Friday, September 03, 2021

"Water is Patient; Water Always Wins"

In August of 2005, we were on our annual holiday to our in laws' home on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the gulf. 

The weather on the Bay then was much like it is today - clear, bright, cool - a perfect day heralding fall. 

Again, we watch the reporters flocking to destroyed homes, communities without power, places rendered unlivable by the power of weather and water and the unwillingness of a society to face the realities and ravages of climate change. 

And very little changes. 

The poem I wrote then is as relevant today, albeit with the need to add more named storms to the list. 


After the Levee is Breached

Only the lightest puff of air stirs
pennants along the dock. Telltales hang
from luffing sails. In the stillness, bees
stagger between the open throats of thirsty

orchids. When wind and full moon forced
the bay to rise, it scoured the eastern shore.
This time, the great tidal surge gathers
elsewhere. Camera crews rush to film

other places more prosperous, newly drowned.
Watermen haul their catch by hand, chant
a guilty mantra--Hugo, Andrew, Isabel
new storms spin elsewhere. Tonight a front

gathers force; it rends high, thin clouds.
Stars pour through the rift like water.

LJ Cohen, August 2005

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Monday, January 25, 2021

The Solace of Poetry

Brown Bear

It feels good to be writing again. The few poems I've written since the turning of the year are baby steps, but I will happily take any progress, no matter how small.

Learning How Not to Be A Bear

I fought to sleep
this whole year away, but living
as a bear is harder
than I thought. Hibernation
takes planning. You can't decide
to hide in bed, covers
pulled over your head. I tried.
My heart and breath refused
to slow. My traitorous
stomach insisted to be fed and what
if I had Rip Van Winkled my way
out of months and months
of boredom and dread. It's bad
enough - the shock of my love's
gray, as if his time had sped
while mine had stayed. I tick
off hours in hashmarks, carved
on my heart, too many spent
in solitary. The days lengthen
and I wonder what world
she will wake to when this bear
can finally abandon her den.

- Lisa Janice Cohen
     January 2021

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Tuesday, December 01, 2020

10 years ago: a fire


 Burned-out basement


A few days earlier, we had celebrated Thanksgiving with our cousin's family in NH. The fridge was still packed with leftovers. It was a Wednesday morning. 

We were woken up by the smoke alarms. Mostly asleep, I thought it was Neil's accursed pager, which I had been successfully ignoring for decades. The boys assumed it was their alarm clock. 

It was Neil who realized what was happening. He shouted for all of us to get out. The house was already filled with acrid smoke. 

We ran out the front door, barefoot, in our pajamas, taking nothing with us. An unearthly orange glow flashed over into conflagration in the basement. 

It was 5:30 am. December 1, 2010.

We were standing on the sidewalk, shivering in the cold, watching our house burn. 


In the days and weeks that followed, we were cared for and supported by friends, neighbors, community, and family. 

We were more than lucky: we all were unharmed. The dog got out with us. Anything we lost, could be replaced or we realized wasn't really needed. Our homeowners insurance was generous. The house would be rebuilt. 

Our tragedy, this crisis, was individual. Our community was intact and able to help us. The stress I experienced was intense, but it wasn't magnified by external circumstances. We spent nearly a year displaced and it became my job to be the emotional center for my family, the liaison to the insurance adjuster, and the general contractor for the rebuild. 

Of all three, the first was the most difficult. Our sons were in high school. The youngest a freshman, the oldest a senior. After a day together working on a temporary housing situation, my physician spouse returned to work. My work as a writer gave me flexibility that no one else had. And I made it my responsibility to create a normal for my family that they pretended actually existed.

I remember holding everything together. Looking in from the outside, no one would have known how fragile I was. How whenever I was alone in the car, I would sob so hard for a few minutes, that I couldn't hold the key steady enough to start the engine. 

How I would fall apart when I smelled wood smoke from our neighbors' fireplaces. How a distant siren would trigger a panic attack. How being in the burned house as we attempted to inventory our losses was a waking nightmare. 


Anxiety and I are fast friends. Or, rather, it's an enemy I am familiar with. It was my constant companion every day in the year that followed and it still stuck around even after we had returned home to a rebuilt house and our reinstated 'normal' lives. 


And in the years that followed, we experienced other traumas including the suicide attempt of a loved one, my mother's worsening dementia, my father's kidney disease and both of my parents' deaths. 


This year, 2020, is the year of Covid-19. The stress I have experienced has been somewhat familiar, despite the changing circumstances. If our house fire prepared me for anything, it was that we always live in uncertainty. We're just masters at lying to ourselves about it. Which doesn't mean I have any sort of acceptance. Just that I recognize the reality. We have been lucky: only 1 of our immediate family members has been ill from covid and it was, in retrospect, a mild case. In our distant/extended family, there are cases of long covid and deaths. 

We are all as safe as it is possible to be. I have been able to retreat to our farm. Our sons have been able to work fully remote (younger) and partially remote (older) and are both in stable living situations.  Neil is a front-line physician and is at most risk. I worry, not for his physical safety - he is scrupulous about PPE and his hospital hasn't had the same shortages as others - but his emotional safety. 

The past year has aged him. While he's been able to join me at the farm on his off-call weekends, it seems to take longer for him to relax and less and less time for his stress to ramp up once he is back at the hospital. In many ways, he and his colleagues are fighting a war, but it's mostly an invisible one that too many 'civilians' refuse to acknowledge. 


I'm not going to go on a harangue about covid deniers here - anything I can say has already been said by voices with a far more powerful reach than mine. What I want to focus on is how tragedies - personal and shared - shape and change us. 

I am not the same person I was before December 1, 2010. I will never be that person again. I came too close to losing the people I care most about in the universe and for good and for ill, that fear drove me in the years that followed. It is too easy to take our blessings for granted. We think our loved ones know how we feel and so telling them and showing them isn't necessary. That is bullshit. I know how quickly tragedy can strike and change everything. So I don't hold back my love. I am not afraid to be 'mushy'. Not to family or friends. 

Things are far less important. Yes, I love handmade items and art and soft clothing, but I have learned to enjoy them, not cling to them. There is a difference between surrounding yourself in beauty and being trapped by material possessions. 

I have learned to be grateful for the smallest of things: they way my dogs pile in bed on a cold morning to share their warmth. The marvel of the full moon on snow. The absolute miracle of a hard bud transforming into a peach. The brush of Neil's hand across mine. A terrible pun sent in a text message from the boys. Baking a loaf of sourdough and leaving it on a neighbor's doorstep. An email from a friend out of the blue. 


This year, the fear and the uncertainty is shared all across the world. Unlike our personal trauma 10 years ago, there is no community unscathed, available to lend its support. We are all reeling. 


If I could go back 10 years and offer comfort to myself, I would say this: You are struggling. Your feelings are real. Just because you and your loved ones are safe doesn't mean you didn't experience loss or that your trauma isn't valid. Suffering isn't a competition. Even though it feels like this will never end, it will. But you will be changed. There is a grace both in being able to offer support and accept it. You are loved. 


To those of you who are coping now, in the midst of this crisis, remember: You are struggling. Your feelings are real. Just because you and your loved ones are safe doesn't mean you aren't dealing with  loss or that your trauma isn't valid. Suffering isn't a competition. Even though it feels like this will never end, it will. But you will be changed. There is a grace both in being able to offer support and accept it. You are loved.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

May 27, 2015: In Memoriam, 5 years on

dad, circa 1942
me and dad, circa 2015

Five years ago today, my dad died, at home, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. He was 92 and had lived a long and full life. And it had been his decision to stop dialysis after 7 years and mounting health crises.

He knew it would only be a matter of days after his final dialysis session, so he waited until the family could gather, so he could say goodbye. He died, as he lived, on his own terms.

My father wasn't always a patient man (he was a NY business man, after all!), but in his last years, found a kind of acceptance and gratitude and quiet wisdom that enriched everyone around him. And while he grieved for my mother after her death in 2012, he also made deep friendships with his neighbors in the senior living facility where they had moved to in 2010.

5 years on, and there isn't a day where I don't miss him.

He married my mother, after a long courtship in the 1950s. They were both considered old - they were in their 30s. They had their first child - my sister - a year later. Then my mother had a series of miscarriages and wasn't able to have another child. After years of being told they were too old to be adoptive parents, they were finally able to adopt me as a 5 day old infant in 1963.

My dad - in his early 40's - flew by himself from NY to San Francisco to bring me home, while my mother stayed home with my older sister.

This was the "Mad Men" era. Fathers, as a rule, didn't do much childcare, certainly not fly cross country on their own with a tiny infant!

My sense is that he was not daunted by it, not even for a minute. He was utterly devoted to my mother, my sister, and me. And when his 3 grandchildren came along, he adored them and his role as grandfather.

He died before I found my birth family a few years ago, and I think he would have been thrilled for me to have made those new connections. He was a man who understood love to be expansive.

His pragmatic wisdom continues to be my guide and over the past 5 years since his death, I often dream of him and am always comforted by it.

He was many things in his life - short order cook, stickball player, sonar operator in WWII, a business owner, a gardener, grill-master of summer barbecues,  a crossword puzzle aficionado, a baseball fan, a teller of tall tales - and my beloved dad.