“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
-Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
There is a place at Glide called the Maya Angelou Room. It’s warm and cozy and the perfect place for stormy summer San Francisco days, a place with plush green couches and a well-worn table and pictures of Maya herself and long-suffering people who have come through Glide’s doors seeking salvation, or at least a meal. It has wide windows looking out on the desolation row below, looking out onto the meal line and the pigeons and the occasional shouting or shoving that define the Tenderloin.
Here, why don’t you look at a picture to see what I mean:
We would have meetings in that room, serious ones or birthday celebrations, or planning for the next big project or visit. It’s a locked room much of the time, unlike most at Glide, with Vicky running around hectically with keys to open up one of the hidden little sacred spaces in the ramshackle earthquake-prone building at 330 Ellis. The room is the center of the internship program at Glide, where new fresh-faced students from surrounding universities come to learn about how non-profiteering is done, with hard work, sweat, love, and sometimes frustration.
I never met Maya Angelou, an apparently fairly frequent visitor to Glide and one of its most ardent supporters. Her room, though, felt like I’d imagine talking to her would have been. Somehow warm and simultaneously austere, comforting and reassuring but not immune to conflict and confrontation of the truth. I have no idea if she had a role in designing it or if it was simply named in her honor, but I’m sure she sat a spell there at least once and probably appreciated it. Maybe it inspired a poem or evoked a memory. I always felt like writing when I was in that space.
There’s a lot I have to write. At some point, I’m going to have to come forward with some untold stories that are burning a hole in my keyboard, stories of pain and betrayal and institutional failure and all the old tropes that seem to be a big part of what life is about on this planet. I don’t believe in battles between good and evil, but I do believe staunchly that there are people out there who want you to believe that life is just garbage. That it’s always been garbage and always will be, so why don’t you go out and get yours, whatever the cost. As I told some of my debaters recently, what keeps me going is the importance of not letting the message that life is garbage win. Life is hard, grueling, and filled with misdeeds. But it is more, far more than garbage. Maya knew it, and her life was way harder than mine will ever be. Glide knows it, every day, and inspires those whose lives are harder than Maya’s.
But life, as we are reminded in the ensuing online debates from recent events, is also not a battle over martyrdom, over whose pain is biggest or whose obstacles are greatest. It is, perhaps, an effort to see who can come the farthest through such setbacks that we all must face and try to bear. The most-quoted Angelou line of the time since her death and perhaps of all-time is this one:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I think the ability to make people feel better, more positive, more hopeful, more understanding of each other and the life that we are trying to lead, that’s perhaps the greatest aspiration any of us can have. We all want to change the world, even if it’s only for the lowliest of reasons, but changing how people feel about going through this arduous journey is probably far nobler and more important. And the only way to find out how that’s going is to constantly communicate with those people, to engage, to offer stories of one’s own as illustrations for what could maybe be reached in the future.
Angelou was masterful at this. Through the spinning of words, in poetry and prose, she could keep people hanging on a thread and make her hard hard life relatable to anyone, inspiring to everyone. She was one of the first people I read in high school who made me realize that childhood was something stripped from many people, who alerted me to the fact that lives like those lived by the children of Seneca Center, where I would later work, existed. She reminded me of the power of a simple honest story and how it could resonate, reverberate, ripple into the memory and actions of others.
As I stand on the precipice of another transition, another move, another series of goodbyes already in progress, I think back to the foggy environs of Glide’s second floor, to the cavernous echoes of the neighboring sanctuary, to the peeling tile and hearty smiles of the last place I toiled. I miss you already, though I haven’t even left. In missing the last thing, I am missing now and missing things yet unmet. A full heart is a heavy one, and there is much to be grateful for about that, even if it feels like sorrow. Benevolent sorrow, but sorrow nonetheless.
Maybe I’m just trying to live up to one final quote from Maya:
“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”