Monday, July 22, 2019

Morning Walk, Rock Hall

Morning Walk, Rock Hall

The purple martins mock us
as we stroll past their crowded house.
For once, the dogs ignore them,
intent on sharper smells closer to the ground --
frogs and bunnies, decapitated fish
abandoned by picky osprey. It's easy
to forget how alive the world is. This morning 
I read that Iceland has written a love letter 
to a lost glacier. Closer to home, 
spring torrents have made mud where fields
once ripened with corn. For just an hour,
I would be as tunnel-nosed as my pups, 
seeking out the scent-trails in front of me, 
the hope of a filled bowl yet to be. Ambition 
has ruined us. The dogs are content 
to chase a handful of waddling ducks. A thousand 
squawking fowl couldn't satisfy their desire to hunt, 
could only confuse and terrify these two rescued, 
damaged creatures. Desire of a certain kind
can break you. Make you hoard misery
until the chambers of your heart 
silt in. Until your blood trickles
where it once flowed unconstrained. I want
the joy of a chase where the bird scolds me
for even trying, where I watch it soar, where I
laugh at how ponderous legs have disappointed me 
again. The dogs herd me back to the house, mouths 
soft,ears flapping, limbs gliding over the ground
with an ease I may never match. They forgive
my clumsy tugs on their leads, patient
and kind with all my human failings.  

--LJ Cohen, July 22, 2019

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

The complexities of fathers day

I've been thinking a lot about fathers lately. Not just about the wonderful man who raised me and who I said goodbye to for the final time four years ago, but also about the word father and its multiple meanings.

While the noun versions of both father and mother denote the people who raise a child, the verb forms hold quite different connotations:  To mother is to nurture. To father is to contribute genetic material to a child.

That dichotomy says a lot about our society and the roles - often highly gendered and artificial ones - we allow/encourage/support for mothers and fathers. There has been much written about that double standard and I won't rehash it here, other than to recount a personal story: 

My husband and I are parents of two sons; now grown adults. But when they were small, I often played the role of solo parent while my husband had to travel for work several times a year. It was not seen as anything unusual, and I wasn't offered any special support during those times from friends and family.

When the children were young - perhaps 3 and 5 - I had to travel for a week to a conference on the west coast. While my husband was fully prepared for his stint as a solo parent, judging by the reactions of friends and family, you would think that either he was utterly incompetent (he's not), or that somehow the job of parenting itself had suddenly changed to require a village (spoiler alert - it has always been so) in the absence of a mother.

Again, I think this is inherent in the language we use. Mothering: provides all needs. Fathering: provides chromosomes. I prefer to simply say we both parented our children. 


My father didn't father me, but he most certainly parented me.
The man who fathered me didn't parent me.


I've been thinking a lot about this in relation to being an adoptee. Finding my genetic family over the past year and a half has been both a life-changing discovery and also one that hasn't really altered my core identity. Perhaps this is because I was in my 50s and fully settled in my life with a family of my own at the time.

I have more to relate in the ongoing story of my adoption search, but last summer, I found my birth father and spoke with him on the phone for the first time. I am grateful for his life. I am grateful that I was able to find him and complete a piece of his history. (Short version - my birth mother was his girlfriend. Her mother didn't approve of him and sent Robin out of town when she became pregnant with me. He never knew.)

There's no way to know who I might have been if the people who created me had also been the people who raised me. How much of me is genetic/nature, how much is environment/nurture? Even learning about much of my genetic family over the past year and a half, I can't answer that question.

Perhaps it doesn't matter. I am the sum of my influences and experiences, as all of us are.


While I would like the chance to meet my birth father, I'm not looking for a new parent. There's no way to encapsulate a lifetime of history and caring and transfer it to a new relationship. We are just an interesting coda in each other's lives. He went on to parent three other daughters. I was parented by a wonderful father. Even if it were possible, I wouldn't change my past.


And to the father of our children, my co-parent and partner in all things: my love, always.


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Monday, May 13, 2019

What's the appeal of so much pain?

There will not be any specific spoilers to Game of Thrones material here, though I will talk about the show in general ways.

I don't actively watch GoT. My husband follows the show, so I tend to hang out in the living room and either knit or work on my laptop during it. There is a lot to appreciate about the series, not the least of which is its production values. But I don't enjoy it.

There's a critical difference between stories that show characters battling darkness (internal or external) and finding their triumph versus stories that glorify pain.

I don't enjoy the latter. Not to read. Not to watch. Not to write.

When I was in my teens/20's, I read a lot of dark stuff and loved it. (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant comes to mind.) Now, it just magnifies the dark I've experienced. Over the past several decades, I've lived through the slow decline of my mother's mind and her eventual death from complications of dementia. Helped my father through his end of life journey when 7 years of dialysis were too much for him to bear. Mourned so many loved ones. Escaped a burning house with my family and the clothes on our backs. Experienced great disappointments and great pain. Nearly lost a dear one to suicide.

The longer I've lived, the more pain I've experienced and witnessed in my life. And the less I want to find that kind of pain in what I read and watch for entertainment. 

It's why I can watch a zillion versions of Twelfth Night or Two Gentlemen of Verona, but I don't think I can ever sit through another King Lear.

I recently saw The Ferryman on Broadway with some friends. It was a masterful performance that left me reeling. It was like King Lear meets Ethan Fromme and as incredible as the play, the staging, the acting were, the ending was a gut punch. Not a sucker punch, thankfully, because the show laid enough foreshadowing that you knew it wasn't going to end well.

I don't think I would have chosen to go to this show on my own. It was recommended to me as a writer by a writer friend I trust. And yes, on a craft level, there was a lot to learn and absorb from The Ferryman.

While I don't regret seeing it, I don't need to ever see it again. And thank the gods of writing that there was humor and lightness in the play, because otherwise, it would have been unwatchable.

It's not that I want false cheer in my entertainment. I enjoy cotton candy or peeps now and again, but that does not a healthy diet make.

I don't understand the appeal of so much pain. It's why I never read past GRRM's first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Not because it was poorly written - it wasn't. I've often said you could run a masterclass on writing point of view using that first story.

It was because the pain depicted became (for me) the point of the story, rather than a part of the story.

I will never write that kind of unremitting darkness anymore. I have several trunked novels that will never see the light of day because they are full of pain for no other reason than I had internalized a lot of stuff from my early reading.

My stories have pain and sadness in them; that's part of life and I don't want to shy away from expressing a full range of human emotions in my work. But, even Pandora found hope after freeing all the misery and evil trapped in the box. 

If you enjoy SF&F stories with some hope and endings that leave the characters transformed, but not tortured, I have a bunch you might like. You can check them out on my website. 

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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

No courage without vulnerability

I watched The Call to Courage (the Brene Brown Netflix special) last night and it hit me hard. Her overriding message: There is no courage without vulnerability. That failure is part of being brave. That we cannot be our full selves if we spend our energy staying armored against our fears.

I know that my best work and my best self emerges from allowing myself to be vulnerable. But it comes with so much fear tangled up with shame. It doesn't feel brave at all; it feels like I'm drowning in a whirlpool of muck.

And so I hold back. Struggling at the edge of a shit-vortex while assuring everyone around me that *everything's fine.*

And I have so many reasons why everything should be fine: Financial security. A loving and supportive marriage. A happy home. Puppies. A creative pursuit. A healthy relationship with my adult children. Good health. True friends.

So many things to be so incredibly grateful for.

And still.
And still.
And still.

I hold back.

I am afraid.

And when I try to talk about it, all I hear is myself being a whiny toddler. It's as if because I have so much support in my life, I have no right to struggle. I'm entitled, so I'm not entitled, if that makes any sense.

Maybe it's just the time of year. Anyone who's known me for long enough knows I go through a depressive spike in early spring. Why? Have no idea. It makes no sense. The light is back, the weather is warmer, the colors are returning. But every year in April and May, my anxiety ramps up.

In the past few years, it's been exacerbated by several difficult anniversaries. 6 years ago tomorrow, I nearly lost a loved one to depression and 4 years ago next month, is my father's yertzeit.

I share these things because it helps me to figure out my emotions when I write about them and because if I'm not honest about my struggles, I won't find my way through to courage.

Trust me, I'd rather hide behind my well-practiced surface persona then be vulnerable. But I'm also emotionally weary of beating myself up for not being that person.

I'm starting to understand the cost of being neuro-atypical in a world that isn't designed for me. Most of the time, I can manage all the spinning plates. I have systems in place to pay all the bills on time, make sure laundry gets done, feed the dogs, feed me and my spouse, set and follow writing deadlines, and more. But just because I can function, doesn't mean I'm not also prone to anxiety and depression, or don't get overwhelmed by sensory stimulation, or don't get panic attacks from the daily news, or am able to 'roll with it' when my routine is upended.

Most people would never see me as neuro-atypical, but the reality is I'm on the autism spectrum. And regardless of how well I can mask and function, the way my brain is made and how it works doesn't go away. I have to account for it every day. How many environments have I had to navigate today? Do I have the internal resources to make a phone call? Can I cope with a potential conflict? It's a calculus I do constantly.

Last Wednesday, I had to go to 3 unfamiliar grocery stores to buy food for Passover. It was exhausting. Not physically, precisely, but the sensory barrage and the anxiety of finding my way in a new physical space was utterly draining.

Sounds silly to be so flummoxed by grocery shopping. I've done so many difficult and challenging things in my life and done them well. Apparently, grocery shopping is not one of them.

But I did it because it needed to be done and I managed the emotional cost of it. Is that a kind of courage? Maybe. It feels more like stubbornness, but maybe that's what it has to be.

I am not looking for sympathy or answers. I'm not looking for anything from outside of myself. Maybe I just needed a place to be honest and vulnerable and even a little bit brave.

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