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One of the great privileges of my life has been meeting a few of my heroes, not to fawn over them with stars in my eyes, but to take them off of the pedestal where I’d placed them.
Knowing these people I’d long admired were human, privy to human thoughts and subject to human failures has helped me as I work to write pieces that matter, give voice to whispered stories and construct some sort of creative legacy that is open to criticism and interpretation in the future. I may not have recognized it at the time, but thinking back on those encounters has shown me that my goals are attainable.
In the fall of 1997, I met Maya Angelou for the second time on the steps of Duke Chapel following freshman convocation. I’d met her two years prior at a black-tie event with my family. That night, she wore sequins and shook my hand in a grand ballroom. I was in awe. The morning of convocation, she was dressed in Sunday best and reminded me of my grandmother. I began to tell her I was her friend’s niece, but she beat me to it. She hugged me just like my great aunts did and her hair smelled like the products they used. She said she knew I was going to do great things.
I thought I was going to be a lawyer, so that’s what I told her. I hadn’t told anyone, including myself, that I longed to be a writer. My journals were full of poems and ideas that I hoped to one day flesh out in my spare time, but I did not have the confidence to share them. But this woman who hugged and smelled like my great aunts did, and when I finally stepped out of fear’s shadow, I remembered her.
A few years after college, I was invited to read one of my poems at an event in downtown Baltimore. Lucille Clifton was the guest speaker. My son, a toddler at the time, came along. I had a bag of toys, crayons and books to keep him occupied during the program, but he slept through almost all of it. Afterwards, we went to a meet-and-greet reception. By this time, my son was fully awake and bursting with energy. He quickly ate his food and buzzed around the room, asking people for their keys so he could tell them what kind of car they drove and telling them about his favorite movies and songs.
I realized I probably should have hired a babysitter and was preparing to leave when Lucille Clifton asked me to sit beside her on the couch. Mortified, I walked over to tell her I had to leave. Before I could say a word, she said, “He’s fine. He’s a baby. Sit.” I sat.
We chatted for about 30 minutes about poetry, babies and self-care. We talked about the start of a writing career and staying relevant and true once that career was established. She held my hand and told me there was room for me to be a great mother and a great writer, and I didn’t have to choose. Her hand was soft and comforting, and I believed her.
This is a year of doing more while going back to basics. This is a year of doing the work and being attainable. This is a year of knowing there is room for everything on your journey even if it can’t all fit in the front seat, that one thing will be OK in eyeshot if you take some time to focus on another, and that you don’t have to choose.
LaMonique Hamilton Barnes is a reporter and copy editor for The Wilson Times. She blogs about arts and culture at iamlamonique.com.