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Column | Everyday Elegance

Alicia Woodward: The elegance of muses like Maya Angelou

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Alicia Woodward

Alicia Woodward

A muse is someone who inspires others. The word originated in Greek mythology when 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.

The late author, poet, and speaker Maya Angelou is one of my muses. 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 wrote, “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.”

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Mrs. Flowers became a muse to young Maya (then Marguerite Johnson) and changed her life by exposing her to literature and other lessons in living. Angelou wrote, “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 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.

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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. She leaned in and whispered to the audience, “Surviving is important. Thriving is elegant.”

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. 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.

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While turning to a muse can help us improve our lives, at some point, we should consider paying it forward by serving as someone who provides motivation, guidance, and support. As adults, we must remember that we might be a muse, mentor, or role-model to someone 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 lithe 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.”

Alicia Woodward is a retired language arts teacher and empty-nester. She and her husband recently moved back to their hometown of Mt. Vernon. She writes a weekly blog called The Simple Swan. Visit her blog at Email her at


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