The words flowed through my soul, cleansing it like holy water.
“Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.”
Yes! My soul cried out. Yes!
“‘Cause I’m a woman
The words felt like sweet release pouring off of the page and washing over my aching soul.
“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.”
I’d was holding a dog-eared copy of “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou and my spirit was trumpeting with glee. Her words unleashed a symphony of bliss in my chest. My eyes brimmed with tears and my heart thundered like a stampede of wild horses.
It was as if her words had reached inside the muck and mess of my drowning soul and were pulling me out … pulling me free. As I devoured the pages, I felt some invisible constraint crack and shift around me. My abdomen glowed with the heat of the steaming cup resting upon it, releasing tendrils of curling steam reaching ever heavenward. My hand held the book aloft before me like a victory torch, while my mind sucked the words off the pages hungrily. I couldn’t get enough.
Maya was my life raft.
It started small, very small. In the beginning, it was nothing more than a budding and intermittent thought. What if I’m not broken? What if?
I swallowed everything I could get my hands on over the coming days, all of Maya Angelou’s poems and her many deeply profound books too. Her words were my air. Through the pages, Maya picked me up, dusted me off and handed me back a piece of myself – a tiny, glowing spark which slowly began to illuminate and revive my wasted soul.
And then, I started to come back.
When a new dorm-mate giggled conspiratorially to me, “I came to college to get my M.R.S. Degree,” a sentiment that I had heard so often it was like a top 10 hit playing on the radio, I did something. It wasn’t big, but it was something. And something felt better than nothing.
There was a floor to ceiling communal bulletin board in our dorm. I plastered it with magazine clippings of our era’s most powerful women. They were successful businesswomen, philanthropists, artists, politicians, dancers, scientists, authors and more. Smack dab in the middle I placed Maya Angelou and her poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” complete with its provocative innuendo and inciting concepts.
As I worked, collecting and arranging my makeshift collage, I realized that it wasn’t about marriage at all. That was just a disguise. It was about the way my culture actively funneled women into only one predetermined and very limited role. Women were divinely pre-determined to be wives and mothers. That was their purpose. Meanwhile, men were divinely predetermined to be husbands and fathers; breadwinners; community, religious and family leaders and really whatever else they pleased. The inequality scratched beneath my skin and rankled my senses.
I had been blessed with amazing female role models, both inside and outside of the church. Throughout my religious upbringing and everywhere I now looked now, however, I saw young women aspiring to the exact opposite, actively repressing everything they could be. Marriage was a box to be checked and docility, meekness and submission were its prerequisites. It felt wrong.
Through Maya’s words I had seen a power, one that I had glimpsed intermittently throughout my own life but had lost somewhere along the way. I believed in that power and I believed in the dangers of repressing it. I could add that to the short list of things I knew.
Maya had given me the courage to stop repressing myself.
This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.