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.
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 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.
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.
The past few days I’ve been saddened and appalled by the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish region of northeastern Syria. When I see in the news the name Ras al-Ain, a place that was bombed by Turkey yesterday, my heart clenches. Ras al-Ain was where my grandmother ended up in a tent camp, along with eight thousand other Armenian orphans, after the death marches of 1915. This most recent U.S. betrayal of the Kurds is seemingly the result of an impetuous decision by Trump on a phone call with Turkey’s president. I thought of the Kurdish proverb, “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” The Turkish assault will likely bring an end to the Rojava experiment in democracy, and could well result in the resurgence of the Islamic State in the area. When I read that Armenian-inhabited areas of Syria had come under attack, I thought of the Armenian proverb, “Land of Armenians, land of sorrows.” By the end of Thursday, it was reported that most of the Armenian families had relocated from the conflict areas.
In response to widespread denunciation, Turkish President
Erdogan lashed out at his EU critics, threatening to allow millions of Syrian
refugees to “flood
Europe.” As Ronan Burtenshaw, editor of The Tribune in the UK, pointed out
“The EU has no moral high ground on this issue—it did a grubby refugee deal
with Erdogan, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in his camps. Now he can
use them to threaten us, and deliver talking points for the Far-Right in the
process. Reap what you sow.”
The whole thing is gutting and infuriating, and with the
garbage mountain of cruelty piling up around us on all sides and with regard to
so many issues and causes, it’s hard to know what to do but sputter with
helplessness and rage. But there are things to do—demonstrations to organize and attend, electoral
campaigns to work on, and ways to help those in our communities targeted for harm.
There’s another Armenian proverb I like to remember: “The voice of the people
is louder than the roar of the cannon.”
Each day there is some new racist anti-immigrant policy
announced by Trump and the cartoon villains who are running our country. As is
by now apparent, with the Trump Administration’s immigration policies and
is the point. Their theater
of cruelty is meant to rally their so-called base and to send a message to
immigrants and would-be immigrants that they aren’t wanted in this country,
unless they can, as acting director of U.S. Immigration and Citizenship
Services Ken Cuccinelli put it, “stand
on their own two feet,” by which he means unless they are wealthy,
able-bodied, and preferably white.
Last week when ICE
raided workplaces in Mississippi, arresting 680 people, the videos,
photographs, and news reports about distraught children whose parents had been
detained, leaving many kids without family care, were terrible. One little
girl, who sobbed
on camera begging for the release of her father, was particularly heartbreaking.
That night, I had nightmares about the three little
Albanian girls whose family I have worked with through the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) for
18 months and two little Honduran girls whose mother I had helped fill out an
asylum application in early June at the NSC Pro Se Legal Clinic. In my dreams,
the little girls were crying for their parents the way the kids in the
Mississippi videos had done. But I actually know these kids. I have heard in
great detail about the violence their parents had fled, and I have learned about
the dire conditions in the countries from which they come. I also know about
how fearful their parents are about the possibility of being detained and
As part of her asylum application, J., the Honduran mom,
wrote about the domestic violence she had suffered, and her reluctance to go to
the police to report the abuse, which meant she didn’t have documentary
evidence to support her claim. She said, “In
countries like ours the only record of these violent events is in our memory.
Unfortunately in my family there was a lot of domestic violence. I saw that my
aunts were often beaten by their partners, and if they called the police, the
abusers would go to jail for maybe one night. Unfortunately, in my country the
police only believe you once you are put into a box and buried in a hole.”
Last Monday, as part of a NSC accompaniment, I went to
immigration court with J. and her two girls, aged eight and six. The girls were
hungry and bored because of the long wait outside the courtroom. People with
attorneys are seen first, and those without lawyers can wait several hours or
more for their turn. No food is allowed in the waiting area or in the
courtroom, so I offered to take the girls to the cafeteria in the federal
building while their mother awaited her turn before the immigration judge. The so-called
cafeteria sold only chips, candy bars, cookies, and soft drinks, so they
selected chocolate and chips. As we sat at the table eating and talking, the
older girl said, “Would you be our grandma?” The little one said, “Can you also
be our auntie?” I laughed. They laughed. But we were now friends.
The only way I can keep from descending into despair is by taking action, whether it is by helping people fill out asylum applications, by accompanying friends to immigration court, or by working with groups organizing against the cruelty. In New York City on August 10, over 100 people, among them members of the NYC DSA Immigrant Justice Working Group (to which I belong) were arrested in a #CloseTheCamps action that shut down the West Side Highway near an ICE field office on 26th Street. The next day, a coalition of #JewsAgainstICE protestors, including Never Again is Now and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, occupied an Amazon store in Manhattan to demand that Amazon cancel its contracts with ICE. In upstate New York, the Columbia County Sanctuary Movement has a rapid response network that sends out texts when ICE agents are spotted in town so people can drive to the location, offering support to their targeted neighbors, and often preventing detentions. This is the time to mobilize radical kindness and militant refusal in the face of their relentless cruelty.
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.