She was TALL. She strode down a hallway with purpose and large-boned grace. She was awe-inspiring. She was Maya ANGELOU, for crying out loud, and I was 23 and starstruck to be in the presence of the poet and memoirist who had rocked my world with her words in high school and college. Dr. Maya Angelou was truly larger than life, and I got to breathe the air beside her one afternoon in 1989.
We were both in a San Francisco church in the Tenderloin district. She was visiting friends, the Reverend Cecil Williams who ran Glide Memorial Church with his poet wife, Janice Mirikatani. I was working on a publishing project with some amazing kids in one of Glide’s many community offerings, an afterschool program funded by my then-boss, Frederick Furth. Dr. Angelou had agreed to write a foreword for the children’s book of writings and drawings and, during one of my meetings with the Reverend Williams and Ms. Mirikitani, she appeared. In person. Right there in the very room we were in!
I don’t think I formed more than a few words, probably something along the lines of, “It’s an honor to meet you.” But my soul was aloft, soaring with the joy of being in the company of one of the most searing, honest, funny, brave, beautiful writers our nation has ever known, not to mention the most formidable presence I have ever encountered. Her manner exuded dignity and the strongest sense of self of anyone I’ve ever met. I was deeply humbled.
And even better, I was inspired, and trebly so a couple of days later, when I attended the Sunday church service at Glide that Maya Angelou guest-led with Cecil Willams. She strutted, she spoke, she sang. She mesmerized. A congregation of hundreds — from the wealthiest socialites to the most struggling Tenderloin families — hung on her words, laughed and whooped and lifted their voices in a joyous chorus of hallelujahs, praise and song. THAT is what church is all about: community and celebration, a gathering in. It was revelatory.
I would have loved Maya Angelou’s great spirit and admired her defiant, triumphant resilience even if all I had ever glimpsed of her was her writing, but I am eternally grateful that I was given the thrill of experiencing, close-up, for a few brief moments, the presence of that extraordinary woman.
Rest in peace (and laughter and poetry), Dr. Angelou. Phenomenal, indeed.
Please feel free to share your own memories of Maya Angelou and her words. Weren’t we all lucky to have met her?!