Every year for Women's History Month, I'm asked to address groups of people brought together to mark the occasion. Some years it's at a university, a museum, or a foundation. This year it's in the Milken High School library.
I like the idea, of course -- to support the library and the school, to visit with a group composed of many of my own friends. In December I say an enthusiastic "yes!" In February I sign off on the invitations and begin spreading the word. Things are rolling right along, I'm told. The library expects a full house. In March I begin to wonder what, if anything, I have to say.
I'm not usually at a loss for words, it is true, but something about a library, about speaking there during Women's History Month, strikes a nerve and resonates deeper than usual. I find myself haunted by a vision at once familiar and removed -- a pre-adolescent girl in a gray-and-white uniform sitting on bare stone steps in a busy hallway. People race up and down the staircase and barely notice her. Little boys in starched shorts bound out of their classrooms to play soccer in the yard. Teachers prance about the hallway, taking care to look as imposing, as intimidating, as they can. Older girls -- seniors maybe -- walk around in skirts they have shortened way beyond school regulations and cry on each other's shoulders about first love. The girl in the gray-and-white uniform hardly looks up from the book in her lap.
I know this girl, I realize, or I used to. She was the one with the curly brown hair and the mortal fear of the geography teacher, the one who had to memorize all the math equations because she never did understand the logic of numbers, who almost failed P.E. because she couldn't touch her toes with her fingers. Every day at recess, she goes into the school library, I remember, and takes out any book she likes. The librarian, if there is one, has no idea what's on the shelves and certainly doesn't care who reads what, as long as she's left alone to file her nails.
I read trashy novels and great works of art, poetry and prose and plays. Some of it I don't understand at all. Some I can't stop thinking about. At home I watch my family, our friends, strangers who stop by every day to speak to my grandfather or to sell trinkets to my mother and grandmother. I watch them and imagine their lives, the very music and movements of their days, painted into the folds of a book.
A woman who visits often is said to have murdered two husbands for their money.
My blue-eyed French grandmother tells me about the time she was 6 years old, alone in Paris because her parents had gone off to war. German planes would drop bombs out of the sky, and she refused to hide in a bomb shelter. Food lines stretched 10 blocks long, and she stood alone with her pet mouse to wait her turn.
The male servant who has been with us for 30 years was given away in childhood by his parents, who were too poor to raise him. He marries a woman who wears tight satin dresses and sings old Persian love songs. She leaves him the day after the wedding.
I watch the people around me and see their sadness, their courage, their ability to persevere.
The servant whose wife has run away keeps a closet full of double-breasted suits and silk ties he will never wear. My French grandmother endures the war by looking at maps of faraway places and imagining herself there. The woman with the two dead husbands finds a third potential victim and brings him over for tea.
I watch these people and think of their lives as a box of treasures -- the stories lying in the dark, gleaming and radiant and waiting to be told. The stories are what define them all, I realize. Untold, their tales will fall like leaves into silence.
In my school library, I read a poem by an Iranian woman poet. "Dasthayam ra dar baghcheh mikaram," it says: I will plant my hands in the garden. By the time I read the lines, the poet has already killed herself. It's something women poets often seem to do, I observe. Writers in general appear to like suicide, drinking, being poor. I would love to become a writer myself, to have books that will end up on the shelves of a school library and maybe even be ignored by the librarian. But I study the job requirements -- a bathrobe, a bottle of pills, a glass of Jack Daniels in the morning -- and decide I don't qualify.
Yet the poet's words, the images they have conjured, stay with me week after week as I read on the steps of the school library. I imagine the hands, the ones she has cut off and planted, blooming out of the ground like blood-red roses. It occurs to me that long after the poet is gone, the hands will continue to blossom.
I follow the row of roses out of childhood and into adolescence. I go to another place -- a different language, different people and customs and books. In school, we read the works of dead Western writers, the mental ruminations of middle-aged philosophers who smoke too much and do not know when to put the pen down. Hemingway leaves me cold. Stendahl is a cure for insomnia. Simone de Beauvoir, I think, is why many poets commit suicide.
I long for the school librarian who doesn't know one book from the other and who therefore cannot tell me what's appropriate reading for an educated young lady of my age. I read "Marjorie Morningstar" and, to the everlasting horror of my English teachers, declare it's the best thing I have read that year.
I don't know this yet, but I'm looking for passion beyond the structure of the sentence, for language that is fluid and easy and that rings like a melody. For a plot that moves backward or forward, but that moves. I think of words -- spoken, read, remembered or forgotten -- I think of them as the one reality that connects me to a world of strangers.
At 16, I move farther west -- to America this time -- and start again. In Los Angeles I meet Iranians who have escaped the revolution, who have come here thinking they will stay a month and have stayed a decade, then two. Their stories are not written in any books, can't be found in any library, won't be discussed at forums during Women's History Month. I ask them to tell me what they remember, what they want to forget. I want to know the unthinkable, the unspeakable. Some hesitate, then give in. Others seek me out and won't stop.
I wonder now if it's possible to write without drinking, if suicide has gone out of style, if being poor is really so bad. I want to take the stories of each person I meet and plant them into the ground like roses, gather their tears in a jar and save them like diamonds in the light. I want to record their voices as they sound to me, to capture their images as they appear to me.
I ask my husband what he thinks a writer is.
"A writer is someone who writes," he says.
He's missed the part about the bathrobe, I think, doesn't know you can't write if sober.
Or maybe he sees a reality that's different from mine. Maybe he sees options I do not know exist.
I tell myself that if I'm patient enough, perhaps even foolish enough, I may be able to paint the stories onto a canvas where their colors would be stored, that I may put together a history to tell during Women's History Month.
I see a blue tulip, a pair of golden eyes, a child with angel's wings. I see things that have never been or that maybe cannot be, secrets that have been guarded for too long, tales that have been told but not heard. I see them and think that perhaps I can plant my own row of flowers in this new world, that I can watch them grow and follow them to a place where friends reunite and strangers meet, and the words of dead writers glow in the dark like rubies.