Wednesday, June 20, 2018

What are we afraid of?

I went to morning services at my temple this morning. I went because someone in the community had a yartzeit - the anniversary of a death of a loved one - and the laws of Judaism require a minyon, a quorum of 10 participants in order to recite the memorial prayer.

So I went, more in service to the community than for my own beliefs, which are conflicted and complicated.

But that's not why I'm writing today.

I'm writing to sort though my emotions and thoughts about the conversation the group had after the service, over coffee. We were talking about the incarcerated children, about immigration, and I was disappointed and upset by the opinions of my fellow congregants. And this is a community that prides itself on its commitment to social justice and social action.

Ultimately, the consensus was, sure, babies and children in detention centers is sad, but what else are we going to do? Several times, my view was challenged with this question: So would you rather have open borders?

Behind that question (and I'm sure the querant looked at it as a rhetorical one), I see fear. Fear of the other. Fear of change. Fear of loss. Fear, couched in the language of law and order and reason and fairness. And hours after the conversation, I sit here wondering what would happen if we stopped trying to logically justify our emotions and were truly honest about what we felt.

Instead of calling humans illegal, would would it be like if we could admit:

  • I'm afraid of people who don't look like me
  • I'm afraid of people who don't act like me
  • I'm afraid of people who don't worship like me
Sitting in a room with a handful of people, most of whom were working hard to make me wrong and them right, many who were clearly ready to dismiss my passion as naivety, it was hard to muster any kind of answer that they could hear.

When I got home, I started to understand that using logic and reason only made it easier for them to hold to their arguments. That for every fact I checked, they would throw two more for me to counter - a hydra of data. It was a powerful defense mechanism, a way to wall away uncomfortable emotion.

As a woman, I'm far too familiar with being told not to be emotional. To being called hysterical. To being dismissed for leaning on my feelings. But to be human is to be a bundle of emotional reactions. We feel first; rationalize after. We know this. It is neuroscience, not opinion. 

I know now how I will respond to the kinds of questions posed to me today after services. I don't know what kind of answers I will receive, nor if it will change the conversation, but I will ask it anyway. And keep asking.

What are you afraid of?




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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Playing Hooky

For much of the past week, I've been at StarField Farm with my friend Jayne.

She had a week's vacation and needed a major recharge. I was more than happy to have an excuse to spend time in the quiet of my personal "Rivendell" and recharge as well.

For the first time in a long time, I let myself just be. No deadlines. No writing projects. No to-do lists.

I immersed myself in the quiet and the day to day.

Watched the day lilies and was rewarded by seeing the first bloom.

There has been a little swallow's nest tucked in the beam of the back door porch. The babies had finally fledged and were looking mighty cramped in the nest, but were refusing to leave.

It's hard to see with my cellphone photo, but there are three fully fledged swallows crammed into this nest. The parents spent the better part of several days swooping over the nest and yelling at the babies to get off their asses and fly, damnit. Well, that's my translation of bird anyway.

Our most ambitious endeavor of the week entailed making strawberry rhubarb jam. The strawberries were ones I'd picked last June and frozen, when I knew I wouldn't have the time to deal with them. The rhubarb was fresh picked from just outside the kitchen door.

Until this year, I didn't know rhubarb was something to cook with or eat. It looked like weird celery. It's leaves are poisonous. Who looked at this strange plant and decided it was food?

The jam was fabulous. I adore making jam. For those of you interested, I don't use a recipe, per se, but have honed my methods from these sources: My favorite resource for playing with making jams.  same method as above,but with the basic ratio I've found the most helpful for fruit and sugar.

And a few links from this blog, along with photos of past year's jamming:

Speaking of local food, we also ate tons of local asparagus and strawberries. It's hard to pass up local food in season. So we didn't. :)

I also culled the peach tree. (Full disclosure - this is a photo from last year, but the peaches were about the same size this year when I culled them.) This city-mouse has never had fruit trees before, but I have learned that peaches (and many fruit trees) do best if you cull the fruit when it is small to avoid overloading the tree and having it use all its energy to make fruit. Otherwise, you get decent harvests every other year rather than every year.

There is a kind of patience you learn living like this. You can't hurry peaches. They ripen in August, no matter how impatient you are for them.

Most of the nights this week were overcast, and while there wasn't a lot of opportunity to stargaze, we did experience a wonderful consolation prize: fireflies. Jayne and I spent most early evenings on the swing out front watching the dusk deepen, waiting as the birds settled for the evening, spotted the dragonflies dancing, and the first swooping bats. And then the fireflies would rise. I know they're just bugs, but there does seem to be something magical and otherworldly about them.

So Jayne and I spent a lot of time watching the world go by. Over the course of the week, we saw birds and hawks. The aforementioned dragonflies, bats, and fireflies. A deer came to visit on two occasions and I lost count of the rabbits. (The dogs, I'm sure, did not.) Jayne thinks she saw a bobcat slink by one morning. There is a deep silence here and it sinks into your bones. 

And then there was one clear night. I had fallen asleep with the dogs in the living room. When I woke up is was well past midnight. I took some time to stand out on the front stoop and watch the stars shine overhead.

It's easy to forget the stars. It's easy to forget to look up. It's easy to forget to breathe. 


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Thursday, June 07, 2018

Guest Post: Some Doors Will Open, but Not All: Traditional Publishing with a Small Press

Some Doors Will Open, but Not All: Traditional Publishing with a Small Press

KJ Kabza

I've known LJ Cohen since 2008, when we met in a local writing workshop and later became part of the same critique group. Since then, our approaches to our careers have taken somewhat different paths, since (happily) authors now have many publication options and ways to make a profit.

LJ mostly self-published novels. I tend to traditionally publish short stories, selling my work for flat fees in anthologies and magazines. Recently, my career got a big shot in the arm with another move in traditional publishing, the publication in January of my first print short fiction collection: THE RAMSHEAD ALGORITHM AND OTHER STORIES. Hooray!

 "Kabza's stories [are]... powerful work that is wholly original, delightfully strange, and emotionally resonant." —LJ Cohen, blurbing my book, because she is awesome

I've dabbled in self-publishing before with two ebook-only short fiction collections, IN PIECES and UNDER STARS, but unlike LJ, I lack the fortitude to make self-publishing my primary career tactic. So I was excited to see the difference that having a real publishing house behind me would make.

Well... I did see a difference. And doors did open. But my publisher, Pink Narcissus Press, is very, very small—only five people, who each have varying degrees of part-time involvement—and if you publish with a small press, be warned that not all of those Magic Traditional Publishing Doors will swing open for you.

Here are some doors that DID open, working with Pink Narcissus:

  • Greater chance of gorgeous cover art (and interior illustrations). My editor, Michael Takeda, dealt with finding and paying an artist, which I know almost nothing about.
  • Access to better production quality. Pink Narcissus has vastly more experience in font selection, layout, ISBN registration, actual book printing, and so on than I do, and that experience is reflected in the finished product.
  • More outlets, reviewers, and bloggers hearing pitches for my book. My publisher wrote the review pitch we used, and with my editor's help, I could query far more places than I ever could have on my own.
  • Coverage by major review outlets. RAMSHEAD got good reviews in Booklist, RT Book Reviews, and Publishers Weekly, which are all outlets that are (to say the least) wary of reviewing self-published work.

However, here are some doors that did NOT open:

  • No possibility of coverage on several big review platforms. Many outlets were explicit about saying that they only covered books published by a "big 5" publisher.
  • Almost impossible to organize a blog tour. For the same reason as above.
  • Separate, harder process for asking Barnes & Noble stores to stock physical copies. I had to follow a procedure for small press books outlined via the B&N website, which is not a procedure that "big 5" books have to follow—meaning that the odds of B&N stores carrying RAMSHEAD are much slimmer.
  • No placement in Books-A-Million stores. Pink Narcissus, like many small presses, prints their copies on demand, and Books-A-Million does not accept POD titles.
  • Some stores are only willing to sell RAMSHEAD under certain conditions. Two local bookstores are currently selling copies of RAMSHEAD on consignment, which is great—they're selling it!—but not quite as great as being an author with a big publishing house whose books are more likely to be ordered from a bookstore by a distributor.

Of course, these are only the circumstances that surrounded THE RAMSHEAD ALGORITHM AND OTHER STORIES in particular. Other small presses may be able to step up (or have to step down) in different areas. And in RAMSHEAD's case, there are other variables at play: it contains both science fiction and fantasy (and some reviewers aren't interested in things outside one or the other), and it's a collection of short stories (and many outlets only want to review novels).

Still, I've learned a lot. The launch of RAMSHEAD was a rough road, but at least I have a few data points now. I know where the doors are.

So if, next time, all those other doors DO swing open for me, I'll be ready to sprint on straight through.


Thank you, KJ, for your post. I'm a big fan of your work and have been since that writing workshop so many years ago! And to my readers here - if you are looking for short fiction that is magical, unsettling at times, and always unique, please go read KJ's work.


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Sunday, May 13, 2018

On Twenty-four Years of Mothering

Me and my eldest, circa 1994

I have been a mother for twenty-four years.

It has definitely been a wild ride; one that no piece of advice or prior childcare experience could have prepared me for. I'm not sure this is a bad thing. There is no 'life hack' for mothering. No 'top 10 secrets of effective mothering'. No way to know what challenges and joys you will face along the way. Instead, mothering has taught me a kind of awareness and attention I didn't understand before.

Not that I was always good at it.There are a host of mistakes I made that I hope my sons have at least grown to understand, even if they haven't forgiven me for them. If I could send a message back in time for that young mother sitting on the steps with her firstborn, it would be this:

As best as you can, stay present, make space between your emotions and your reactions,  and practice self care.
If this seems simplistic and simple, I assure you it is not.

I was 30 when my eldest was born. By then, I had been married 5 years, had been working and financially independent for 7, established in my career. My husband and I had settled in Boston and had bought a house.

I thought I was ready.

When I look back, especially at the years when my boys were small (youngest added to the family when the eldest was 2 1/2), I see a woman always on the edge of exhaustion and pushing as hard as she could. Despite having the advantages of a partnership with my spouse, a safe home, good childcare, my anxiety was always there. The background noise of my 30s and early 40s.

There is so much of those years I simply don't remember. Looking through photographs is like sorting through a stranger's life. But there are some events that are etched in my memory. Times when I was able to stay present, find that space, practice self care.

I wish I had spent more of my mothering years in that place.

It has been twenty-four Mother's Days since I became a mother. My youngest son graduates from college in a week. He and his older brother are in the process of moving into an apartment together.  They have become wonderful young men I admire.

They have helped shape the woman I am today. After all, I have been a parent for more than half my life. That is a significant role and one that I will continue to perform, even as the specific responsibilities change. 

This Mother's Day weekend, my husband and I are at StarField Farm - the place we bought to be our big next step in our lives. After twenty-four years of parenting and raising two boys to be capable young men, it is time to re-focus on our relationship. It's not a turning back the clock -- we are both very different people from the young kids we were when we first met. We're not even anywhere near the 20-somethings we were when we got married.

This place we're in -- both the literal place and the metaphorical -- reflect all the places we have been. I think we are more forgiving, more patient, more nurturing with one another because of those parenting years.

As we move forward in our lives as parents of adult children, I will remind us all: stay present, make space between your emotions and your reactions,  and practice self care.

After all these years, perhaps I am finally learning how to parent myself. 


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