Some days life can knock you down and sending your hiding under the duvet. On these occasions I find myself before the bookshelf. The pages contain past wisdom, with the power to perk me up and send me back into the struggle. From Camus I learned to keep pushing the eternal boulder with a smile like Sisyphus. Whilst the Stoics and Buddha teach how to accept the inevitable. When times seem especially tough I turn back to one of my favourite teachers: Maya Angelou. It is simply Dr Angelou’s positivity that picks me up again, preparing my return to the wider world. I’d like to share some of her most enriching expressions. Hopefully, I don’t infringe too many copyright laws along the way.
This is a simple lesson and it’s probably one you’re already aware of, “if you love something, sometimes you have to let it go.” Even though concept is common knowledge it’s hard to exercise. Like most things Love liberates is easier said than done. After all, complex emotions and bonds are easily muddled by every day existence. Our intentions can be perfectly pure in wanting the upmost for another but how we express these intentions can be binding. If you are blessed enough be loved and have people that you love then it’s worth loving a little like Dr Angelou.
Homo Sum Humani Nihil a me Alienum Puto
If you’re anything like me then your Latin language skills are none existent. Thankfully there are a number of slightly different translations of the sentence. Angelou offers, “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.” Although she was multifaceted person Angelou wasn’t a time traveler from Ancient Rome. The phrase originates from the playwright Terence. A slave who penned himself to freedom during the heights of the Roman Empire.
Dr Angelou emphasised the importance of these words and internalising their lesson. Doing so allows you enjoy the great achievements of our species. All the components for ingenuity, compassion and creation rest within you. Conversely, any destructive act a human can commit is within capabilities. This makes you empathise and stops you from imparting a moral judgement on another.
Homo Sum Humani Nihil a me Alienum Puto is a hard lesson to live. I must fail about a hundred times a day. But it’s always worth trying again. Offering understanding to yourself and others can only bring people closer.
And Still I Rise
There’s only so long you can lounge in your melancholy. If I need something to kick me into the shower and out into the sunshine then I remember And Still I Rise. When I hear the poem I am reminded of the effort that came before this day: A thousand hunter gatherers who scrapped through harsh winters for our survival; the immeasurable love and support that pushed me to this point in time; every drop of rain water and every rotation of the earth has projected me here. The lesson I learn from Dr Angelou’s poem is that the battle of life must be loved. It’s going to knock you down but eventually you will stand up again.
I was fifteen when I read my first poem by Maya Angelou. Angelou’s poetry wasn’t something I stumbled into in the library or online but was studied in an Literature class. Before reading Woman Work we were introduced to the poet. Our teacher cut out facts about the poet and the varied life she had led on slips of paper. The class then had to go around collecting and sharing the snippets of information that compiled a rough biography of the author. Then we read the poem and compared it with an old English text, which I can no longer remember. Woman Work is a beautiful piece that kindled my appreciation for Maya Angelou and strengthened my adoration of poetry. I would have liked to leave a copy of the poem in this post but I’m uncertain of the legality of doing this. Instead, I’ve included a link at the bottom to poemhunter.com.
After my first exposure to Angelou’s work I read a lot of her poems online. Her collective works are vast and due to publishing rights a large proportion of the poetry isn’t available on the internet. I read what was accessible in the early 2000s and moved towards other writers. About three years later I became curious about Angelou again and in order to satisfy my craving for the author’s words I purchased all of her memoirs that had been published until that date. Unfortunately, these books weren’t to my taste. Perhaps the non-fiction nature of the stories deterred me, or the introduction to new writers at university pulled me away. In either case, it shames me Maya’s collect memoirs are gathering dust on my book shelf and to this day remain unread. I’m drawn to the every time I pick new text but for some unknown reason they’ve yet to be chosen.
Despite neglecting Angelou’s prose for several years I have always remained a bit of an admirer. I’ve devoured all interviews that I can find online and have internalised the lesson Angelou repeats from Roman playwright Terence:
“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto”
“I am a human being, nothing human can be alien to me.”
Last week I purchased Maya Angelou: The Complete Poems onto my kindle. The book has become part of my morning routine. Every day I have awoken, made my coffee, and before heading for the shower I read several poems in the book. Several mornings I have been a little late for work because I wanted to finish another page. The poetry ranges across several themes, however several topics such as love, poverty and the African American experience uphold the collection. Angelou writers these subjects with passion that is infectious to the reader, making it as electric as the caffeine in my cup. Between the coffee and the poetry collection the day is more inviting to dive into. What surprises me is how effortless her world is to connect to. Despite our generational difference, ethnic experience, gender and geographical divide Angelou’s poems are refreshingly accessible and important to me. In the shower this morning I asked myself,
“Why should a white working class man be captivated by Harlem Hopscotch?”…
“Because it’s all human.” I replied.