Many tributes will be recited, many glasses will be raised, and we will mourn this phenomenal woman. Much will be said and memories will be traded about this phenomenal woman. Lovers of well-crafted poems and admirers of carefully honed words will re-read the vast catalog of work produced by this phenomenal woman.
Maya Angelou’s dear friend Oprah Winfrey offered this statement: “What stands out to me most about Maya Angelou is not what she has done or written or spoken, it’s how she lived her life. She moved through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and a fierce grace.”
Fierce grace. Only a phenomenal woman can move in that way.
Although her pedigree was short, her accomplishments were long: she was San Francisco’s first female and first black streetcar conductor. She was a singer, a dancer, a novelist, a succesful single mom, an actress, a civil rights activist, a poet, a teacher, a playwright, a university professor, and a holder of 30 honorary doctoral degrees. She was nominated for a Pulitzer and a Tony and three Grammys. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was a bad-ass.
This phenomenal woman spoke from the heart and did not mince words. Her friend James Baldwin paid her a high compliment when he said that she could hold both her liquor and her positions.
Two of Maya Angelou’s quotes ran through my head often while I was enduring the shit-storm that is cancer: “We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.” And “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” She came to know the truth in those profound statements from the earliest days, when she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at age 7. Yes, you read that right: age 7. Seven. An incident she described as “a breaking and entering when even the senses are torn apart.” Yet this phenomenal woman would not be broken by it. Instead, she wrote I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which won the National Book Award in 1970 and was on the NYT bestseller list for two years. “The caged bird sings with a fearful trill, of things unknown but longed for still.”
Despite her early, unimaginable hardship, this phenomenal woman lived to teach and to give. She said, “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 something back.”
I for one am immeasurably grateful for all she threw back.
She refused to be discouraged by the many obstacles standing in the way of a young black woman in the South in the early days of civil rights. In her poem “Still I Rise,” she challenged and persevered:
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll Rise.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
My all-time favorite Maya Angelou poem is “Phenomenal Woman.” It’s too good to excerpt, so here it is, in its entirety. If I ruled the world, I would make it required reading for every girl and women on this earth, in hopes of it curing insecurity and self-doubt. I would require every male on this earth to memorize this poem, in hopes of eradicating crimes against women, both emotional and physical.
Phenomenal WomanPretty women wonder where my secret lies.I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s sizeBut when I start to tell them,They think I’m telling lies.I say,It’s in the reach of my arms,The span of my hips,The stride of my step,The curl of my lips.I’m a womanPhenomenally.Phenomenal woman,That’s me.I walk into a roomJust as cool as you please,And to a man,The fellows stand orFall down on their knees.Then they swarm around me,A hive of honey bees.I say,It’s the fire in my eyes,And the flash of my teeth,The swing in my waist,And the joy in my feet.I’m a womanPhenomenally.Phenomenal woman,That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.They try so muchBut they can’t touchMy inner mystery.When I try to show them,They say they still can’t see.I say,It’s in the arch of my back,The sun of my smile,The ride of my breasts,The grace of my style.I’m a womanPhenomenally.Phenomenal woman,That’s me.
Now you understandJust why my head’s not bowed.I don’t shout or jump aboutOr have to talk real loud.When you see me passing,It ought to make you proud.I say,It’s in the click of my heels,The bend of my hair,the palm of my hand,The need for my care.’Cause I’m a womanPhenomenally.Phenomenal woman,That’s me.
I get a handy-dandy email in my inbox every day from Oprah’s magazine. I like her magazine and always find something useful, whether a book review or an article about a do-gooder in some random far-flung part of the world. Because Oprah is queen of the world and can cover whatever stories or topics she chooses, you never see ridiculous headlines or teasers on the cover of her magazine, like what we see on so many magazines. Sometimes I’m downright embarrassed by them while waiting in line at the grocery store: do we need to know that Hilary is cheating on Bill with a lesbian lover? Do you really want to guess which celeb’s backside is completely covered in cellulite but only partially covered by a yellow bikini? I’m never embarrassed by the cover of O Magazine.
So today’s email had Dr Oz’s tips on 10 things you can do to live to 100 — or beyond.
I’m all for healthy living, but I most definitely do not want to live to be 100 — or beyond. I’m exhausted just thinking about that. Perhaps living to 100 — or beyond — but never growing old, feeble, and/or dependent on others wouldn’t be too bad, but given my not one, but two bouts with cancer, coupled with my degenerating joints, I’m guessing that won’t be in the cards for me. If I live to be 100 — or beyond — but my knees won’t bend and I’m stuck in a wheelchair, or even worse in bed, relying on others to care for me, I’m going to be hopping mad. Not that I have a death wish, but I am realistic. The average age of women diagnosed with breast cancer is 61; I was 20 years ahead of the curve. While strides have been made in treatment, and while my personal recurrence rate was predicted to be low, I don’t know that I can rationally expect to live another 57 years — or beyond.
Maybe I’m taking Dr Oz too literally. Does he really think that by following his 10 tips, we can live to be 100? I dunno, but here are his suggestions.
1. Eat red foods. The examples he give are beets, which relax blood vessels, and red cabbage, which protects against cancer. I love, love, love beets, so perhaps my blood vessels are relaxed. However, I clearly did not eat enough red cabbage, as it most definitely did not protect me from cancer.
2. Drink a cup of black tea. It’s supposed to boost survival rates of those who suffer a heart attack by 28 percent. Ok, I admit that stats like these confuse me. Does this mean that black-tea drinkers who have a heart attack are 28 percent more likely to not die from the heart attack, or 28 percent les likely to have a heart attack in the first place? I’m confused, but I do drink a lot of iced tea, so hopefully I’m covered either way.
3. Dial one phone number from memory every day. Not using speed dial or your cell phone’s memory exercises the brain’s “chunking” ability. By grouping info into chunks, you can keep your brain active and alert. I think working a crossword puzzle does the same thing, but don’t quote me on that.
4. Use the first stall in a public restroom. Ok, I do this whenever I am stuck and must use a public restroom, although I avoid public restrooms at all cost. Being the good germophobe that I am, I already knew this trick. See, most people seek privacy in a public restroom, so they tend to use the farthest stalls. More use equals more bacteria, which freaks me out. Now I’m wishing I hadn’t shared this tip, though, as I predict a rush on my preferred first stall. Some days I wonder how I’m able to leave the house at all.
5. Take the stairs, two at a time. We all know that taking the stairs instead of the elevator is preferable for good health, but Dr Oz says take that a step further — literally — and take two stairs at a time. Easy for him to say, with his long legs. I’ll try it, even though my legs aren’t long, but I’ll probably have to use the handrail, which I’m pretty sure is covered in germs. Never mind.
6. Stretch after you shower. Stretching is good. Tight muscles and tendons are bad (says the girl who hates to stretch). Once your muscles are good and heated from the shower, it’s easier to stretch them, and stretching promotes good posture and helps decrease muscle soreness from taking the stairs two in one go.
7. Hold your breath. Dr Oz touts this as a mini workout for your lungs, and something that can be done anytime, anywhere. He recommends holding your breath for 10 seconds, then blowing it out through pursed lips, which activates all the little nooks & crannies in our lungs. I tend to hold my breath while using a public restroom, so as long as I blow it out through pursed lips, I guess I’m good.
8. Do the reverse warrior. Dr Oz does a lot of yoga, and if he says the reverse warrior is the most important pose, I believe him. Click here to see how to do it. This pose strengthens the legs, increases flexibility in the spine, and stretches the hips, inner thighs, and groin. Get to it, y’all.
9. Chew your food 20 times. Grandma said it first, but Dr Oz tells us why: not only does it slow us down and helps us avoid eating like a pack of wild animals, it can decrease our risk of diabetes. Horking down food too fast leads to overeating, which can lead to obesity, which can lead to diabetes. Dr Oz says if you don’t want to count out how many times you chew, get into the habit of putting your fork down in between bites.
10. Cut your cravings in half. Instead of trying to deny your cravings, Dr Oz recommends giving in to them, but only by half. So instead of gobbling down a bag of potato chips, eat half the bag. Instead of devouring the carton of ice cream, just eat half of it. Actually, the example he gave was a cookie. One cookie. Which he wants you to break in half. So I’m guessing he would counsel me to go ahead and pour myself a glass of champagne, but to only drink half of it. Yet another reason to not live to be 100 — or beyond. I want the whole glass!
I take Oprah’s magazine, O. My friends who aren’t from around here laugh when I say that I “take” a magazine. I never knew that was a southern way of saying I have a subscription. Learn something every day, even if it is from Yankees (kidding, of course — I love my Yankee friends. Just hate the team the Yankees).
Now that we’ve cleared that up, back to the magazine. That I take.
In every issue, the last page is Oprah’s column on what she knows for sure. It’s the first place I turn to each month when the magazine appears in my mailbox. Then I go straight to the food section, followed by the book recommendations. I can’t say that I’ve ever made a recipe from O magazine, but the food stylists and photographers do an outstanding job. I have definitely taken book recommendations and have not been disappointed.
The What I Know for Sure column was spawned by Gene Siskel asking Oprah what she knows for sure. On the surface, it seems like a simple question, yet it had Oprah “flustered and stuttering and unable to come up with an answer.” She explains it: “The late film critic Gene Siskel used to ask in his celebrity interviews, ‘What do you know for sure?’ The first time he asked me this question, it threw me. Since then the question has become a way of taking stock of my life—hence the monthly column, in answer to Gene.”
Siskel inspired her to find out what she knows for sure, and every month she shares what she’s discovered. Say what you will about Oprah — some people think she walks on water while others can’t stand the sound of her voice — when she talks, people listen. Sometimes she gets a little too “out there” for me, but for the most part, I agree with what she says and usually come away from her What I Know for Sure column thinking, “Yeah! What she said.”
Because it’s the holiday season and I’m in the giving mood (and because I’m still waiting for the answer to the question of my next surgery to be handed down from the mighty GYN oncology tribunal at MD Anderson), I give you Oprah’s Top 20 List of Things She Knows for Sure.
1. What you put out comes back all the time, no matter what. (This is my creed.) [Oprah’s creed, not mine. Although it is a good creed.]
2. You define your own life. Don’t let other people write your script.
3. Whatever someone did to you in the past has no power over the present. Only you give it power.
4. When people show you who they are, believe them the first time. (A lesson from Maya Angelou.)
5. Worrying is wasted time. Use the same energy for doing something about whatever worries you.
6. What you believe has more power than what you dream or wish or hope for. You become what you believe.
7. If the only prayer you ever say is thank you, that will be enough. (From the German theologian and humanist Meister Eckhart.)
8. The happiness you feel is in direct proportion to the love you give.
9. Failure is a signpost to turn you in another direction.
10. If you make a choice that goes against what everyone else thinks, the world will not fall apart.
11. Trust your instincts. Intuition doesn’t lie.
12. Love yourself and then learn to extend that love to others in every encounter.
13. Let passion drive your profession.
14. Find a way to get paid for doing what you love. Then every paycheck will be a bonus.
15. Love doesn’t hurt. It feels really good.
16. Every day brings a chance to start over.
17. Being a mother is the hardest job on earth. Women everywhere must declare it so.
18. Doubt means don’t. Don’t move. Don’t answer. Don’t rush forward.
19. When you don’t know what to do, get still. The answer will come.
20. “Trouble don’t last always.” (A line from a Negro spiritual, which calls to mind another favorite: This, too, shall pass.)
My favorites are 2, 5, 10, and 17. Because I’m a little on the OCD side, and because it’s the biggest storyline in my life to date, I equate most of Oprah’s list to cancer. Well, numbers 2 and 5 have been my style from the get-go, way before cancer so rudely interrupted my otherwise fabulous life. It’s just the way I was made and it’s how I roll. I don’t know how it happened or if it is just imprinted into my DNA, but I don’t give a fig what other people think. Sure, I want the general impression of me to be one that’s positive, but when everyone is wearing skinny jeans, I’m gonna pull out my boot-cuts. My swim-against-the-current ways predate my diagnosis, for sure, but those trend-bucking ways have defined my cancer “journey.” From eschewing lumpectomy to questioning the doctors to rejecting that status quo and doing my own research, I’ve bucked the system and made choices based on what I truly believed. When a Very Important Person took offense with this little blog, I said it’s my blog and I’ll write what I want to. Don’t like it? Don’t read it. I will be fair and will endeavor to be balanced, but I will tell it like it is.
Number 5 has been a harder row to hoe than numbers 2 and 10. I’m a worrier, and that too is stamped into my DNA. While I make a real effort to not let the worry overtake my more rational side, it is definitely an effort. My good friend and health-care sherpa Amy Hoover has a saying: “Don’t borrow trouble.” That saying has become my mantra in this cancer “journey,” even if it is quite the effort to leave the borrrowing behind.
I’ve never loved Oprah more than when she declared to millions of people around the globe that motherhood is the hardest job ever. For someone who doesn’t have children to get this is quite gratifying. I adore my kiddos and feel immensely grateful to be raising them but it is a hard job. Not hard in the sense that it takes a lot of education or training, but hard in that you never know if all your hard work will pay off. You can do all the right things as a mother and still end up with kids who lose their way or thumb their noses at your values or vote Republican. It happens. There are plenty of how-to books on parenting, but none of them can guarantee the outcome you seek. Sorta like with cancer.
“Every death is a wakeup call to live more fully, more completely and more presently.” — Oprah
How ironic that I came across this quote today, the same day that I came across this on my patio (Julie A, stop reading now because here comes the icky part; Christy and all my tender-hearted animal-loving friends, I apologize in advance for the graphic nature of this post and the photos:
I consulted the Houston Audubon Society website and it appears to be American Crow. It’s smaller than a Grackle, which are very common around here, especially on the patios of Mexican restaurants where they beg for chips.
Payton and I came home from the gym but didn’t notice the crow on the ground. He went back into the garage to carry in the loot from Academy, and as he walked up to the back door I heard him say, “Ewwww, gross!” I asked what was gross and he said there’s a dead bird on the patio, and before I could get out there, Harry had the bird in his mouth (he is a retriever, after all).
I don’t think Harry killed the bird — he barks a good game, but when push came to shove, I think he’d be too squeamish. He prefers to do his hunting on the kitchen counters when he’s all alone, and no one can see him scarf down a loaf of bread. If Payton and I had happened upon a downed loaf of bread, I would convict Harry in a heartbeat.
Is this face of a bird killer? I think not.
True, Harry has little patience for birds and barks his fool head off at them. He especially gets rattled by the ones that perch on the peak of our roof. They pause there to rest a minute or sing a little song, and he goes bonkers. If we say “bird” to Harry, he’ll start barking, lifting his two front paws off the ground for emphasis. However, I don’t think he’s a cold-blooded killer.
I think that unfortunate crow hit one of the plate-glass windows that line the family room and overlook the backyard. This has happened once before, and the bird was stunned and knocked for a loop, but eventually recovered enough to fly away and hopefully live a long, happy, song-filled life. That time, I heard the thump of bird body colliding with glass. This time, I did not.
Nevertheless, I left the crow when he was for a while, hoping the fluttering of his tail feathers meant he was coming to and rallying. Alas, it was not to be. There would be no rally for that crow.
Sad, sad, sad.
And also troubling, because with 2 dogs in residence and others who visit regularly, that dead bird could easily become a mess of feathers and innards if left too long. It might also scare the tar out of Pedey the Weasel Dog, who is regularly frightened by his own shadow. If left too long in the intense Houston heat, it would start to stink to high heaven sooner rather than later. And, last but not least, I did not want Macy to see that dead bird. My little zookeeper has a heart as big as Texas, and her love of animals is legendary. In fact, she is at this moment at the Houston Humane Society’s Companion Camp, where she is no doubt loving on every animal in the building.
So how to dispose of the dead bird on my patio? It seemed somehow wrong and not befitting to just pick it up in a plastic bag and dump it in the trash. Wrong and smelly, too, since the trashmen don’t come for another couple of days. I can imagine that a dead bird inside a black trash barrel in the 90+ degree heat would be plenty nasty come trash day. I think the trashmen would have to take the whole barrel.
Anyone who has a dog knows what “The Scoop” is for, and those of you unfortunate souls who don’t have a dog can probably figure it out quite easily. Our Scoop gets plenty of use in our yard, and I’m kinda nutsy about cleaning it real carefully after each use, so I figured this was the best option.
He looks like he’s just sleeping in “The Scoop,” right?
The Houston Audubon Society says the American Crow is “highly intelligent” and leads a “complex life.” They hang together, forming large communities, and don’t breed until they are 4 or 5 years old. They have strong family ties and tend to stay together.
Great, I can now picture a crow family worried sick about their relative who hasn’t returned to the nest. They may be doing a fly-over right now, fanning out across the neighborhood searching for their lost guy.
Now I’m really glad I didn’t just dump him in the trash barrel. I carried him, in “The Scoop,” across the street and laid him in the shady grassy area next to the lake. It’s under a big tree, so maybe the search party will spot him, and their worry can morph into sorrow.
Or maybe the vultures will get to him before then. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and vultures gotta eat. Circle of life, I suppose, but it still makes me sad. I won’t go so far as to say that this crow’s death is a wake-up call that makes me want to live more fully, more completely, and more presently, as Oprah advises. No, I have cancer to thank for that. But having been through the “cancer journey” myself and having watched my sweet mama go through it, my heart is just a little more tender. Just a teensy bit broken. While joyful about survival and proud of having triumphed, going through such an immense experience produces little fissures, tiny cracks.
Yet, as Harold Duante-Bernardt so poetically pointed out, “We are all broken and wounded in this world. Some choose to grow strong at the broken places.”
So while I keep peeking out the front windows to the shady spot across the street, under the big tree by the lake, watching for a crow family in mourning or a gaggle of hungry vultures, I will resolve to grow stronger at the broken places.