American icon Maya Angelou has passed away at 86 years young. The following article was published in ESSENCE’s May 2003 issue upon the author and poet’s 75th birthday. Maya Angelou talks to writer Pamela Johnson about how to throw a lifelong party.
ESSENCE: Are you enjoying yourself?
Maya Angelou: I don’t know any other way to live my life. If I wasn’t amused I’d get out of it. That’s the way I feel about life. I’m blessed with high energy, and I throw down in all areas. Some people, out of their own ignorance or because they’re jealous, discourage young people from doing many things. They say, “Don’t be a jack of all trades and a master of none.”You can be a master of everything, to a degree. Not everything you write is going to be a masterpiece. Not everything you cook is great, not everything you paint—but you’re trying for it. From the moment you put the pen to paper or sit down at the piano, you’re trying for it. Then, when you reach your sixties or seventies or eighties, you won’t have to be jealous of young people because you can say, “When I was there I did that thing fully, and now I’m here, doing this thing fully.”
ESSENCE: Are you in love?
M.A.: [Laughs] Yes, I’m in love and have been for many years. And I’m happy to say I’m loved in return. It doesn’t always happen. I’ve been in love and not been loved in return, and I’ve been loved when I didn’t love in return. But it’s very nice to love somebody as your own unmitigated self and that someone says, “I also love you.”Someone who keeps a smile on your face. There are those who talk about love. What they really mean is possession, but you see, love liberates, love frees.
ESSENCE: What about sex? How does sex change as you age?
M.A.: The appetite is not as sharp. But as long as one is alive, one can have sexual yearnings and satisfaction. In one’s 20s, 30s and 40s, one can look forward to sexual completion a couple of times a week. By the 60s, it’s lessened. But my mom, when she was about 70 or 80, phoned me one day and said, “You better talk to your father. I’m going to put him out on the street; I mean it. He thinks that because he had a heart attack, sex will be dangerous. He thinks he’ll have another. And I told him, ‘I don’t believe that, but if you do, is there a better way to go?'” [Laughs]
I told her to leave the house at five o’clock, and I’d call and talk to Papa. The thing is, my stepfather never had any children, so I was his ideal. And I loved him.
So I phoned and I said, “Papa, let me speak to Mother.”
He said, “No, she’s gone over to your Cousin Katie’s.”
“She’s not feeling well, is she, Papa?”
“Oh, yes, she’s feeling very well, oh, yes.”
“She’s not eating is she?”
“Yes, she is. She cooked yesterday, and we sat down here and ate and had a drink.”
“But she’s not listening to music.”
“Yes, we had Take 6 on all day on this music thing that you sent us.”
“But she’s not playing cards.”
“She’s doing those bones. She’s over there playing dominoes right now with your cousin.”
“What you’re saying, Papa, is that all her appetites are good.”
“Oh, yeah, yeah.”
“Well, Papa, I’m sorry, if you’ll excuse me, but she has an appetite that only you can satisfy.”
The next morning my mother called. I said, “Hello.”
She said, “My darling, babe….”
ESSENCE: Wonderful! What about you? Have you discovered any new passions?
M.A.: Let’s see. I throw dinner parties all the time, and I build houses. That’s very exciting. I bought a place in Harlem. It’s not a house, because there was no floor and no walls, really; I bought the address. And I’m going to direct another movie, Bebe Moore Campbell’s book Singing in the Comeback Choir. And of course the cookbooks.
ESSENCE: What do you want to say about food, beyond the recipes?
M.A.: So many things. That it’s nourishment for the lonely, medicine for the sick. It can help you woo a person or send a person away. There’s an old blues song in which a woman says, “She bakes corn bread for her husband, but biscuits for her man.”
ESSENCE: I like that. There really is a difference. What advice do you give young people who want to live a fulfilling life?
M.A.: Give yourself time just to be with yourself. Don’t always try to work out problems when you’re alone. Relax. Go for walks. Listen to kids laugh. Do tai chi so that you can breathe deeply and think more profoundly, and superficial questions won’t plague your life so much.
ESSENCE: Do you ever get annoyed with aging?
M.A.: Yes, my dear. Every other hour, are you kidding? [Laughs] What annoys me most is that my knees ache. Mind you, I was a dancer. Everyone knows now that dancers shouldn’t dance on concrete, but we all danced on concrete. So when I get up from here I have to have something to help me get up. The knees say, “Ughhh,” and that’s a nuisance. I love to walk, and I’ve usually kept my health by walking. Now I can’t walk as far or as long.
ESSENCE: Do you ever have “if onlys”? Ever think, If only I’d made that left turn….
M.A.: No, no, I let it be. I very rarely acted intemperately. I could have done wiser things as many times as there are days. But I chose.
ESSENCE: What gives you comfort?
M.A.: I find it in so many places. In the job that I’ve done, in friendships, love affairs and business relationships. And I’m comforted when young people or older people say that I’ve been an inspiration.
This morning at about six, I was thinking about having been in Tuscany and sitting in the sun 25 years ago. And then I thought of having been in Ghana in a shower that opened out onto the courtyard, where, if no one was there, I could just take my clothes off under that wonderful blue sky. I was thinking what delicious times I’ve had and am having, and hope to continue having as long as I am amused.
At 75, Maya Angelou is busy compiling favorite recipes for a cookbook. Pamela Johnson is a contributing writer to ESSENCE.