Written on the Body, #49: March 5, 2022: Good news, bad news. Last blog?

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve written, but a lot has happened.

The first good news is that the evening I sent the last blog, my son Joe appeared at my door for a surprise visit! It was definitely a surprise — and so good to see him. We had a great 10 days together; he stayed with an old friend in Waterdown (that was planned!), enjoying each other’s company. He was also a good help around the house and in doing some needed planning.

Good news number 2: while he was here, The Ontario Poetry Society announced they are creating an award in my honour: the Ellen Sue Jaffe Humanitarian Poetry Award. This is a great honour and combines my two deep values in life. Thank you, Bunny Iskov and Elana Woolf, for arranging this. The award will be every other year, beginning with the deadline on March 15, 2023 (my birthday), with one winner and 5 runners-up. There will be a cash prize and a certificate, and my son Joe and I were able to drive to Willowdale to thank Bunny in person and give her some of my signed books to add to the prize.

Good news 3: Diane Ray of Voices Israel journal has arranged for a reading in my honour on Sunday, March 13, with several poets reading my work. Let me know if you want more details.

And 4, Joe is coming again on Monday, Roger’s daughter Terri on Wednesday, and his son Simon next Sunday. (of course, these are all our children!)

But we are sliding into the bad news. Since Joe’s first visit (he left on Feb. 21) my health has deteriorated rapidly, to the point where I am very weak. There is a referral in to the in-patient palliative care unit at Bridgepoint Hospital, 5 minutes from our home, so Roger can visit easily, and the care is excellent. We hope this happens soon (sad as moving there is). Meanwhile, we are coping at home; Roger is amazing despite his arthritis which makes it hard to walk stairs, and we have shopping and other help from loving friends, and from some PSW workers.

I an in bed most of the time, and very tired and weak. No pain, which is a blessing. Eating soft foods — I am still hungry. Discovered citron-blueberry sorbet, very refreshing. We have a tv in the bedroom (a recent addition) which is helpful. I didn’t expect this to happen so soon, and am sad to leave this world. I may not write this blog again — so thank you for all your love, your thoughts and prayers and support. I love you all. Be well,


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Written on the Body, #48, February 10, 2022: “The Good Patient”

February is a short month in days, but filled with many special days. Including the whole month of Black History Month — and also Black Futures Month, the Harbourfront (Toronto) celebration of new and upcoming Black writers and artists in all fields. Those of us who are not Black need to remember and think about Black history, as well as other people’s cultures and histories, all year long, not just for one month, and understand our role in history and in making things better in the present, with more empathy and understanding.

Feb. 1 was the beginning of the Lunar New Year — this year, the year of the Tiger.

Feb. 2 was Imbolc, or St. Brigid’s day — celebrating the first stirrings of the spring, the birth of new lambs, and also healing and poetry and new light. It is also the day, in various parts of Canada and the U.S., when a groundhog or similar creature is reported to come out of his burrow. If he sees his shadow, we have 6 more weeks of winter; if it is too cloudy, we have an early spring. So they say. And many of us remember the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character has to repeat the same day, over and over (and over), until he gets it right.

A time of new beginnings but also of uncertainty.

Before I get to my medical news, I want to write about being “a good patient,” something I’ve thought about since my diagnosis but which has been more in the forefront of my mind since my stays in hospital in December 2021.

As I’ve discovered over the past few years, being a good patient isn’t being passive (from the same root as “patient”) and simply compliant. It is being engaged, aware, involved in and agreeing to the treatment — or using your right to decline a treatment or a medication, after careful consideration. It is about asking questions and, often, saying what you feel: I am concerned about, I worry about, I wonder about. Why is this happening? I would like like to visit my family; when is a good time to do this? I would like more time and more quality of life as far as possible. Sometimes it is saying: I appreciate it when I see the clinical notes in my hospital “portal” (online record) soon after a visit rather than three months later. It is knowing nurses’, technicians’, and doctors’ names, and being able to make a bit of conversation even while treatment is going on, so the interaction feels more human.

Being a doctor’s daughter, I realise I don’t have the awe of doctors that many people feel, but I do have profound respect for the medical profession (especially for those who practice it well, in whatever capacity), and throughout these 3 years, since diagnosis in February 2019, I have chiefly relied on Western medicine for treatment. I also feel comfortable using non-intrusive alternate techniques, like yoga, breathing exercises, relaxation and guided imagery, as well as counselling — all of which have helped me feel better emotionally and spiritually, and added to my physical healing and energy.

But as I thought about this further, I saw that I had one other requirement on my mental list: the good patient stays alive!

And this is not necessarily true. None of us get out of here alive, ever; following procedures, being engaged and aware, wanting to get better, having a positive attitude — all help but don’t provide guarantees. This is where I am now. Unfortunately, the clinical trial I started in December has not worked out the way the doctors, and Roger and I and our family, all hoped. A CT scan in mid-January showed a large increase in the metastases in my liver (both size and number), new metastasis in my lungs, and some growth of the original esophagus tumour. This is a stubborn cancer. I asked, of course, if more time on the drug could improve things; maybe it just hadn’t started working well. But the doctor said this is “unequivocal” evidence the drug is not and will not work, and it’s not to my benefit to stay on it.

There is another “standard” chemo that we could try, but at this point I am also feeling weaker, more fatigued, and less well, and my oncologist whom I’ve seen since the beginning thinks the drug will probably not be effective and the side-effects could make me feel much worse. All these are possible results, and no one knows how I personally will react. I have been soul-searching and talking with family and close friends for a couple of weeks. As my son says, “There is no absolute right or wrong answer: you have to do what is right for you.” And Roger says, “It is about deciding how I want to live the rest of my life.” I need to make a final decision by next Tuesday, but my heart has already chosen — I want to live peacefully, enjoy time with the people I love, being in nature (especially in spring and summer), and use palliative care to help manage symptoms like fatigue, some difficulty eating, etc. I don’t want to “give up”, but I do want to make this choice — and would rather not use my energy coping with all the stress of chemo. Roger has his own health issues, too, and we need some quiet time together.

Palliative care is already involved in a minor way. I am still in no pain, can get up, walk around, take care of myself, cook, so there is no need to involve their direct help just yet. Family and friends have been wonderful, bringing food if they are nearby, and otherwise sending good thoughts and wishes; doing zoom and phone calls; just being there, caring and loving. I think of a line from the play Marvin’s Room, where a character who is dying says she has a lot of love in her life. Another character agrees with her: “You are very loved.” The first character replies, “No, I mean I love people a lot.” I am blessed to have both: to love and be loved.

Appropriate words to close this piece, as Valentine’s Day is approaching — a time to celebrate love in all its forms: family, romantic, friendship, and love for the earth and for all its people and creatures. (I feel this especially as the world is sliding into more chaos and anger). Thank you for reading and being with me on this — still ongoing — journey. There will be more blogs…

xoxo Ellen, aka Esther

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Written on the Body #47, January 3, 2022: Another Year Begins

This began on Dec. 23: So here I am, back in hospital for the second round of chemo. I had no bad reactions last week, either in the hospital or during the few days at home, and so far feel okay after the second dose on Dec. 23. As before, I have to stay for 36 hours after the infusion finishes, so expect to go home Saturday early afternoon if all is well. I am more relaxed this time, knowing a bit more what to expect — but then (as a friend of mine wrote in another context) it is like the old “Whip” ride in amusement parks: things are going along fast but pretty smoothly and then, zap!, the “Whip” throws you for a loop. We cope and keep on coping.

Being in hospital is a strange experience — feeling detached from everyday life, cared for (and being tested and prodded) but with no ordinary responsibilities. When I got home last Saturday, I found our townhouse so full of stimulation — colours, sounds, smells, more space to walk around in,, even Roger’s comfortable and welcome presence were a bit overwhelming. (I haven’t been overnight in any hospital since 1987, and don’t remember much about that. Zoom, texts, and emails do keep me in touch with the world while here, and I use them often. I have been thinking of Sylvia Plath’s wonderful and , in some ways terrifying, poem “Tulips” about a time she was in the hospital. I am not as far removed from the world and my own identity as the narrator of the poem — but I can understand how she felt.

Meanwhile, the food is still pretty good, my hemoglobin is way up from the transfusion — giving me more energy — I have some books to read (one is an urban fantasy about vampires: interesting when you consider all the blood they are taking for testing, and all the blood I received in the transfusion). Another is Me Sexy, edited by Drew Hayden Taylor, Indigenous playwright and fiction writer, who has compiled several collections of essays by Indigenous people on various subjects: humour, sex and intimacy (fighting both stereotypes and also the Residential school history of abuse), art, and the latest one about “Tomorrow.”

now January 3: Then the Whip hit — I came down with a violent stomach bug (and it is very hard to get to the washroom when you are attached to an IV machine!), I was put into isolation (just a room of my own), given medicine for the bug — which calmed down over the next 24 or so hours, and had to submit to a variety of more tests (which showed this was a bug, not side-effects of treatment). And I survived “making a mess in public” — the thing we all dread since about 3 years old — with the help of a wonderful night nurse named Stephanie, comforting and efficient at the same time.

I was able to be home by around 6:00 on Christmas night, so Roger and I had a good evening together, opening presents and just glad to be together. I have been resting a lot, and start treatment as an out-patient this Thursday, every 3 weeks.

This is certainly not the opening of the new year we hoped it would be, with omicron spreading like the wildfires we’ve seen around the planet. Another lash of the Whip in this ride of life. I wish you all peace, good health, time with loved ones, safety, and the good sense to take care of ourselves and others. And governments that provide firm and effective leadership during this crisis — which has shown us gaps in the social network that need fixing, far beyond covid itself. Thanks again to family and friends, near and far, for being part of my life. We are all interconnected — people, animals and plants, land and ocean and air.

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Written on the Body, #46, December 15, 2021: News Flash!

After the uncertainty of last week, after more tests and procedures (including another iron infusion), after intense discussions with the doctor and nurse about whether to start now or after the holidays, I have been accepted into the clinical trial and am actually starting today. Everyone agreed that, even though it would be nice to have a medical-free holiday and visit Roger’s/our son Simon in Halifax, as planned, the risks in delay were too great. (And with the omicron variant raging, as well as unpredictable winter weather, this makes even more sense.)

So this is serious. I am writing at 4:03 am, after dreams of a wolf woke me up. (The wolf was on a leash in some kind of forest-setting in a museum; then he — I think it was a young male wolf — got loose; I shut the door on him, then looked for someone to tell. After a while, Roger and I were sitting on a bench, and the wolf approached, his coat a mixture of brown, grey, and white. I felt scared at first, especially as he came toward me, but he wasn’t growling or attacking, and eventually seemed almost friendly, curling up on the bench near me. So perhaps this dream is a sign the treatment will be less difficult than I fear. (or another story altogether). I do have to stay in hospital Wednesday and Thursday night so they can monitor my reactions to the drugs. Next week, Dec. 23, I will just have to stay one night; eventually, it will be day-treatment every three weeks. If all goes well.

Meanwhile, I feel surrounded by love and support from family and friends: thank you for the lighted candles, encouraging emails, texts, and calls, and your presence and prayers. And Roger, my companion on our mutual journey. Thanks, too, for the medical teams for knowledge, skill, and caring.

I will update this blog during the next couple of days… so stay tuned. And stay well.

Dec. 16, 7:30 pm. Well, I’ve gotten through the first 2 days and am doing okay, no extreme reactions to the new drug — though I could still experience something tonight or tomorrow, which is why they will keep me in hospital through Friday night (and also they need to blood tests on Saturday, so it’s better to stay over rather than leave at night and then return). My hemoglobin was lower again this morning, but I was allowed to have the drug infusion (a great relief) and then they did a blood transfusion late this afternoon. Lots of poking and prodding and reading vital signs today but, as I said, nothing disastrous. And I am hungry enough to eat the hospital food (note to self: next time bring chocolate bars!). I did bring my journal and several books, to have variety in reading (look at all those books, the nurses have commented). Nurses are great, skilled and caring, and I had a brief visit from my doctor tonight to see how things are going. We agreed that it was an essential decision to start now, so the liver lesions — which are growing — don’t have the opportunity (like the 1% of billionaires) to continue growing at the expense of the rest of my body. (the sixties phrase, “the political is the personal” still rings true.) I am glad to have poetry around me — living in a world where the imagination is full of literature, art, music, history, nature brings so much more connection — and messages from friends and family. Because of covid, Roger can’t visit (though we live only 20 minutes from the hospital), but we have talked on zoom — overcoming a few technical difficulties. And a sense of humour helps, too — even/especially in difficult times. As many people before me have found out. And some pleasant memories from childhood keep coming into my mind. Perhaps because I keep having to tell the nurses my birth-date, and I realise 1945 must seem ancient to them. (I am the same age as some of their grandparents). One nurse, reading my temperature said, “cool as a cucumber,” and I remembered, fondly, that my mother used to say that.

“Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.” (an old Jimmy Durante line).

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Written on the Body, #45, December 8, 2021: To Be Continued…

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, Nov. 13, I hoped to “bring you up to date with my current treatments.” However, uncertainty builds upon uncertainty, and I feel that my life is like those old weekly movie serials, like “The Perils of Pauline” — always ending on a note of suspense (the heroine tied to a railroad track, for example — a story my mother remembered and told me about). I am living “The Drug Trials of Ellen,” with a new plot twist each week.

As I think I’ve said, the drug I was on stopped being effective, and also had some harmful side-effects to my eyes. My eyes are now better (yay!) but the doctors are still looking for a new treatment. Another clinical trial drug is available and possible: this one targets the HER2 gene of the cancer and also stimulates the immune system. But there are various standards I have to meet to be eligible. First, my liver enzymes were too high for a week, then came down on their own; next, my hemoglobin level was too low — which accounts for the tiredness and lack of energy I’ve been feeling for the past several weeks, different from my usual way of being. So yesterday (yes, Saturday!) I had an iron infusion — they dilute the iron with saline so it can be given intravenously, similar to a chemotherapy treatment. I am not running marathons yet, or having an effect on magnets, but I hope this does help: especially in feeling better, and also in being considered for the new drug. There is also a more standard chemotherapy if the trial doesn’t work out.

So here we are… tune in next time to see what happens next.

Meanwhile, this is a week of important dates. Dec. 5 was the last night of Chanukah (sometimes spelled Hanukkah). Each night for 8 nights we light another candle, adding more light and hope to the world and to our lives. Chanukah celebrates miracles — the return of light after the solstice, and also survival and renewal in dark times. (The story goes that after the desecration of the Temple, around 167 B.C., when the “small band” of Maccabees and their followers defeated the Syrian-Greeks and restored the Temple, there was only enough oil for the holy lamp to burn for one night — yet, by a miracle, it burned for 8 nights, until more oil could be supplied.) It is a time to hope for personal and world-wide renewal and re-spiriting, something we certainly need.

Dec. 6 was the 32nd anniversary of the murder of 14 women at l’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal — murdered because they were women engineering students. (As a male friend of mine wrote in a poem commemorating those young women and the women they might have become, if he had been in the room he could have left because he was not a woman.) Since that time, more men as well as women have supported action against domestic and all anti-women violence, but we need to do much more to protect women and girls, and to educate young men to live in a world of equality, not male/patriarchal privilege.

And Dec. 7 was the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbour…with so many memories of the destructiveness and devastation of World War II, for so many civilians on both sides as well as for those who fought. And still the wars continue.

On a brighter note, on Nov. 28, I read two poems as part of a series of launches for the book 2020, an anthology of poems about that year, with drawings by Bill Liebeskind of people in masks. You can click here to hear my reading (which begins at about 13:00 minutes in with an introduction, and lasts about 6 minutes). https://www.facebook.com/artParrsboro/videos/740265750706498 (copy and paste in browser).

All good wishes for the holiday season. To be continued…

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Written on the Body #44, November 13, 2021: The Body Speaks

The title of this whole blog is “Written on the Body” — but today I want to focus on the body. Or rather, just as Einstein spoke about “spacetime,” seeing space and time as inseparably connected, I want to think about “bodymind” or “mindbody”: the idea that we experience life through an inevitable relationship of mind and body. We take in data through our senses — sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and the kinesthetic senses of our muscles, bones, and organs (e.g. stomach cramps, backaches), our feelings of heat and cold, of wind, wetness, hunger and thirst — and the mind (however we define it) interprets that data, names it (or sees that it is new, as yet unnamed), lets us turn it into experiences that we can feel, think, and talk about. Feel attraction or repulsion, love, fear, anger, comfort, need. This begins happening in infancy — probably, even in the womb — and continues, I think, all our life, even if the mindbody begins to fragment in old age. Making love, sleeping and dreaming, experiences of terror and ecstasy, just the act of waking up in the morning… all engage our body, mind, emotions. It is somehow a mistake to see mind and body as separate, or expect the mind to “control” the body.

Interesting that as a writer, I use words — intangible symbols — to create a world of the senses, of flowers, trees, animals, people, weather: both the world I can actually observe in “real life,” and worlds that I imagine but embody with life that both I and other people can feel as real. We even talk about a writer’s — or any artist’s — “body of work,” as if the work itself is a body (in this larger sense of mindbody) with an ongoing life.

We also talk about bodies of water, and the earth itself can be seen as the body of the world, breathing, growing, changing — and now in extreme danger.

Some of these thoughts were provoked by the visit to B.C. — as many people have noted during the covid19 lockdown and its gradual easing, it is essential to see people in person — especially loved ones but also friends and others in our lives. Zoom and other media can communicate voice, faces, information, but not touch, not smell, not the feeling of being (as a friend of mine put it) in the “fabric of each other’s lives.” There is something about cooking and eating with people, walking together, sitting in companionable silence, doing activities like carving jack-o-lanterns or playing sports — all the in-person ways of being together.

Also walking in nature felt really good after so long — being on the beach, reaching into a tidepool, touching the smooth red bark of an arbutus tree. I find this is true at home, too — smelling flowers in the garden, watching the leaves turn colour, hearing a bird sing is an experience you can have just going out the front door.

It also was my son’s 41st birthday on Nov. 5: being pregnant, having a baby, raising a child are ways we experience our own bodymind in new ways, as well as forming an intimate relationship with the child. (This is true for raising a child, where we gave birth to the child or not.). Making love,

We have just passed Hallowe’en, a time when, it is said, the veils between worlds grow thinner, and also Remembrance Day, when we honour the dead — and the survivors — of war…. and certainly war is one of the most horrendous mindbody experiences humans inflict on each other.

In illness or injury, too, we become aware of body parts we have always taken for granted as working well; now, when they don’t, we sense the loss. I am finding this in the current problem with my eyes, as they are affected by the chemotherapy. I can see, and manage to get around, but things are blurry, giving me a sense of disorientation. And I felt a real loss when I could hardly read, even with a magnifier; I realised how much reading is important to my inner life. And of course the illness itself is a huge mindbody challenge — even when I only see the CT scan reports of what is going on, invisibly (but steadily) inside my body. In the next blog, I will bring you up to date, as far as I can, with my current treatments. Meanwhile, as people keep telling me, Carpe Diem — sieze the day! With body, mind, and heart.

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Written on the Body #43, October 11, 2021: Thanksgiving: good news, other news, writing news

This is the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend — and Thanksgiving is a good way to follow “The Meaning of Life.” It is also a week after the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. As many of us wore orange shirts with Indigenous symbols and the words Every Child Matters, and perhaps went to ceremonies or gatherings, heard singing and drumming, or meditated quietly at home, we reflected on the traumas and tragedies that people inflicted on Indigenous children, families, and cultures. Maybe we ourselves did not do these things, but they were done by our government, our churches, and in our name — and it is up to us to begin to make things right. In the Jewish phrase, to practice Tikkun Olam: to repair the world. And if not now, when? We do this not to show how good we are, but for the sake of the world. And as another saying goes, we cannot do everything, but we cannot do nothing.

U.S. artist Anne Truitt (1921-2004) talked in another way about seeing the world rather than ourselves, in her book Prospect: the journey of an artist. She says: At one stroke, the yearning to express myself transformed into a yearning to express what this landscape meant to me, nopt for my own emotional release but for the release of a radiance illuminating it behind and beyond appearance. This is the sense of a world — of nature and of living creatures — existing beyond ourselves in time and space, which we sense through a kind of radiance. Interestingly, one aspect of Tikkun Olam is the idea of gathering all the broken shards of light in the world into a whole.

Moving back to the personal plane, I have many things to be thankful for this weekend. One is the good news from my recent CT scan, showing that my new chemotherapy regime appears to be working: the liver lesions are smaller and fewer in number, the esophagus is stable, there are no further metastases. Good news indeed, and I am grateful (again) to all the doctors, nurses, and other staff at Princess Margaret, Toronto General, and all the University Health Network. They also manage to do a great job of keeping people safe during the pandemic.

I am also thankful that Roger and I have finally made the trip to beautiful British Columbia — near Nanaimo on Vancouver Island — to see my son Joe, his partner Christina, and their sons Emilio and Elijah. It’s been almost two years (November 2019) since we last saw them in person, though we’ve had visits over zoom and lots of emai, land they have made us feel so welcome. Here is one photo, taken at Qualicum Beach — it was so healing to be by the ocean — I felt the radiance I talked about earlier in this post, the sense of a world — natural and spiritual, larger than myself.

And I’m thankful for a loving extended family and good friends, and for the flowers that keep growing in our co-op garden. Despite the sense of being in a “diminuendo” phase of life, I am very thankful to be alive.

In other news, the world moves on to a “new normal,” still with some people resisting the vaccine, while others (especially in Africa and Asia) are desperate to get it. People in Louisiana are still suffering the effects of Hurricanes Ida and Laura (16 years after Katrina), and people in California are fighting not only wildfires and drought but a new oil spill. I was glad to hear the governor of California say that we have to move toward a future of not using fossil fuels; they are part of the past. And, more personally, I am feeling in my heart the grief of several friends who have lost loved ones in the past few weeks, or are dealing with serious health issues themselves.

Writing News: I’ve been writing new poems this year, and working on a story about two people who meet in an Assisted Living home: I have to make myself “go fearward” on that one. I did a radio interview with my friend Bernadette Rule for her program “Art Waves” on the Mohawk College Radio Station, The Hawk, 101.5 FM. She usually has guests live (I’ve done a couple of interviews with her in the past), but during the pandemic she’s switched to zoom — like so many of us — and I appreciate that. You can hear go to the program’s archives to hear my interview: https://archive.org/details/artwaves.

I’ve also had some poems published in anthologies: “A Shirt, A Star, A Story” in Love Lies Bleeding, compiled by George Elliott Clarke and published by The Ontario Poetry Society. Other poems are included in these anthologies: Hearthbeats, ed. by Don Gutteridge and published by Hidden Brook Press; the online anthology True Identity, edited by April Bulmer, published by Hidden Brook Press; The Beauty of Being Elsewhere, ed. by John B. Lee and also published by Hidden Brook Press; By the Wishing Tree, ed. by Becky Alexander and published by The Ontario Poetry Society, and (to be published in November) a book about the pandemic, published by Main Station in Nova Scotia. There will be a zoom launch (one of several) for this book on Sunday Nov. 28, 2 pm EST: further details to come. And I am doing a reading (precorded on video) for Toronto’s Art Bar poetry series on Tuesday, October 12, at 8:00 pm. EDT: https://www.facebook.com/groups/artbarpoetry. I have the reading on a dropbox file if anyone would like to see it but can’t watch on Oct. 12.

My friend and Finnish translator, Hannele Pohjanmies, has translated several of my poems into Finnish and posted them on her blog. Here is the link, if you know Finnish or just want to see the poems in that language. Hannele also translated some of my poems for the chapbook. Syntymalaulujah/Birthsongs in 2005. Thank you, Hannele. https://hpohjanmies.blogspot.com/

Finally, the film “The Shadow Project,” by Teresa D’Elia, using as narration my poem “Hiroshima Day: James Street North, Hamilton,” which I talked about in my August 6 blog, was selected for presentation at the Helsinki Educational Film Festival International. A great honour.

It is a coincidence to have two places in Finland where my work is represented. I was there for the launch of the 2005 book, which was initiated and edited by my friend Marja Schulman, and it is a fascinating country.

Though writing itself is a solitary pursuit, it has been a pleasure and a learning experience to work together with all these creative editors, publishers, film-makers, and others.

Happy Trails ’til we meet again.

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Written on the Body #42: September 6, 2021, The Meaning of Life

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (the date varies on the regular calendar, but is always on the first day of Tishri, the seventh month in the Jewish calendar — almost always in September or early October. Ten days from now is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and these ten days are traditionally called The Days of Awe: a time for reflection on the past year, the changes we need to make to turn toward a better life; a time for taking responsibility for our lives, for forgiving others and forgiving ourselves. And also a time for hope — hope for health, for happiness, for peace, for sweetness — for ourselves, our loved ones, our community, and the world. We make honey cakes and eat apples dipped in honey.

Surely a good time to think about “the meaning of life.” It is — but this column was also prompted by a dream I had a few weeks ago (during the month of Elul, when people prepare for Rosh Hashanah, doing a kind of spiritual/emotional house-cleaning). Like many people, I have been having vivid and strange dreams during the pandemic, elaborate stories that disappear into the mist when I wake up. Sometimes a few details are left — a frog chasing a smaller frog, moving to a new house, feeding someone’s dog, meetings with people I haven’t seen for years. Some people think these dreams are prompted by the cutting back of our activities during the pandemic, so our minds provide extra excitement while we sleep.

In one particular dream, I was going on a camping trip and specifically chose campsite #42: a detail I remembered when I woke up. When I mentioned this to Roger, he immediately replied that 42 was the number for “the meaning of life” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which I have heard of but have never read. It is also the title of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, a film, which I didn’t see when it was first released in 1983 but which we watched recently on tv. This felt important: an existential question. The pandemic and other world events, have made these questions loom large, in the undercurrents of our minds if not in the forefront. And my dealing with cancer has heightened my awareness of “the meaning of life,” casting light and shadows on the minutiae of everyday activities. Not that I think about it all the time — but it certainly made sense to dream about it. And, in dream-language, to connect with the number “42,” even though, consciously, I was not aware of the connection.

But what is special about 42? (which is, not so coincidentally, the number of this blog post). Did Adams choose it at random, or was there a reason? I looked up the number on google and found it has many mathermatical complexities, most of which are beyond my understanding (look it up, you’ll see what I mean.) But one interesting thing is that it has many factors, including even and odd numbers (2, 3, 6, 7, 14, as well as 1 and 42), and 4 prime numbers (1, 2, 3, 7). Also, looking at the number, 4+2=6 and 4×2=8, with 7 (often seen as a mystical number) in the middle. And apparently it is the angle, rounded to whole degrees, at which light from a rainbow appears most intensely (the critical angle).

In Egyptian mythology, notably The Book of the Dead, it turns out to be the number of questions asked of a person making the journey through death (42 “negative confessions.”). If the person answers reasonably well, she or he can go on to reincarnation; if completely successful, she can go on to become a star, giving light and creative energy to the universe (a comforting thought, and linked to the idea that we are all made of elements of “stardust.”). I haven’t found out what the questions are, but have thought of doing some writing about this. And in Jewish Kabbalistic tradition (mysticism based on numberology), 42 is the number with which God creates the universe. There are more examples. Howerver, in Japanese culture, 42 is considered unlucky because the numerals when pronounced separately—shi ni (four two)—sound like the word “dying.”

To return to the present, with the concerns about the climate crisis, social and economic justice (including justice for woman and people of all genders), the question of the meaning of life is vital — as it has been in many other criticial times. Sorry to say — this blog is NOT going to tell you this meaning. Mainly because I don’t know the answer — and my answer is probably not the same as yours, though there may be similarities. I think that perhaps there is no one answer, and the search is not a treasure hunt — like finding the “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow. And it is not a secret code, to be deciphered by experts. Rather, I think that we make the meaning of our lives as we go along; human beings are “meaning-makers.” (The origin of the word “meaning” is related to the word for “mind.”) The quest is a continuing and ongoing process: as Ursula K. LeGuin says about love, “it doesn’t sit there like a stone./We need to make it every day, fresh, like bread.” Perhaps, indeed, love and the meaning of life are connected, interwoven. Love (of many kinds, including for life and the world itself) gives meaning to our lives, and our search for meaning can deepen and expand our love.

Warmest wishes to all of you for a healthy, happy, sweet, and creative year ahead.

honey cake with apples, baked by Ellen: baking gives me a warm connection to my mother, and to my great-grandmother, who taaught my mother to bake. August 31 is the anniversary (yahrzeit) of the death of my mother, Viola, in 2009. Her memory is, and may it remain, a blessing. And the same for my father, Harry, and my aunt Jackie (Viola’s sister), who each died on August 10, 1993 and 2010 respectively. Both my maternal grandparents, Rose and Lou, and my parents married in August, too — so it is a month rich with family memories — some bitter, most sweet as honey cake.
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Written on the Body, #41, August 22, 2021: Fortunately and Unfortunately…

“Fortunately and Unfortunately” is the name of story-game I used to play with my wonderful Among Friends writing group, at the end of each session. It’s a round-robin story told by people around the circle, taking turns beginning their short segment with “fortunately” or “unfortunately,” and shows both how life can change from moment to moment, and also how we rarely know for sure what is fortunate or unfortunate. The game comes from an old story in which a man buys a horse, then it runs away, then his son finds it, but breaks his leg riding it home, but then the leg injury exempts him from the army — and so it goes.

This week I have some definitely FORTUNATE news: the CT scan I had on Friday August 13 shows that the new drug is starting to work to reduce the cancer cells. This is wonderful, and hopeful. I continue to be in awe of the doctors and all the staff’s knowledge, skill, and caring.

There is also a piece of unfortunate news — but, in balance, not so bad. We had to cancel our trip to Vancouver Island to see my son Joe and his family, because my chemotherapy was rescheduled from last week to this coming week (Aug. 26), the week we planned to be away, when I would have had a week’s break from treatment.. I think because continity of treatment is important, especially as the drug is working well, the doctors don’t want more than a one-week break in the chemotherapy. Roger, Joe, and I all agree that treatment is the first priority, and — fortunately — we can plan the trip for another time. And with fires and smoky air a possibility in B.C., even on the Island, an autumn trip might work out better. Disappointing, as I was looking forward to seeing Joe, Christina, and their family and doing some fun activities, seeing nature — but this is another example of how very little is under our control — except our attitudes. As Roger often says, “Chaos, not conspiracy” — life is just chaotic, in large and small ways.

We also had a great visit at home this past week with Roger’s son Simon (whom I have known since he was nine, and with whom I feel close.) He is now living in Halifax, in the Canadian Navy — working as a marine technician, fixing ship’s engines — and came back on leave.

I’ll leave it here for now, as I have an interesting blog in mind for #42. Be well, and enjoy the end of summer. September in 10 days!!

Mexican sunflower with bee, in our co-op courtyard. We have a humming-bird, too, though I haven’t seen it yet.

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Written on the Body #40, August 11, 2021: Shadows of Remembrance

Note on websites cited in this post: Due to a computer quirk I do not understand, please do not click on the links directly from the website. You need to take the extra step of copying and pasting the site into a new tab on your browser. I am trying to correct this, but for now I hope you take the extra step — it is worth it!

With so much going on in the world today — covid19 and its variants and vaccines; extreme climate change, with droughts, forest fires, and floods; uncovering the graves of children at Residential schools; other instances of systemic racism; the plight of “the two Michaels” held prisoner in China; even successful events like the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo — one can forget to remember a world-shaking event that took place 76 years ago (the year that I was born.) I am speaking of the nuclear bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, and then Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. It is important to remember the victims, the survivors, their families, and all who have been touched by the threat, if not the effects, of nuclear war. And to find ways that this weapon, and other catastrophic weapons, will not be used again.

For many years, Bryce Kanbara, Hamilton artist and owner of the You Me Gallery, 330 James Street North, organized the Shadow Project on/around August 6, in which volunteers would draw each other’s outlines in chalk on the James Street pavement, to represent the shadows of people instantly vaporized by the blinding heat of the nuclear bomb, leaving their shadows on walls or sidewalks. You can see historic photographs and read a fuller explanation of what happened here: https://allthatsinteresting.com/hiroshima-shadows

I participated for several years in Bryce’s Shadow Project. Although, of course, it was theatre, re-enactment and not “real,” lying down on the pavement and having my shadow drawn, or drawing someone else’s, and seeing the ghostly effects was moving, disturbing, even bone-chilling. And many passers-by stopped to ask what we were doing, and became interested. In 2009, I wrote a poem about this experience, which was later published in HA&L (Hamilton Arts & Letters), with an article about the project. Read the article here, and then follow the link to the poem: https://halmagazine.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/the-shadow-project-2016-%E2%80%A2-hiroshima-and-nagasaki/ I also published the poem in my book, The Day I Saw Willie Mays, and other poems (Pinking Shears Publications, 2019.)

Art, like life, works in mysterious ways. In 2019, Hamilton film-maker Teresa d’Elia began making a film of the Shadow Project, and learned about my poem from Bryce. I was honoured that she chose my poem as the narration of her short film; in the film, the poem is read by spoken-word poet Nisha Patel, with music by Kiyoshi Nagata. The film intersperses scenes from Hamilton in the present with shots from history. You can see a trailer of the film here: https://vimeo.com/534256661. (this is a correction from previous site). Teresa has submitted the film to several festivals, and we hope to have good news very soon, which I will share with you. I deeply appreciate Teresa asking to use my poem in this way.

In 2020, because of the covid19 pandemic, there was an abbreviated version of the Shadow Project, with people wearing masks and limiting their activity to a few minutes. In 2021, it was “on hold” for health concerns, but I hope it can take place again next August.

People have asked if, or how, you can make art from subjects as devastating as the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, 9-11, the Residential Schools, slavery, and other horrors. Some have said this is impossible. On the other hand, one of the functions of art is to make us really see and feel these experiences, to begin to understand and learn from them, and also to allow people who have experienced these events — or their children and grandchildren — to begin to heal. Look at Picasso’s Guernica, Primo Levi’s Night, the poems and paintings by children at Terezin concentration camp, Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, the art exhibit “Being Japanese Canadian: reflections on a broken world,” co-curated by Bryce Kanbara at the ROM in 2019, and (going far back in history) Euripides’ The Trojan Women, for just a few examples. It is mind-boggling to think that the human mind can create both such devastating destruction and such deeply-felt responses in visual art, written word, and music — but we do; perhaps the art comes from using our open hearts as well as our minds.

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