Written on the Body #33, March 8, 2021: International Women’s Day

A short comment on International Women’s Day: a time to celebrate our minds, spirits, emotions, and bodies; rejoice in our achievements (those that have earned fame, and the small achievements and successes of everyday life, love, and work); mourn those women who have suffered at the hands of men’s violence and patriarchal values (again, those whose names we know and those who are anonymous); to honour our foremothers and our children (daughters and sons); to praise our creative work in art, science, healing, politics, and more; and also to recognize the men who have gone/are in the process of going beyond patriarchal values to respect and support us, and the men in our circle of family and friends whom we love. (I think this last phrase needs to be said, though some people might not want to be so inclusive).

In particular, I want to honour my two foremothers who immigrated to North America from Eastern Europe, to create better lives for themselves and their families: My maternal great-grandmother, Mary Becker Axelrod, who (according to my mother) made the journey alone from Lithuania at age 14 to join her parents and brothers, first in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and then on the Lower East Side of New York City, and my paternal grandmother, Sarah R. Jaffe, who travelled from Russia (probably from Pinsky, near Minsk) with her 2-year-old daughter — my Aunt Betty — to escape a bad marriage or other situation, and then met my grandfather, Sam Jaffe (not the actor!) in New York. I knew both these women, in their later years — they each lived until 90 or so — and I am grateful to have inherited some of their courage and spirit. I wish I had asked them more about the stories of their lives. And also a shout-out to the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg, with whom I share a birthday, March 15. May all the memories of all the women who have graced our lives be a blessing.

“For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.”Audre Lorde

Mary Becker Axelrod, above; Sarah R. Jaffe, below

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Written on the Body, #32, March 6, 2021: Some Uncertainty Resolved, Celebrating Black History, and Some Good Points for Uncertainty

To continue the medical news from the last blog, the doctors have decided NOT to do a second course of radiation at this time, basically because I am not sick enough. So this is good news. After a thorough review, the radiologist explained that it is less safe to do a second course of radiation than a first treatment, and they will never do a third course. So at this time, when I am asymptomatic (eating well, talking, no pain, no weight loss), and the tumour has only begun growing slightly, they want to hold radiation in reserve (in case things get worse) and continue with chemotherapy. It was a relief for me to have a decision, one way or another. I am still only on one chemo drug, an IV every 3 weeks; my oncologist may decide to put me back on chemo pills that I was taking at home for 2 weeks after each IV. The pills had some side-effects, but I can live with those if they help reduce the tumour.

Now, to more general issues. In my last blog, listing the holidays and events in February, I forgot to mention two very important ones: Black History Month in Canada, and the Lunar New Year, this year The Year of the Ox. I apologize for these omissions. Here is a quote from the Canadian government’s heritage website about the origins of Black History Month, a time for “celebrating resilience, innovation, and determination to work towards a more inclusive and diverse Canada—a Canada in which everyone has every opportunity to flourish.” This is especially important this year, as in both Canada and the U.S. we recognize the ongoing existence, and the dangers, of systemic racism.

In 1978, the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) was established. Its founders, including Dr. Daniel G. Hill and Wilson O. Brooks, presented a petition to the City of Toronto to have February formally proclaimed as Black History Month. In 1979, the first-ever Canadian proclamation was issued by Toronto. The first Black History Month in Nova Scotia was observed in 1988 and later renamed African Heritage Month in 1996. In 1993, the OBHS successfully filed a petition in Ontario to proclaim February as Black History Month. Following that success, Rosemary Sadlier, president of the OBHS, introduced the idea of having Black History Month recognized across Canada to the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament. In December 1995, the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month in Canada following a motion introduced by Dr. Augustine. The House of Commons carried the motion unanimously. In February 2008, Senator Donald Oliver, the first Black man appointed to the Senate, introduced the Motion to Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians and February as Black History Month. It received unanimous approval and was adopted on March 4, 2008. The adoption of this motion completed Canada’s parliamentary position on Black History Month. (https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/black-history-month/about.html).

And here is a link to a poem written and read by a 13-year-old girl in Nova Scotia, Damini Awoyiga, whom I met online after hearing that she made masks to sell, and then discovered she is also a fine poet. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1850248771603

Recognizing the Lunar New Year also acknowledges and celebrates Canada’s Chinese population, who have also made great contributions to this country. The year of the ox, as I understand it, represents hard work and responsibility.

Finally, a brief word about the value of uncertainty. As humans, we tend to want certainty, though we know that the world is uncertain, in both large and small ways. Physicists tell us this: Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” says that we can know where something is OR how fast it is moving, but not both at once. And Erwin Schrodinger wrote that the universe is made up of everything we know — and everything else. Indigenous writer Richard Wagamese echoes this: “The truest statement in the world is ‘you never know.’ There is always something to evoke wonder, to wonder about, because this world, this life, this universe is more than the sum of its parts.” (Embers: One Ojibway’s Meditations, p. 99. Physicist Carlo Rovelli, who is also a student of poetry and the classics, tells us that being open to uncertainty allows us to be open to possibility, to innovation, to creativity; to build on the thoughts and ideas of those who have come before, but to criticize those ideas (without condemning them as evil) in ways that let our knowledge and understanding of the world grow and develop, and let us deal with new situations and information, without being tied to traditions and beliefs. (Carlo Rovelli, The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy.). And Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Knowing this can be freeing, not frightening, and give us a more realistic sense of being in the world. Good things to keep in mind. And we can keep the certainty of closeness to the people in our lives (despite changing circumstances), the joys of nature and art, the steadiness of breathing in and out.

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Written on the Body #31, Feb. 17, 2021: Hope and Uncertainty

Hello. sorry it has been a while since I wrote. As a friend of mine once remarked, “things have been moving at the speed of darkness.”

February is a short month, but with many holidays. February 2 is “groundhog day,” when, according to the vagaries of the various rodents and their shadows, we know if we will have 6 more weeks of winter or an early spring. Given the cold weather and snow across Canada and all through the U.S., including Texas, it looks like we’re having more winter, at least for now.

However, there are signs of spring on the horizon — the afternoons stay light longer, and the Jewish holiday Tu Bishvat, the New Year of the Trees, celebrates the trees renewed growth. (The holiday falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month Shevat, which this year fell on Jan. 27 -Jan. 28). Then Feb. 1-2 is the Gaelic holiday of Ibolc, also known as Brigid’s Day, which celebrates the beginning of spring (midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox) and the birth of the season’s new lambs, and also budding of trees and plants. the goddess Brigid (Christianized to St. Bridget), who protected hearth and home. Fires and candles were lit to show the returning warmth and light, and water from holy wells was used to bless homes, land, and livestock. Some say the holiday also commemorates poetry — perhaps because poems also “spring up” and blossom from the poet’s imagination.

Then there is Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, celebrating love, and Family Day (in Ontario) — a civic holiday honouring the family (so with links back to Imbolc!). In other provinces of Canada, the holiday has different names. And today, February 17, is the second “I Read Canadian Day,” celebrating Canadian writers and illustrators, especially those for children. So — even if you are reading this after Feb. 17, go find and read a Canadian book. There is plenty of time to do this, as most of us are sheltering at home from covid — and from winter.

My own treatment continues, and fortunately I am still feeling well, with good “quality of life,” as they say. Eating, talking, walking with no pain or discomfort, able to focus on reading, writing, and cooking — I made an angel food cake for Valentine’s Day, at Roger’s request (I hadn’t made one before, and it turned out both light and flavourful) and, earlier this winter, a yeast coffee cake similar to the one my mother used to make. Next project is pizza crust!

However (yes, there is a however), my CT scan in mid-January showed some “thickening,” or growth, of the original esophagus tumour, although there is no further spread of the cancer and the lesions in my liver are smaller — which is good. The options to treat this are another short course of radiation (I had some radiation when I was first diagnosed, which was helpful) or adding a secondary chemotherapy drug, probably the one that has been on hold for several months because of its side-effects. I would continue having some chemo in any case (though with a short break if I have radiation). The advantage of radiation is that it specifically targets the tumour, and new techniques have made it easier to hit the cancer cells and not the surrounding normal tissue. And yet, apparently, radiation a second time is trickier than the first. I saw the radiation oncologist on Feb. 17 and she scheduled a “planning CT scan” for Feb. 19 to see if, in fact, the radiation can be done safely at this time. We should know the results early next week. I had hoped to have a definite plan to report in this blog, but I also want to send the blog out now — and I will send an update when I know if I will have radiation or just continue with chemo. I feel that if the radiation is considered both safe and effective, it is a good plan — and I’ve talked with Roger, with my son Joe and other close family, who support this decision. There are no guarantees, of course, but so far the two years since diagnosis have been much better than I originally thought, and I feel in good hands with the doctors and staff at Princess Margaret Hospital.

When I trained in psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic in London, U.K., one of the principles we learned was that “you need walk in uncertainty” for a while, both with yourself and with your clients, and this has proved true for so much of life — including dealing with cancer and, for the world during the past year, dealing with covid-19 and its variants. As well as the ongoing striving for justice and overcoming system racism in our society, and the perils of climate change.

So in this season between winter and spring, darkness and light, let’s continue to see the light increase each day, in small increments, and enjoy the good moments each day brings. And even though zoom, email, phone, etc. are not a complete substitute for in-person connections, they are SO MUCH better than nothing — and a way to keep in touch during these changing times.

Reading Recommendations (Canadian and beyond): I’ve been re-reading Toni Morrison’s novels, which are wonderful. I’ve discovered a writer of tales for both adults and young adults, Charles DeLint (living in Ottawa) whose stories are fantasy grounded in reality (or vice-versa): a good one is The Wind in his Heart. And the Broken Earth trilogy by U.S. writer N.K. Jemisin is an amazing, complex story of destruction and salvation — her writing is brilliant. And two friends of mine, one Canadian and one in the U.S., have published good novels this year: Shaena Lambert (Vancouver)’s Petra, about German Green Party activist/feminist Petra Kelly, and Lisa Alther (Vermont & Tennessee)’s Swan Song, a kind of modern Odyssey — life, death, and pirates!

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Written on the Body, #30: January 18, 2021, The Winter of Discontent

Welcome to the New Year! Or is this just 2020 continued?

A friend who follows my blog asked why I hadn’t written a comment right after the insurrection attempt in Washington D.C. on January 6. Or were we all left speechless, she wondered.

I had been planning a blog about my anxieties re having cancer in the middle of a pandemic, and how the two anxieties were compounding each other — despite my attempts in this blog to stay positive, and my genuine feelings that life is still good, I am enjoying many things, and I am luckier than many cancer patients — and of course people who have covid-19 or are affected by it in worse ways than I am. But after Jan. 6, that didn’t seem immediately relevant.

But what could I say? The insurrection (not just a riot) was incited by Trump, despite his later denials, encouraged by the Senators and Representatives who continued to challenge the election results and promote the fallacy of a “stolen” election, and fuelled by so many angry, fearful, misguided people. And we kept understanding more implications of this event. Where were the police, who knew this “march” on the Capitol was happening? If it had been a Black Lives Matter protest, armed police would have had a major presence before the march started. And no Black Lives Matter or related protest has attacked a major institution, disrupting a legitimate democratic process and bringing weapons and symbols of hate and prejudice (the Confederate Flag, the Camp Auschwitz shirt). How did the people who broke into the Capitol know where to go — how to find Nancy Pelosi’s office, for example? I think it was right and appropriate to impeach Trump again for his seditious talk and actions; even though his administration is about to end, it is important to hold him accountable.

Though many people said they were surprised this happened in the U.S., I have not had any illusions that “it can’t happen here” (the U.S., or anywhere), and see this as the culmination of the four years of Trump’s Presidency — and the statements and actions he made during 2016 campaign. Just because someone is “elected,” doesn’t mean they won’t do great harm (and remember that Trump did not win the popular vote in 2016, but was elected through the archaic Electoral College.) I am looking forward to Jan. 20 and the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, and the terms of the two new Senators from Georgia, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossof. Let’s hope that real, humane changes can start soon. to bring the U.S. (and the world) back to saner and safer place.

My friend Diane Ray, in Seattle, wrote a poem that was published online on Jan. 7: https://www.indolentbooks.com/transition-poems-in-the-afterglow-01-07-21-diane-ray/

I admired her being able to write a whole poem in such a short time, when I could hardly find any words at all. But then, this poem started to take form, which I will share here. More medical news and views soon. Happy Martin Luther King Day!

They Came to the Capitol

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?  W.B. Years, “The Second Coming”

We saw the rough beast slouch, slither, and stomp

its way to the Capitol,

heeding its misanthropic master,

past-master of lies, deceit, arrogance,

and mocking cruelty. They bought

into marching orders that never should have been ordered,

broke windows and laws,

bones and the sense of decency and patriotism,

even as they paraded sham-patriotic signs

and slogans.   Did you see the Confederate flags

and the Auschwitz sweatshirt,

among the red-white-and-blue placards

waved by these ghost-white, sheet-white,rebels,

storming unmasked in the middle of a pandemic?

Their violence was also naked, unmasked,

urged on by their hero, encouraged

by other legislators (even those who now cry foul).

The leader who incited them to “glory”

now reads teleprompter words in a flat, lifeless voice,

urging calm, denouncing the “heinous” act, promising peaceful transition — 

after weeks of swearing how badly he’d been robbed.

But he ends his talk with animation: 

our incredible journey is only beginning.

No, his journey is ending — finished, past, kaput,

over and done with.

And so, I hope, is his followers’ —

may they see their folly before too late.

And may what slouches birthward in this city, this nation,

 be human, not monster,

liberty and justice for all 

 a reality for all of us, each one of us

in our own skin and heart,

 not another lie masquerading as the truth.

c. Ellen S. Jaffe, Jan. 2021

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Written on the Body, #29: December 24, 2020: Light Returns

So it is Christmas Eve, just past Winter Solstice, Chanukah has come and gone (Dec. 10-17), and the new year is coming.

Beginning again — I started this on Christmas Eve, then got a case of fatigue — surprising, since we do so little these days. Maybe just computer fatigue. Roger and I had celebrated Chanukah earlier this month, using a menorah that we used in my family as I was growing up (see photo), and we had a lovely but quiet Christmas, with gifts to each other and cooking a nice dinner, and zoom calls to family — though there were little mishaps: we couldn’t connect to the zoom meeting with my son and his partner, as I had accidentally entered the meeting twice, so finally Joe set up a zoom meeting for us, and we had a good conversation. And we set a just-baked pumpkin pie on a stove burner to cool — not knowing the burner had been turned on — so the glass (supposedly Corning) exploded into shards. But I had left-over pumpkin and left-over dough, so I remade the pie in a smaller version. And I had the wrong street-name for a gift of flowers we were sending to Roger’s sister and my good friend Liz in Houston — so I had to email the florist the correct address this morning (fortunately, the flowers were scheduled for delivery later today); she just received them. If the past two years have taught me anything, it is a sense of perspective (something I’ve been learning, with a bit of difficulty, for years) — so we enjoyed our dinner, our gifts, our families, and the pleasure of being together and feeling relatively well.

We also, of course, have been caring about the wider community — in Canada, the U.S., the world — during the pandemic and the ongoing struggle for racial justice and justice in all areas of life: for women, the LGBTQ community, people in persecuted communities of all kinds. We think about the people who have died and been ill with covid-19, and their families and friends, and the people who have lost their jobs during this time, as well as the front-line health workers and other essential workers (hospital cleaners, people who work in grocery stores and pharmacies, in meat-packing plants and other factories, truck drivers, teachers in the classroom) often already on the margins of society. It is the middle-class and well-to-do people who get to work at home on their computers! So we gave money to Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank, as a way of providing tangible aid and support, to both people with food-insecurities and the agency workers, and to UNICEF, to help children in other parts of the world.

We are glad Roger’s physiotherapy clinic is also open during the current lockdown — thank you to the therapists who work there! It was closed for a few months during the spring, which exacerbated his arthritis pain. The other things we miss — coffee and dinners out, meeting a friend for tea, going to the theatre or a museum — are really just luxuries (back to that sense of perspective!). What is more subtle, but there, is the anxiety people feel about seeing each other, speaking to each other on the street and in stores 00 the fear of getting or giving the disease. But even in this regard, I have seen moments of caring and connection. We all miss the warmth and “physicality” of being in the actual presence of a friend or loved one; zoom is great up to a point, as are email, phone calls, and other social-media connections — but hugs are important, too. The vaccine is here — and coming to most of us sometime in the new year. It’s wonderful how quickly not one but two or more vaccines have been developed, and I am glad the intention is to get them to remote Northern and Indigenous communities as well as people in cities.

Things are going well with my treatment. The new drug (new for me, and newly developed) that I started in June is still working to reduce the cancer lesions, with no further spread. And, at least for the time being, I am off the secondary drug that gave me some side effects, so I am feeling well, just tired. (“I haven’t done anything and I’m still tired!” I said to Roger the other day. Part of this is probably aging, too (but not all). I have been writing, and have had some poems accepted for 2 print anthologies and an on-line journal in the new year: details to come when I know more.

I have been connecting more with cousins and other family members, and I want to say how grateful I am for my extended family, and for Roger’s extended family, who welcome me as part of their warm-hearted clan. And for my friends and writing colleagues for your support, and just being who you are. One friend from elementary school found me (somewhere online) and we’ve been exchanging memories and photographs. And I recently submitted some poems to a publisher in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia, which has led to a few lovely email conversations with the person who responded to me. Thanks to the people who have found new and creative ways to work online, including: Lit Live in Hamilton, Voices Israel, and other poetry and prose readings, concerts, theatre events. Wellspring and Jean Jackson for relaxation/guided imagery groups. My Hamilton yoga teachers Andrea Soos and Andrea Michaliuk. Special, personal thanks to the staff at Princess Margaret, who have not stopped being there to provide medical care (and everything that goes with it). I notice that even the clerks at the door, asking us the usual covid-19-symptom questions, take time to speak in a friendly way with people who need extra assistance. And of course, thanks to Roger, and to Joe and Christina and their family.

I think that the underlying meaning of Chanukah, underneath the historical events (by a “miracle,” a small flask of oil, only enough for 1 day, lasted 8 days as the temple in Jerusalem was being restored after its destruction) is the miracle of the return of light: the return of the sun’s light after Winter Solstice, and the return of hope and better times after a time of difficulty and trauma. And Christmas, too, celebrates miracles of light and rebirth. So I wish all of you — all of us — more light, more hope, more joy and easier lives in 2021. In the words of poet Jane Hirshfield: “So few grains of happiness/measured against all the dark/and still the scales balance.” (from “An Ode to Resilience”)

Chanukah candles, 8th night, 2020, and, below, a family picture from about 1957, in which I am lighting the same menorah. Pictured are my grandmother Rose (behind me), her sister my great-aunt Zelda, my great-grandmother Mary (their mother), in her mid-80’s, my grandfather Lou (Rose’s husband), and my father; my mother is taking the picture.

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Written On the Body, #28, November 24, 2020: November Highs and Lows

As Thomas Hood wrote in an often-quoted poem,

No sun — no moon!
No morn — no noon —
No dawn — no dusk — no proper time of day.
 

No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member —
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! —
November!

This year, in particular, November has been a strange month, with a sense of waiting for something to happen. The U.S. election took place — but the final results weren’t known for several days, and then, despite the relief that many of us (in Canada as well as the U.S.) felt at Biden and Harris’s win, we’ve had the spectacle of Trump and other Republicans — both elected officials and ordinary voters — trying to sabotage the legitimate results, alleging fraud when none existed and trying to sway election officials. I am glad that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have begun making and announcing plans, nominating people for major positions, and continuing with the transition as best they can. Let’s hope this leads to a more sane and humane government in the U.S. — which will affect both that country and the rest of the world — for the next four years and beyond, and that he and his administration can deal effectively with the pandemic, climate change, racial and social justice. (if anyone reading this disagrees with me, please feel free to comment).

Then there is the second wave of COVID-19, with appalling numbers in the U.S. and an equally alarming rise in cases in Canada (though the actual numbers are lower). We waited each day to hear the news: will Toronto go into lock-down? What about other cities and provinces? Now Toronto and Peel are in lock-down until Dec. 21. What about U.S. Thankgiving? people ask. What about Christmas? (and Chanukah).

I appreciate several U.S. friends reading about this and writing to ask if the lockdown affects my cancer treatments. Fortunately, no — like last spring, health-care treatments are not affected, and my chemotherapy and tests are going on as usual. Of course, the rise in Covid-19 cases is making me more anxious about getting the virus, and I have been taking more precautions as a result — although we were already staying home except for essential appointments and occasional shopping (and we are getting many things, like meat and coffee, delivered in quantity to the house). We’ve had no patio dining, walks in parks, museum trips, even when these places were open. We wait (and wait) for the vaccine.

But the cancer treatment itself is going well. I had a CT scan on Nov. 16 — and, as always, worried about what the results would show. I am thankful the scan showed further improvement in reducing the cancer lesions. They thought they saw a shadow that might have been a blood clot in a vein in my leg — but within 2 days of the CT scan, I had another, more accurate test — a Doppler ultra-sound — that showed everything is working normally. I am so pleased at both the thoroughness and the quickness of the care I am getting; I thought I might have to wait weeks for the ultra-sound. (The quickness does show that the doctors considered the problem serious — so I am especially relieved things are okay.) And I had another IV treatment on Nov. 19, which went smoothly. I am now used to the routine of these treatments, which happen every 3 weeks. I want to talk about some details of this treatment, which might help demystify it.

As I have said to some friends, it is like sitting in an airplane for a long flight — though without the offer of drinks or movies. (I can bring snacks and books, and use my phone). There are variations — which room will I be in? which nurse will be my special attendant? will I be in a section with one other person or several (all more than six feet apart and all masked, of course). The nurses (both female and male) are all good, but have different personalities. The one I just had last week had a voice like an actor or singer and moved like a dancer, and he spoke in metaphors: the chemotherapy drug is like “the main character appearing onstage,” after the pre-meds; the side-effect of a burning sensation on one’s feet is like “walking on fire;” COVID-19, for people who haven’t experienced it, is like “a unicorn — you know about it but can’t believe it’s real.” Maybe, being a poet, I took special notice of these things.

And at the previous session, the technician taking my blood noticed the book I was reading — a science fiction tale — and asked if it was good; he’s into sci-fi and had seen this author recommended on a book list.

Writing this, I can see that all these procedures have a sci-fi element, but they are also scientific and personal. The conversations with staff provide a more human, personal touch for both me and the health-care workers, and show their interest in people as well as their highly-skilled professionalism.

I have taken to wearing a “Where the Wild Things Are” t-shirt to treatments; it has a low neckline providing easier access to the port in my chest, to which the IV line is attached, and it feels good to have a kind of “uniform” for the treatments. The shirt, too, sometimes elicits comments from the nurses.

Speaking of science-fiction, I have been reading novels by Patricia Briggs, which give a very human look at werewolves, vampires, shape-shifters, and other creatures (one of the principal characters, who shape-shifts into a coyote, also bakes chocolate-chip cookies and fixes cars!). And I have been very impressed with the Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin (The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky): a mythic story about the end — and new beginning — of a strange, alternate world that has the ring of deep truth.

My son celebrated his 40th birthday on Nov. 5, with a zoom birthday party, and he and his family are doing well in their corner of Vancouver Island. As I said, Roger and I continue to “shelter at home” most of the time, and keep in touch with family on friends by zoom, phone, and email.

Wishing you all well as the days shorten and then — just a month from now — begin, slowly, to regain the light. (Thanks to my friend Twyla for sending me a box of Chanukah candles, a holiday which celebrates both light and miracles). Stay safe and find some “healthful ease.”

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Written On the Body #27, October 28, 2020 — The Uncertainty Principle

In physics, the uncertainty principle — articulated by Werner Heisenberg — states that we can know how fast something is going OR its exact location now, but NOT both at the same time. mataphorically, the uncertainty principle applies to all of life. As in surfing, we have to learn to ride with this — and, for me, knowing life is uncertain makes me feel better than firmly believing in things that, invariably, change and are beyond our control.

Now it is almost Hallowe’en — the time when, according to some, the veil between worlds is at its thinnest — hence the allure of ghosts, goblins, ghouls wearing masks (highly appropriate this year!). It is the time of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos and the Gaelic/Celtic Samhain, the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter — when offerings of food and drink were left outside to appease the visiting spirits. Fall turning into winter, the days winding down to the Winter Solstice (shortest day and longest night) with the trick or treat of the light returning, little by little, and winter turning into spring. The costumes and masks all the seasons wear! In Greek mythology, Persephone has now eaten her 6 pomegranate seeds and must stay underground for the winter, her mother Demeter haunting the earth as she searches for her daughter. This is relevant to our times in terms of climate change, as well as the universal themes of death and rebirth, grief, mothers and daughters. A time of uncertainty on many levels. The most basic one being, in all times and places, Will we survive the winter? The cold, the ice, the isolation. Think of Game of Thrones, and “Winter is coming.”

There is uncertainty about COVID-19 and about the U.S. elections — which, to me, are a question of ethics, humanity, and moral compass, not only “personality and character,” as some commentators say. Uncertainty about whether we can bring more justice and equality into our world, our lives. Uncertainty about the climate and what we can do to prevent disaster (and to wake up people who do not want to see the disaster coming, both in society and for the planet if we do nothing about these issues).

I have uncertainty about my health (despite the current improvements), Roger’s health, the health and well-being of people I know and love, as well as of the world in general. Some days, it’s even hard to remember the right word for something I want to say, or know if a sneeze or a twinge is just a momentary thing or something more!

And yet there are some things we can be certain about. The love we feel for (and from) family, partners, friends. The beauty of nature: now, gold leaves against a blue sky… and in the spring, green leaves emerging. Even the cold beauty of snow. Planting bulbs for spring — hoping they survive not only the cold but also the squirrels (who see newly-planted bulbs as a personal gift). The beauty of art, music, writing , theatre and dance — and sharing these with each other, even now through zoom and other on-line sites. The kindness of strangers, like the woman waiting with me at the streetcar stop on Parliament and Gerrard, who saw the “Princess Margaret Hospital” sticker on my jacket (I had just come from an appointment, and received the sticker to show I was free of covid) and asked how I was doing. “Small beauties,” in poet Sharon Olds’ words: making a peach-blackberry pie; wearing a comfortable old sweater or a new flannel shirt whose colours and fit make it feel familiar; old photographs and their memories. Passing on things we love to people who need them now: one of my friends gave her father’s old Navy sleeping-bag (still in good condition!) to a church helping the homeless in Toronto; I sent my cousin’s daughter a coral necklace worn by my great-grandmother, a necklace I have treasured for years, when she wanted family pictures and heirlooms after her grandmother’s (my aunt’s) death this summer, at age 98.

On a happier note, it will be my son’s 40th birthday on Nov. 5, and his partner, Christina, just graduated from her Nurse-Practitioner program. We were able to see the graduation ceremony on zoom.

And to pick up a loose thread, yes the tomato plants had more flowers — but only one tiny green fruit that never ripened. I was going to use it in cooking, but I think a squirrel found it. We’ll try again next year.

So — as Jack Layton said — stay loving, hopeful, optimistic — even now. And enjoy treats and small beauties. Painting below is by Rita-Anne Piquette (1953-2017), framed by trees outside my window. And there is pie…

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Written on the Body, #26, October 6, 2020 — Another Poem

I’m writing this soon after the previous post, but I want to share a wonderful reason to be thankful this (Canadian) Thanksgiving. I saw my oncologist this morning, and he is very pleased with the progress I am making with my new drug; I get another round this Thursday. He showed me a print-out of my recent CT scan, and the cancer cells in the liver continue to shrink significantly in size, with no further spread. He has also stopped, temporarily, a secondary drug (which I took as pills) that was causing some difficult side-effects, as the IV drug is the most helpful and he wants me to get the benefits of the chemo without weakening my system too much. The nurses today said I look very well, with “a spring in my step.”

In 2019, in the first devastating weeks after diagnosis, I wrote a series of poems that expressed my feelings and helped me deal with this new and scary situation. It was a surprise to me that poems which began in despair tended to end on a note of hope and love. One of these was in the voice of the tumour itself, telling me I had strength to “hit (it) out of the ballpark”! The baseball metaphor goes with the book I published in 2019, “The Day I Saw Willie Mays and Other Poems,” which includes this sequence of poems among many others. (Thanks to Lil Blume for her essential help with editing and publishing the book). I want to share this poem here/now, to celebrate my medical progress and express my gratitude for it (way beyond what I expected) and also my gratitude to all my family and friends who have been wishing me well — and to the doctors, nurses, and technicians who do the hard work and still find time to give me encouragement and support. Three cheers for the Canadian health care system, Princess Margaret Hospital, and my doctor. Nice to have something to cheer about in this chaotic, confusing, and (for many) catastrophic year.

Tumour, March 2019

I lodged in your throat

(esophagus, to be precise)

the place where you swallow food, make love,

close to where you speak,

indigestible

but insidious, too small to cough up.

I lurked there, biding my time,

growing, cell by cell by cell,

burning your heart with my secret.

Now you have found me,

a bad dream come true

but you are stronger now,

surrounded and filled with love

and powerful words.

I am exposed, open to treatment,

to limitation. Remember your great-grandmother’s saying:

“We’ll fight it through!”

Don’t choke!

Find the sweet spot

Give it all you’ve got

Hit me out of the ballpark

Come home safe to your life.

Ellen S. Jaffe. Published in The Day I Saw Willie Mays, and Other Poems.  Pinking Shears Publications, 2019. ***

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Written on the Body #25, October 2, 2020 — Poem for the Times

We have passed Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and two harvest festivals are approaching: Sukkot, the Jewish festival, on Oct. 2-4, and Thanksgiving in Canada on Oct. 12. With the planet in such chaos from wildfires, hurricanes, extinctions of species, and other aspects of climate change (not to mention the pandemic and the growing recognition of systemic racism and its dire effects on human lives and relationships), it is important to remember we must treat nature, as well as each other, with kindness and respect — or we risk and invite catastrophe. I would like to offer this poem, recently published in the We’Moon Calendar for 2021, with the theme of The World (the 21st, and final, Major Arcana Tarot card). We’Moon (published by a women’s group in Oregon) has been going through the Tarot deck year by year, and I have had several poems previously published in this calendar/daybook, which features art and writing by women around the world, as well as astrological information. My poem, “Letter to the World,” takes its title from a poem by Emily Dickinson, “This Is My Letter to the World.” http://www.online-literature.com/dickinson/834/

Letter to the World

(after Emily Dickinson)

This is my letter to the world,

that writes to me, to all of us,

in the language of sea-foam and sunlight,

tornadoes, typhoons, tsunamis,

Nature’s tongue that can be gentle and loving, like a mother animal,

or harsh and hurting when we do not respect her skin,

her heartbeat, her children.

This is my dream for the world —

let us learn before it is too late

that love is the force that greens and grows us all,

molecule to mollusk to human,

connecting our flowing currents,

keeping us whole,

restoring our broken-ness.

These are our hopes for the world —

hear our cries,

teach us to cry before it is too late,

before fire, flood, and ice consume us.

Let us shed the old snake-skins of greed and hatred,

reborn in new and silken welcome,

shining with abundance and new light.

I am the world, writing in response,

hoping against hope

for more light, fresher air, water

clean and clear as starlight.

I have whispered to you in flowers and fruits,

thundered and wept in tornadoes and hurricanes,

scorched in drought and fire,

 opened my heart to rebirth.

I want to save my children, not swallow them up.

Will you listen?

© Ellen S. Jaffe.  (published in We’Moon Calendar for 2021. www.wemoon.ws).

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Written on the Body, #24 — September 10, 2020: Anniversaries and Changes

September already! The summer has “hurried slowly” (in Margaret Laurence’s words) past.

But I want to talk about anniversaries of events that happened right at the end of August — August 31 — and a few other times throughout the month.

First, and very happily, Aug. 31 is the second anniversary of my moving to Toronto (from Hamilton, ON) to live with my partner Roger Gilbert. We agree it was a good move for both of us — and I am glad we did this freely, before knowing my diagnosis of cancer several months later, or the COVID-19 pandemic that would start sweeping the world a year later. Our townhouse at Oak Street Co-op is a good place to be: I feel at home in this place and in this relationship.

August 31 is also the date of my mother’s death, at age 91, in 2009. And other dates in August mark other family events: my maternal grandparents’ wedding anniversary (Aug. 19, I think), and my parents’ wedding anniversary, Aug. 25 or 26. And my father’s death, on August 10, 1993, when he was 86. This year, my mother’s only sister also died on Aug. 10, age 98 — after a brief illness. Sad memories, but also loving ones. My parents and my aunt were all ready to leave — to “go to spirit,” as my friend, poet bill bissett says. (Aas anyone who knows his poetry is aware, lower case is right for his name). Also, August was the month, in 1972, when I left the U.S. for a year or so of study and travel in England. That extended to almost seven years, until I moved to Canada in July 1979 — and this country has been my home ever since. Did I know when I left New York that August day that I would never live in the U.S. again (though of course I went back for visits — in the pre-Covid-19, pre-cancer, pre-Trump days). Maybe, or maybe not…. but it is a move I have never regretted.

On the treatment front, chemotherapy continues, and as I said in the previous post, I am glad the new medication is working, in combination with the chemo pills I have been taking for a while. One odd side-effect of the pills is something called “hand-foot syndrome,” in which the palms of my hands and the soles of my feet become red and burning. This usually just lasts a few days, but is uncomfortable. (As I told my son, I feel like the creature from the Red Lagoon.)

So. on to September. September 11, of course, is the anniversary of 9/11. So much has changed in the world since then. And this year, September 18 is the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Many of us will be celebrating at home, with services on line, so we need to feel the strength of our virtual communities. So I wish everyone a happy, healthy, and sweet New Year. (one tradition is to make honey cake and eat apples spread with honey, to bring sweetness into our lives).

I also am feeling the strength of the writing community through all the on-line events and readings I have attended and participated in over the last few months. Special thanks to the Lit Live series in Hamilton, which worked carefully to move from live readings to a Zoom format. I was glad to be one of the readers in their first Zoom session, on Sept. 6 — and loved the connection with other writers and the audience, even online. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to invite friends and fellow-writers from all over Canada and the U.S. to this reading — extending the community.

And on Sept. 13 and 22, I will participate in 2 readings for Voices Israel journal, Thanks to Diane Ray for organizing and hosting the Sept. 13 reading for U.S. and Canadian contributors to the journal (email me for details about these readings).

And a final piece of good news: we have a forest of tomato plants on our balcony that grew tall (almost 5 feet) but didn’t flower because of the dappled light through the trees in our courtyard. We have one flower this morning — but will it become a tomato? Stay tuned!

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