A Mourning Moment
If today I follow death,
go down its trackless wastes,
salt my tongue on hardened tears
for my precious dear time’s waste
along that promised cave in a headlong
to mourn for
This poem, “Mourning Grace” by writer/master storyteller Maya Angelou, comes to me as I take in the news that she has just passed away in the United States at age 86. I listen over and over to the voice of Angelou herself as she recites these brief but touching words from a recording she first made back in the late 1960s.
I mourn her passing as I also celebrate her memory. Her words have touched and inspired millions of people around the world, and I am no exception. She is one of the writers I include as members of my extended spiritual-literary family around the world who have helped clear the path and led me to become the writer I am today.
Her autobiographical book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is her most famous work, but of course there was so much more. I encourage you to check out her official website to find a more comprehensive legacy than you are likely to find in the news media, especially in the United States.
Speaking for myself personally: From Maya Angelou, I learned the power of words and how they can be used to hurt but also to heal.
The Poetry of Maya Angelou, an LP record that she made back in 1969 (later re-released on CD), pulls no punches when it comes to cutting white American society down to size like a precisely honed sword of truth. Angelou, especially in her younger years as a writer, seemed to suffer no fools gladly and if some of her words seemed overly harsh and cutting to the bone, I can respect the fact that someone, somewhere must have deserved the truthful wrath of her words.
In an old home-videotape recording from around 1989 that I still have, Maya Angelou joins another well-known writer, Alice Walker, on the afternoon talk TV show of the young, rising media star Oprah Winfrey. Angelou jokingly talks on the show about how she once sliced her son’s pride with the sharp cutting-edge of her words, causing Walker and Winfrey both to kind of wince in response. Maya Angelou knew the real power of words.
On that same television program, Angelou had this to say (verbatim) on the topic of the “magic of writing” that had come up:
“I don’t mean, in my discourse on writing, to in any way diminish its magic. But I simply mean at the same time to say: It [writing] is no more magical than the art of laying bricks or running a family with some grace and some charm and some laughter and some love. ...At best, what we’re trying for, I think — all of us, if we have enough courage, I think what we’re all trying for — is to elevate whatever it is we do into that realm of magic. And the truth is, it is already there. It is recognizing how wondrous it is: how wondrous it is to be a parent or to be a daughter. How fantastic it is to be a friend. What, I could go on for hours on that alone!”
Maya Angelou used her words to help heal. I love this video clip of a few years ago about how she sees love as a liberating force for the human spirit. She knew, both from instinct and from the harsh experiences of her own life, that words can be a salve to heal deep scars and can help free the human soul.
A few months ago, as the world mourned the passing of South African leader Nelson Mandela, it was Angelou who wrote and recited this poem, “His Day is Done”, as an official contribution from the people of the United States for Mandela’s memorial celebration. (Interestingly, Angelou had first met Mandela back in the early 1960s in Egypt, at a time when Mandela was secretly traveling through African countries to gain monetary support and military training for a planned guerrilla army to fight the apartheid regime of South Africa.)
And looking at her official Facebook page, it seems that Angelou was still actively posting messages there even up to a few days ago, just before her own death. She was a true writer-warrior all the way to the end of her life.
I have many fathers in my extended worldwide family of writers, and Maya Angelou is one of my mothers in that family. I am truly grateful to have had the chance to live in the same period of history as so many great literary giants like her.
If today I follow death, she wrote nearly a half-century ago in that short, humble poem, would you have the grace to mourn for me?
Now that that the moment of her passing has indeed arrived and we must bid Maya Angelou farewell on her eternal journey, the answer to her question comes back in an emphatic YES: The world pauses at this mournful moment to respect and remember, to praise and to honor, this Phenomenal Woman of the written and spoken word.