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.
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.
A few weeks ago I received a request from a friend at Agos
Armenian Weekly in Istanbul. They were soliciting responses from Armenian
artists to the following questions: How
has being quarantined/isolated influenced your creative process? How do you foresee the future of your art
and creativity once the current situation of isolation fades away?
This was my
the first several weeks of our confinement I was unable to focus on reading or
writing. My spouse was sick with the virus, and we were quarantined from the
world and from each other in our home. We slept in separate rooms, washed our
hands dozens of times a day, wiped down doorknobs, handles, and counters, and
sat twelve feet apart at the kitchen table and in the living room. We were
lucky: his case was “mild” and I didn’t get sick. It took four weeks for his
energy, as well as his sense of taste and smell, to return. Once he was better,
wearing masks, we were able to go outside for short walks. The trees were
flowering and the birds were building their nests.
the past few weeks, finally able to concentrate for an hour or two a day, I
have returned to work on my latest novel. The book has three sections: the
story opens in New York City on the morning of the 9/11 attacks, the second
part is set is in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, and the final section
is a folk tale set in Hadjin on the eve of the Armenian Genocide. The novel is
about generations of trauma and resiliency in one Armenian family, and the fear
and stress of the present moment are permeating the descriptions I’m writing
about those other difficult times.
is so much suffering around us as people continue to be sickened by this
illness that has taken so many lives in New York, and around the world.
Prisoners are in crowded cells without soap to wash their hands. Millions have
lost their jobs; so many are worried about how they will pay the rent, and how
they will feed themselves and their children. Immigrant families without papers
are not eligible for the meager assistance the government is providing.
as we are isolated in our homes, we are finding ways to support each other
through mutual aid projects in our neighborhoods, through car protests outside
detention centers, and through online organizing to create collective power. My
creative life has always been entwined with my activist work, and as I continue
writing, I will join friends and comrades in our struggle for a kinder, more
equitable, and greener future.
You may read the other artists’ statements on the Agos site.
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.