2017 Grateful 5

Many, many years ago, while living in London, I had the great fortune to go see Maya Angelou live. My memory of the particulars is sketchy. I think it was a smallish room, perhaps a community hall, with a stage. The audience numbered hundreds rather than the thousands I’d imagined a legend like herself would draw. Whether that was because tickets were limited and we were damn lucky or because the wider world didn’t know she was there or think of her as someone to go see, I’m not sure.

I’m a fan. I read and quote her work and always learn something from her poetry. I worked with a gal in Los Angeles once who was so obsessed with her that she was planning to move to Winston-Salem on the off-chance of running into her idol at the grocery store.

Born in 1928, Marguerite Ann Johnson’s life began badly. She was raped and sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend at the age of 8. He was caught, jailed for one day, released and murdered four days later. Maya stopped talking.

I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone…

It wasn’t until she was 14 that her teacher, Ms Bertha Flowers, helped her talk again. Of many firsts in her life, her first first was probably to become San Francisco’s first Black female cable car conductor. Her son Clyde (Guy) was born when Maya was just 16, a single mom, working as a waitress to keep them together. In 1952, when she began her singing career, she took the name Maya Angelou. Her interest in music and literature blossomed as did her activism in the Civil Rights Movement. She toured Europe with Porgy and Bess and began what would become a habit – to learn the language of the countries she visited. In 1959, Martin Luther King Jr asked her to be the northern coordinator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The following year, she met Vusumzi Make, an activist from South Africa and all three move to Cairo, Egypt where she edited an English language weekly The Arab Observer. She later moved to Ghana before return to the USA in 1964.

Somewhere along the way, she met Oprah Winfrey and became her mentor. At Bill Clinton’s inauguration, Maya read her poem On the Pulse of Morningit would win a Grammy that same year. It was one of many awards she would go on to receive.  There is so much about the woman I didn’t know. Her film Georgia, Georgia, filmed in Sweden, was the first screenplay written and released by a black woman. She married Germaine Greer’s ex-husband, Paul du Feu. And she directed the film  Down in the Delta, featuring Wesley Snipes. And there’s so much more.

Why she’s in my mind today is that a friend posted a link of Facebook that got me thinking. It was titled How to change your life in one second flat.

According to Maya, there are four questions we subconsciously ask ourselves with almost every interaction we have with others:

  1. Do you see me?
  2. Do you care that I’m here?
  3. Am I enough for you, or do you need me to be better in some way?
  4. Can I tell that I’m special to you by the way that you look at me?

Katherine Schafler, NYC-based psychotherapist, writer and speaker, explains the theory behind it all far better than I could. 


I’m guilty of stumbling on the first one. Do I see you? Did I look at the cashier at the market today? Nope. Do I look at the waiter, the church collector, the postie? Maybe. Sometimes. But more often than not, I’m rushing. I’m not looking. I’m not connecting. I’m not seeing.

And those times when I do stop and look and see, they make a difference. At the World Bank meeting in Dubai many lifetimes ago, a Bangladeshi kid was stationed at our conference bus stop. His job was to be there in case any of the delegates needed to return to their hotels. Each day, in the sweltering heat, we’d chat a while. About him, his family, his life. He told me to try smoking a hookah pipe. And then he asked me which flavour I preferred. On my last day, my last bus ride from the venue, he gave me a present of some apple tobacco. It had cost him a day’s wages. I knew better than to refuse but I did ask him why – and he said: Because you saw me.

I’d forgotten that. I’d forgotten what a game changer it can be if we actually ‘see’ people. This article reminded me of what I’ve been lax about. And for this reminder, I’m truly grateful.   And think, that’s only Question 1.

Woman-power on the up and up

There’s something about a new year unfolding that brings out wants and wishes in people, be they a new job, a new partner, or a new life – or perhaps a better job, a better partner, or a better life – or simply a job, a partner, or a life.

I’ve had a number of conversations recently with de wimmen – a phrase I use to collectively refer to my female friends, those whose honesty, advice, and pragmatism I value; those whose humour, wisdom, and experience I cherish; and those who I know would stump up bail money or at least keep vigil outside the jail were I ever to be incarcerated simply for being me.

Variations on a theme

These conversations have varied on a theme. We might have discussed how little men understand the workings of a woman’s mind. We might have spoken about how easy we (the gracious gender) are to please… really. We might have wondered collectively why so many of us are still single, while every man we know who can put on his socks unsupervised is happily hooked up. Or … we might just have swapped recipes, considered Hilary Clinton’s strategy for her presidential campaign, or debated the truth of Coco Chanel’s claim that ‘the most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.’

We might have philosophised about the joys of being part of a sisterhood that is at times self-deprecating, frequently hilarious, and rarely at a loss for words. We might have congratulated ourselves on being sassy, solvent, and self-sufficient. We might even have dissected the relationships of those in our kingdom who have been discovered by (or indeed have discovered) men who deserve them and wondered where the other worthies are hiding. Or… we might just have bemoaned the glass ceiling, decried the gender imbalance in the EU parliament, or debated the truth and relativity of Marjorie Kinnan’s reflection that ‘a woman has got to love a bad man once or twice in her life, to be thankful for a good one.’

Woman on the move

In this, the 14th baktun, I am meeting more and more intelligent, attractive women who can hold their own. I’m seeing more and more public and private initiatives thought up by and realised by women. I’m seeing more and more woman-power in action and I’m waiting with bated breath to see the fall-out. As Maya Angelou so beautifully put it: ‘I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.’

vector-of-a-cartoon-courting-man-holding-flowers-and-a-gift-outlined-coloring-page-by-ron-leishman-19166Gone are the days when women sat in drawing-rooms, flirting with fans, making polite shallow conversation in an effort to disguise a cleverness that might just be a tad off-putting to the less discerning male. And while I personally might long for a return to more traditional roles between the sexes (as long as I get to walk on the inside of the street, have the door opened for me, and my chair pulled out by someone who will also value my opinion) and want to see courtship and the art of wooing enjoy a massive revival, I have to admit that progress and the transit of the centuries have shifted the balance of power. But interestingly, not in the direction that one might imagine.

When I think of the strong-minded, capable, intelligent women I know, when I add up what we have to offer to partners, to businesses, to the community, as mothers, managers, and motivators, I question the fear that seems to be holding some of us back.

I came across the first verse of this poem by Marianne Williamson

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.
We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?

And on reflection, I have come to realise the answer to that often-asked series question ‘should I tone done my natural enthusiasm, be less forward in offering my opinion, be a little more of what it seems I’m expected to be’ – the answer is simple. No.

Forewarned, forearmed

Men of the world, beware. 2013 is taking shape and the rules have changed. Over the course of the coming months, if you find yourself being asked your opinion on anything from duck down or goose feather, to paperback or kindle, from the Chinese mission to Mars to the survival instincts of the penguin, answer at your peril.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of comments about your appearance (e.g. it would be a lovely shirt, were it ironed); if your witty remarks are eliciting more (or less) than the usual level of (non)appreciative laughter; if your advice is being given due consideration instead of the usual flippant dismissal, be cautioned that your reactions may be being noted. This year, methinks, that women will stand up and be counted, be the choosers rather than the chosen, and have a thing or three to say about the state of the nation.

First published in the Budapest Times 25 January 2013

From the inside out

For the first time in a long time I’m enjoying how I look. I still don’t have that hourglass figure I’ve craved for what seems like an eternity. I haven’t managed to grow a decent pair of ankles. And I have resigned myself to never, ever having legs that stretch to my earlobes. But as far as the face goes, I like what’s looking back at me when I get into the elevator to descend to the ground floor and have one last look in the mirror before I step out into the world. And no, I haven’t started wearing make-up but I have given the nod to a dash of lippie and the occasional swish of the mascara wand.

I noticed the change earlier this year. Deep in conversation with a couple of Hungarian friends at Gozsdu Manó, one turned to me and commented that it was great to see how women my size seemed to enjoy life so much more. I ask you! Women my size? I’d long since grown accustomed to the refrain of ‘a woman your age should/shouldn’t do whatever’ but this size thing was a new one. I put it down to yet another morsel of wisdom that got lost somewhere in translation and I took it on the back of the sincerity with which it was delivered … I took it as a compliment.

No tact, no sale

I had a brief flashback to my first visit to Budapest. It was unnaturally cold and I hadn’t packed anything with long sleeves. I went into a boutique on the Korut in search of something warm and woolly. My bright and breezy hello was greeted with a little disdain. The assistant looked me up and down and then pronounced with some authority that they didn’t stock anything in my size. And before you go off on a tangent about Hungarian customer service, this form of clothing commentary is not unique to Budapest.

Rewind even further, to Los Angeles. In the dressing room of TJ Maxx, the ever-so-helpful assistant asked me if I was European. I smiled and asked whether it was my accent that had given me away. She laughed at my stupidity and said no… of course not. It’s just that while American’s tend to be fat in one place, Europeans tend to be fat all over! But these trifling comments on my size had been made by strangers and so were discounted. Granted, they’ve been milked for their amusement quotient over the years but they were never taken personally.

No smiles, no energy

In Bonn last weekend at the Toastmasters International District 59 Conference, I used the bones of this piece as the basis for a humorous speech. It ended up being too heavy on message and too light on humour and so didn’t make the final cut.  But the judges liked how I smiled all the way through. Afterwards, a very pretty young girl in her mid-20s, stylishly dressed with a great figure, came up to me and offered to trade her size for my self-esteem. For once I was lost for words. And not for the first time, I cursed the society we have created, with its innate insecurities and impossible expectations. The opening lines from Maya Angelou’s poem, Phenomenal Woman came to mind: Pretty women wonder where my secret lies / I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size / But when I start to tell them, They think I’m telling lies.

In Malta this week at DiploFoundation’s conference on Innovation in Diplomacy, two people complimented me on my moderation style – a little taken aback, I asked each of them to be more specific. Both independently said the same thing – smiles and energy. I started to wonder if the two are interlinked – whether smiles beget energy and vice versa. And I wondered some more about whether a mass-smiling campaign could help re-energise Hungary and unite the opposition.

No harm, no foul

When people look at me and say with some element of surprise that I’m looking great, I can’t help wondering how I looked before. Or if they’ve not seen me for a while and the initial once-over takes a few seconds longer than usual, I can’t help wondering what they think is different. It must make me smile because they comment on that, too.

There’s a curious sense of peace that comes with accepting who I am and what I look like. There’s a wonderful sense of release that comes with giving up the fight against nature and simply making the best of what she’s dealt me. And there’s a lovely sense of calm that comes with finally realising that anonymous got it right: pretty is something you’re born with, but beautiful … that’s an equal opportunity adjective.

First published in the Budapest Times 23 November 2012

PS Photo courtesy of Art Provost (thanks Art!)