loses in the unique and new one gains in not being in the rat race and not feeling the pressure to be ahead of everyone else; on the train, with fashion, news and art (Oh! You didn’t know they were showing Elizabethan toothbrushes at the Met? All my friends have seen it. You must go. You didn’t see Rent? That is a travesty, how could you not have seen Rent? You don’t live on the Upper West Side? That’s where all the good restaurants are now. Any one who says it isn’t is just lying to you. You haven’t been to Cannes?). Blah blah blah. People are neurotic because the city never sleeps. New Yorkers are bombarded 24/7. What am I missing? What’s going on? What happened, I have to know!!! The worst thing in New York is not being in the know. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you are rich or poor. If you know something before everyone else, you have cachet. But it’s so exhausting!
New York will always be my city and I love it like a family member but the middle of nowhere gives me a break from all that and lets me be me. Don’t mind me as I wander aimlessly for a while in the here and now, in the I’m OK, you’re OK. You get back on the highway and catch up with your friends. I’m going to have my little cotton socks blessed while I sip on some sweet tea. Y’all come back now, ya hear?
I arrived at JFK airport, excited to return to Florida for a spot of R&R before embarking on graduate school. Thoughts of going to the beach, floating around the family pool, sun-kissed skin and casual dinners with family and friends were enticing.
I spotted a skycap thinking great! I can beat the rush and get checked in. He took my bags and I was sure to tip him generously to ensure my bags were not re-routed to Germany. He checked me in asking for ID and proceeding with the usual security questions:
“Did you pack your own bags?” Yes.
“Did anyone give you anything to carry? Oh just a bomb. We both laughed. Laughed. Innocent days before September 11th and a couple of years before my run in with British airport security. I giggled to myself thinking I had an anecdote to share when I landed.
I made my way to the gate and watched the plane glide up to the jetway. Boarding was uneventful and the captain pushed back on time. The plane meandered this way and that allowing me to catch glimpses of New York City in my window until it reached the runway. What is it about take off that is so exhilarating? The roar of the engines, the intense power of the moment, feeling my body being pinned against the seat, the plane bumping and swaying, nose up then ahhhhhh as the plane rushes into the sky.
We were on a bigger plane than usual for this New York to Ft Lauderdale route and the seats were laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration. I was seated in the middle with one person next to me and a couple to the right in the cozy 2 seater section. The flight was probably about half full. Having made this trip dozens of times I knew the plan-fly out over the ocean, turn right, straight line down the coast then right hand turn and into Ft Lauderdale airport. It’s a 2 hour 20 minute flight, tops.
Being the New York City girl I was and having been baptized by the New York City Transit System, I gathered my things during our final decent with the idea of being as close to the front door as possible when the seatbelt sign went off. The captain made that famous right hand turn and we flew into Ft Lauderdale alright however this time he didn’t take it in for a landing. I watched as we flew over neighborhoods and streets I knew very well. Hmm I thought, must be a holding pattern. It was 1995 and unlikely as Ft Lauderdale airport was still small and I’d never encountered a holding pattern here before. My curiosity was piqued and I was paying attention. The couple to the right who I had all but ignored during the flight was beginning to annoy me. They were drunk, laughing loud and I needed to focus.
I continued to watch our progress and noticed that we had left the comfort of Ft Lauderdale and were now flying over the Everglades. Highly unusual-never done! No word from the flight deck and the flight attendants seemed to be going about their business. I continued to watch South Florida slip out of view as we flew into the Gulf of Mexico. Now I was alarmed and the first thought that occurred to me was that the plane had been hijacked. Conversations and murmurings stopped and I noticed that we were encountering a lot of turbulence all of a sudden. What the hell is going on! Why aren’t they talking to us? Say something!!! Forty-five minutes passed as we floated around the Gulf. People glanced at each other but said nothing. The loud-speaker came on and a voice stated simply, “Uh, folks? We have a problem.” A wave of fear ran through me and I hung on this strangers-with God knows what kind of qualifications-every word. He continued, “we have no landing gear, we can’t land the plane.” I instinctively grabbed the arm rests and raised my feet off the floor as if this was going to help me. I felt as if I’d been cut free from the world, floating in a heavy metal tube. “Now, we have 3 options.” Oh my God are we going to vote? “We can make a soft landing-fly out to sea and dump all the fuel and make a water landing.” Sharks, certain death. “We can dump all the fuel, coast back in to the airport and make a hard landing.” What are the chances we will reach the airport after we’re out of gas? “Or, we can keep doing what we are doing now which is to force turbulence to try to jog the landing gear out, get them unstuck. We will get back to you in a few minutes.” My mind was racing, my own mortality smacking me in the face repeatedly. From the right side of the plane came, “what did he say?” A red drunk face staring obliviously at me. WE HAVE NO LANDING GEAR AND WE’RE GOING TO DIE, was my immediate response. Red face just shrugged and went back to his girl and conversation, obviously not believing me.
This is it! That’s it! It’s over! I should pray. I can’t think of the words. I sat paralyzed. The woman next to me looked over and we both had tears rolling down our cheeks. We held hands. Please God please, please God please. I couldn’t make the prayer come. That’s all I could think to say. The mind is a funny thing and voices in my head were battling it out. We could survive a water landing couldn’t we? How could we survive that? Too many variables. Please God please, please God please. How long have we been up here? We’re going to run out of fuel, oh my God we’re going to die. No, there has to be a way, even if we have to crash land? Please God please, Please God please!!!!
As if this scenario wasn’t bad enough. The loud-speaker came on again. This time it was a flight attendant. “Folks?” she implored, voice cracking. “Folks, we have every confidence in our Captain” voice trembling and tearful. Another shockwave through my body. Oh no! this is really it. She knows we are going to die. Please God please. Oh my God!!!! I heard an almighty bang and huge rush of air. “Folks! That was the landing gear!” The plane erupted in cheers. “Uh, folks, this is the Captain, that noise you heard was the landing gear, we will be making an emergency landing. Please stay in your seats.”
The thought crossed my mind, how do we know the landing gear is working properly? Is it all down? Is it stuck halfway? Will it collapse when we hit the runway? This last thought remained. We were back in Ft Lauderdale in no time and the flight attendants prepared us for a crash landing. As we flew into the airport I realized the captain must have thought the same thing as I could see lights flashing everywhere; fire trucks and ambulances as far as the eye could see. Oh my God, they are waiting for us to crash, I thought. We flew over the runway and wheels touched down, nothing happened. We landed! We landed!! Thank you, thank you thank you thank you God! The passengers erupted again. The woman and I hugged.
I rushed off the plane, right past baggage claim and ran outside hoping to see my father who had been waiting for me. I saw him smile and wave then his hand and smile dropped. At that moment I began hyperventilating. I think I stopped breathing when I saw the fire trucks on the runway from my perch in the sky. I could hardly breathe and grabbed at the cars as I passed them trying to make my way to my father. He ran toward me, grabbed me and squeezed hard-which although comforting-didn’t help my breathing situation. He cried “my baby, my baby” and I continued to gasp for air almost collapsing. It’s funny when I look back as I wonder what he had seen. I must have been white as a ghost. He cried as he held me not even knowing what had happened yet. I suppose it was written all over my face. I still get choked up when I think of his reaction.
Although the outcome was good, it took me a few days to recuperate and my trip was ruined by the thought of having to get back on a plane to go home. Until this time I’d never encountered a problem flying. Since then I’ve had other hiccups but am still here to talk about them. Routine plane sounds were seared into my brain on that trip and I’ll never forget them: The dinging of the bells telling the flight attendants to be seated and when it’s ok to get up and start serving, the sound of the flaps moving and when we are climbing in altitude. Then there are lovely sounds especially that beautiful bang and rush of air when the landing gear comes down just before landing and when the plane’s speed goes from 150 to 30. I especially love the sounds of the seatbelt sign being turned off, the clinking of unbuckling seatbelts and the door being opened to let me out!