Armen Bacon: It's always and only about people

March 15, 2014 

I am sitting in my usual position, the bottom half of me planted on a battered swivel chair whose flimsy arms have propped me up and survived a full range of mood swings since 2004 when I began writing. Many of you have traveled the decade with me, reading my rants and raves, the good, bad and ugly, but nevertheless — the stuff from which real life is made.

It is early afternoon as I huddle in my creative space, a tiny alcove area nestled near the back wall of the master bedroom. Invited to pen this twice-a- month column offering commentary on life's journey and the world here at home, I pause in deep reflection. I am a storyteller, a memory-keeper, but what words, I quiz myself, will resonate with readers in these inaugural essays?

The ground beneath my feet disappears in its usual sea of scribbled notes, news clippings and personal mail of the must-keep variety. Today, I have received one box and a padded envelope, both delivered via U.S. Priority Mail.

Inside the envelope is a vintage magazine, The American Mercury, dated October 1934, a surprise from my cousin who lives in nearby Modesto. It contains an article about Hitler, some "sound facts about constipation," and an early essay by William Saroyan titled, "Myself Upon this Earth." Richard, the son of my mother's sister, Lillian (from Selma), has a knack for finding things to inspire my writing. Perhaps the answer to my writing dilemma lies in his generosity of spirit combined with Saroyan's fluency in life.

A musty smell seeps through the seams of clear cellophane — a second skin stretched over the fading avocado green tinted periodical. The magazine's protective covering will be the perfect guardian over coffee spills, telltale winter sneezing fits, and the kind of collateral damage caused by curious grandkids with unwashed fingers that love touching and exploring when no one is looking.

Flipping to page 211 of the magazine, I carefully study Saroyan's essay. According to Wikipedia, this is one of his earliest pieces. The first sentence grabs my insides. "A beginning is always difficult, for it is no simple matter to choose from language the one bright word which shall live forever."

Panicking at the word forever, I pause, wildly aware of my own insecurities. I often write not knowing where exactly to start, cursing as my mind draws blanks or enters uncharted waters that leave me gasping for air and wondering how I will rescue myself from the flood of self-imposed fears. Even now as I write, a quiet interior voice pleads for words to magically appear.

Deciding to stall and detour the task at hand, I open the padded envelope. Waiting for me inside is a plastic bag filled with Armenian soil sent by longtime friend Fred Prudek while on a teaching mission in the Armenian town of Astarak. Running fingers through the soil turns out to be calming — a therapeutic diversion to crafting this week's assignment.

Sifting through time and place, I visualize the journey traveled by my grandparents — one that began in Armenia, then on to Ellis Island and Boston, and finally the many roads bringing them to Fresno. My mind takes refuge in these ancient memories, eventually drifting back to thoughts of Saroyan, who authored countless essays about his childhood here and being an Armenian-American. He loved sharing the colorful characters of his immigrant family with readers. His deep Valley roots, his powerful prose and literary voice struck a chord that chimes for many of us, his words carrying a magic that to this day, penetrate our skin — his writings echoing the human condition in all its pain and glory. I find comfort and courage in these ethnic and cultural similarities.

Saroyan knew that when it came to writing, there was no "how" to it. "You start with a tree and finally get to the death of a brother." I keep these words taped to my desk, a reminder that "a writer writes, and if he begins by remembering a tree in the backyard, that is solely to permit him gradually to reach the piano in the parlor upon which rests the photograph of the kid brother killed in the war."

My stories, too, involve love, loss and the life captured in-between. Beyond the soil and words — it is always and only the people who matter. The more we give expression to this journey, the better we support each other through the complex and unpredictable maze of life. By sharing stories, we discover ourselves, life, and this place called home.

Armen Bacon is a writer and co-author of "Griefland — an Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship" (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She is working on a new collection of essays titled, "My Name is Armen — a Life in Column Inches." Email: Twitter @ArmenBacon.

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