If there was a single thread running through the life of Maya Angelou it was her carpe diem approach to living. In her later years Angelou was best known as a writer and poet – a distinguished African-American woman-of-letters with over fifty honorary degrees. But by the age of forty, as she revealed in her seven volumes of autobiography, she had already had an astonishing range of jobs, including short-order cook, waitress, prostitute, madam (running a lesbian whorehouse, aged just eighteen), tram attendant, nightclub singer and dancer, actress, theatre director, political organiser for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, journalist and newspaper editor in Egypt and Ghana, and TV script writer.
She lived with passion and verve, not only pursuing a huge array of careers, but constantly moving to new cities and countries, throwing herself into politics and love affairs, drinking plenty of whisky, and generally daring greatly until her death in 2014, aged eighty-six. ‘Life loves the liver of it,’ was her great mantra, which was not just about recognising windows of opportunity, but making a courageous effort to open those windows and walk right through them. She was an ‘experimentalist’, someone who viewed life as a smorgasbord of possibilities and experiences there for the tasting, even when it involved risk and the prospect of failure.
Angelou elevated seizing opportunities into an art form. On seeing an advertisement for a Creole cook paying $75 a week, she waltzed in and announced she was an expert Creole chef despite having no experience whatsoever. When she chanced upon a man looking for someone to join his dance act, she pretended to have a professional dancing pedigree in order to land the job. Determined to make a career in showbiz, she heard about an opening as a singer at a San Francisco nightclub, and invented herself as a Cuban Calypso singer, having only ever sung in her church choir as a young girl (and she wasn’t Cuban either). Over and over again, Angelou took her chances and plunged herself into new jobs and experiences with a bravado that few of us possess.
A century of sociological research tells us that opportunity and privilege go hand in hand. There are relatively few opportunities – especially in the world of work – for those living on the social margins compared to people with financial means, expensive educations and good social connections. True enough: get yourself a degree from Harvard or Oxford and doors will open, especially if you are white and male. But Angelou’s story adds nuance, revealing how even in conditions of poverty and adversity it can be possible to develop a carpe diem approach to living founded on seizing opportunities. Especially in her early life, she took opportunities as a matter of utter necessity rather than choice. Having grown up in a small town in Arkansas surrounded by everyday racism and prejudice, at the age of seventeen she found herself as a single mother with a child and having to make a living. So from that early age she grabbed every opportunity that came her way. ‘The birth of my son,’ she recalled, ‘caused me to develop the courage to invent my life.’ As time went on, Angelou realised that her carpe diem outlook, originally motivated by the need to make ends meet, was actually giving her an incredibly vibrant existence. She came to cherish the freedom and excitement it offered, especially after getting married for the first time and discovering her distaste for domesticity. ‘My life began to resemble a Good Housekeeping advertisement,’ Angelou lamented. She soon got out of it.
Yet for all the freedom she enjoyed, seizing opportunities did not come without costs. At the age of twenty-six, Angelou was suddenly offered a dream job to tour Europe as a dancer in a production of Porgy and Bess. With only four days’ notice, she followed the call of carpe diem and left the United States, venturing abroad for a year. But to do so, she also had to leave behind her nine-year-old son to live with his grandmother. Her son was psychologically scarred by this enforced separation, which left Angelou consumed by guilt. Throughout his childhood he had to face the insecurities of his mother’s freewheeling life that resulted in him attending nineteen different schools over a period of eleven years. It is a reminder that seizing the day can be accompanied by serious collateral damage, not just for the person doing the seizing, but for the people who are touched by their decisions. Every choice comes with an inescapable responsibility.
This is an extract from Carpe Diem Regained by Roman Krznarik. Published by Penguin Random House. Available now. RRP$35.