I love books. I mean I LOVE books. I love the weight of a hardcover in my hands, I love how books smell, I love the colorful spines lined up like a chorus-line, and the sound of pages turning. I love everything about a book. I have shelves and shelves of them. And… I don’t read. I know it makes no sense.
Maybe it’s that I read slow, maybe I had to read so much in college I burned out, maybe my attention span is to blame yet, despite the best of intentions to read more, I get through one, maybe two books a year. I’m the shame of a family of rabid-pleasure-readers, and although philosophically I am on board 110%, I’ll opt for a movie, the internet, TV or outside activity before reaching for a book for fun. I do not own a library card. I get blissfully lost for hours wandering in bookstores and yet… I Just. Don’t. Read. Which makes this post a bit odd certainly, but also all the more significant.
A couple of weeks ago I was invited to the Almaden Branch Library to hear Isabel Allende speak. This program was part of a donor thank you for the San Jose Public Library System and let me just tell you, it was an eye opener for me to hear briefly what has been accomplished by donors to this cause. With 5,000 donors, 15 new libraries have been built-in the last 6 years. These places of quiet learning serve our entire communities in ways I fully admit I have taken for granted perhaps my entire life. I’m ashamed that for someone with such an affection for books (and who spent each summer as a child reading in order to get stickers for my local library summer reading program) that I haven’t done more personally to contribute to my library. But, this chance invitation has changed that.
Inside of an hour (a remarkably well facilitated conversation I should mention with a great interviewer) I learned about Chilean history, ghosts, a writing process eerily similar to my own modest habits, the process of grief, libraries, world politics, and feminism. It is this last topic that really surprised me. I do not believe you have to be a feminist to be a strong woman, and my interaction with those that label themselves as such has been in many ways more negative than positive. Fighting instead of educating, putting “men” down instead of simply raising women up, and complaining for someone else to fix it, rather than finding the solutions and fixing it themselves. It’s more complicated than that of course, but again, the word does make me recalibrate my conversational processing when someone claims to be, a femenist.That is until Isabel’s actions and articulation of the process to embracing the label awakened the feminist in me. Her story was affective, smart and emotional, all the things a good woman is. I reconsidered, redefined, and by the end on a single recount of an experience, was a self-proclaimed feminist.
Lost and Found:
Isabel lost a daughter and as she related the most moving story about writing a book (Paola) after her death. This book did well and Isabel immediately put the money from the book aside, uncertain how, but sure she wanted to use the money to honor her daughter in some way in the future. A while later she was driving with her husband in India and they stopped by a group of women under an Acacia tree. While there, a woman came up to her and gave her a bundle. A gift. It was a baby. She was horrified (especially having lost a child) that a mother would ever give her baby away to a complete stranger. The cab driver rather flippantly explained that it was because it was a girl, and no one wants a girl. At this point the room gasped. And it was at this moment in her life that Isabel knew how to honor her daughter. To empower women in societies that kept them down became an instant calling and by the end of the month, her foundation was established. It is a beautiful metaphor that the building that houses that foundation was first a brothel, then a church, then a chocolate chip cookie factory and now houses a place that unlike 9 out of 10 social programs in the world, targets women and tackles the challenge of raising their status (and by doing so, raising the status of entire economies). I don’t have to tell you, the room was moved to tears at hearing how Isabel’s personal heartbreak has helped to mend so many others’s hearts and improve so many lives. As a writer on hopes your words have meanings to others, but Isabel’s actions have perhaps spoken even louder than her many, famous words.
And, so she pays it forward. In her foundation work. In her books. In her thanks and recognition of her gifted muses who speak their own stories to her. What a lovely, poignant and empowering cycle. An immense journey. A privilege to have the opportunity to be on the receiving end of this experience. It is no wonder this amazing women’s 18 books (or more) have been translated into 35 languages, sold 57 million copies, won over 50 awards and have been turned into plays, films, operas, and ballets. If her books contain even a fraction of her spirit, intelligence, passion, pain, and articulation that I witnessed in just an hour, then I will be reading all of them. And, coming from me that is saying something.