Finding your purpose
One life lesson Beaverton resident Joyce Cohen wants to impart to others is to find your purpose. And when you do, practice it.
"This is the kind of thing I think that people can pay attention to," said Cohen, 84, who served in the Oregon House of Representatives and Oregon State Senate representing District 13 — which included Lake Oswego — from 1978 to 1994.
Portland resident and author Jeffrey Levy was so inspired by Cohen's journey that he decided to write a biography about the former legislator. Levy takes readers on Cohen's journey, bringing lessons she's learned and experiences that have shaped both Cohen and society to the forefront in "Purpose, Focus, and Practice: The Lessons and Legislation of Joyce Cohen."
In an email to Pamplin Media Group, Levy called Cohen a "major legislative force in Oregon once known fondly as 'the smiling barracuda.'"
"What is extraordinary in her story is her strength and courage in overcoming obstacles," Levy said. "I, along with everyone interviewed for the book, have called her 'the strongest person I have ever met.' Yet, Joyce's story is about using her energy to serve others and her memoir is about developing a larger purpose, learning how to focus intently, and putting in the practice to make an effective life."
Levy originally met Cohen while practicing tai chi.
"I grew to be very impressed by Joyce and her will forces," Levy said.
Cohen started practicing tai chi as a way to heal her body after suffering a debilitating stroke while serving as a senator. It left part of her body paralyzed.
"That's part of the health recovery. It was my alternative," Cohen said. "You got to focus and practice and tune into your own body and make sure that you understand what makes it move and what makes the blood circulate. If you're focusing on certain parts of your body, you know that other parts are doing the healing for you without just relying on some big shot medication that only makes you sick."
Cohen also was diagnosed with brain arteriovenous malformation — abnormal connections between arteries and veins in the brain — at an early age, but did not let these obstacles stop her from living her life and serving the community.
Levy said the response Cohen had to her stroke was inspiring.
"From talking to her family and therapist, almost everybody else would have given up," Levy said. "She still has to consciously understand her body to do the things that are normal for us. … I'm not sure that I would have that kind of will and determination and absolute fearlessness in putting life back together."
Levy said the idea for writing a book about Cohen's life percolated gradually. They were at a Tai Chi Society banquet many years ago. Cohen would typically host the dinners and after a couple years, Levy helped Cohen with some of the cooking and decided to do a poetry reading as part of the dinner. From that, a friendship formed and Cohen began to talk about "wanting to tell her story," said Levy, adding that she put him in touch with people to interview. "And then it grew."
Overall, Levy said he worked on the book for about two and a half years and completed it in 2020.
Not only does the book detail Cohen's journey overcoming the impacts of her stroke, it touches on her life before politics.
The story focuses on Cohen's upbringing on a ranch in South Dakota, her role as a medical researcher in California and her journey through political advocacy work.
Cohen credits the start of her involvement with politics to her time living in Lake Oswego for at least 15 years.
During a City Council meeting, Cohen said she remembered the city wanting to sell a piece of land, but that the public hadn't received proper notice of the meeting. She then went to Salem and advocated for cities across Oregon to publish public notice of meetings for increased transparency, a practice that is in effect today.
Cohen became a key player in creating the Oregon Health Care Plan, advancing criminal justice reform and advocating the use of lottery funds for education and the environment.
"That was interesting because she had particularly opposed the lottery but once she saw it was going to pass, she wanted to make sure the money, which by now is in the billions, could be spent for legitimate social purposes," Levy said.
Cohen also served on many committees in the Legislature.
Levy said Cohen was dedicated to "working across the aisle."
"She was a progressive Democrat but she always worked with Republicans and people from the eastern rural parts of the state, and that was critical to what she thinks is important," Levy added.
Though Cohen now lives in assisted living, she's still called upon by political figures for advice, and still practices tai chi and her connection with nature.
"I learned early on in my life that you had to be internally willing to pay attention to the circumstances," Cohen said. "If you have a purpose, you have to be focused to make sure you're going to understand that and pay attention to it."
The book will be released July 5 and will be available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop, and other retailers in both print and e-book formats.
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