A Letter from Maya Angelou.
Dr. Maya Angelou is somebody that I admire and that I was fortunate to have crossed paths with, in a manner of speaking, before she passed away.
I probably knew of her, or her name, early in my life without really knowing much about her. As a grown man, both literate and into growth and personal development, I frequently would run across quotes attributed to her. One line presented by itself, particularly struck a chord with me:
“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.”
Regardless of my race, gender or any other socioeconomic categorization that might apply to me, there had been definitive points in my life, especially as a child, that I felt powerless; that life was just something that happened to you; that life was a series of hurts thrown at you which you simply did your best to block, catch or deflect.
As a baseball fan, I loved the imagery that this line provoked. As a person with the wounds from life being thrown at me, her message to throw back was empowering.
It also represented a general positive message that not only is it okay to fight or push back, but that we can exercise self-determination to design a life, outside of any victim role or sense of complacency.
I kept the line in my mind as a golden nugget, a personal treasure.
Flashing forward a bit: Keesh is Dr. Keisha Clark. I call her Dr. Keesh since she has earned her PhD. She is simply a friend of mine who I adore. I would apply to be her big brother if the position were advertised. We worked together, counseling teens in a drug recovery program.
She herself had survived some challenges growing up, and is also a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, which displaced her and sent her to California, where we met.
Dr. Keesh is somebody who won me over with her overall positive and genuine way of being. She has plans and goals at any one time. Not too long ago, a major goal was to earn her PhD. I encouraged her and was proud of her just as a big brother might be.
As her graduation was looming, I thought I would like to get her a special gift, something out of the ordinary. Dr. Keesh is African-American, and I know that she wanted to work with African-American teens and/or women as a coach and mentor. With a Phd., I knew she would be a role model.
Right or wrong, I thought that I would like to get her something from another African-American woman role model, something like an autographed book or picture. Something that might inspire her. I thought about Oprah, but then it hit me. Who does Oprah look up to? Dr. Maya Angelou.
I believed that Dr. Keesh also looked up to her.
I looked on eBay for different items, but my search also turned up some site with information on how to personally contact Dr. Angelou.
I thought, “Wow, maybe I will try that. I have time, and if I get no response, I will then just go ahead and buy something from eBay.”
I thought about what to ask to get signed. The primary options seemed to be a picture or a book, both of which I would first have to acquire. I then thought of that “Catcher’s Mitt” line.
I googled it and found that it was part of what was presented as larger piece titled “I’ve Learned” with many great lines.
I decided that I would simply print out a copy of this piece and ask that it be signed.
I drafted a letter of request exactly explaining the situation. My intention was that the signed poem would not be for me, but for my friend Dr. Keisha Clark, who would be receiving her PhD.
Without thinking too much and as a pure gesture of goodwill, I stated that I included three poems that I wrote as a gift to her.
After I mailed the request with a self-addressed return envelope, I had a realization that made me feel like a dope.
I thought, “Dr. Maya Angelou probably receives thousands of poems from people. I am a bonehead. What was I thinking?”
I chilled out and checked myself. My intention was totally, naively pure. I put the poems in the envelope as a gift because I was asking for something and felt some kind desire to give something back in return.
I had no other intention, so I shifted my thinking to just hoping that I would receive a timely response.
To my surprise, the return envelope made its way back fairly quickly.
I knew that when I opened it, there might be a response from a personal assistant of some type that said, “Dr. Angelou is not able to respond to all requests.”
I knew that she was fairly busy and elderly as well. I prepared for the possibility of some form of rejection.
When I opened the envelope I saw that the poem had indeed been signed by Dr. Angelou, but that there was something more there than just a signature.
At the top she had dated it, June 4, 2013, addressing it to Dr. Keisha Clark, with the exclamation of “Joy!”
At the bottom, where there had been more room, she wrote in a rather large long-hand:
“Poet Barry John Johnson, having collected some of my statements calls them a poem, and being proud of your achievements asked if I would sign this page to you. This is not a poem but rather some truths I have learned. Joy!”
This was followed by her signature.
I could hear her saying this as I read it with her magnetic voice, a voice that can sound like a stern angel, compassionate and authoritative at the same time.
I then had this brief moment where I felt a touch of disappointment at being mentioned by her in this gift that I intended for Dr. Keesh. It seemed like the reference to me could be distracting from my hope to honor Dr. Keesh.
I second-guessed having placed those poems in the envelope regardless of my intent. But then my eyes went wide like saucers.
“Dr. Maya Angelou called me a poet!”
I can only say that I felt happy. I was endeavoring to be a poet and writer. This was my next step in life.
I also felt touched. Here this busy, world-renowned, historical figure took the time to put some personal touches on a letter when she probably receives tons of mail. In just a few lines of script, Dr. Angelou managed to honor, inspire and nurture two people at the same time and our friendship.
What a judicious and efficient use of wisdom in one swipe of her pen. Two for the price of one. I felt the power of her wisdom. She discerned a need to expand beyond a simple “Best Wishes” and signature. She was playing a role of nurturer.
I realized that Nurturance is a sort of spiritual duty of not just the wise and accomplished, but everybody. Here this busy icon had the time to make a personal impact nurturing others.
There is probably something that we can all do bring people up, praise them, cheerlead and just make them feel special.
I shared the gift with Dr. Keesh, giving her the original, and of course keeping a copy for myself. I told her about some of the mixed emotions I had experienced, not wanting to detract from her in my name being mentioned.
Dr. Keesh replied, “C’mon, Bear!” keeping me in check.
We talked about the how the intention of a gift for her became a gift for both of us. We talked about how Dr. Maya Angelou took the time to touch us both in a personal way.
Barry John Johnson is a counselor in San Diego, California. He used to work as a high level bureaucrat until he decided not to anymore. He likes helping people. He also likes meditation, writing, intuitive arts and independent spiritual studies. For more Barry: HowToBeChill.com and Facebook.