Stories From California

Letters to Make Sense - Tehrangeles, CA

     Two sheets of white paper lie in front of me. One is covered in bold and vivid lines, green and golden. To me they look like arches, minarets, sails and ships and stars. Next to it, on straight black lines, I see familiar German words. Unruly, shaky letters which look like they want to fly away. It is a letter from my mother, a belated Christmas greeting.

     I received both papers on the same day, the first one from a poet in 'Tehrangeles', a part of Los Angeles where many families live who came to the U.S. from Iran. That morning I walked into the poet's shop as a reporter looking for reactions to escalating tension in the Middle East. He said there was not enough time to talk and make sense of anything, as he was with a student to teach her calligraphy. He then handed me the paper with green and golden lines. "I wrote this poem about news coming from Iran, the demonstrators that were shot," he said. "It is for you."

   I looked at his friendly face, into his kind brown eyes. The shop smelled of paint and turpentine. A dozen easels covered in rainbow colored brush strokes stood between the entrance door and the desk where he and his student sat under neon light, a box with pens and brushes and two inkwells between them. A poster advertising lessons for poetry, calligraphy and traditional Persian painting was tacked to the wall next to framed pictures of mediterranean landscapes in shades of green and blue and brown.

     His gesture was so different from the tension, distrust, anger and fear I had felt earlier when I entered restaurants, markets and shops asking my reporter's questions. There was so much generosity towards me, a stranger, that for the first time on that day I felt a glimpse of hope. A day when we had woken up in Los Angeles to news of missiles flying, countries on the brink of war and men spitting vitriolic gasoline into the fires with their words.

     "I wrote about a bamboo forest," the poet said. "Bamboo is strong. You can build and write with it." I wanted to give something back but had only my words of gratitude before I returned to the noise of Westwood Boulevard.

     When I came home, my parents' Christmas card was in the mailbox. My mom used to write me once a month. She wrote about my former classmates who still live in the town where I grew up, close to the Black Forest, France and Switzerland. She wrote about neighbors and their pets. She wrote about day trips to museums. She wrote about bike rides along the river Rhine. She wrote about food she cooked for birthday parties with their friends. 

     My mother took calligraphy classes after she retired. A poem she copied for me in bold black lines 20 years ago hangs framed on the wall next to my desk. It reminds me to use my time wisely: to laugh, to love, to live, to reach for stars, to hope, and to forgive. 

     Now she rarely writes anymore. Her mind and her hands have a hard time to communicate. Each word she writes has a mind of its own. To tame it she has to wrangle every single letter like a rodeo bull. Impossible. But she did it for me, for Christmas, which made me pause and write this poem:

My Mother's Flying Letters

Her words are birds

Lifting from a wire

Towards freedom

Flying      fe  a      t h  e   r  s

Pirou e tting ou t   o f    s    i     g      h       t

Their melody

Of love          and sorrow

Bridges Water                                               

On black and white

E  t

                        h er e  

                           a

                                                 l

delirium

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