I traveled the distance with my husband to Atlanta to speak at “The Horizon Leans Forward: A Reading for Maya Angelou.” The event was sponsored by Poetry Atlanta and the Georgia Center for the Book and organized by my friend, Atlanta poet/novelist Collin Kelley. It was an eventful excursion, as my excursions usually are, but I was so grateful to finally get to that podium. No group of people had looked more beautiful before that moment. It was almost as if Maya Angelou herself were sitting somewhere watching say, “That’s it. Push life out of the way and get there.”
We boarded the Megabus at 7 a.m. in Durham and had a fairly easy ride … until we were about an hour out from Atlanta. The driver announced that the tires were overheating and we needed to pull off the road for about 10-15 minutes. That time frame turned into 30 minutes and started inching closer to an hour. The driver had already told us that we were scheduled to get a new driver at the Lilburn park-and-ride to take us into Atlanta. Now, we had to switch buses. Suddenly, after more than the half hour on the side of the interstate, she decided to push it and get us to Lilburn. As soon as we got to the parking-and-ride, the new driver jumped in the driver’s seat and we took off — no bus change at all. Many of the passengers believed the driver was just scared to keep driving.
Meanwhile, I had been texting Collin while all of this was unfolding and giving him updates about my ETA. Sweetie and I finally got to the Westin, checked in, showered quickly and dashed onto the train headed to Decatur. I arrived just as the fill-in speaker was finishing her presentation and was able to talk to this very patient audience. The library Internet would not allow me to connect to my Kindle to download my speech, so I had to just talk off the top of my head. Ordinarily, this would have made me stumble, but I think in this era of my life, I am so at ease with whatever happens. I trust the path I’m on and there are not too many things that can rattle me for too long. I picked a striking woman in the audience as my focal point and just talked.
Several people that night asked if I were planning to write an essay about my connections to Dr. Maya Angelou. Until I was asked in that moment, I had not really considered it. Mostly, my very brief time with her has been something that I carried inside, the little bit of fluffing that I need sometimes for my wings. But all the inquiries made me want to post the speech here so that folks could at least read it.
I have not always recognized that my connection to Dr. Angelou expands beyond the South and poetry. We both love preparing meals for gatherings. I told the audience that I know what it means to be the go-to person when a crowd of friends want to get together. Since my early 20s, my lovely circle of friends has been known to try to get some of whatever is on my stove. Serving these people I love is a form of communion. All who gather around my table do not leave the same as when they came. And the transformation usually has nothing to do with food.
The Art of Feast: Gathering Together in Her Name
From the time we all come here to this strange place with many other creatures who are just as human and just as perfectly imperfect as we all are, our lives are a lesson to everyone who watching. How you choose to do what it is you are meant to do leaves a trail of truth that follows you to your very certain grave. If I were to listen to my own life right now, it may have several lessons to teach me, even as I look back down the winding path I’ve already traveled: Take the light things lightly, Cherryl, and when the heavy things are heavy, be still inside until you know what it is you must do. I am a leaper by nature, and in some strand of my DNA, my parents forgot to code my genes to look long and hard before I leap into madness.
If it sounds good, I’m doing it. Somewhere in my brain, I am sure there is a reel-to-reel on repeat. It echoes into my blood: “Let’s do this, let’s do this.” The who-what-when-where and why come somewhere between launch and landing. Some would say this is the marking of a free spirit. My Grannie would say, “Child you’re just too old for that.” My children, natural and surrogate, all tell me it’s the way I teach them how to build a dream and follow it into happiness.
So, what did the Great Spirit we all call Dr. Maya Angelou teach us with her life? If I have to squeeze it all into one simplistic phrase, it would be this: Eat sensibly and be free.
I have been fortunate enough to sit at the dinner table in her Winston-Salem home and eat foods that she prepared with her own hands. Roasted chicken, green beans, potatoes, homemade biscuits and a lemon pound cake that seemed to melt in my mouth. I was one of four women selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Heart of a Woman Book Club and invited to a televised pajama party in Dr. Angelou’s house. When I got the call from her niece asking what foods I was allergic to and whether there was something on the planned menu that I absolutely did not like, I already knew what kind of party this was going to be: a good eating party. I am now married to a chef who can tell you that people who cook for guests do not always ask you what you like. They expect you to show up and pretend the food is good even when some of it is threatening to spew back out of your mouth.
There were many things I learned about myself sitting at that table in Maya Angelou’s house, but I began to feel a connection with her beyond poetry and a love of language. Her food was very delicious, in the way that we Southerners know to make savory treats taste like it took the cook a few years and some magic dust to concoct them. But the food was only a gateway to the real purpose of a meal. She used food to tempt people to open their lives – to the others gathered, to the universal sky of lessons waiting on us all and to their own awareness, in some cases for the very first time. Her meals fed the spirit and the intellect in the same way that my paternal grandmother’s food fed the whole neighborhood. Food was good, but it was never really about the food, you see. Here is a story she tells in Great Food, All Day Long: Cook Splendidly, Eat Smart that might be a clue where she picked up the habit:
“In my early teens, my paternal grandmother brought my brother and me from a little dusky village in Arkansas to live with our mother in San Francisco. The big streets, fast cars, my mother, who wore makeup, and white teachers and students in school frightened me. I wanted to be friendly at least with the other African Americans, but I was too terrified to talk. My fast-talking brilliant brother made friends immediately, but I closed myself off and became lonelier.
At school, the girls would talk about boys and parties and good times. They did not try to prevent me from hearing them. Finally I went to my mother and told her how lonely I was and that the other girls gave parties where they had fun, but no one invited me. She gave me some advice, which I have used forever. She said, “If someone draws a circle and leaves you out, you draw a bigger circle and include them in it. If they have not invited you to their parties – you invite them to yours.”
She encouraged me to go to the five and ten cents store and buy invitations and then write, “Maya invites you to a birthday party. Although it is nobody’s birthday that we know, we will have spaghetti and large meatballs, garlic toast of sourdough bread, all the salad you can eat, a massive cake, good music and dancing. Please respond.”
I offered ten invitations. Twenty people answered. Some girls brought boys. I was afraid my mother would not want boys and girls in her beautiful house. “They will be alright,” she said. “I will cook all the food. Papa Ford will serve buffet style, and I will be here in the house. I will walk through no more than three times. Don’t worry – they will behave and you will give a great party.”
In my fifties, I moved to North Carolina from California. I already had some fame, but no one invited me to anything, so I had some invitations printed saying, “Maya Angelou invites you to a ‘Welcome to Spring’ party. We will have laughter, good food, some dancing, some drinking, and some good storytelling.” I invited twenty people, remembering what had happened the first time. I prepared for forty and that’s how many came. I do not suggest that there are recipes in this book that will help you to make new friends, but I assure you, they will introduce you to people you have never heard of.”
I have been the host of these kind of parties. As a young married woman with two small children, my dining table was frequently the gathering spot for all those special souls who braved my inner circle. I usually only had to make one phone call to tell one person what I was cooking. Mysteriously, at least 10 people always showed up when the meal was done. To this day, at least two of my friends in Indianapolis who swore they would never eat beans crave bowls of beans at my table. I wonder if they know yet that it really wasn’t the beans that got them to my house.
As a writer, I am the first to admit the kitchen is a sacred space for me. It is where many poems are born. There is just something about the rattle of pots and the smell of something you make with your own hands that promises to satisfy a deep hunger. Of all the rooms in a house, it is the kitchen that is the most intimate. It is the place where I really get close to myself, and as Maya Angelou reminds us in this short essay from Great Food, it is always the room you must make peace with first when you’ve been away from home. She writes:
“…if I was lonely, or had been away from home for two or three weeks, my house needed the fix of some aromatic promises coming from my kitchen.
I have gone to the stove, without expecting any visitors, and needing no one to bring me whiskey, and whipped up a beef bourguinonne, chicken and dumplings, or just bacon and eggs.
A lonely house – cold and unfriendly, not necessarily in temperature, but in aloofness – is a place offering scant welcome even to its owner.
The kitchen, which may be floor-licking clean, does not promise the passerby delicious concoctions.
When I return home after being far away, I follow an unchanging routine that warms my house and makes it happy to have me back. I open the front door, put my luggage down inside, and immediately go to the kitchen. I take an onion and a potato from the pantry. I wash the potato and peel and slice each vegetable. I put a heavy-bottomed skillet on the stove with one tablespoon vegetable oil and turn the fire to a medium heat. As it heats, I add the sliced vegetables. I don’t want to fry them, so I turn down the heat. I add one clove of minced garlic, a package of frozen mixed vegetables, two bay leaves, and two cups of beef stock. I cover the skillet and turn the fire to its lowest number.
Then I take the luggage to the bedroom and leave the door open. At the aromas begin to reach down the hall, I can almost hear the walls and floorboards and carpet hum in preparation for singing a Welcome Home composition.
In the kitchen, I remove the cover and let the warm aromatic steam gush forth, moistening my face, neck and arms. When I have dried myself, I look around. My house is mine again. It is no longer angry with me for leaving it so long, alone so long. I never know exactly what I shall do with the skillet of vegetables, whether it will become a soup, a stew or just pureed stock for future use.
All I know is my house has forgiven me and taken me safely back into its loving care.
Try this ploy: Whenever the house resists you, the kitchen can be made into your ally. Start there first, and start with soup.”
I want to go back to that table at Maya’s Angelou’s house in Winston-Salem for a moment. It is June 7, 1997. I am not yet 30 and the youngest woman in the room. The other three women who are with me are showing signs of excitement about being in that space with both Oprah and Maya. They wiggled, they giggled, they released awed gasps at the smallest things in the house. There were several things that happened that night that made the “Eat sensibly” lesson ring like a bell in my head, and not all of them had to do with eating food. Maya Angelou noticed that I was quiet. Not wiggling. Not spitting an “Oh my God” at every turn. “Look at the baby,” she said to everyone else at the table. “She’s calm. She knows how to take this. Oprah and I, we’re just people.”
Indeed, I was quiet that night but not exactly for the reason Maya Angelou suspected. Deep inside, I was just as excited, in fact, just as star-struck, as everyone else in the room. “Oh my God, I was sitting at a table with Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey!” Before it happened, I would have never seen it coming. But that day, I was already practicing the art of eating life sensibly. I believed I would miss something if I blinked or talked too much and I wanted to take away as much of this gathering as I could when it was time to go home. I was hoarding the moment, recording everything in it. What was spoken and unspoken. The smell of the house after Maya Angelou had cooked a meal. Oprah’s dog Sophie eating my lemon cake. The way we all laughed, and cried, and laughed again. It was a feast of a moment in my own little life, and I didn’t want to blow it.
I left Winston-Salem the next day very changed. The possibilities for my life seemed to have expanded. I had arrived knowing how to be a good host and how to make good food to keep company happy in my house, at my table. But I was leaving with a new understanding of how to eat, how to be free while sitting at a table. Maya Angelou had told us that night that you have to teach people how to treat you. You have to know when eat, when to nibble and when to push completely away from the table. It is not always wise to partake of everything that is placed in front of you to eat. Your choices in these matters tell a host how to treat you, what he must always bring or avoid at your feast.