In 1995, I turned 21. Twenty had been a tumultuous year for me. I had separated from a boyfriend that I had lived with and moved into a house I shared with roommates, truly supporting myself for the first time. The boy that I left would turn into a very good man, but we were terrible for each other, not ready for the commitment that we made too lightly.
I was so lost in so many ways. I wanted so much but knew so little about how to get it. I had spent so many years fighting against being smart, trying to fit into an uncomfortable mold, that I had absolutely no idea what kind of next steps I should take as a woman supporting herself for the first time. I knew that I wanted more than my parents had been satisfied with, but I did not know how to get it, or what "it" would look like when I found it. What I knew was that I didn't want to be poor, didn't want to be afraid all the time. I knew, even though I didn't know, that I did not want to be a victim.
Reading had always been my salvation. I read, and I read, and I read, and when things got too difficult, I read more. The year I turned 20, I found Erica Jong, and she changed my life. From her I moved to Henry Miller, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Anais Nin, and so many more authors who began to shape me into the woman I am today.
While I was discovering these amazing writers and minds, I discovered Maya Angelou. Singin', and Swingin', and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Heart of a Woman...these autobiographies spoke to me, to something fundamental in me about being a woman, being human, being an American, that left an indelible imprint upon me that I cherish, still, 19 years later.
In my 20s, I had a dear friend named Amanda. A woman who was also remarkable and left her imprint upon me. Two months before my 21st birthday, Amanda told me I was no longer allowed to read newspapers or watch television news because she didn't want her birthday present to me to be spoiled. So I shut myself off from current events and contented myself with the stories and the poetry that so compelled me in those days.
The weekend before my birthday, the night that she declared we were to celebrate my 21st, I picked Amanda up from her house in Fremont, and we went to dinner at the El Torito's on the water in San Leandro. There I had my first margarita and worried that I would get carded by the waiter (I was still only 20 and I was NERVOUS about such things). After we left the restaurant, Amanda directed me onward but wouldn't tell me where we were going.
We drove into Oakland and I knew we had arrived when I saw a marquis that said "Maya Angelou". For my 21st, birthday, Amanda was bringing me to see Maya Angelou speak.
As we settled into our seats that evening, I had no idea what was in store for me. In addition to Maya Angelou, a local poet, Janice Miritakani, wife of famous Glide Memorial pastor Cecil Williams, was also speaking. One of the poems that Janice read was "War of the Body". It begins like this:
"I had hoped for a truce
not believing it possible,
this protracted war with my body,
so long waged, hating my breasts
that stung to the touch,
this flat body, frigid as a bivouac.
I had feared no marriage
could survive my demoliton."
I cried when she read that poem. Amanda cried too. We held hands in the darkened theatre and wept for things we had lost, things that had been taken from us. We listed to Ms. Miritakani and we understood her pain and her rage and her mother-anger and her daughter-guilt. And in that moment I was profoundly grateful to Amanda, to Janice Miritikani, to Maya Angelou, to Erica Jong, and to every woman who had ever given voice to how painful, infuriating, and fundamentally difficult it is to be a woman.
I remember that night as a turning point for me. An evening where I began to grasp the possibilities that were open to me as long as I always, ALWAYS owned the decisions and choices that I made - as long as I never allowed anyone but ME to define who I was and what I was worth. And although sometimes I lose my way, it's never for long, and it's never forever.
Dear Maya Angelou: Thank you for everything you contributed to our shared human dialog. Thank you for introducing me to Janice Miritakani. Thank you for helping me let go of rage and guilt and the boundaries, both self- and externally-imposed that kept me from believing I could get where I am today. I will, forever, remember the beauty of your voice as you and your son recited "The Raven" together. Your voice and your passion brought dead words to life. Let the living continue to give those words meaning.