Elegant Muses Like Maya Angelou, Bertha Flowers, and You

A muse is a someone who inspires others. The word originated in Greek mythology when the daughters of Zeus presided over arts and sciences. A loftier word for mentor, a muse is really anyone who helps us create our best life. We can all use a muse to inspire everyday elegance, and we should all aspire to be one.

In her poignant autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou describes a special neighbor named Mrs. Bertha Flowers. About Mrs. Flowers, Angelou writes, “She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the Arkansas summer days it seemed she had a private breeze which swirled around, cooling her.”

Mrs. Flowers became a muse to young Maya (then Marquerite Johnson) and changed her life by exposing her to literature and other lessons in living. Angelou writes, “She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained through my life the measure of what a human being can be.”

As a literature teacher, I was thankful Angelou’s short story about Mrs. Flowers appeared in our eighth grade textbook, and I looked forward to visiting her year after year. It seemed we could all feel Mrs. Flowers’ elegant presence in our classroom after reading about her.

Just a year before Angelou died at age 86, I was fortunate to attend a lecture of hers. Wearing a beautiful black dress and pearls, she was a queen who sat on her throne bestowing wisdom, wit, and her own lessons in living.

From the moment she walked on stage until the moment she regally exited, a lump formed in my throat, my eyes filled with tears, and I had goose bumps that lasted for days. Only a muse can inspire such a reaction.

Finding a muse, or mentor, is a personal journey. It may be someone you admire from afar, or someone you are fortunate to know well. It might even be a fictional character who has become flesh and blood in your mind.

I’ve been lucky enough to have several mentors in my life, particularly in my roles as teacher and mother. In hindsight, I realize each of these people possessed everyday elegance, including the rare ability to remain composed under the most stressful situations.

While turning to a muse can help us improve our lives, at some point, we should consider paying it forward by serving as a muse, or mentor, who provides motivation, guidance, and support. I can only hope I’ve been a positive influence in someone else’s life along the way.

As adults, we must remember that we might be a muse, mentor, or role model without even realizing it. Whether we like it or not, younger people are watching and learning from us. Remembering this keeps us more accountable for our own conduct and behavior.

We may never fill the shoes of someone like the genteel Mrs. Bertha Flowers, but we can all at least aspire to what Angelou called “a true measure of what a human being can be.”

“Surviving is important. Thriving is elegant.”
~Maya Angelou

To watch or listen to this post, please click on this YouTube link ~ https://youtu.be/p0oy83XaeHg

Lessons from a Memorable Teacher

An injured butterfly gently rested in my cupped hands. Looking closely, I admired the symmetrical patterns painted in sleek black on bright yellow wings. The scalloped hindwings were decorated with a royal blue art-deco design and the slightest touch of orange. She was a work of art.

I could easily identify it as a female eastern tiger swallowtail, or Papilio glaucus, thanks to my tenth grade biology teacher, Mrs. Shaw. In hindsight, she was one of the most talented teachers I ever had. She helped me see the beauty and artistry in science. This was no small task as I typically enjoyed more creative, right-brained pursuits.

Always dressed in a white lab coat, Mrs. Shaw taught bell-to-bell with no idle chit-chat or wasted time. Using colored chalk, she drew intricate diagrams of cells, or whatever we were learning at the time, which we would replicate and study in our own notebooks.

Even in college, it was rare to have a professor with Mrs. Shaw’s combination of knowledge, passion, and teaching skills. When I became a teacher myself, I borrowed many of her techniques for running an effective and efficient classroom. She was smart and kind, poised and mature, making her a role model for all students, especially impressionable young women.

Students in Mrs. Shaw’s biology class completed two main projects ~ an insect display in the fall and a wildflower display in the spring. Picking wildflowers was right up my alley, but the bugs were another story. I wasn’t afraid of them, but I didn’t want to kill them.

Mrs. Shaw gave a compelling explanation why “preserving” the insects was crucial for our education and that was that. Armed with a bug net and glass jars containing cotton-balls soaked with rubbing alcohol, I scoured our yard, nearby woods, and roadsides for a month in search of insects native to Southern Illinois.

I set up my entomology lab on my dad’s workbench in the garage. After collecting an insect, I carefully placed it in the jar. I added my own step of saying a prayer of gratitude to each bug for sacrificing its life for my GPA. Next, I methodically mounted the insects with pins onto the foam board our teacher provided. The most important step was properly identifying each specimen by its common name, scientific name, and category.

Forty years later, I can’t help but remember that experience when I encounter a cute ladybug (Harmonia axyridis), an exquisite praying mantis (Stagmomantis carolina), or a beautiful monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

I placed the swallowtail on a flowering bush, hoping her injured leg didn’t prove to be fatal. I bent down to say some encouraging words, and she began to move a bit. “You can do it,” I cheered.

It was then I decided to name her. “Fly away, Mrs. Shaw,” I said with a grin. Suddenly, she fluttered off the bush in a graceful loop. “Thank you for the biology lessons,” I whispered. “I haven’t forgotten them.” §