At 91, I like to think I have no regrets. Not that I never wish I hadn’t said this or done that. Not that I haven’t made a slight mistake here and a more calamitous one there. But my basic philosophy is, if I’m happy in this moment — and I am — then I have to be at peace with everything that happened that got me to this moment. Then Maya Angelou passes on and suddenly I’m alive with a regret.
I met Maya in 1994 in New Orleans, where we were both speaking at a media conference. I immediately recognized her as one of the most spiritual people I’d ever encountered. As I watched her envelop and swallow her audience, I had an idea that instantly became an obsession: Maya Angelou should be the host of a late-night talk show. Not another show where guests would come on to plug their latest movie, diet book or fragrance, but rather one where they would talk about what gets them through their days.
Maya loved the idea, as she shared my belief that America was losing touch with the best of its humanity and felt that our spiritual lives were exciting fodder for a talk show. We worked on it for over a year and came close to bringing it to fruition, but ultimately it did not come to pass. And therein lies what may be my single true regret. If this spellbinding woman had been available to TV audiences five nights a week — in conversation with people with whom she wished to connect, discussing all of the “What’s it all about, Alfie?” questions — what a profound contribution to the culture that could have been.
Dr. Maya Angelou was a force of nature. Tall, elegant, precise and regal, with a voice that could roll back storms of distress and words so eloquently spiritual that unintended poetry would often fall out of her mouth. She walked into a room robed in her history, not just a caged bird that happened to sing, but a child who had been forced into that birdcage and, despite her circumstance, was determined to sing. “You are the sum total of everything you’ve ever seen, heard, eaten, smelled, been told, forgot — it’s all there,” Maya wrote. “Everything influences each of us, and because of that I try to make sure that my experiences are positive.”
We are all the beneficiaries of Maya’s efforts in this regard. What she called her “positive experience” was a gift of inspiration and understanding for whomever she shared that experience with. My wife, Lyn, hit it off with Maya immediately, and when our twins Madeline and Brianna were born, Maya insisted on being their godmother. I mention this because nowhere did I see her desire for meaningful experience and connection expressed more fully than in her relationship to our children. She wasn’t able to see them often, but Maya made every moment count. I’d seen her offer herself to hundreds of people in a number of audiences over the years, but when Maya reached out to my kids with a bit of her love and essence, it was, as they would say where she came from, too wet to plow.
We Lears are better, spiritually richer, perhaps even taller for having “familied” — if it’s not a word, it should be — with the extraordinary Maya Angelou.
Norman Lear is the creator of All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and the founder of People for the American Way. His memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, will be published by Penguin Books in October 2014.
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