Maya Angelou: a titan who lived as though there were no tomorrow

Gary Younge in The Guardian:

MayaThe first time I interviewed Maya Angelou, in 2002, I got hammered. What was supposed to have been a 45-minute interview in a hotel room near Los Angeles had turned into a 16-hour day, much of it spent in her stretch limo, during which we'd been to lunch, and she had performed. On the way back from Pasadena she asked her assistant, Lydia Stuckey, to get out the whisky.

“Do you want ice and stuff?” Stuckey asked.

“I want some ice, but mostly I want stuff,” said Angelou with a smile, and invited me to join her.

Then came a traffic jam. The car came to a crawl. But the whisky kept flowing. So did the conversation. We talked about South Africa, writing, growing old, staying young, our mothers, growing up poor and living abroad. We laughed a lot too: at ourselves, each other and general human folly. She reserved particular ridicule for my hotel, which she thought was pretentious. (She was right). Her laugh was no small thing. She threw her head back and filled the car with it – and it was a big car. Episodically, when words alone would not suffice, she would break, without warning, into verse – sometimes her own, sometimes others'.

When I asked her how she dealt with people's response to old age, she recited the final verse of her poem, On Aging:

I'm the same person I was back then

A little less hair, a little less chin,

A lot less lungs and much less wind.

But ain't I lucky I can still breathe in.

And then the laughing would start again. As her car pulled away after dropping me off at the hotel, she put her head out of the window, waved, and shouted like a teenage girl: “That's swanky!” She was 74 and high on life. I honestly couldn't tell if she was drunk or not. There'd been plenty of serious talk throughout the day. But she'd also been singing and laughing since the morning. Anyone who knows her work and her life story – which is a huge part of her work – knows that this is a huge part of her currency. Those maxims that people learn on their death bed – that you only have one life, that it is brief and frail, and if you don't take ownership of it nobody else will – were the tenets by which she lived.

More here.