A few years ago, I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Maya Angelou for my book, Epiphany. I reached out to Dr. Angelou because several requests had come in via my website for her to be interviewed, and then I asked a woman I was interviewing, Stacey Lannert (also in my book), one of my standard questions of whose epiphany she would want to know about if she could ask anyone in the world. She replied without skipping a beat, “Maya Angelou.” She said Dr. Angelou’s book, I Know Why The Cage Bird Sings, had not only changed her life but had literally saved it. It had helped her survive prison and had given her hope when nothing else had.
I decided to reach out to Dr. Angelou (pronounced “an-gel-O” with a long “o”) right after that. Acquiring an interview was a long shot, but I’d secured long shots before. I always figure the worst that can happen is that they say “no.” That is something being an actor really taught me well — to handle rejection. You learn not to take “no’s” so personally and that they aren’t the end of the world by a long shot — there’s always, always a “yes” out there waiting to happen sooner or later and I would always rather risk a “no” than to regret not having tried. In this case, it turned out a “yes” was ready to take its turn in my life.
Everyone in Maya Angelou’s office is always extremely polite, respectful and professional and they refer to each other and whomever they speak with as “Mrs.,” “Ms.,”or “Mr.,” no matter how long they’ve known you. They always called me “Ms. Ballard” and they referred to her as “Dr. Angelou” so I took my cues from them. The protocol was always quite formal and respectful — so much so that it’s noticeably unusual, I suppose old-fashioned – I’ve never worked in an office where we called each other by our surnames – but it felt so dignified and I have to tell you, refreshing. I can’t really explain it, but dealing with her office had a special quality that was palpable and when you got off the phone or corresponded with them. You somehow felt elevated.
Dr. Angelou’s lovely assistant at the time, Ms. Fran Berry, “Ms. Berry,” and I hit it off on the phone when I called with my inquiry and after I sent my official email request, she replied right away and scheduled a phone interview with me at the end of May – serendipitously right under the wire – I mean, right before my book was due in June. The day of my interview with Dr. Angelou, I’d been on hold only a couple of minutes, when I heard her say, “Hello, Ms. Ballard, I apologize for keeping you waiting,” and I pinched myself.
I became even more in awe of this woman after speaking with her. After we hung up, I sat silently at my desk for a while and knew something had shifted in me. I think I edited five to ten words out of the entire account she gave – that’s what a master she was of the written and spoken word. When she said, “Even now, telling you this some fifty years later, it still brings goose bumps to me. I could weep with joy … ” I could feel the joy and tears in her voice and was moved to tears myself.
And her VOICE. That voice of hers was extraordinary. It had a quality that was mesmerizing and soothing, forceful and awe-inspiring all at once. What is that quality and what was it that moved me so much that day?
She definitely was one of the most accomplished individuals around; and that she accomplished what she did as an African-American woman during the era(s) that she did, makes it even that much more remarkable. She took action and did what she was interested in and what she wanted to do. She wrung every last drop out of life that she felt entitled to. Maya Angelou will always be a breath-taking example of what can be created when a person doesn’t believe in limitations or boundaries, and she will always be relevant, inspiring, and her work will always be in demand because of this. She is also a sterling example of taking one’s epiphany and building an extraordinary life upon it.
Her definition of an epiphany, which I talk about as one of my favorites in the Introduction of my book, is one of the most highlighted Amazon™ passages:
“The word ‘epiphany’ probably has a million definitions. It’s the occurrence when the mind, the body, the heart, and the soul focus together and see an old thing in a new way.” ~Maya Angelou
But it was more than just her brilliance and accomplishments that struck such awe and feeling in me. I’ve thought a lot about this and have come to the conclusion that what was coming through her voice was a clarity coming from the depths of her soul—every word was clear, strong and true–and I realized I’d had an encounter with a true master, not only of the written and spoken word, but of life. Of her life. It was the voice of someone who knew exactly who she was as an individual and as part of the collective. She was a person completely solid and free – free from what anyone else thought or wanted. And most of all, it seemed to me, Maya Angelou truly understood love. It was her love that resonated in her voice and through the phone that changed me. And it is the love that reverberates through her words that I later wrote down on the page.
This was her greatest epiphany. This was her mantra for life. This is what drove her to try and do what many assumed would be impossible. This is what I always refer to as one of my all-time favorite epiphanies because it’s something I’d never heard expressed in this way before. I’d heard and understood being “loved by Love Itself” but that “there’s nothing GOOD that I can’t do?” I’d never heard that. And it’s so true.
No matter how dark things seem to get in this world, no matter how overwhelming our problems seem to be, it’s always true that there is nothing good that you or I can’t do. If you look around at history and humanity, when humans put their minds to it, we can come back from any atrocity, any natural disaster, anything Life can throw at us.
Maya Angelou’s quote and message have helped me spiral up and given me strength countless times since hearing it — especially when I feel helpless or hopeless. It is this spirit and truth that Dr. Angelou infused in her life and work that has touched thousands of lives. It is what saved Stacey Lannert in prison; prompted me to request an interview; Fran Berry to schedule an interview; Dr. Angelou to share with me, and it is what subsequently shifted me and gave me a tool for life (and probably some, if not all, of those people who highlighted her passage in my book as well), not to mention sparking epiphanies of survival and hope like this one; and so on and so on. Our little Epiphany ripple is but one tiny result of Dr. Angelou’s work and life, and she will continue to ripple out and on in innumerable ways.
A great light may have gone out with her passing, but Dr. Angelou’s light and love reverberate on through the enormous body of work she created and the life and wisdom she shared with us all.
MAYA ANGELOU’S GREATEST EPIPHANY IN LIFE AS TOLD TO ELISE BALLARD:
excerpted from Epiphany: True Stories of Sudden Insight
Well, you know, the truth is everybody probably has two hundred-fifty epiphanies. The way you’re changed at ten prepares you to be changed again at fifteen, but you couldn’t have been changed at fifteen had you not had that change at ten. You see what I mean? Epiphany builds upon epiphany.
When my son was born, I was seventeen. And I came home from the hospital and my mother put him in the bed with me. I was so afraid I’d roll over on this beautiful baby. But she said, “It’s all right. You’ll be all right.” I thought I might smother him or something. I was just scared.
Sometime in the middle of the night, my mother awakened me, and she said, “Don’t move. Just look.” And I had put my arm up and put my hand on the mattress, and put the blanket over my arm so that my baby was lying in a tent.
And my mom said, “See baby? When you mean right, you do right.”
Then when I was maybe twenty-two or so, I was studying voice, and the voice teacher lived in my house and rented from me. He taught a number of accomplished actresses and singers, and they all studied in my house. So I knew them slightly. But they were all white, and they were accomplished, and many of them were forty years old and had been written about in the San Francisco newspaper, where I lived at the time.
Once a month, the voice teacher asked us to come together and read from a book called Lessons in Truth. We all would read a page, or a half a page, whatever he assigned. And at one point, I was reading and read the line, “God loves me.”
And he said, “Read it again.”
So I read it again, “God loves me.”
He said, “Again.”
And suddenly, I became embarrassed. I was young and black, and everybody else was white and accomplished. I felt he was really embarrassing me. Putting me on the spot. So I read it with ferocity, forcefully, “GOD LOVES ME!”
And, at that moment, I knew it. I knew it!
I thought, “God? That which made bees and mountains and water? That? Loves me? Maya Angelou? Well then there’s nothing I can’t do. I can do anything good.”
Even now, telling you this some fifty years later, it still brings goose bumps to me. I could weep with joy at the knowledge that I am loved by Love Itself.
Dr. Maya Angelou was a celebrated African American poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, actress, producer, historian, filmmaker and civil rights activist. In 1970, her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published to international acclaim and enormous popular success. The list of her published verse, non-fiction, and fiction now includes more than thirty bestselling titles. Her screenplay, Georgia, Georgia, the first by an African American woman ever to be filmed, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, as well as her volume of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie. She was a member of the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s, was active in the Civil Rights movement, and served as Northern Coordinator of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Dr. Angelou served on two presidential committees, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000, the Lincoln Medal in 2008, received three Grammy Awards, and was awarded over thirty honorary degrees. She was a professor at Wake Forest University from 1991-2014 as the recipient of the first lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies. Dr. Maya Angelou passed away on May 29, 2014, leaving behind one son, Guy, many loved ones and an indelible legacy.