On Saturday, December 2, 2017, the women at The Pavilions, a transitional living facility for women in Los Lunas, were honored to host a gathering for Rosa Johnson, the niece of late poet Maya Angelou. Rosa had traveled from Salem, Massachusetts to speak to us about some of the struggles in Angelou’s life and in her own life. Her presentation was very moving and inspiring.
Rosa began by describing an emotional period in her aunt’s life, when she became mute for six years. Angelou, still a child, had been repeatedly raped by her mother’s boyfriend. When her uncles found out, they beat the man to death. Despite her long silence, Angelou found a way to use her voice through poetry. This was the only way she could express how she was feeling without speaking. Her poetry opened up not only her own emotional life but her ability to reach out to others in emotional pain.
In addition to discussing her aunt’s life, Rosa Johnson shared some of her own life journey, one that has included substance abuse and self-esteem issues. She overcame obstacles with the support and wisdom of her aunt, whose own challenges gave Rosa strength. Those of us
who listened to Rosa’s story were emotionally moved, as many of us have experienced the same or similar challenges.
Although Maya Angelou was a world-renowned poet and writer, she was also a woman of humility and generosity. Rosa Johnson shared that her aunt would often take in women who lived on the streets who had substance abuse problems. She would invite them into her home and give them the help they needed, including food, shelter, and a refuge from abuse. After learning about her compassion for women in trouble, it was not a great surprise to learn that in 2005, one of New Mexico’s therapeutic communities for women was named for Maya Angelou. Maya’s Place is a sister community of The Pavilion, and is located in Albuquerque. Before her death in 2014, Angelou was invited to come see the therapeutic community that was named after her.
Rosa Johnson read some of her aunt’s poems aloud at our gathering. We were touched as we listened, especially when Rosa added that she herself writes daily about what she is grateful for in a small notebook. She generously gave each of us a little notebook in which we could also express our gratitude. Before she left, we asked Rosa if she would like to hear a song that some of us had written in our reintegration group. We were gratified to be able to give something back to her.
In the room where we gathered to hear Rosa Johnson, an inscription is written above the archway. It says, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes that it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” This was written by Maya Angelou. Here at The Pavilions, we are well-aware of the transformations necessary to reach our goals and to feel the beauty that Maya Angelou shared in those words.