Last night my friend Susan and I went to Orchestra Hall in Detroit to hear Maya Angelou speak. While I've admired her at a distance, familiar only with the poem she wrote for Bill Clinton's inaugural and a few poems my mother shared with me through the years, I knew that being in the same room with this legendary poet and strong spirited woman was probably one of the things I should do before I die. So I sat waiting for the curtain to rise with no expectations whatsoever. Sometimes it is in those moments we obtain our greatest lessons.
She opened with a negro spiritual, singing in her deep voice, "When it looked like the sun wasn't going to shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds." He didn't put it in the blue sky, she said, because that wouldn't make you stop and take notice. He put it in the clouds where it would really shine and make a difference. Really, no matter who your God is or even if you don't have one, Maya's point was that perhaps the only purpose we have here on earth is to be a rainbow in somebody's cloud. Just smiling at a stranger may be doing just that. Maybe the stranger had just hung up the phone having heard they were dying of cancer. Maybe the stranger had a broken heart. Maybe the smile was taken as a sign of hope.
Every day we come across opportunities to touch the lives of others and, in doing so, set off a chain of events that reaches far into the future, beyond any imagining. Ms. Angelou's example was how her half-lame, poor shopkeeper Uncle Willy had taught her a love of learning by making her recite her multiplication tables. When she was in Arkansas many years later for Uncle Willy's funeral, the Mayor of Little Rock approached her and exclaimed "Your Uncle Willy was a great man." Maya Angelou could not imagine how the Mayor of Little Rock knew anything about her poor shopkeeper uncle. He proceeded to tell her that Uncle Willy had given him a job in his shop so the little boy could support his deaf mother. Willy then proceeded to teach the boy his multiplication tables and instilled in him a lifelong love of learning. He went on to become one of the first black Mayors in the south. Uncle Willy had been a rainbow in the young boy's cloud.
The house was quiet when I arrived home after the lecture. My boys were sound asleep in their beds, my husband away on business. I undressed and climbed into my bed and thought about all the clouds I'd weathered in my life and the rainbows that had miraculously appeared in them. And I also pondered if I had offered the same ray of sunshine to others, even if I was unaware of my impact. I recalled a favorite passage from a memoir by Frederick Buechner, one of Americas foremost theologians and authors, that had always touched me:
"Loving our neighbors, loving each other, is easier to talk about, easier even to do. God knows we are none of us much good at it much of the time, but at least we can see each other with our eyes. We can see each other's faces especially, and every once in awhile, if we have our eyes open we can see something of what is within those faces. Even with strangers sometimes, people we pass at Safeway, or people we sit across from in a waiting room at the doctor's office; even sometimes with people we know very well, but seldom take the trouble to really look at--we see something that stops us in our tracks. We catch a glimpse of some unexpected beauty or pain or need in another's face, or maybe we just notice the tilt of an old man's Agway cap, the way a child looks out the window at the rain; and for a moment, then, our heart goes out to them in ways too deep for words. We would love them right if we only could. We would love them truly and forever if we only knew how."
At the age of six, I was diagnosed with a blood disorder similar to hemophilia and so I was not allowed to go to school in second and third grade for fear I would get bumped, bruised and bleed to death. During that time I had a tutor come to the house. She was appropriately named Mrs. Day. She became my sunbeam, my connection to the external world, my rainbow. Most of all, she encouraged in me a discipline for learning and a confidence about my creativity. I wrote my first poem under her tutelage. She framed it for me and I still keep it near my desk thirty-one ears later:
My Favorite Daydream (February, 1979)
I am walking on a beach
with the waves rolling back and forth.
with the sun hitting my back.
I go pick up a sea shell.
I listen to the waves.
My parents divorced during my early teens, a particularly delicate time in life, and I found myself insecure and dealing with abandonment issues. At the time I had won a few small roles in plays at our local regional theatre. There I formed a crush on a handsome actor from New York. Like Buechner mentioned, he must have caught a glimpse of some unexpected beauty or pain or need in me. He treated me with such delicate kindness, showered me with innocent compliments and gave me small indications that I shouldn't be so insecure, that there was something unique enough about me that when the time came other handsome, talented men would take an interest. He was a rainbow in my cloud. I have a memory book from the production we were in together. In it he signed:
To Jenie, you are very talented and very beautiful.
I took a freshman creative writing seminar in college. The professor, Professor Squires, must have been in his eighties. He wore a tweed jacket to class each day even when the weather was warm. He walked with a cane. He spoke with the accent of an academic. For him I wrote some of my very first short stories. One day after class he asked for me to visit him during his office hours the next afternoon. Still unsure of my talents as a writer, I assumed I was failing and spent the next twenty-four hours anxiously awaiting the bad news. When I arrived harried and nervous, he looked up from behind his desk and said, "you have the potential to be a great writer." I keep the short stories he graded and every now and then when I have writer's block I take them out of their file and read his chicken-scratch handwriting in the margins. He wrote rainbows there:
"Superb." "Quite fine." "Lovely use of the sensory." "Wisdom beyond your years."
There is an example of how once in college I actively chose with no agenda to be a rainbow. There is part of me that hesitates revealing the story for fear my readers will think I am fishing for praise. But I think on what Maya Angelou said last night before she told a similar story. She said if she hadn't began by telling how others had been her rainbow, the audience might think she was bragging. But in the context of "I spread joy freely because joy was given to me" the sharing of information takes on a different tone.
I had an American Literature professor who lectured three times a week to an auditorium of about 500 Juniors. The class sections were taught by teaching assistants so I never met the man in person, I just knew him as a very good lecturer who managed to get me to read Moby Dick the whole way through and fall passionately in love with Henry James. Every day this professor would walk onto the auditorium stage and, before taking his place at the lectern, go to the massive chalkboard behind him and write down his weight for everyone to see. In his first lecture of the semester he told all of us that this was his way of forcing himself into losing weight. I found this activity particularly sad. Here was this brilliant man focusing on something so shallow. By the time we were in our final weeks of the course, I could not bear his self-imposed deprecation one lecture longer. I wrote this anonymous note and placed it in his mailbox in the office of the English Department:
You are a brilliant lecturer who has enriched the lives of many students by introducing us to great literature through your passion for the art form. Please focus on that passion and brilliance and stop worrying about your weight.
The next lecture he took the stage, hesitated a moment at the blackboard, and walked to the lectern without stopping to write the number on the board. He would never know it was me that left the note, but I felt a surge of happiness.
It is sunny outside today, but there are a few clouds in my heart. Thank you Maya for reminding me that when there are clouds a rainbow is often on its way. I will keep my eyes open for my rainbows and ways I can be the rainbow in somebody's cloud.