The Opposite of Loneliness

I’d like to think that I provide pretty good book recommendations, when pressed. (You know. When I DON’T go blank and forget every book I’ve ever read and the only thing that sticks out is some book that I loathed, so I blurt out, Izzy, Willy Nilly? Have you ever read that? Try it. Then they associate me with some book I actually hated.)

So, here is a book recommendation that I am poised to give. One that you should probably go out and get tomorrow. One that you should probably pay the utmost attention to.

Actually, to call this particular collection of words a “book” is to make it base. It’s a life’s work. I could probably never do it justice and overrate it at the same time.

It’s called The Opposite of Loneliness. And before I tell you about the story, I need to tell you this “story.”

Marina Keegan was a student at Yale. She was a writer in the broadest sense: a poet, a playwright, even dabbling in nonfiction. She won awards for her work and saw some of it published in The New Yorker and The New York Times. Upon her graduation, she addressed her classmates in an essay, entitled “The Opposite of Loneliness” that became an instant success. She died in a car accident five days later. Not even a week after she had worn a cap and gown, an entire lifetime of success ahead of her, she was gone.

And so, her parents picked up the pieces. They took a hard look at her body of work. They put it together between a binding, and they sold it so that others could come to know their daughter intimately. Despite the flaws that she probably would have revised and edited out of her work, her parents sent Marina’s final message out into the world. I am so glad that they did.

Because they could have been selfish. They could have decided that it was too large of an undertaking to assess what to put in a final book about Marina. No one could have blamed them if they had shied away and withdrawn into their grief.

But they didn’t. And really, they couldn’t have gone wrong with anything they picked. Yes, every page “throbs with what could have been” as one critic said, but Marina will always be recognized for her talent, whether she is here or not. Although she could have been so much more, her impact is great and awesome in the traditional sense of both words.

The book is a mix of her poetry, her fiction, and her nonfiction. But really, it is made of flesh, blood, and bone. Marina’s symbolism is both painfully obvious and overwhelmingly succinct. When you read her words, you feel an undeniable connection to her, but also the human race. She seems to embody what humans could be, if we free ourselves from our inhibitions. She was a better version of us all.

Everything about this book is difficult, mind you. It is hard to see how much talent Marina had. It is hard to hear her talk about her own death, when she thinks it will be years away, like we all do. It is hard to hear her talk about all the things that scared her, excited her, angered her. (I mean, it is especially hard because I am sitting here trying to find matching socks when we have shooting stars like Marina in the world.)

But we owe her that at least. We owe her an audience.

So, pick up Marina Keegan’s book The Opposite of Loneliness. Cry through it like I did. Be haunted by it. Loathe it a little. Love it a lot. But when someone asks you for a good book recommendation, pass it on. Give Marina what we all need in this life and the next: someone to listen.

The “Angel” in Angelou

More Maya

I would be absolutely remiss if I did not spend a bit of time honoring the absolutely indomitable presence that has left us physically today and yet has left us with plenty to think and wonder about for years to come: Dr. Maya Angelou. As she passed away today at 86, it is not her age that we meet with surprise, but the life in her years. I found out today that she had 50 honorary degrees. 50. I don’t own 50 anything. Maybe 50 socks, but God knows they aren’t ever in the same room at one time, so how could I count them? Ariel in The Little Mermaid only had 20 thingmabobs. Probably because she spent too much time singing about said thingmabobs to gather anymore, but you get the point.

Angelou was a force. She sang and danced professionally. She wrote screenplays, music, poetry, and 30 best-selling books. She spoke 5 different languages, and yet wielded English with a mastery that is unrivaled to this day. Dr. Angelou is one of the most accomplished people the world has ever known.

Poetic Injustice

And yet, with all that said, I do not have an adequate grasp of the English language, after studying it for most of my life, to truly capture Angelou’s legacy. I’ve circled this issue like a hawk all day, and my wings are undoubtedly tired, but I have nothing to show for it. I thought about compiling some of her greatest quotes to marvel at (and believe me, I would have been here all night attempting to do so) or a list of 10 things that Maya Angelou has taught the writing world (another insurmountable task due to the depth of her talent). I also got in the ring to box with the idea of delving into what most biographies and news stories will undoubtedly gloss over in the days following her death: the fact that she was raped at 7 and worked for a time as a stripper. I feel that these aspects of her life are not inflammatory, but instead they make her even more tangible as a human. As anyone who has ever achieved a large amount of success can attest, a person’s humanity can be obscured when all of their accomplishments are rattled off in a block of text at the close of their time here on earth at the close of a day on a news report. We need to preserve all parts of Angelou’s legacy as well as her humanity. However, it would truly take another 86 years, another lifetime, to celebrate Angelou in all of her glory. And even then, it might just take that long to frame all of those honorary degrees she was awarded.

And so, I will not continue to summarize Angelou’s life, nor compress it, nor dilute it. She is a woman that lived her life out loud, and she does not need me or anyone else, for that matter, to speak for her. Even in death, she has that rare ability to make people listen. I’ll leave you with this video of Angelou reading her own poem, “Still I Rise,” with that sultry, deeply-dwelling voice of hers and enough sass to shake the very foundations of your own self-confidence. Here’s to you, Dr. Angelou. May no one ever reduce you to less than you are, in words or otherwise.