William Michaelian

The One True Art

It is ironic that one can be condemned to a life of poverty for dedicating his life to the work he loves, but that is one of the peculiar things about writing. It is no less ironic that one can be condemned to a life of wealth for the same reason.

To write is to bleed willingly and joyfully, and to live in a state of eager appreciation of small things suddenly grown large, and large things brought into perspective by something as simple as a dewdrop or a baby's sneeze.

Words are a writer's blood. As such, they cannot be mixed with water. But they mix readily with the blood of other writers, so that ultimately writers share the same blood, regardless of time, place, and language.

To write is to see. It is the desire to recognize, rather than to impose. Writing is an ancient expression of something new and timeless. It is a hymn to wisdom, and a playground for demented souls who laugh in the face of danger.

The word "writing" may be freely substituted for the word "living." A writer afraid of living isn't really writing. A writer afraid of writing isn't really living. A writer who lives fully will embrace, rather than fear, his own periods of silence.

Living is the one true art. What varies is the forms of expression we choose, or that choose us. Art is a mystery. Like bread baking in a celestial oven, its aroma permeates everything and is universally understood, except by those who seek the recipe.

William Michaelian
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A Map of My Heart
by William Michaelian

Try Mapping Your Heart

There are some lonesome roads connecting the memories of my time growing up in California's San Joaquin Valley. The roads are narrow and lined with dry weeds, and they are hot beneath the feet - hot enough to fry an egg on. Of course I never fried an egg on a road, or on a sidewalk, either, and I don't know anyone who has. But I've ridden a squeaky bicycle through the countryside for miles and miles, and have just managed to escape having my legs ripped off by ferocious dogs, who know their territory and guard it well.

One such road is Road 66, which is roughly two miles west of the house where I grew up. Road 66 runs north and south, and is lined with vineyards and orchards on both sides. It is a road that lies dreaming beneath the cloudless summer sky, where it waits an hour, sometimes more, for a car, a truck, or a tractor to pass by. In between, there are the nervous feet of sunburned boys looking for something to do. There are jackrabbits and crows, squirrels and snakes, pheasants, quail, and coyotes. Often, there is no breeze. Everything bakes. The atmosphere bends above the sticky, black surface, and in the distance mirages form, making the road look like it passes through a lake.

On the east side of Road 66, not far from where it meets Avenue 404, there is an old white house shaded by mulberry trees. This is where my father was born, in what now seems like a faraway time. It was a time before homes in the area had indoor plumbing and electricity, and when drinking water was pumped by hand. It was a time when the business of babies being born was left to the mother, and to a wise old woman in the family, an Armenian mid-wife with onion-stained fingers and a wealth of hard-earned knowledge not found in books.

My grandfather built the house for two thousand dollars not long after he married my grandmother in 1917. In 1918, the young couple was stricken with the flu during the terrible epidemic and almost died. Over the years, my grandfather repeated the story of how the plowing was left undone, and how he forced himself to walk behind the horses through the field each day, a few minutes at a time, trying to regain his strength. He said he was so weak that he cried.

Soon after, the children began to arrive, three sons and a daughter. During the Great Depression, the family lived on the tomatoes, onions, eggplant, cucumbers, peppers, and melons they grew in their garden. They got honey in five-gallon containers from a neighbor who was a beekeeper. They butchered animals that were themselves nervous with hunger. My grandmother made cheese. She made mountains of batz hatz, which her husband baked in their wood stove, and placed in a wooden barrel for storage after the bread had cooled.

There were several Armenian families living in the old neighborhood. My great-grandparents lived a mile away to the east in a tiny unpainted house on the corner of Road 74 and Avenue 404. The Terzians lived nearby, as well as the Ketenjians and the Ailanjians. When my father was growing up, the families took turns walking to each others' houses to visit.

When he was twelve years old, my father was appointed chief coffee maker by his mother. He became an expert at preparing Armenian coffee, and keeping the layer of brpoor intact on top. He would serve the coffee to the guests, who were sitting on wooden fruit boxes in the shade, telling stories about the Old Country and waving at flies.

His other duties included mopping the kitchen floor, which he did in a casual style when his mother wasn't looking. At an early age he also took over the family garden. Growing things was in his blood. My father lived a farmer and died a farmer. He passed his love of the earth on to me. He taught me how to prune vines, drive the tractor, and everything else there was to do on the farm.

To this day, I still watch the weather. I plant my garden, and remember with joy and sadness the long hours my father and I spent together working on the farm. I remember the long rows of vines, and the grapes slowly turning yellow in the sun. I remember the smell of ripening peaches and apricots filling the warm night air. I remember the drone of hungry bees working in the orange groves. I also remember entire crops being destroyed by spring hail storms that lasted no more than five or ten minutes.

I heard a lot about the Old Country when I was growing up. Early on, I was spared the unhappy details of what Armenians in the valley then referred to as "The Massacre." When I was eleven or twelve, I learned that my grandfather's father, Michael, was killed by the Turks in 1896 in Sivas. Shortly before my grandfather was born, Michael left the house one day, never to return. His wife, Elbiz, came to America with other family members in 1906, when my grandfather was ten. Those who stayed behind perished.

After spending a few months in Troy, New York, in a room my grandfather said was so cold that it had ice on the walls, he and Elbiz moved to Fresno. An aunt and uncle had preceded them, and had opened a restaurant that catered primarily to Armenian men trying to earn money to pay for passage. My grandfather learned English. He got a job selling newspapers in downtown Fresno, just as William Saroyan would do a few years later, as well as so many other Armenian boys who needed to bring money home to their families.

Later on, Elbiz remarried. Her new husband, Benyamin, was a survivor of the Hamidian massacres who had been hidden by Turkish families before coming to America. Elbiz joined Benyamin in Dinuba, a farming town thirty miles southeast of Fresno. They had a son and two daughters.

Medz Papa was a small man with a neat appearance, and something of a philosopher. Well liked in the neighborhood, he spent hours trimming his mustache and talking to traveling salesmen, none of whom he could ever refuse. The rest of the time he spent pacing in the house and yard, thinking about life and its attending difficulties. As it is with all men of thought, he managed to sum up his experience in a tragic and fateful statement that he repeated often over the years:

"The only rest is in the grave."

Poor old Medz Papa. How right he was. And how misunderstood. Impatient members of the family scoffed and said he was lazy. They said, "The man does no work. He's been resting all his life. His wife does the cooking, gathers the eggs, and takes care of the animals. All he does is talk."

What they left out, though, was the fact that the talk was interesting, and that it made sense. Few people in our family ever made sense. To this day, most of us are frustrated and temperamental, because the world refuses to act the way it should. We are arrogant, melancholy, excessive, ridiculous people who don't fit in, and don't want to. In short, we are miserable human beings, but we prefer it that way.

Benyamin, on the other hand, was gentle. He had already seen enough of life to know that any efforts in the direction of greatness or gain were surely wasted. What mattered most were the taste of the persimmons growing in his yard, and the sweet fragrance of lilacs drifting in through his open window.

During the summer of 1938, when my father was fifteen, he got a job pitching watermelons. I bring this up because he almost killed himself working twelve hours a day in the heat. There was another time several years later that he almost killed himself stacking bales of hay in a barn in which the temperature was a hundred and twenty degrees. He came home black and blue and scared my mother silly. There was yet another time when he fell asleep from exhaustion while driving a tractor, and woke up as he was about to go into an irrigation ditch. Being summer, the ditch was full of water about four feet deep.

What I am trying to say, indirectly, is that my father wasn't afraid of work. If anything, he was afraid of not working. Something in him drove him to it, I imagine, but I'm not sure what. It wasn't a simple fear of hunger. Pride was involved, as well as a tremendous love for what he was doing. That, and a desire for excellence. Blessed with abundant energy and a physique to match, he could outwork anyone, including his own father, who was something of a fanatic when it came to manual labor. Dedicated to the extreme, my grandfather would drag the sun out of bed so he could get to work. My father preferred to watch the sun rise from the seat of his tractor - the tractor he had already been driving during the night with the lights on.

But surely I exaggerate. Otherwise, how could my father have taken me fishing so many times? How could he have gone to my baseball games? How could he have taken my mother, my brothers, and me camping in the mountains?

The answer is simple: He did everything.

And now he's gone.

The map of my heart is lined with narrow country roads. The roads carry blood - the blood of memory, and the blood of tragedy and resurrection. At the same time, they carry a message of hope, and a song as sweet and clear as an icy March wind marching across the valley. I will wander these roads forever. I know that now. I have been to Armenia, and to Jerusalem, and to a dozen places in between, but the roads of home are the ones that have taken me there. Thanks to them, and to my father, and to his father, the entire world is my home.

Back in the 1930s, when it was winter and the time had come to prune the vines, the Armenian men in the old neighborhood would form a group and take turns pruning each others' vineyards. When one vineyard was done, they would move on to the next. This way no one was left to face the daunting task alone, and the men were able to speak to each other in their own language. They also sang at the tops of their voices, much to the amusement and consternation of their American neighbors.

In our house there is a framed photograph of Massis (Mt. Ararat) that was taken by my brother. The sky is gray with clouds, but the mountain is fully visible. The lighting is soft. In the foreground there is a vineyard. Every time I look at the picture, I see the sleeping majesty of our ancient land. I also see the San Joaquin Valley, and the old neighborhood.

A few miles east of where I grew up, behind oak-covered foothills that look like large, sleeping animals, the Sierra Nevada looms. Early in the morning, just before the sun rises, the entire range is visible. The mountains are a soft purple, and the outline of jagged peaks is sharply defined against the sky. At that hour, especially during the summer, the air is very still. You can literally feel the earth breathing. You can smell the soil, and the dew-softened scent rising from the vineyards and orchards.

In the winter, especially just before a storm, the snow-capped peaks seem only a short walk away. The highest, in excess of thirteen thousand feet, are covered with snow the whole year around.

On the valley floor, the sadness of what was left behind, the deep sorrow of the Old Country, could be heard in the men's voices, in the way they talked and in the way they sang. At the same time, nature was smiling. Nature was busy painting pictures no one could create. It was granting solace to their troubled hearts, and strength to carry on.

I won't say life became better. It became easier.

My grandfather lived almost ninety-four years. Once, two or three years before he died, standing in the house where I grew up, he sang Ganche Groong in the saddest voice imaginable. He sang it with power and wisdom, with anger and pride, and with bitter disappointment. When he was done, he looked at me. His voice was trembling with emotion when he said, "That's the way the song is sung."

I will never forget that moment.

The map of my heart is lined with roads, like myriad wrinkles on the face of time. The roads all lead to home. But I'm not sure where home is. Is it in a little town called Dinuba? Is it in Salem, Oregon, where I live now? Is it in Sepastia, Bitlis, or Moush, where my ancestors are from? Is it in Yerevan, or Echmiadzin?

What is home, exactly? Is it a feeling one has when he knows he belongs? Is it a feeling of accomplishment when the day is done? Is it pictures of one's family hanging on the wall?

I don't know. And I won't pretend to know. For me, sitting here this moment, home is the knowledge that I am doing the work I love to do, while my wife and children go about their business and try to stay out of my way. It is enough for now.

"A Map of My Heart" was first published in Ararat (New York), a quarterly magazine devoted to literary and historical work on Armenian subjects. It subsequently appeared in Armenian translation in Grakan Tert (Yerevan, Armenia), a publication of the Writers' Union of Armenia, and Artasamanyan Grakanutyun (Yerevan, Armenia), a journal that publishes world literature in Armenian translation.