Fifty Shades of Green

Green Abun- Dance

June again. Spring has sprung (despite its late arrival this year) and is rapidly springing into summer.   After the bleak greys and whites (yes, there probably are fifty words for snow) and long hours of darkness of an Ontario winter, what strikes me most about Spring is its abundance of colour —  sunny yellow daffodils and forsythia,  deep red tulips,flowering trees in all their delicate pinks, crimsons, light and dark purples. Above all, the many, many shades of green. Fifty shades of green to play on the title of a famous best-seller.  And there is a deeper connection here.  Gardens, meadows, and woodlands are the life-force of nature, Mother Nature’s erotica and birthing-room. Birds and bees and blossoming.  In Dylan Thomas’s words, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”   And Robert Frost wrote, “Nature’s first green is gold”– referring to the yellow or golden early leaf-buds, looking like tiny flowers.  In college, our freshman English teacher asked the students to learn this 8-line poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,”while walking around the the campus lake.  I did this (perhaps one of the few who did); having grown up in a city, I had never really looked closely at leaves, moss, humus and dirt.  I know the poem by heart, to this day. Green is a colour of both serenity and energy.  Green lights mean GO, and the root (a nice pun!) of the word “green” is akin to “grow” and “grass.”  We also, of course, talk about the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy, and being green with illness — just to show that language, like emotion, is complex and ambivalent.
Relaxing and working in the garden, walking along streets with trees in full leaf, or walking through the woods listening to birds — even a place as near to Hamilton as Royal Botannical Gardens and Cootes Paradise — you feel wonder, delight, a sense of peace and that “all’s right with the world,” despite personal tragedies, political absurdities, and global violence.  The cycle  keeps recurring: spring follows winter, summer follows spring, fall follows summer, then back to winter, and then spring again.
Recently, in the Anne Szumigalski   lecture at the AGM of the League of Canadian Poets, A.F. Moritz talked about the beauty of the garden as a way of talking about the beauty in poetry.  In both, the beauty is in the sense-experience of the moment (light and colour, sound, fragrance), and in the continuing energy of change — seed or bulb becoming stem becoming flower becoming fruit becoming seed, and fallen leaves.  His talk led me to think about Marianne Moore’s famous quote, “Poetry is an imaginary garden with real toads in it.”  Not just real flowers, but real toads that hop and flick their tongues and catch flies. The unexpected, not the traditionally “beautiful.”  I also thought of Japanese gardens, and the story about a monk who tending the monastery garden. He cleaned the flower beds, cut the grass, arranged the stones, raked all the leaves until nothing was out of place. He showed his work to the head monk with a touch of pride — it was perfect.  The head monk nodded, smiled, then went to a big tree and shook its branches until green leaves scattered at random over the grass.  ”There,” he said. “Now it is perfect.”

Yet this brings me to the irony of green, one of the reasons I wanted to write this post.  In Ontario (and many places throughout the world) we spend the months of winter and early spring (this year, even into late April!) longing for green and growing.  The first green shoots and leaves are welcomed, we celebrate the green lawns, growing flowers, leafy canopies of trees.  And then the abundance overflows.  The grass is too long, those few sprigs of lemon balm are now taking over the garden, lovely violets and their leaves are choking the roses, weeds are crowding the tomatoes, that creeping ground-cover is creeping all over the backyard, thick stalks of some bamboo-like tree are creating a forest in the cracks of pavement by the garage, the lilacs have hardly bloomed when they need cutting back, my neighbour’s Manitoba maple clambers over my fence (its leaves a delicatessen for insects), Rose of Sharon seedlings and day-lilies are spreading everywhere.  Mow, prune, pull, weed.   Weed, pull, prune, mow. Lawn bags are filled to the brim with our lovely — but now unwanted — green plants.   We could let it all go — and grow — and the yard would turn into chaos.  For myself, I try to keep things neat, and not have the plants I really want crowded out by others — but I also keep the patches of forget-me-nots, the flowers that have seeded themselves (a cluster of purple, white, and yellow miniature pansies are this year’s wild beauty), and places where a bit of mystery can happen.

Order in chaos, chaos in order, the vitality (sexual, nurturing, humming) that flows through all of life, including us. Remember that photosynthesis — through which the chlorophyll in green leaves uses sunshine to make food — takes in carbon dioxide and gives off oxygen, making it possible for all animal life, including us, to breathe.   Fifty shades of green seems a much better colour for this force than grey.  And probably there are 51, or 62, or 103 — an infinite variety.  ”Glory be to God for dappled things.”

Posted in Reflections | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Words and Images

Hi everyone –

A cold week in January in Hamilton — and over much of the east coast.

Please check out the beautiful and haunting images created for my poem “Water Children” by Steven McCabe, on his site,   This poem was published in 2002 in my book Water Children, and it is one of those poems where I knew there were images behind the words; Steve has now caught the watery, ghostly-yet-alive spirit of the poem in his artwork.  I have just begun to fathom the submerged images Steve saw in my words.

Also on his site are several other “poemimages” by this talented visual artist, who is also a poet in his own right (write).

This leads me to think of the connections and links between different art forms — music, words, visual images, sculpture, dance and theatre.  A friend and I were talking recently about how Picasso’s huge painting Guernica, created in response to the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, is full of sound and movement — screams of horses and wounded people, bombs exploding, feet stamping, children crying, people running and falling, horses galloping — even though we “see” only oil on canvas.

Similarly, a piece of music can fill our minds with visual images, naturalistic or abstract.

The creative spirit speaks to us in many ways, and across time and geography, and it is good to feel we are connected in this way, nourished by the work of others in creating our own images, which in turn might inspire or touch more people, an infinite “web”.

Posted in Reflections | 1 Comment

Reflections on Newtown, Connecticut


Like everyone who has heard this news, I am shocked (yet again), horrified, and deeply saddened by the murders of 20 children, 6 teachers, and the shooter’s mother — as well as his own suicide.  One wonders if he felt any remorse, or if this was just another aspect of the carnage, over-powering rage, and desperation.  We can empathize with everyone who lost a family member — especially the parents who lost their children in this random and cruel way — without even being there to comfort and hold the children as they died, but it is almost impossible to really imagine what that would be like.  I was touched by President Obama’s compassion, and by his determination to do “something” about these mass shootings, even if laws and safeguards cannot do “everything.”  We cannot keep our children entirely safe, as he said, but we can take necessary and sensible steps to keep them SAFER.  Better gun control. As someone said on CBC radio today, “I hope the people who love their guns love their children more.”  And better mental-health systems to diagnose and treat complex situations before they boil over.  (The young man clearly did not have a simple diagnosis of “this” or “that.” And we know that most people with mental-health issues are treatable, and do not become violent in this way).   The school itself seems to have been better prepared than many schools to face an emergency, with lock-down drills in place and teachers aware of what to do — but, sadly, this could not completely prevent the tragedy.  I am moved by the way the people in the community are supporting each other in their grief.

I am reminded of a poem I wrote in March 1998, one year before Columbine, when there was a shooting at a school in Arkansas, by two 12-year-olds who had stolen their parents’ guns.  That took me back to a discussion about guns in a creative-writing class I taught to teenagers in the summer of 1966, in Massachusetts when I was just out of college — as I mention in the poem, John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas in 1963, and that summer a man named Charles Joseph Whitman killed 13 people and wounded 32 others in and around the Tower of the University of Texas in Austin; he had already shot his wife and mother, also in Austin. Whitman himself was killed by a police officer during the incident.  One of my students, the only one in the class from Texas, wrote about killing a deer in the woods, his first hunting experience — and the other students were aghast at this use of a gun; at the time, he did not associate hunting animals with violence toward people.  I would like to cite the poem here.  Please note that I am not condoning his use of a gun, even for shooting deer, and I certainly advocate greater control in the U.S.  I was just writing about the different uses of guns, the growing impact of violence in the U.S. (and the world), and wondering if the process of writing and discussion helped this student become more aware. (I did find a way to contact him, about 10 years after writing the poem, and he is alive and well, remembered the incident, liked the poem, and has not turned to a life of violence).

In peace. 


Where are you now, 32 years after that creative writing class,

I taught, just out of college. Then we were teacher and student,

now that seven-year gap is closing.

We might be friends, even lovers, if we met.

I hadn’t met anyone like you: the only southerner,

Texan, blond and blue-eyed, barely sixteen

raised in the company of men – ranchers, oil-drillers, hunters.

Vietnam was beginning to burn, and that summer

someone named Whitman climbed to the top of a Texas tower,

shot bullets down like bombs on civilians below.

Vengeance or madness, we asked.

We were still reeling from JFK’s murder in Texas,

three years before, followed by Malcolm X’s in New York.

Soon we’d witness the shooting of John’s brother Robert,

and Martin Luther King killed on Good Friday.

Yet you wrote about shooting a deer, your first hunt.

Dawn turned the woods from shadow to gold to green

as you stalked the warm breath, the soft hide. Then the shot,

joining you together in a heartbeat.

The other students gasped, condemned you for holding a rifle,

killing an animal. You couldn’t link that to murder, assassination,

warfare, or mindless violence.

It brought you closer to your father, you said,

to nature, and mysteries you’d only dreamed of.

And you wrote about it, wondering even then what road you’d take.

I think of you now, hearing about boys in Arkansas,

younger than you were, who steal their father’s guns,

shoot other children more casually, more carelessly,

than ever you shot that deer.

I wonder if you joined the army or politics, turned oil-baron like J.R.

became a serial-killer, or grew up to be a writer,

seeing through the eyes of the deer as well as your own.

Are you even still alive, after all this time?

Chip, do you remember that class, your uncertain teachers,

and the girl from Washington State who’d seen too much already

and accused you, wordless, with her doe-like eyes?

Ellen S. Jaffe, published in Water Children (Hamilton: Mini Mocho Press,


Posted in Reflections | Leave a comment

Places — part two

st johns 2012 034

Pond outside St.John’s

Last month I wrote from Newfoundland and Labrador, and now I am in Vancouver, at the other end of the country.  Returning from St. John’s, my plane was delayed by fog and then by Hurricane Sandy — and now I am delayed by snow in Calgary (I am actually writing this on the floor of the Calgary airport, en route from Vancouver to Hamilton; I will probably arrive home around 4:00 a.m. instead of the projected midnight).   Still, despite logistical and weather problems, travelling has shown me yet again how vast this country is — and yet how beautiful, wherever you go, and how connected we all are, despite our different locations.  I loved flying into St. John’s, seeing the fingers of rock jutting into the sea — and then the flat fields, like a monochrome Mondrian painting, as we descended toward Calgary on my outward journey, last Saturday.  Vancouver actually had sunny weather for several days, and my friends and I walked in Lighthouse Park in West Van, seeing the old-growth forest (trees 500 and even 800 years old, cedar and fir) and rocks that are millions of years old — unlike the much younger rocks around most of the city.  The place was green, growing, filled with spirit and power. And yet, a sign told us how many species — plant and animals — were disappearing from this habitat in the past 30 years.  A few days later, I attended a lecture by Tzeporah Berman on her book This Crazy Time,  at the Vancouver Jewish Book Festival, and was heartsick to hear how so many old-growth trees and forests were clear-cut to make toilet paper, telephone books, and Victoria’s Secret catalogues!! There has to be a better way to treat the earth.  Now, Tzeporah told us, her attention has moved from logging to climate change, as global warming is affecting the pine-beetle’s life cycle: the winters are warmer, the beetles do not die in the cold, and so they continue to attack and destroy trees.  Individuals can do our part in recycling and cutting down our energy use — but we ALSO need to join together to influence our government (on all levels, starting with the Federal government) to first acknowledge that climate change is real and is happening “at the speed of darkness”, and then to use the technology already available (as other governments around the world are doing) to fight these changes on a large scale, and improve life on earth into the next generations.

My colleague Lil Blume and I also spoke at the Jewish Book Festival, on our recent anthology Letters & Pictures from the Old Suitcase.  Three authors from the book — Janice Masur, Carolynne Veffer, and Joi Freed-Garrod — joined us to read from their work (and, in Joi’s case, play music), and Lil and I also read from our pieces in the book, as well as talked about our intentions in creating this collection of stories about letters, photos, and treasured objects from our pasts.  Even people who have no tangible mementoes, who had to flee the old world to the new with no suitcases at all, have memories, stories, skills like cooking, singing, stitching, that can be handed down to children and grandchildren.  Even when we have photographs (as in several of my poems) they often raise more questions than they answer — who? when? where?  And yet just asking the questions, finding ways to get in touch with our family history is important.  Like listening to and re-telling the sacred and complex story of the earth, knowing our own personal and cultural stories helps us feel more connected in the present, to our ancestors, ourselves, and our children.  Einstein talked about the “spacetime” of the universe, and we are all travellers in this spacetime, changing time zones as we fly across the country, as we remember our great-grandparents moving from shtetls and steppes, rice-fields and deserts, to this country of Canada, and even as we remember the dinosaurs and their relatives.  Life is always changing — human, animal, vegetable, geological — and though we can’t stop this, we can try to preserve what is important for life, for making the world a better place right now, right here.



Posted in Reflections | Leave a comment

Place in writing and in life: geography, memory, story

Several weeks ago I gave  a talk to the Lit Chat group in Hamilton on the role of place in writing – in memory and in story. This included imaginary and mythical places – the land of fairy tales, “once upon a time,”  “a galaxy far, far, away,”  Tolkien’s Shire and Harry Potter’s Hogwarts  It also included real places we can find on a map and journey to, in our minds or in so-called real life, public places about which we can agree on some features, but for which we each can have our own story.  I was especially interested in places whose names alone tell a story and highlight a traumatic experience of many people and various places—Auschwitz, Wounded Knee, Roben Island, Birmingham (Alabama), Gettsyburg, Flanders Fields, Hiroshima, to name a few.  Even though, for example, the Holocaust and the Nax And I also talked about personal, private places that tell individual stories, often remembered from childhood: the Bird Sanctuary one of my friends remembers from the Baltimore of his childhood –  not an official bird sanctuary but a wooded area behind a church where he and his friends would climb trees, see birds, and have adventures involving pirates and buried treasure.  I had my birch tree with 4 trunks behind the playground fence in Central Park, providing a lap where I could sit, look up at the leaves and sky, and be both alone and part of the nature around me.  I don’t think I had a special name for it, but it was a special place.

This summer and fall, I have been travelling more than usual, so I have actually been to several places, both new to me and familiar, and this has led me to think even more about place and its role in our stories.

Raleigh and the Black Mountains, North Carolina: I have never been here; was going to Raleigh for a wedding and spent a few days visiting a friend who lives in the Black Mountains, near Ashville (about 3 hours west of Raleigh) – crossed the Eastern Continental Divide, just after a thunderstorm, and spent the nights listening to cicadas in the trees outside the house.

Boston: I went to college in Wellesley, just outside Boston, and spent the weekend visiting a group of college friends who have been getting together almost every year for at least twenty years – though I can only join them some of the time.  We took a walking tour of Concord – saw Walden Pond, where Thoreau had his cabin, saw the bridge where “the shot heard round the world” (the beginning of the American Revolution – were fired), looked at the old 17th century houses, and saw the graves of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott.  We also spent time on one of the group’s front porch, and ate at a sea-food restaurant in downtown Boston.

The trip continued as I took the train to New York, the city where I grew up.  Other people go to New York to see plays and museums – I go to walk the familiar streets, as if I were returning to a small town.  My aunt, age 90, still lives in the apartment across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I used to visit as a child – she’s been there almost 60 years, but only on recent visits have I been allowed in the sanctuary of the kitchen, and her bedroom.  I also stayed with a cousin I haven’t seen for over 30 years, who lives on Sutton Place near the East River, and we visited her mother, 91, who lives in a nursing home in New Jersey.  She remembers my great-grandmother, her Aunt Mary, from her childhood in the 1920’s and ‘30’s – a real pleasure for me to hear her stories, as I remember Mary from my own childhood, 25 years later – Mary died at 91 or so, when I was in college.  Although I didn’t see it this visit, I know the house where she and her family lived when they first came to New York from Russia is still there, a brick tenement on Rivington Street, the Lower East Side – if it hasn’t been torn down since last May in a wave of expensive gentrification.

And now – the final place in this geograph:  Newfoundland, where as I write this I am listening to the wind whipping and whirling through the trees outside my window at the Piper’s Frith writing workshop, and watching the waves and white currents on the Piper’s Hole River as it flows toward Placentia Bay – truly a new-found-land for me, and also a place where I am surrounded not only by nature but by history and community, the stories of people who have lived here for generations, and the older stories of the rocks and geologic formations (not for nothing is Newfoundland called The Rock), written in a language I need to learn how to read.  Yesterday was blue, sunny, warm – today it is wild, cold, grey as certain stones, gold and occasional red leaves shining through like bright mineral streaks, river running high and wavy, ravens and gulls flying past the window on this rocketing wind.


At The Rooms, the wonderful museum in St. John’s, curators are asking people for stories of recent history – World War One, Confederation, cod-fishing, St. John’s history.  In another room, you can see the flint spear-tips, bone needles, and other tools used by the first settlers – up to 10,000 years ago.  And in the adjacent exhibit case, rocks and fossils dating back 500 million (500, 000, 000) years.  The writing mentors at this workshop (Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, Don McKay) have all written about the island and its past and present –from an oil-rig disaster in the 1980’s to the Beothuk Indians to the ancient rocks themselves.  It is all story, as Gregory Bateson wrote.  I have, over the years, gone to several writing workshops at “the other end of the earth” – New Mexico, Key West, Vancouver Island, Newfoundland:  perhaps the displacement of being in a new place, with different sights, sounds, smells, as well as new people, helps the writing move into new territory, explore new shores, seas, and hinterlands, not to conquer or colonize, but to go fearward , risk new directions, learn new customs and languages, and report back on my discoveries.

So what are your stories of place – real and imagined; your childhood home and haunts, the places you have lived since then, the sites/sights you have seen on your travels?  What would the place say, if it could speak?



Posted in Reflections | 2 Comments

The Value of Poetry

Late summer and early fall….a good time for taking stock and new beginnings.  August 31 is also the anniversary (yahrzeit, in Yiddish) of my mother’s death in 2009, so a special time for reflection.  Earlier this week, I told a good friend that this was the “anniversary week” for my mother and I was feeling fragile.  Almost immediately, he texted me a link to this website:

which turned out to be an article, with examples, about “mathexpressive poetry” by Bob Grumman.  I won’t try to paraphrase the article here — you need to read it — but, in essence, this is poetry depicting mathematical processes like long division and multiplication to show the relationships between words and images, not numbers.  It is partly a visual poetry, but depends on the evocative and symbolic meanings of words and the resonances between them.   The article was a challenging and fascinating read, but what stood out for me was that, as I finished it, I felt a tremendous sense of joy and release.

Why did this happen? I wondered.  How could reading an article about a new kind of poetry make me feel this way?

At one point, the author remarks that “I felt no work not an attempt at friendship with those encountering it was poetry…”  In other words, a poem is an act of friendship, an encounter. I think there are actually several encounters reverberating in a poem: the writer’s encounter with the experience (inner and outer) that inspired the poem, the writer finding the right language with which to make the poem, and the reader’s encounter with the words on the page — which connect to his or her own experience.    When I looked up “friend” in my trusty etymological dictionary, I found that it is related to the word “free,” which in its Old English, Old Norse, Old High German, and even Sanskrit roots also means “peace” and “love.” Joy Harjo, Native American poet, has said: “Ultimately, a poem has an electrical force field, which is love.” (Note that she uses a scientific concept as a metaphor to express her thought.) Her statement seems akin to Grumman’s remark about friendship.  And it connects, I think, to a poem written by a woman in a Toronto residence for street people, which contains this line:  ”It’s not possible to love art without love.”  She adds that “it (love) wouldn’t not know that we want it.”

All of this is “telling a truth, but telling it slant” — in Emily Dickinson’s words, quoted by Grumman.  At this moment, reading an article about a new kind of poetry– which uses the elegant, beautiful processes of math, such as long division, to show how words, ideas, and images connect — touched a place deep within me: that place where making art = making love = making friends = play and delight.   Grumman talked about everything from “a thunderstorm’s tearing up the day” (reminding me of a poem I wrote to my friend Malca Litovitz, in which I mentioned her poem about rain breaking open the day) to ships and friendship.

Knowing that I write poetry, my friend might well have sent me this link any day of the year.  But he sent it on this particular day, to cheer me up, an act of friendship.  I think he knew, intuitively, that it would have that effect — even though I wasn’t sure, at first, why I should read this article called “summerthings.”  After reading it, I was struck, yet again, by how rich the life of the imagination is, and how art and emotion are so intricately and intimately interwoven, in an equation that shows us the value (in every sense of the word) of poetry.    And I think my mother would understand this, too. Thanks/Gracias/Namaste

Posted in poetry, Reflections | 4 Comments

working family stories and treasures

gr-grandmother's home
Mary Axelrod lived here

Concurrent with the Jewish Literary Festival is an ongoing project called WFST, about the working lives of the Jewish community in Hamilton.  The project is taking place in various locations around Hamilton. There will a final exhibit of many of the artworks and stories produced during the project at the YouMe Gallery, 330 James St. North, in October 2012.  Watch this space for more details. Mary Axelrod, Ellen’s great-grandmother, lived in this house on Rivington St. in NYC as a young girl, after immigrating from Russia.  Many Jewish immigrants to Hamilton lived in similar surroundings on James St. North and vicintiy.


Posted in poetry | Tagged | Leave a comment

cBook Launch for Letters & Pictures from the Old Suitcase

Fan by Holly Briesmaster, at a group exhibit by “Sixis” at the Papermill Gallery, Todmorden Mills, Toronto, in March 2012.

Please join Ellen at the Book Launch for Letters & Pictures from the Old Suitcase: at the 3rd Hamilton Jewish Literary Festival

Where: Temple Anshe Sholom, 215 Cline Avenue North, Hamilton, Ontario When: Sunday June 3, 2012, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m



From Sinai to the Shtetl….” and “Letters & Pictures from the Old Suitcase

These two anthologies are the beginning of a potentially ongoing series edited by Ellen S. Jaffe and Lil Blume and published by our own organization, Pinking Shears Publications. The contributing authors are Jewish writers, mainly from Canada with a few from the U.S., and the stories, poems, and commentaries are ways of reflecting on and defining the Jewish experience of immigration and settling in Canada, based on our personal and family histories. We acknowledge the support of Temple Anshe Sholom and of Allegra Marketing Print Mail through their FootPRINTS fund.

Please download thePDF for more details on the Festival

Posted in Book Launch | Leave a comment