After I was born, my mother bought me timeless editions of her favorite books for me to read. A book lover and librarian, she hoped that I would be a reader like her and love the books she cherished throughout her life. On the inside cover of each book, she inscribed my name on Winnie the Pooh book plates, and waited for the day when I would read the books my mother left me. I promised myself when I read them I would read them all at once, and the opportune moment arrived when quarantine began.
“Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now” is the second-shortest book my mother left me. It’s Maya Angelou’s first book of essays: a series of short, mainly autobiographical essays and two poems. Its small size does the opposite of diminishing the work; called one of Angelou’s “wisdom” books, “Journey” brings to life the experiences and philosophies of one of the most loved and celebrated female writers of our time.
The essays range from one to 10 pages, and the topics include everything from fashion to sensuality to racism to death. For the majority of the essays, Angelou draws inspiration from her personal experiences to teach a lesson. They are written with a very reflective and direct style. Reading her essays gave me peace.
In this short essay, Angelou discusses the idea that one bears the consequences of their actions. She uses an extended metaphor of planting seeds to explore this “immutable life principle” that many invalidate: “… There are those who seem certain that if they plant tomato seeds, at harvesttime they can reap onions.” That is to say, you reap what you sow. Angelou focuses on the fact that if what is planted grows, it will only yield more of itself. It will not grow the seeds that are not planted; you will not get out what you do not put in.
Angelou’s nature metaphor aids the visualization of this life philosophy, one my mother has shared with me often. My mother leaves little to chance, prepares for what she can and faces what she cannot. Time and time again, she has preached the importance of hard work, dedication and effort: If you give everything your best, you can be satisfied knowing you did all you could no matter the result. As I read, it was almost as if my mother herself was sharing this philosophy with me. Angelou captures the intimate and uplifting tone in her writing. As she shares her wisdom, her tone helps to establish an attentive relationship with the reader, one I found to reflect that of myself and my mother.
Despite the familiarity of some lessons, the way Angelou presented them was new to me. Angelou’s approach to sharing her wisdom through analogies and metaphors appears in several essays, and encourages me to soak in the lessons and philosophies in a new light.
In an earlier essay titled “Style,” Angelou discusses the physical and emotional aspects of a person’s style through their manners, respect and spoken self-expression. “Getups” focuses on style more literally, specifically Angelou’s life-long love of bright colors and unique pattern mixtures. “I have lived in this body all my life and know it much better than any fashion designer. I think I know what looks good on me, and I certainly know what feels good on me.”
My mother is another lover of funky outfits. Her love of vibrant colors and chunky jewelry would enter the room before she did. Whether you knew my mother or not, you couldn’t see her outfits and not smile.
Angelou’s and my mother’s shared love for a loud style maintained the reflection of my mother I had seen prior in “At Harvesttime.” More than their shared preference for a spirited style, I saw my mother in the way Angelou chooses and trusts herself. Her confident expression in the essay was consoling to me; it reiterated the lesson to not fear self-expression and, moreover, to trust your instincts, whatever they may be. This was the essay I felt brought me closer to Angelou, because it evoked a specific connection to my mother that’s rooted in both of their personalities. Angelou’s honest reflections permitted that connection, and her compassion ignited it.
“Further New Directions”
This essay contains one of the two poems included in the book. Angelou tells a short story about her mother that is nearly as heartening as the poem she wrote in her honor: “Life? / Course I’ll live it. / Just enough breath, / Until my death, / And I’ll live it.”
It was Angelou’s inclusion of the poem that struck me the most in this essay. Reading the lines felt like Angelou was confiding to me a treasured illustration of her mother, one I should be celebrating in turn. It was clear Angelou’s mother had sparked several of the lessons she shares throughout the book, and this poem served to honor that.
The characterization of her mother in this poem resonated with me. The pinnacle of my mother’s advice always seems to be that life is short — that there isn’t another life waiting for you, so there is no point in waiting for it to arrive. Life is what we have. Of course we’ll live it. I hadn’t before seen this philosophy personified in any way. Angelou’s understanding of her mother enlightened my own.
“A Day Away”
“A Day Away,” the final essay, touches on Angelou’s habit of taking a day off once a year. For this single day she is unreachable by friends and family and is left to herself only. She takes time to wake naturally before she wanders the streets, not stopping anywhere for very long. “When I return home, I am always surprised to find some questions I sought to evade had been answered and some entanglements I had hoped to flee had become unraveled in my absence.”
Angelou’s own book offered me a similar change in pace. “Journey” is different from all that I’ve read recently, and is unique in its ability to bring about many revelations, many of which are unavoidable. Her insight enlightens yours; her intimate style pulls you into her world and leaves you with both gratitude and fulfillment in your own. The book was a comforting read that prompted several personal questions and answered many more.
I am incredibly grateful my mother left me this book, full of incredible advice and dependable wisdom from one of the most renowned and prominent writers of our time. It’s one of the few things I can equate to my mother’s own advice and solace, and something I will lean on in times of need. Angelou will always bring me my mother with “Journey,” and also a reminder of my mother’s best advice: to read and listen to the insight and intelligence of others, and see where it will lead me.