The Other Maya
“Like Maya Angelou?”
That exchange repeated hundreds of times starting as a small child. Even then, I hated by name but didn’t understand why. Mama said that my father named me after Buddha’s mother; he wasn’t Buddhist. I spent my childhood shuffled between my father and the woman I called mommy who shared neither blood nor race but taught me more than even I realized. She was a complex woman and our relationship was complicated. She pulled me aside after hearing me, yet again, say defensively, “No, I was named after Buddha’s mother.”
“You should be proud of Your name.” She said, “it is beautiful and Maya Angelou is a great woman.” I couldn’t have told you as a small child why the name bothered me so much, I tried changing my name multiple times. but then I was a troubled child. In third grade I had a wonderful teacher named Miss. DePaul. She was young and pretty and read us amazing books. When I hid my bee friends in my desk and they buzzed angrily she softly told me to let them go. When I turned in papers with names like Jenny, Sarah or Emerald (yes… Emerald) in the place where Maya should have been, she graded my paper last and acted like it was normal. She was as island of peace before the storm. By middle school I lived in a fantasy word of books and imagination. I watched the bully’s from someplace high and heard the conversations not as conversations but rather as dialogue with he said and she said flashing across my mind.
I was in middle school when I stopped trying to change my name. I hid from the bullies in the library and the librarian became my friend. She would suggest stories and bring me new books on a regular basis. I spent hours in that library reading self help psychology, fantasy, Shakespeare and romance. One day she handed me a copy of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I don’t remember what she said, or even the details of that moment, because something even more important happened. I learned to love my name, and I learned that I was strong.
I respected Maya Angelou like the long lost black grandmother guiding me from afar that I desperately craved. I struggled still in many ways, but her poetry spoke to me. That was when I began to write my own poetry. I wrote stories before, but suddenly poetry seemed the only form to lay my experiences on the page. I wrote about bullies, my father, first love, foster care and my bees. I wrote and wrote but I never kept my writing.
In sixth grade my mother gave me a diary, and I wrote my thoughts and feelings with glee and locked the little book with it’s delicate key. One day, my mom handed me my diary and when I opened it, she had corrected all me spelling and punctuation. What for me had been a private place, for her it had been a learning tool. I have struggled to keep a diary ever since and through high school I would take my poems and journals in the garage late at night and burn them. It became a ritual and a release but eventually it became a hindrance.
Deciding to become a writer was a trial. Not between myself and the page, but rather myself and my past and my name. I began poem after poem and only learned to edit and stop burning them at 21 years old. I abandoned by first attempt at writing a novel at 19. I abandoned it because, it wasn’t good enough. I sucked and I would always be the untalented Maya. The not quite Maya. I began and began and began and always stopped until this past year. I learned to snow ball outline. I used my method acting skill from high school to develop my characters; I felt in my bones that this was the right time. My novel would be finished and published. Yet in December I still considered pen names to hide the shame of inferior work, but at least I kept writing.
The day Maya died part of my heart broke. She made me who I am without knowing there was a lost little girl out there watching. I fought her shadow and learned her compassion and when I stood at my mothers deathbed I could say that I was made by two women. The Mommy who raised me and the big Maya.
I abandoned my nom de plume. I canceled it’s Gmail and the blog that never felt right. I stand here to tell you who I am. I am the Maya that grew up straddling race and class. I am the Maya that converted to Buddhism in high school and practices everyday compassion. I am the Maya who pisses off people by seeing and relishing the grey. I am the single mom, the motorcyclist, the ex-stripper, the reader, the sex educator, the ADD kid, the gifted geek and the total dork who teenaged son grabs her face, kisses her forehead and says, “mom— you are adorable.” I am the other Maya.