My essay “Language Lessons” is included in a forthcoming anthology edited by Aram Mrjoian entitled WE ARE ALL ARMENIAN. Among the eighteen contributors are my friends Nancy Agabian, Liana Aghajanian, Chris Bohjalian, Scout Tufankjian, and Hrag Vartanian. My friends Dahlia Elsayed and Andrew Demirjian designed the beautiful cover. The jacket text describes the project thus:
We Are All Armenianbrings together established and emerging Armenian authors to reflect on the complications of Armenian ethnic identity today. These personal essays elevate diasporic voices that have been historically silenced inside and outside of their communities, including queer, multiracial, and multiethnic writers. The eighteen contributors to this contemporary anthology explore issues of displacement, assimilation, inheritance, and broader definitions of home.
The publication date is March 14, 2023 and pre-orders are being accepted now. Pre-orders are crucial because if they are strong the publisher is motivated to do more publicity and marketing for the title. You can go to the University of Texas Press site and use the discount code UTXM25 to receive 25% off and free shipping. If you have a good connection with your university or public library, please request that they purchase a copy.
If you are in the New York City area save the evening of Monday April 3rd for a launch event at Columbia University. More details to follow.
Winter is upon us, and there are far fewer mushrooms to in the woods now than there were in the late spring, summer, and autumn, but there are still fungi to find. The other day I came across a fallen oak branch that was covered in Amber Jelly Roll (Exidia Crenata), which is apparently edible, although the taste is described as bland. Today when I walked on the trails in the woods I saw lots of polypores and a few other types of mushrooms. I love the common names—Turkey Tail, False Turkey Tail, Violet-Toothed Polypore, Birch Polypore, Tinder Polypore, Artist’s Conk, Crowded Parchment, and Witch’s Butter, to name a few that I noted on my foray. I’ve started trying to learn the Latin names as well, but that is a long-term project.
I’ve recently joined a new social media platform called Project Mushroom that was started by people who are committed to fighting for social justice and to addressing climate catastrophe. I am hoping for a viable alternative to Twitter, which is now owned by a petty and volatile right-wing billionaire. Project Mushroom is an “instance” on the Mastodon federated network, and instead of tweets the posts are called “toots,” although I hear this term is fading out because it’s a little silly and we’re just going to call them posts. What we refer to as retweets on Twitter are called boosts on Mastodon. It’s still a little lonely over there—no other Armenians, few of my organizer friends, and almost nobody I knew before I arrived. If you want an invitation to join, let me know and I’ll send you one.
It’s interesting how ubiquitous mushrooms are these days: mushrooms are to be studied, to be foraged and eaten, to be made into medicinals, to be used as metaphors for human relationships and grassroots organizing. Last year I read and loved Merlin Sheldrake’s highly entertaining Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. After reading the book I was even more enamored of mushrooms and all their amazing properties and possibilities. I perceived the forest differently, aware of the underground mycelial networks connecting the trees, as well as the dependencies between the trees and the fungi. I thought about the way that fungi decayed organic matter to make room for new life.
I love a passage from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Darkusing mushrooms to think about how political change occurs. She says, “After a rain, mushrooms appear on the surface of the earth as if from nowhere. Many do so from a vast underground fungus that remains invisible and unknown. What we call mushrooms, mycologists call the fruiting body of the larger, less visible fungus. Uprisings and revolutions are often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork—or underground work—often laid the foundation.”
Instead of perceiving ourselves as separate individuals, what if we understood ourselves to be created in and through our human networks? I notice in my psychotherapy sessions I often start with a report about how everyone in my life is doing—my kids, my spouse, my mother, my sister, her kids, my friends—because my well-being is entwined with theirs. I’m also reminded of one of the most inspiring slogans from Bernie Sanders’s 2020 campaign: “Are you willing to fight for that person you don’t know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” What if that kind of solidarity is not about selflessness, but is grounded in an understanding that we are all connected and if others are suffering we ourselves can’t be truly whole?
Wishing you and yours a festive and sweet holiday season.
Our Thanksgiving in the country was quiet because our progeny and their partners recently decided that it’s a settler colonial holiday that should be ignored if not actively opposed. In the morning I read about Indigenous responses to Thanksgiving, including a message from Cultural Survival about how to decolonize the day, and our friend Karl Jacoby’s 2008 op-ed on its fascinating and little-known history. The United American Indians of New England have been commemorating Thanksgiving as a national day of mourning in Plymouth, MA since 1970. I was moved to read this post from Menominee author and organizer Kelly Hayes, who wrote:
This is such a strange day for Native people. Some do the turkey dinner thing. Some grieve. I do not ‘celebrate’ Thanksgiving, but I used to host a meal each year. It was a habit I developed to comfort friends who would have gone home for the holidays, had they been welcome or had the money to travel. It wouldn’t be anything traditional. Movies, alcohol, fry bread, and one year we played laser tag. Then the pandemic happened. This year, it will just be me, my partner, and my young friend Bresha.
In the past, we have invited friends whose families are far away and students from Palestine, Turkey, Australia, and elsewhere to join our Thanksgiving table. Maybe in the future we’ll figure out a way to both decolonize and reclaim the day. I’m open to suggestions!
On Thanksgiving afternoon, James and I went for a walk in the Greenport Conservation Area, which is on the ancestral lands of the Mohican people and has spectacular views of the Hudson River and the Catskills. The next day we cooked a big (turkey-less) meal for our daughter Djuna and her friends.
With Thanksgiving behind us, we shunned Black Friday, forgot about Small Business Saturday, but finally succumbed and bought all our long-distance consumable (think pears from Harry & David and nuts from Fastachi) holiday gifts on Cyber Monday. We flushed out our inboxes at the end of Giving Tuesday, but looming ahead are Hannukah, Christmas, and New Year’s.
I’m hoping that you are sufficiently recovered from Giving Tuesday’s onslaught to read this without shuddering. I’m helping to raise funds for a dear friend and her family who were displaced by the Syrian Civil War and will soon be moving to the United States. She, her husband, and her two sons are starting from scratch, arriving with only two suitcases each, and could use some help setting up their new home. For a $200 donation to their GoFundMe, I’m offering a book club package that includes up to 10 copies of my novel ALL THE LIGHT THERE WAS (or one of my other books) shipped to your home and my presence at your book club, in person if it’s in the NYC area and virtually wherever you are. Contact me at nkbookgroup[at]gmail.com for more details.
I have just returned to the city after ten days in the country during peak fall foliage season. The hills have been ablaze with color. This summer’s drought has given way to autumn rains, and mushrooms have been appearing on the forest floor. Each day, I walked the trails wearing my binoculars and carrying a canvas bag with my mushroom collecting tools. I selected one or two unfamiliar mushrooms during each foray to bring back to the house for identification. Exciting finds of the past week were the Indigo Milk Cap and the Lobster Mushroom. I saw a Barred Owl gliding through the forest canopy to land on a high branch, and I have been hearing the toot of the Red-breasted Nuthatch and the laugh of the Pileated Woodpecker. My walks in the woods help keep me balanced in this off-kilter world.
In the middle of September, when Azerbaijan launched a military attack on Armenia, I was an emotional wreck. Apparently, Azerbaijan’s territorial ambitions are not confined to Nagorno-Karabagh–it has designs on land within the internationally recognized borders of the Republic of Armenia. The genocidal rhetoric of Azerbaijan’s Aliyev is well documented. A video circulated on social media showing Azerbaijani forces murdering surrendered Armenian soldiers was authenticated by numerous outlets, and this war crime was condemned by Human Rights Watch. As Russia is up to its neck with its bloody war against Ukraine, Armenia has been mostly alone facing a brutal petro-dictatorship aligned with Turkey’s Erdogan. Azerbaijan recently signed a lucrative gas deal with the European Union, which has muted the response from European leaders. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi led a Congressional Delegation to Armenia last month, and another U.S. Congressional Delegation is in the planning stages. At this point, Armenia needs all the friends it can get, including the U.S., Russia, Iran, and France. A ceasefire is mostly holding, and negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments are ongoing, but the situation along the border is volatile and potentially explosive.
I’ve been volunteering with the Josh Riley campaign in New York’s 19th Congressional District. Please make sure you are registered to vote. We can’t let the Red Wave drown us–mainstream Democrats are an uninspired lot, but the fascist alternative is terrifying.
As much as I love autumn, there is something melancholy about the end of summer. The zinnias in the garden are still blooming and we’re eating heirloom cherry tomatoes like bonbons, but the squirrels are frantically caching acorns for the cold months looming ahead. James’s semester at Columbia has started, which means we’ll be in the city at least half of the week, exchanging daily walks in the woods and sunsets by the pond for restaurant dining and museum visits.
Since my mishap on a flight of stairs resulting in a broken ankle in March and my mother’s fall in the garden store parking lot landing her in the hospital for five days in May, I’ve been thinking a lot about human vulnerability. Some years ago, when I was cataloguing the friends who had been diagnosed with serious illnesses and those whose marriages were falling apart, James said to me, “They’re culling the herd, Nancy. Keep running!”
The great Barbara Ehrenreich died on September 1st, and the next day her son Ben posted the announcement to Twitter. He said, in part, “She was never much for thoughts and prayers, but you can honor her memory by loving each other and fighting like hell.” In a time when calamity is all around, from personal struggles to the ravages of climate catastrophe and political turmoil that have been dominating the headlines, I can’t think of a better injunction.
I don’t need to enumerate the newspaper headlines that make the world feel like a dark and calamitous place right now. Everyone I know is struggling to keep from sinking under the weight of so much cruelty and venality. One case in point is the leaked draft decision indicating that the Supreme Court is on the verge of overturning Roe v Wade, which would undo 50 years of legal precedent and allow the banning of abortion by any state government with the will to do it. Alito’s draft decision states that “the Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision,” so if the all white, all male drafters of the constitution hadn’t intended it at the time, we are afforded no protections by the document. If that isn’t scary enough, some legal analysts say that Alito’s draft opinion, by referring to fetuses as human beings, grants them rights that could give momentum to efforts to enact a federal ban on abortion. And to be clear, that is the stated goal of the forces behind this decision.
An interesting piece in The Lever shines a light on anti-abortion zealot Leo Leonard who has been working for many years to undermine Roe. His Judicial Crisis Network and its anonymous donors have toiled long and hard to build an ultra-conservative majority in the Supreme Court that could now rule for decades. The piece goes on to detail the dithering of the Democrats that allowed this to happen, but then offers strategies for what that party might yet do to protect reproductive freedom. One promising tactic is federal protection for and expanding the reach of medication abortion.
In this week’s Special Edition of the At Liberty Podcast Brigitte Amiri, the Deputy Director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, recommended that each of us connect with our local reproductive health, right, and justice organizations, as well as practical community support groups and abortion funds. She further suggested that now is the time to contact our elected officials to let them know where we stand on this issue. While I will certainly support electoral organizing to put progressive and leftist candidates into office, much of my attention will be focused on radical grassroots groups such as New York City for Abortion and mutual aid efforts such as the New York Abortion Access Fund and the Mississippi Reproductive Freedom Fund. On The Cut, Bridget Read and Claire Lampen put together a helpful annotated list of abortion funds in states with the most restrictive abortion laws.
Yesterday I read a beautiful and scary piece by Grace Paley about what life was like before Roe. Paley wrote, “I think women died all the time when abortions were illegal. The horrible abortions were one way; the other was the refusal of institutions—medical, church, and state—to care for you, their willingness to let you die.” The upcoming Supreme Court ruling will not outlaw abortions altogether throughout the entire country at this time. Access to this essential medical care will be determined by where you live and how much money you have, which is already the case in many places, and on our battle to maintain and even expand this access. As Melissa Gira Grant points out in this excellent piece The Real Fight for Abortion Rights Is Not in the Courts or Congress, even before the court strikes down Roe 89% of U.S. counties do not currently have a clinic that provides abortions.
Melissa Gira Grant concludes her piece with this paragraph:
As true as it might be to say, “If they come for Roe tonight, they’re coming for marriage equality tomorrow,” there are plenty of people they have come for already, from trans kids seeking health care to people giving birth in jails to sex workers sharing harm-reduction information to criminalized survivors of intimate partner violence. If you are today feeling for this first time like the government is demanding control over your gender and sexuality and bodily autonomy, you are, sadly, in numerous company. But that also means that there are countless people around you who already know that freedom, certainly now and maybe always, will not come solely from what the law can recognize. Either the law must be pushed to recognize those rights, or those rights must be won despite the law.
Abortion rights were won in this country because tens of thousands of people took to the streets and millions of others were organized to support the cause. We must continue the fight because as Angela Davis put it, “Freedom is a constant struggle.” But our organizing can’t be narrowly focused on abortion—it must include all those vulnerable to concerted right-wing assaults on autonomy and dignity. As Reverend Jacqui Lewis put it, “Liberation is collective. We only get free when we fight for all of us.”
I recently listened to a podcast interview with geographer and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore in which she said, “And while I think a feeling of despair in this day and age is not difficult to understand, I also feel that, as my grandparents taught me, that despair was a luxury that I didn’t get to sport.” Let’s shrug off the coat of mourning and get to work.
My mother Irene Gelinas Kricorian was one of the youngest in a French-Canadian family with seventeen children living on a farm in Hooksett, New Hampshire. Her mother died when my mother was four years old, and when my mother was eight, her father was declared unfit by the state and she and her sisters Priscilla and Eleanor were removed from the family farm and sent to the Dover Children’s Home where they spent the next six years.
My mother has talked about the orphanage in Dover since I can remember. Her stories were sometimes comical and sometimes terrifying, and I grew up fascinated by the whole idea of orphans and orphanages. Intermittently since the late 1970’s she has been writing about that time, as well as interviewing family members, and collecting related documents. There are still many unanswered questions about her childhood experience and her family’s history.
On March first, my mother and I drove from Watertown to Durham to see the Dover Children’s Home Papers at the University of New Hampshire Library. In the special collections room, we opened the Gelinas Family file hoping for details about the court hearing that had resulted in the children’s removal. But the file was slim—there were five letters relating to the sisters’ arrival in November 1944 and later medical treatments for childhood ailments. We also looked over dining room menus, clothing requisition forms, and other administrative documents. There was a hand-written logbook with the names and photographs of each child and their date of arrival, but these entries ended a year before my mother and her sisters were brought to Dover.
After we finished at the library, we drove from Durham to Dover, parking the car outside the Children’s Home. It is no longer an orphanage, but functions as a non-residential treatment program for at-risk youth. We were told that therapy sessions were in progress so we couldn’t go inside. We walked around the yard, and my mother described the games they used to play as children and pointed at the windows of the dormitory rooms where she and her sisters had slept.
We then headed to our Airbnb rental, where I carried my mother’s suitcase up a steep flight of stairs to the bedroom. As I started down the steps holding onto the baluster I thought, “These stairs are going to be hard for my mother.” Just then my right foot slipped on a tread, and I landed with all my weight on my foot two treads below. The pain was searing, and I later found out that I had badly fractured my ankle in three places.
The continuing misadventure involved an ambulance trip to the emergency room, an overnight stay at a Portsmouth hotel, and a team effort by my devoted and capable spouse and two grown kids to get my mother back to Watertown, me back to New York City, and the car I could no longer drive from Dover to Manhattan. Once back in the city, I saw an orthopedist, who operated on my ankle the following Thursday. I’m currently getting around on crutches and a snazzy red knee scooter. The recovery is expected to take at least another two months.
Given my current mobility issues, we decided to hire a local genealogist to locate the court records for the 1944 hearing that resulted in my mother and her sisters’ years in Dover. This is information that my mother has wanted for at least thirty-five years.
As we enter the third year of the pandemic, this winter feels dark and long, and the spring seems far away. As usual, I look for solace in the natural world and also in my continuing study of the Armenian language. Below is a short piece that I wrote about a recent snowy morning. My Western Armenian teacher Sosy Mishoyan corrected my mistakes, but as time goes by I’m making fewer of them.
Անցեալ գիշեր ձիւն տեղաց, իսկ այս առտուն ճերմակ վերմակը ամբողջ մարգը կը ծածկէ։ Վերարկուս ու կօշիկներս կը հագնիմ եւ գլխարկս ու ձեռնոցներս կը դնեմ։ Շատ պաղ է, բայց` շատ գեղեցիկ։
Լճակին շուրջ կը պտտիմ։ Երկինքին մէջ երկու բազէ կը սաւառնի, իսկ մացառին մէջ պզտիկ թռչուններ սերմ ու հատապտուղ կը փնտռեն։ Յանկարծ ոտքերուս մօտէն դաշտամուկ մը կը վազէ ու կը մտնէ պզտիկ ձիւնէ փապուղիին մէջ։
Ձիւնէ նորէն կը սկսի թափի։ Աշխարհը ճերմակ եւ լուռ է։
In the middle of the summer our friend Jon was in the forest behind our house working on the trails. When he emerged from woods, he told us, “You have about 200 pounds of Chanterelle mushrooms back there.” I had no idea what Chanterelles looked like and had never foraged for mushrooms, so we did nothing about this potential bounty.
In September, while on a birding walk in Central Park, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen since we were both graduate students at Columbia. Turns out that she also had a house in Columbia County, and when the subject of mushrooms came up, she told me she often foraged for Chanterelles. We made a date for her to come by for a walk in the woods, and on the trail she pointed out the few that remained. We sauteed them with olive oil and garlic, and they were delicious.
This was just the beginning. I bought a mushroom field guide, read several books about fungi, the best of which was Merlin Sheldrake’s fascinating Entangled Life. I watched some tutorials about mushrooms on YouTube, the most helpful of them by Yellow Elanor, also known as Rachel Zoller and who can be found on Instagram. I was excited to learn about fungi and mushrooms—after years of studying flowers and birds, it was a whole new area of the natural world to explore. Mushrooms are not in the plant kingdom, nor are they in the animal kingdom, although they are closer to animals than to plants. I was soon fascinated by the underground mycorrhizal (fungal) networks that facilitate communication between trees (see Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree for more on her groundbreaking work on this topic).
Armed with an Opinel Mushroom Knife, a jeweler’s loupe, and some waxed paper and mesh bags, I started going on solo forays in the woods. Every day I walked the trails, discovering many kinds of mushrooms, all of them interesting, some of them edible. I learned about the difference between Turkey Tail, False Turkey Tail, Violet-Toothed Polypore, and Lenzites Betulina (Gilled Polypore), all of which look similar on the top side, but which can be distinguished by their various underside surfaces. I found tiny Cinnabar Chanterelles and slimy Yellow-Centered Waxy Caps, also known as Hygrophorus Flavodiscus.
I joined the New York Mycological Society, which was co-founded by the composer John Cage in 1962. I learned an old maxim, “There are bold foragers and old foragers, but no old, bold foragers.” I read a newspaper account about a woman in Rhode Island who had found a delicious-looking mushroom in her backyard and decided to eat it, even though she “didn’t know exactly what it was.” She ended up with a kidney transplant. After our experience with the Chanterelles, which were identified by much more knowledgeable people, I was determined that we would eat only mushrooms that I was absolutely, unequivocally sure were edible. I bought a book called How to Forage for Mushrooms Without Dying, and headed back into the woods.
In October, I found a patch of funnel-shaped black mushrooms at the foot of a tree near the vernal pond on the north side of our property. I knew from consulting the field guides that Black Trumpets had no poisonous look-alikes, and these were definitely Black Trumpets. We cooked and ate them and they were delightful.
Recently, I listened to a fascinating For the Wild Podcast interview with mycologist Dr. Patricia Kaishian, who discussed, among other topics, “queer mycology,” the International Congress of Armenian Mycologists (ICAM), and the war in Artsakh. Patty’s Twitter handle is queendom_fungi, evoking the idea of the non-binary and queer world of mushrooms she talked about in the interview, and I love the idea of a Magical Mushroom Queendom.
There are still mushrooms to see in the Hudson Valley in winter, but far fewer than in the more temperate seasons. In the next few months, I will be reading and studying more about fungi in preparation for spring forays. I’ll keep you posted!
The Button Bush in our yard adored the torrential rains we had earlier this month and burst into bloom. Many pollinators, including a wide variety of butterflies, were attracted to its spherical blossoms. I watched the American Robins nesting on the front porch produce two sets of babies, from eggs to hatchlings to nestlings to fledglings, and then the mother laid eggs once again. After weeks of frequent parental coming and going with worms being stuffed into bright yellow gapes, when the second group of nestlings finally fledged I felt the pang of the proverbial empty nest.
On New York Primary Election Day in June, while I was in Manhattan helping my daughter Djuna find an apartment before she starts NYU Law School at the end of August, we paused for a snack at Essex Market. As we sat at a café table in the airy mezzanine, mayoral candidate Andrew Yang showed up to work the room, trying to inspire voters and posing for photos with people. Earlier in in the week Yang had made some awful comments about mentally ill and homeless people, and I was never a fan of his political positions even before that. I definitely did not want to interact with him, but nonetheless he came up to our table as I was studiously trying to avoid him. I didn’t even realize he was behind me when Djuna took the photo that was subsequently posted to Twitter by my spouse James. The Tweet went viral.
Here we are in the middle of the summer of 2021 living through the third or fourth wave of a global pandemic, watching and experiencing extreme weather events caused by climate catastrophe, and some of us engaging in raging vaccination and anti-vaccination battles in our communities and in our families. But I hope that in this challenging moment you are basically okay, and that you can find time to observe the fragile beauty around us and to laugh at the sometimes painfully absurd contradictions of our world.