The strange mutability of time during this pandemic year makes it hard to gauge exactly what happened when, but a glance at the calendar indicates that it’s been eight months since I have posted here. This winter seems dark and long, and there are moments when it’s hard to believe that it will ever end. But rather than being consumed by the struggles, suffering, and violence that are swirling around us, I have tried to build a daily routine of work, exercise, and pastimes to stave off melancholy and loneliness. It works most of the time. As Mariame Kaba puts it, “Hope is a discipline.”
In addition to making steady progress on the second draft of my novel, I am knitting a sweater, studying Spanish and Armenian, reviewing French, reading for my three monthly book clubs, volunteering in the New Sanctuary Coalition Remote Pro Se Clinic, taking Zoom Iyengar yoga classes, trying recipes from my four Armenian cookbooks, and watching the songbirds at the feeders outside and the raptors cruising over the meadow.
This morning as I took our small dog for the first walk of the day around the pond, I heard the high-pitched “seee” calls of Cedar Waxwings, a call that I have learned recently on the Larkwire game app that I started using a few weeks ago. I looked up and saw a small flock perched atop the hundred-year old cherry tree. I heard the drumming of a Pileated Woodpecker at the edge of the forest, and the “peter-peter-peter” of a Tufted Titmouse. I surveyed the rolling hills, the light in the farmhouse across the valley, and the layers of clouds stretching to the south and east. What a beautiful world.
P.S. If you would like to learn more about the history of the White Power Movement, its adherents most recently on display rampaging through the Capitol, I highly recommend Kathleen Belew’s excellent and riveting book BRING THE WAR HOME. I also recommend this virtual exhibit of Armenian embroidery from the Armenian Museum of America’s collection. And check out Liana Aghajanian’s beautiful piece about quince jam, war, and resilience.
Yesterday when I started drafting this blog post, I ended up spending two hours writing about the December 11th killing of Barnard Freshman Tess Majors in Morningside Park and the subsequent NYPD Security Theater outside my kitchen window. I realized there was nothing edifying, informative, or helpful in what I had written, although it was cathartic for me, and so I put it in the failed drafts folder.
We made it through a turbulent 2019,
and we’re now into a new year that started with an illegal and provocative
assassination of an Iranian General and, if anxiety and incertitude are a
measure of length, this very long year will continue with the longest Presidential
election cycle in human history. So herewith is my “listicle” of ways to
maintain sanity and equilibrium in 2020, which was composed in part in the
middle of the night as I turned in my bed like a rotisserie chicken.
1. ORGANIZE: Housing is a Human Right
Read about #Moms4Housing
in Oakland, and how community organizing turned a violent eviction into a
big win. This is an inspiring story, and something to build upon.
2. ORGANIZE AGAIN: Why We Need A Green New Deal
Listen to The Dig Podcast Episode “Planet
to Win,” a detailed and hopeful discussion about how the Green New Deal
might change America for the better.
3. WATCH A GOOD FILM
Go see Kitty Green’s The
Assistant, a brilliant and dark film about one day in the life of the
junior assistant of an abusive boss. It’s not just about predation—it’s also
gimlet-eyed view on capitalist exploitation of young people. The film is poised
to become part of a
movement to change the culture of Hollywood. Watch the trailer here. Opening in NYC and
LA on January 31, theaters and show times may be found here.
4. MAKE COMFORT FOOD
Order a copy of Lavash: The Bread
That Launched 1,000 Meals, Plus Salads, Stews, and Other Recipes From Armenia,
and cook an Armenian meal for your loved ones. You can read more about the book
and try sample recipes here
Last week I went to the Whitney Museum to see Making Knowing: Craft in Art, 1950-2019. There were a lot of great pieces in the show, but I was absolutely bowled over by Liza Lou’s KITCHEN, a life-sized beaded room filled with furniture, appliances, pots, pans, cereal boxes, and more that took the artist five years to produce. The show is up through January 2021, and a new show of Mexican muralists will be opening at the Whitney in February so you could take in both.
11. GO FOR A WALK IN THE WOODS
I’ve been reading out-of-print books by naturalist and writer Alan Devoe, who lived down the road from our house in the country from the 1930’s to the mid-50’s. In the middle of World War II, which was a time of destruction, violence, and despair on a global scale, Devoe wrote, “It is good, for instance, just to shut off the radio for a while, throw away the newspaper, and go out into the warm darkness of a country night and listen to the frogs.” He also recommended listening to the wrens singing, and said, “They are singing directly into our aboriginal ears, an information that all the pessimists and pedants are mistaken, and the life adventure is a greater and gladder thing than mere learnedness might ever surmise.”
When I was in college, I studied for one semester with a poet who dispensed counsel the way my grandmother handed out hard candies. This poet told me that if my boyfriend didn’t make me feel like I was the most beautiful woman in the world, he wasn’t doing his job and I should fire him. Another memorable bit of advice was about writing, and left her lisping voice echoing in my head with this mantra, “Respect your process.”
During my student days, I was
prolific. I wrote a poem a day in long hand on narrow ruled yellow notepads,
and often they sprang fully formed from my head like Athena. I rarely revised, and
often didn’t even type them. I would bring them to my professor on the yellow
notepads, he would make a few comments, and say, “Just keep writing.” And so I
wrote and wrote and wrote. In graduate school I learned about revision, and
often took a poem through ten or more drafts before I was satisfied with it and
moved on to the next one. This was in the old days when it was possible to keep
track of drafts because I typed each one on a sheet of paper using an IBM
By the time I started working on my
first novel, Zabelle,
I was writing on a computer. Gone were the yellow lined note pads for the first
draft, and gone also was the stuttering and humming electric typewriter. The
only way I could think of attempting something so long and unwieldy as a novel
was by breaking the task into story chapters. I had the stamina to write one
ten-page chapter, and after that was done, I started the next. Once I had a
stack of these chapters, I figured out how they fit together and then rewrote
them so they made a coherent, if episodic, narrative. Revising a text that was
two hundred and seventy pages long was a much more daunting prospect than
rewriting a one- or two-page poem. By the time I got through the last chapter, I
went back to the beginning and noticed more things that needed fixing, and went
over the whole thing once again. Working on a computer, there was a lot of
continuous fiddling with bits here and there, so it was harder to keep track of
how many drafts I did, but it was probably upwards of three before I even sent it
to my agent. With her suggestions, I did another draft before she showed it to
the editor. There was another pass with the editor’s notes before the
production process started. The copy editor did a thorough once over, and then
it was done. This was pretty much how it went with my two subsequent novels, Dreams
of Bread and Fire and All
the Light There Was.
You would think that the fourth time
I approached this kind of project, I’d march ahead with assurance. But no, when
I started writing my latest novel, I felt as though I were at the bottom of an
enormous mountain peering up at a peak that was enshrouded in clouds. How would
I ever manage to get to the top? I’m a slow writer—in part because I do a
massive amount of research before I start writing, and because other aspects of
my life (my family’s needs and challenges, my geriatric dogs, my work as an
organizer, as well as the distractions of our calamitous political moment)
often crowd out my writing. I can’t write for more than two hours a day. I used
to be able to produce two pages in two hours, but now I eke out one page a day.
At one point over a year ago, I said
to my spouse in despair, “How am I ever going to get this thing done?” He
answered, “If you write one page a day, you’ll eventually finish it.” In other
words, “Respect your process.” And much to my surprise, at the end of October I
printed out a completed rough draft of this novel about an Armenian family in
Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. It opens with this same family in New
York on 9/11, and ends with a folk tale about a girl who talks with birds. It’s
rough, and it needs a lot of work. But it’s done, and my first and most trusted
reader, the aforementioned spouse, confirmed that the structure is sound—this
was my biggest worry.
I took a hiatus from the novel so that I could come back to it with fresh eyes. While on this break, I wrote a talk that I delivered on a panel at Columbia on November 20, which was published last week by the Armenian Weekly. Also in November, Egg & Spoon Theatre Collective staged an off-off-Broadway adaptation of Zabelle. My novel All the Light There Was recently appeared in Turkish translation from Aras in Istanbul, which had previously published Dreams of Bread and Fire. And three weeks ago I saw the cover of the Arabic translation of Zabelle, which will be published in February 2020 by Fawasel Books in Syria.
Spring is really here in New York City—my neighbors’ garden beds are full of bright and blowsy tulips, and the cherry trees in the parks and on the Columbia campus are blossoming and showering pink petals on the ground. Yesterday I went on the first in a series of Spring Migration Bird walks led by the NYC Audubon Society’s Gabriel Willow in Central Park. In addition to the birds—among them an Indigo Bunting, a Black and White Warbler, a Downy Woodpecker, and a Blue Winged Warbler—the park’s paths are lined with wildflowers such as Virginia Bluebells, Columbines, Trilliums, and an assortment of Viburnums. Each week there will be different flowers and different birds.
The solace and hope that we find in the natural world, and in our friends, and in the activities we love (walking, yoga, biking, cooking, knitting, gardening, what have you) are essential in this turbulent time. Also necessary is the work that we do to push back against the cruelty and hatred being manufactured on an industrial scale by the leaders in our country and around the world.
James and I went to Oaxaca City for two weeks this month
to take Spanish language immersion classes four hours a day and to vacation. We
had never been Oaxaca before, and we loved it. The food was fantastic, the old
city was beautiful, and the place was full of street art, street music,
museums, radical printmaking workshops, and markets with abundant fruit and
vegetables alongside Zapotec handicrafts. The Ambulante film festival was in
town while we were there, so we went to a few screenings and had dinner with
filmmakers and curators affiliated with the festival.
We went to learn some Spanish because James is working on
a limited TV series for Netflix that is set in Mexico and will be shot there,
probably in Durango, in Spanish later this year. And I wanted to pick up some
Spanish to enhance my work in the New Sanctuary Pro Se Legal Clinic with
Central American asylum seekers. The interpreters at the clinic are by
necessity fully fluent, a minimum requirement when collecting grim stories for asylum
applications, but I can now say a few polite phrases and compose and read text
messages from my friends.
At the Oaxaca Spanish Language Immersion School, I had two weeks of individual lessons with two excellent teachers—two hours with Yesenia in the morning, and two hours with Jacobo in the afternoon. It was difficult at first, as words in French and Armenian would swim up in my head when I was looking for a word in Spanish. But it turns out that I love learning ABOUT languages—how they operate, how they relate to other languages—which is a good first step to actually learning to read, write, and speak a new language. My attempt to learn Arabic three summers ago was pretty much a failure, but I have been making good headway with Armenian, and I feel I now I have a solid base to continue with the Spanish.
I had hoped to work on my novel when we were in Mexico, but I found it impossible to make the necessary mental transition from the compelling sights and sounds and languages of Oaxaca to wartime Beirut. But now that I’m back home, I am able to return to the familiar world of Vera Serinossian and the neighborhood of Nor Hadjin. And so it goes.
The beautiful celebrity duck of Central Park, a solo male Mandarin Duck, was first sighted at the pond near 5th Avenue and 59th Street in early October. Mandarin Ducks are not native to North America, and it has been speculated that the duck was an escaped or released pet. In October, I was more interested in the birds flying through the city during the fall migration. The hordes of people lining up to take a look at the Mandarin Duck also kept me away. Standing in a long line waiting for a turn to take a photo of an exotic pet was not appealing.
As the weeks went by, the duck kept attracting crowds, its comings and goings were assiduously tracked, and it drew lots of media coverage in The Gothamist, The Cut, The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN, ABC News, and other outlets. In early December the New York Times ran a new article entitled, “The Hot Duck That Won’t Go Away.” The Times piece quoted a disgruntled birder who was annoyed by all the publicity, and the hysteria, surrounding the bird. He said that the Mandarin was essentially “the Kim Kardashian of ducks.”
I will admit that this reference to Kim K. piqued my interest, and when a few days later my friend Marie Lee proposed a joint foray into the park to find the superstar waterfowl, I agreed. As we entered the park at 59th Street, we could tell by the small crowd assembled on the north side of the pond where we would locate the duck. As the weather has grown colder, the crowds have thinned so we were able to go immediately to the edge of the pond. And there he was, splendid and colorful, and really so photogenic. The Mandarin Duck, unfazed by its fans, paddled around among the pairs of Mallards, along with a pretty male Wood Duck, and an American Coot. When I pointed out the Coot—and its prehistoric looking lobed toes—Marie asked, “Is that where the expression ‘old coot’ comes from?” Yes indeed.
The Mandarin Duck was definitely worth the trip, although the hype—Mandarin Duck manicures, Mandarin Duck dog jackets—is a bit much. I felt a little sad that I’m not a winter birder as I read about the Saw-Whet Owls and other raptors that people have been sighting in the park. Gabriel Willow, who runs birding classes for NYC Audubon, told me, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes.” But I hate the cold, and I don’t have the proper gear, so I’m on birding hiatus until the Spring Migration, except for watching the Dark-eyed Juncos, Tufted Titmice, Black-capped Chickadees, and other birds I can see from my kitchen window in the country.
In Central Park last week, on a bird walk in the North Woods led by an Audubon Society naturalist, we saw a Cooper’s Hawk perched regally in a tree, an immature Great Blue Heron fishing in the Loch, four Northern Flickers, and a half dozen species of warblers that were passing through on their way south, in addition to the abundant Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, European Starlings, and American Robins that call the park home. The fall wildflowers—Canada Goldenrod, Cardinal Flower, Great Blue Lobelia, White Snakeroot, Spotted Jewelweed, and several varieties of Aster—were in bloom. When the cruel and venal doings of human animals are cause for despair, I take solace in the natural world.
I was considering delaying this post until after the Kavanagh “situation” had resolved itself one way or the other, assuming that we will be flattened by despair when the Republicans steamroller the Democrats and the rest of us. It has been almost eviscerating to watch the hearings and then follow the sham FBI probe, and the change in tack by the Republicans to undermine and insult the women who came forward with accusations. I have been “triggered” by Kavanagh’s words, his gestures, his petulance, and his arrogance. I wasn’t alone—tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of women were angry, distraught, and horrified by the spectacle of ruling class white male privilege and power that played out in the Senate hearings and in the political maneuvering that followed.
But we can’t let them beat us down into apathy and hopelessness. We have to remember the great Soviet Jewish writer Vasily Grossman’s admonition: “In the cruel and terrible time in which our generation has been condemned to live on this earth, we must never make peace with evil. We must never become indifferent to others or undemanding of ourselves.” Grossman lived through World War II, he was a journalist traveling with Russian troops as they liberated Treblinka, his mother was murdered during the massacre at Berdichev, and he survived Stalin’s purges, although his masterwork, the incredible World War II novel Life and Fate, was “arrested” by the Soviets and was not published until after his death.
As Grossman put it: “Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.” I am not so sanguine as to think that individual acts of kindness are enough in the face of the systemic violence and the cruel policies that we are confronting, many of which are just harsher and unapologetic versions of policies that were put in place during previous administrations, both Republican and Democratic. But while we do all that we can through making irate phone calls to elected officials, joining in strategic electoral organizing, supporting grassroots campaigns run by unions and groups on the front lines, and volunteering with local organizations advocating for the most vulnerable people, creatures, landscapes, and institutions, we can also try to make the world a little less dismal by being kind.
My father, who had been suffering with congestive heart failure and related complications for two years, passed away in his sleep at home on Friday, July 13. It has been a sad time for our family, and particularly hard on my mother, who is now learning to live alone after a sixty-year marriage. My father’s obituary ran in the Armenian and local newspapers in Watertown, and I wrote a eulogy that is now posted on my author site. He was a beloved member of his community so the church pews were filled and people were in the balcony and standing at the back during his funeral service, and at the post-funeral luncheon, many people told sweet stories of his kindness, generosity, and humor.
It was a strange experience to read on his official death certificate that my father’s parents’ place of birth was specified as Turkey (I would have put Cilicia or possibly Ottoman Empire), but even more disorienting was to see that his “Expanded Race” was listed as WHITE and his ethnicity was AMERICAN. There were a number of legal decisions in the early part of the 20th Century that admitted Armenians to the coveted category of “white,” so I won’t argue that point, but I would argue that my father’s ethnicity, as he or anyone else would have described it, was Armenian.
I’ve been thinking a great deal about race and ethnicity in America. I just finished listening to the audio book version of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. In the book, Kendi argues that there are three main channels of thinking about race: segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. Only the last one challenges racism and white supremacy, and there is no such thing as “non-racist” thinking in America. I’m currently listening to Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People To Talk About Racism. DiAngelo argues that “racism is a structure, not an event,” and suggests that “the full weight of responsibility rests with those who control the institutions.” Katy Waldman, in a review of the book in the New Yorker, says, “DiAngelo sets aside a whole chapter for the self-indulgent tears of white women, so distraught at the country’s legacy of racist terrorism that they force people of color to drink from the firehose of their feelings about it.”
And here, I will pull back from personal sadness and political distress to leave you with an anecdote and an image.
A few days after my father died, my mother and I were walking near my parent’s condominium on Bigelow Avenue in Watertown when we heard a cardinal loudly singing. According to my mother, my father, who was adept at birdcalls and whistles, used to imitate the cardinal perfectly, and he and the bird often called back and forth to each other. I looked up and saw that on the top of the Armenian Memorial Church steeple there was a cross and on top of the cross was the bright red cardinal belting out his song. I said to my mother, “If you believed in reincarnation, you might think that was Dad.” She laughed.
The weekend after my father’s funeral, James and I were at our house in Columbia County with our younger daughter Djuna and her friend Hannah. While we were eating supper on the porch, we watched storm clouds approach from the south. The storm rolled in, dumping down rain on the garden and lawn, and then rolled out leaving behind a rainbow. Djuna and Hannah ran out into the yard and did a joyous dance under the spectacular double rainbow.
It’s finally spring here in New York City. The appearance of the early spring flowers—crocuses, Lenten roses, daffodils, and hyacinths—makes me feel that there is hope. Hope for what? On the absolutely mundane level, it is a belief that the tulips will open very soon, and that after them the lilacs will appear. It reminds me of the Armenian proverb, “The sun will rise whether the rooster crows or not.”
When I walk the dogs early in the morning now, the trees are alive with birdsong. I recognize the songs of the cardinals, the robins, and the blue jays. I hear other songs that my sadly unmusical hear has not yet learned to identify, but I’ll be starting up again with my NYC Audubon classes next week and will expand my repertoire.
When I write to or talk with friends now, asking them how they are doing, I say, “Aside from the devastating political dumpster fire in which we are living, I hope you and yours are okay.” How do we do this? How do we wake up each morning to ever more cruelty, venality, and greed—each time I think we’ve hit rock bottom, I’m stunned to learn that it’s possible to go lower still—and still manage to go on with our daily routines? I have to count myself among the lucky ones who can carry on with my work and my relationships in relative peace while the unlucky ones, to paraphrase Wally Shawn, who are undocumented, or poor, or live in a country devastated by our wars and occupations, are struggling mightily. I hope for us all that we can organize to vote a bunch of these jerks out of office in the fall before they do even more damage.
These are sources of solace: flowers, birds, knitting, baking, walking, reading, talking with friends, and doing one act of resistance each day—phone call, letter, political organizing meeting, sanctuary accompaniment, street demonstration, donation, or a spontaneous gesture of kindness. May we all find moments of happiness and satisfaction that will give us energy for the work ahead.
For International Women’s Day, we’re asking our women writers for a message directed to women, but of course particularly to the women of Turkey. We will share them on March 8 via social media posts. And since it’s social media, it should not be something longer than three or four sentences.
I thought about it overnight, and then sent her back the following:
In these cruel times, may we be known for our radical kindness, and also for our resistance to those who attack our most vulnerable neighbors. As American feminist writer Grace Paley put it, ‘The only recognizable feature of hope is action.’
When I turn the pages of the newspaper each morning, I feel as though I’m being hammered by the stories of unremitting brutality: the physical violence of war around the globe; the systemic economic assault on the poor and working people of this country and our public institutions; and the heartless rounding up and deportation of undocumented immigrants, which are separating families, tearing apart communities, and sowing terror.
I think the story that hit me the hardest last week was the one about the mother from the Congo who applied for asylum upon arriving in Los Angeles. She was put into a detention facility in San Diego and her seven-year-old daughter was sent to a detention facility for unaccompanied minors in Chicago. The only way we heard this story was that the ACLU filed suit against the U.S. Government for this act of blatant cruelty, which seems to be part of a new unstated policy designed to discourage parents from seeking asylum because of fear of such forcible and wrenching separations. How many more such children are there?
But in the face of all this, I take heart when I see the humanity and the militancy that are rising up in response. The striking teachers of West Virginia prepared breakfasts and lunches for their students who receive meals at school and would otherwise have gone hungry. And, with broad support from people around the country, they WON their wildcat strike! Some student organizers from Parkland High School in Florida, where a horrific massacre occurred last month, went to meet black youth in Chicago to talk about how they could work together on gun control and address racism. Christian Clergy in Jerusalem were able to halt Israeli legislation that would have allowed for state seizure of church property by closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for three days. And Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, California, a sanctuary city, gave the public a fair warning about imminent ICE raids in the Bay Area.
And somehow in the midst of all of this, I’ve been managing to write! Gamatz gamatz*, as my grandmother would have said, I’m getting this novel written.
Here are some readings for your pleasure and edification:
Yesterday I went with my friend Dahlia to the Met Museum to see the David Hockney retrospective, which I admired, and the Joseph Cornell show, entitled “Birds of a Feather,” which I adored. I’ve been reading about Cornell lately because the main character of the novel I’m writing is a collage and shadow box artist whose primary inspirations are the works of Cornell and Hannah Hoch.
While we were wandering around the museum after viewing the aforementioned shows, Dahlia and I talked about our Armenian language studies. We are both working with the same tutor—a teacher who relocated from Aleppo to Yerevan who gives lessons over Skype—and we love her and we love the language, to which each of us has a different and complicated relationship grounded in family history. As we moved into the room with Thomas Hart Benton’s mural “America Today,” we talked about the endless and unfathomable cruelty of the people who are running our country.
How is it possible to keep one’s equilibrium in the face of these daily and unremitting attacks on our institutions, the most vulnerable groups and individuals among us, and our very values? We can’t let them deaden our responses—we have to remain vigilant and dynamic, finding hope in community and action. I recently went to an accompaniment training with the New Sanctuary Coalition and was impressed by their leadership’s strategic thinking and vibrancy, even as their executive director was fighting imprisonment and deportation. At an Adalah NY meeting this week, I was inspired by the other members in the group, many of whom are involved not only in Palestine solidarity work, but are also engaged with a variety of groups organizing around prison abolition, anti-militarism, anti-colonialism, and other struggles.
When Dahlia and I left the museum, there was a small group of women standing on the sidewalk outside handing out fliers about the paucity of women artists in the Met. How had I not noticed until that moment that among all the solo shows currently on view—Hockney, Cornell, Eggleston, Wegman, Golub, Kiefer—there is not one woman artist? (Not only are they all men, but also they are all white men.) On all fronts, we have work to do.
Maxine Kumin’s poem “Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief”—the title as much as the poem itself—keeps echoing in my mind lately. I find solace in poetry—and in Armenian lessons, yoga classes, bird walks, my family and my friends. May we all find energy for resistance and comfort for our souls.