Written on the Body #18: March 22, 2020 – Pandemic!

I hope all of you reading this are well and safe, or if you and/or a loved one is ill, you will recover fully and soon.

Interesting that this post is #18, as 18 in Jewish numerology represents “Chai,” the word for Life. Let us hope this is a good sign today. We have also just passed the Spring Equinox, and COVID-19 or not, spring is coming. And yet the new virus cases also keep coming in.

This is a strange time for the world. And perhaps a sign that we do have to work together, as a global and human community. There is a saying by the Jewish scholar, teacher, and religious leader Hillel the Elder (presumed dates 110 B.C.E. – 10 C.E., though this would make him 120 years old!): If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? and if not now, when? This is often quoted at Passover (this year beginning April 8), and is certainly relevant now: take care of yourself, to make you better able to take care of your loved ones and community — and now is the time.

I have noticed that in Canada, as well as many other places, people are doing this: looking out for and caring for each other, and finding ways to connect socially while at a physical distance — and also taking care of ourselves.

Personally, I am experiencing a shift from being an ill person (though not critically ill, able to get out and do ordinary things — but still anxious, and cutting back on many activities to conserve energy and protect my immune system) in a world of the healthy and active, to now being only one person in a world absorbed in illness, testing, anxiety, and many forms of isolation. This has added another layer of isolation and worry for me and Roger and our families (I am high-risk for complications of the virus, and Roger and I are both 75, adding more risk) — but it is not a sudden shock.

Also, as a writer, I am used to working at home — as are most writers, visual artists, composers, and musicians some of the time. However, we need and want to get out to readings, exhibits, workshops, rehearsals and performances — all of which are now cancelled, creating more isolation as well as financial problems, some of which are drastic. It is good that the Canadian government is trying to find ways to help people who do not get paid for sick days and not eligible for E.I. to survive in this crisis. This financial help applies not only to artists, but to small business owners and their employees (house-cleaners, hair-dressers, some restaurant owners, and many others).

I am grateful that I have a home to live in, with food and water, a bathroom, a bed, phone and computer operating well so we can be in touch with family, friends, and the outside world, and books, movies, music all available without having to go outside. People who have pets still have them, as a source of comfort and companionship. I am also fortunate to be living with someone I love and can talk with (or be silent with, finding our own spaces in the house when necessary). I worry about people in shelters, in jails and hospitals, in refugee camps and other dangerous places. The Indigenous people in Northern Canada, where many reserves have been on a boil-water alert for years, and live in over-crowded, unsafe housing.

So it bothers me when people tell me they feel “in jail” in their homes. The words we use for our personal narrative are important, and our thoughts and words shape our feelings. “In jail” certainly arouses more anxiety than “safe at home.” A friend mentioned that Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a Toronto doctor, has suggested people use the phrase “physical distancing,” not “social distancing,” and try to stay “socially connected” without physical presence. We are lucky to have these techniques available now — which would have been impossible even 20 years ago. I am, of course, like most Canadians, thankful for our health-care system and all who work in it.

On the other hand, we do have to recognize that this is a dangerous time, and suggesting (as a recent poem does) that it is a “sacred time” does not give the whole picture. I once attended a psychotherapy workshop led by Yvonne Dolan, in which she said that as a child and teenager, she lived with her grandmother near a lake. As a young child, she saw the lake as “beautiful.” As an adolescent, she saw only the oil-spills polluting the water. Eventually, with her grandmother’s help and as she became an adult, she could see both points of view: the beauty and the danger. We need to keep this multi-sided view of our world. And perhaps all the swift action on dealing with the corona virus will help nations and individuals take more action to deal with climate change itself.

On a personal note, my cancer treatments are, so far, continuing as normal: I was at Princess Margaret this week for bloodwork, a doctor’s appointment, and an IV treatment, and all proceeded as usual. I don’t need to go back until April 6, and hope the hospital continues running well (despite, I am sure, some staff who cannot get to work). They check everyone at the door for symptoms and need-to-be-there (staff, patients, visitors), and enforce using hand-sanitzier. I expected long lines, but was able to get in easily, with no waiting time. My son Joe, who lives in B.C., was supposed to come to Ontario for a visit on March 31, for about a week, but has cancelled his trip — a wise decision, which I encouraged though I will miss seeing him.

Stay safe. Stay well. Stay in touch — call that friend or family member. If not now, when?

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Written On the Body, #17 – March 7, 2020: (W)Interlude

I began writing this two weeks ago, but have been in semi-hibernation mode: a combination of fatigue from chemotherapy and increasing concern about the corona virus, which would be especially dangerous for me to get given my weakened immune system (from the chemotherapy working to reduce the cancer — a catch-22). I am now on a break from chemo (and have been given a birthday present of an extra week off, so Roger and I can celebrate our birthdays (March 9 and 15 respectively) with family and friends — without an IV treatment only a few days earlier. In light of the spreading corona virus, however, we have decided to postpone the large party we planned, and just have a small gathering with Roger’s kids and a few friends; my son will be visiting at the end of March, so we will see him, too, in our “birthday month.” I am still feeling well, now into this second year “after the diagnosis.”

What I do want to write about here is a return to imaginative thinking and more writing. In early February, I read Patti Smith’s memoir, The Year of the Monkey, beginning on the Gregorian New Year’s Day, January. 1, 2016, and continuing through the Lunar Year of the Monkey to the end of January 2017. This was the year of Donald Trump’s candidacy and election (Smith calls him the “April Fool” at one point), and some of the book deals with his strange rise to power; in a moment of synchronicity, I read this book on the day he was found not guilty of the impeachment charges. Smith also, however, talks about imaginative trips to other places, in dream, fantasy, the mixture of the “strange and familiar” (in Coleridge’s words) that sometimes hits us like a meteor in the midst of daily life.

This book opened a door that had been temporarily shut by medical routines, politics, and this winter’s greyness. I followed Smith through southwest deserts, to concerts and music played at home, to the illness and death of two of her close friends, to unusual costumes, foods, and billboards that speak in human voices. Somehow, her stories have helped my spirit open to this wider world of mystery and to feel more empowered.

Several new poems came out of this (including one about my great-aunt Zelda, which I have thought about for a while). I even did a short reading at the Draft reading series on Feb. 23, a lovely reading series hosted by Maria Meindl which takes place more-or-less monthly on Sunday afternoons near my home. See https://draftreadings.com/ As I write today, the sky is blue outside my window, and the trees, still bare, are beginning to hint of greening. I am grateful to see this birthday — 75, three-quarters of a century — and grateful I feel well enough to celebrate. Also thanks to Roger for the red roses on Valentine’s Day — something else which lifted and brightened my spirits.

I hope all of you reading this stay well through the current corona virus crisis, and that the virus itself will eventually mutate and abate into something more like ordinary flu. In Game of Thrones, the dire threat was that “Winter is coming…” Now, despite all the difficulties and uncertainties in the world and in our personal lives, we can look forward to “Spring is coming.” And hope.

Finally, special good wishes, Mazel Tov (congratulations) and L’Chaim (to life) to my friend, wise and beloved mentor to so many people, Rabbi Bernard Baskin, who turns 100 on March 9, still in good health and clear mind. Blessed Be.

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Written on the Body, #16: February 1, 2020: Lunar New Year and other anniversaries

We have just had the Lunar New Year celebration — clouded this year by the new Corona virus in China and spreading throughout the world — moving from the Year of the Pig to the Year of the Rat. I remember going to a Lunar New Year celebration in New York’s Chinatown in 1979, with red and yellow dragons and clanging music, that exorcised some old demons. And last year our co-op celebrated with a dinner and party at which a young boy, about 7, did an amazing Lion Dance.

Feb. 1 is also Imbolc, the ancient Celtic holiday, honouring the goddess Brigit, that is now also called St. Bridget’s Day (probably a way of incorporating the goddess into Christianity). This holiday, about midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, celebrates the beginning of spring, the germination: Imbolc literally means “in the belly” and commemorates the ewes becoming pregnant around this time, so the lambs will be born in later spring. Bridget also is the goddess of poetry, among other things, and so of creative inspiration and beginnings.

There is also the Jewish New Year of Trees, Tu BiShvat, which this years falls on Feb. 10 (it can range from mid-January to mid-February). Trees in Israel, as in British Columbia, begin to bloom earlier than on the Canadian east coast.

So all these holidays suggest renewal, and paying attention to small, almost invisible signs — the days getting gradually longer, for instance, or the first snowdrop flowers.

This is also, for me, the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis: I had the endoscopy that clearly showed the esophageal tumour on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019, the day after our co-op Lunar New Year party mentioned above. It is, of course, not the date the cancer started — that is impossible to know — and I had had a preliminary endoscopy in November that showed problems needing follow-up. But it seems as good a date as any: not only for the diagnosis, but for the beginning of treatment.

And this year, on Jan. 30, I started chemotherapy again after a break from mid-December through January: for the holidays, to let my body rest, and to see the results of a CT scan on January 14. So this time of year is another beginning, as well as an anniversary.

The good news from the CT scan (which they do about every 3 months) is that there is no further spread to other organs or to my bones. Yay! However, the not-so-good news is that a couple of the liver lesions, which have been there since diagnosis and which were seen getting smaller in the CT scans of July and late September, have now increased a bit in size (we’re still talking about 2 cm.) This concerned me, but when I saw the doctor on Jan. 28, he was pretty sure that increase is due to the break in treatment, and that more regular chemo treatments will help decrease the size again. So I am relieved. I am still tolerating the chemo well, and feeling well during daily activities. I don’t have all the energy I used to have to go to readings and meetings, especially out of town, and i miss that — but I enjoy the visits and contacts I do have (in person, phone, and email). I enjoy the weekly talks with my son in B.C.

And, looking back, it has been a good year, with some great highlights: trips to Halifax and to Vancouver and Vancouver island to see our kids and other family and friends, writing and giving readings of new poems, and publishing a new book (an exciting experience for any writer, and a special joy this year). In addition, there is daily life — baking, making small home improvements, making eye-contact and occasional small talk with people on the TCC, — and of course enjoying conversation and closeness with Roger.

I feel I have moved into ‘living with cancer” rather than having a quick death-sentence. On the other hand, there is a part of me that worries about when “the other shoe is going to fall.” That is part of living in the Sea of Uncertainty. However, I have chosen to enjoy the time I am feeling well, rather than keep worrying.

The worries sometimes come out in odd ways, such as concern about whether food is safe and fresh, or the cleanliness of household surfaces — and I say this as someone who accumulates clutter, though I do like things clean. I know that these are things I have some control over — unlike the illness itself — but I also know that, in themselves and at the present time, they will not cause or accelerate the cancer (they are not the poison of fairy tales!) I think about possible causes — breathing in smoke from my grandparents’ cigarettes when I was a little girl in the early 1950’s, for example — but know even this would not be a definitive cause; it is more by chance that some cells in some people’s bodies are affected by smoking, pollution, additives, etc., while others are not.

Meanwhile, as Mary Oliver says in her wonderful poem “Wild Geese,” life goes on. We can talk about despair, yours and mine, sharing these feelings in our common humanity — and, at the same time, we can hear the wild geese returning with their callsharsh and exciting announcing your place in the family of things. We are connected to the beauty of the world and each other, as well as the pain.

To new beginnings…wherever they lead.

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Written on the Body, #15: January 12, 2020 — Welcome to the New Decade

Welcome to 2020. A friend said this year makes her think of 20/20 eyesight — so may this be a year, and a decade, of clear thinking and deepening, widening perception.

January is named for the Roman god Janus, who has two faces — one looking forward, one backward. So this month is a time for looking back as well as ahead — and there should be another face, for being in the present — the only time we really have. As Werner Heisenberg, the physicist who first articulated the “uncertainty principal,” said to a policeman who arrested him for speeding: “I don’t know how fast I’m going, but I know exactly where I am.” Or as I wrote in a recent poem, “You are Here. Now. You are.” I feel in a strange, liminal area — not outwardly ill, but not well. I am learning to navigate this space and time. It is mysterious, not knowing what is going on inside my body, and a bit like cocooning — valuing quiet and unscheduled (except for appointments and meds) stretches of time.

I am happy to be here in 2020. When first diagnosed last February, I despaired of even seeing the new year, much less my 75th birthday, coming on March 15. Now that I am here, still feeling relatively well — due in large part to the excellent medical treatment I have been engaged in, as well as the love and support of my partner, son, other family, and friends — I am beginning to see my way clear to my birthday, and beyond. Roger and I have our 75th birthdays close together (his is March 9), and we are already (optimistically) planning a party for the Ides of March. We don’t want to “beware” the Ides, but rather to welcome them — and the time beyond. I recently read a wonderful novel by Shani Mootoo, Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, and perhaps that is what we are all doing in our lives, and in the stories we tell about these lives.

Medically, the news is pretty good. I continue to feel well (though with less energy than before), and my recent bloodwork showed improvement. I have a CT scan on January 14 and then meet with my oncologist to discuss the results and see if we will continue the current treatment or if I can be “maintained” with two of the three medications I am now taking. I like the word “maintained” — it implies a certain ongoing-ness.

Looking back over this past year, since my diagnosis, I want to thank my partner Roger, my son Joe, all my family and friends, and all of you reading this, for your support, encouragement, and loving thoughts. Whether I see you in person or we connect by phone, email, or snail-mail, I value all your good wishes, and am glad you are in my life. Special thanks to Lil Blume for helping publish and launch my book, The Day I Saw Willie Mays, and Other Poems. Lil also has given me an interesting question to think about: How do you want to be in the world? Something we all can ponder.

I feel deep gratitude to Dr. Eric Chen of Princess Margaret Hospital, who as well as being an excellent physician, has seen from the beginning that I have a strong will to live. Thanks, too, to all the staff at Princess Margaret — nurses, technicians, receptionists, volunteers. And good wishes to all the patients I meet — we share a smile, a nod, an acknowledgement of who we are. This is also true of the people I meet at my relaxation & guided imagery group at Welllspring Cancer Centre (downtown Toronto), led by the wonderful Jean Jackson; in addition to the healing power of relaxation, I have made some new and good friends there.

In terms of writing, I have a poem in Issue #4 (Divine Darkness) of Black Bough Poetry (https://www.blackboughpoetry.com/publications), p. 33, and have 3 poems and a photo in the Winter issue of Devour: Art and Lit Canada: https://issuu.com/richardgrove1/docs/devour_-_issue_004_-_winter. My poems and photo (shot in our co-op courtyard) are on pages 26, 39 (with photo), and 45. And these 3 poems are NOT about cancer! It’s good to be writing about other things, as well as the illness. Thanks to Richard Grove, editor, and April Bulmer and Bruce Kauffman, who selected my poems for this issue.

Finally a prayer for the people killed in the crash of the Ukranian airliner in Iran and their loved ones — and a hope that this terrible disaster will help the world find a way toward peace and negotiation, not push us closer to war.

peacock snow-angel: photo sent by my friend Hannele Pohjanmies, in Finland.

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Written on the Body #14, December 15, 2019: Looking toward the Light

We’re a week away from the shortest day and the longest night in the year, the Winter Solstice (aka St. Lucy’s Day). Since returning from British Columbia in November, I’ve felt the increasing darkness in late afternoon and the increasing cold and damp, which seem to be making the chemo fatigue and low energy worse (or perhaps vice versa — the side effects of chemo make me feel the winter more intensely.) I’m now in the latter part of the current cycle, so my energy is on an upswing — and the doctors have given me an extra 2-week break over the holidays, so I can both relax and restore myself.

Light is important, in both physical and spiritual terms. The Jewish holiday Chanukah, which can fall anywhere from late November to late December (this year it begins on Dec. 22), celebrates the “miracle” of the returning light. This is not only — I think — the oil that burned in the renewed temple for 8 days instead of only one, but also the returning light of the sun after the winter solstice and the light that can brighten and lift our spirits, even during dark and devastating times. And then there is the Star of Bethlehem, leading the wise men forward. And the lights that many other religions celebrate, and that warms our hearts no matter what our beliefs.

Of course, things need to balance — darkness can be comforting, as Dylan Thomas wrote; bulbs and seeds need darkness under the earth to sprout and grow; animals hibernate in caves. And there is the descent into the dark depths of sleep.

But I am glad that, for example, the Talmudic scholars and rabbis decided the order of the Chanukah candles should go from 1 burning, to 2, and on to all 8 — rather than beginning with 8 and diminishing downward. We want to see the increase of light, warmth, hope.

In terms of my life right now, I am glad (and perhaps a bit surprised) to still be here alive, living a fairly normal life — getting out, seeing friends, etc., and not experiencing pain or loss of appetite. I know, however, that my energy and activities are diminished; I rarely drive (fortunately, we are very close to public transportation — and cabs), and there are literary/art/music events that I would love to attend, especially if friends are presenting, but can’t muster the energy to get to them. On the other hand, I enjoy each day and often think, yes, I would be doing this (cooking, writing, reading, talking) if I didn’t have cancer. There is a heightened sense of pleasure in everyday moments and experiences. And I gave a poetry reading on Nov. 28, at the Urban Folk Salon organized by Tom Hamilton at the Mount Pleasant Library. I felt strong and tall, and read a variety of poems — including two from the sequence “After the Diagnosis,” written last February and March when I was even more in the grip of uncertainty. It felt good to read my words aloud — and to see people respond. (Copies of my new book, The Day I Saw Willie Mays, and Other Poems, are still available — contact me for info.)

I have another CT scan in mid-January, and I hope that shows the chemotherapy is still working to shrink the tumour and lesions and stop their spread.

The world, too, needs more light at this time — more reasoned thought, and more compassion. So I send that wish into the night air. May all your holidays — Chanukah, Christmas, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Solstice — be bright (and not over-stressed), and the new year bring you joy. Below is a new poem with photo.

Glass Flowers at Princess Margaret Hospital (atrium rooftop garden)

Glass flowers

in the snow



to invisible music

pink icicle flamingos

or a frozen rainbow

fragile yet permanent

permanent, yet


like – yet so unlike –

 the flowers in my garden last spring and summer

tulips, iris, day-lilies,

bleeding hearts.

Their sweetness

blown and carried in the wind

flowers that die back

but will bloom again next year,

unless eaten by squirrels,

or blighted by frost

the rainbow of our lives,

storm and promise,

colour and a void,

fragile yet enduring.

In the snow, glass flowers

catch the light

says the man next to me, as I take photos.

Even in winter, light of spring,

of summer,

still glows

as long as we can see it

through the dark.      

(Ellen S. Jaffe, December 2019)                                                                                    

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Written On the Body 13, Nov. 24, 2019: Beautiful British Columbia

We had a wonderful trip to Vancouver and Vancouver Island, Nov. 2-10 — beautiful, mostly sunny weather, too. This was an important trip, mainly to see close family and friends, but also to see if and how well I could travel. We planned the trip for the last part of the 3-week chemotherapy cycle, the time I usually have the most energy and stamina. And we were not disappointed, on either count! Everything was even better than our expectations — including smooth travelling connections.

Englishman River Falls, near Nanaimo B.C.

We arrived in Vancouver on Saturday afternoon, were met at the airport by my dear friend, writer Shaena Lambert, who welcomed us to her home. Roger’s daughter Terri and her husband and two of her three children (both in college) drove from Washington State to Vancouver for the weekend to see us. We had dinner at a middle-eastern restaurant, then the next day enjoyed a leisurely brunch at Shaena’s. (Thanks, Shaena, for your hospitality.) The next day, Roger, Shaena, and I drove to Richmond to see the migrating snow-geese on the estuary near the airport: at one point, we watched a flock of geese flying, with an airplane flying in the background. On our short walk, we also saw two eagles (probably an adult and a juvenile) sitting together in the same tree, then flying off — one after the other. And a circling hawk, a seal, and a bird we couldn’t quite recognize: a cormorant? a heron?

Then we drove to Steveston, for a seafood lunch and to look at the old, abandoned salmon-canneries which once employed many people: Japanese, Indigenous, and others. Sadly, we saw the reconstructed home of the Murakimi family: the parents were Japanese immigrants who came to B.C. separately, met and married, started a family, and moved to Steveston, working at the Pacific Coast Cannery and other jobs. They lived in their (now-restored) home from 1929-1942, when — along with thousands of other Japanese in Vancouver and on the Pacific coast of British Columbia — they were stripped of their property and rights, and interned to isolated areas in the interior of B.C., Alberta, and Manitoba (where the Murakimis were sent), to work on farms in harsh and oppressive conditions. The house and garden have been restored by their children and grandchildren, including a Japanese bath, cooking utensils, sewing machine, and family photographs; these homely domestic details highlight the tragic injustice of what happened to them, and gave more context to the exhibit I saw at the Royal Ontario Museum last August, Being Japanese Canadian: reflections on a broken world — art made by people who survived the internment (children or teenagers at the time) and their children and grandchildren. see https://westcoastlivingcanada.com/2015/07/05/murakami-family-in-steveston/ for more on the Murakimi family and this subject. This is the website for the ROM exhibit (closed now, but the website is interesting): https://www.rom.on.ca/en/exhibitions-galleries/exhibitions/being-japanese-canadian .

That evening, we had an informal story-telling and poetry reading session, both fun and inspiring, with Shaena and some of her family, Roger, and me.

The next day we had morning coffee and conversation with my friend Marilyn Lemon, whom I met in Woodstock over 30 years ago (when our kids played t-ball together, and we then participated in a year-long poetry workshop with bill bissett.) Marilyn moved to Vancouver some years ago, so we enjoy visits when we can.

Then it was time to head to Horseshoe Bay and the ferry to Nanaimo. We spent a night in the Grand Hotel (whose dining-room decor and music made us feel we were in a 1940s movie, and then my son Joe drove us to his home in Parksville, which he shares with his partner Christina and her son Elijah — and their dog Ruby, whom they rescued when she was abandoned as a puppy. They moved there in August, after working in Cape Dorset for a couple of years. It was lovely to see them in their home and feel comfortable there, get to know Christina and Elijah better, spend more time with Joe than I have a for a while and see him enjoying the role of dad (taking Elijah to soccer practice, for instance), and do some wonderful walks — to Cathedral Grove with its mystical trees, ancient and giant; at Englishman River Falls, and along the boardwalks in Parksville and nearby Qualicum Beach. Water and trees are so healing — we know this intuitively, and there is much current research showing that being among trees (taking a forest bath) is physically and spiritually beneficial. My soul really opened in all this nature and family-feeling — and I was glad to be well enough to do this trip. And in Qualicum Beach, I found a small bookshop which offers occasional concerts and poetry readings — and the owner offered me a chance to participate in a reading on my next visit (if I give him enough notice). I am hoping I will be able to do that next spring or summer — we will see. Elijah did a drawing of the mountains, and a stalking cougar, for our wall at home of art by our kids; Roger and I both feel we have extended our family and see Elijah as a grandchild.

On our final evening, we had dinner at Dining in the Dark in Parksville, one of the restaurants that have recently sprung up, offering people a chance to see what eating is like for blind people (though, of course, as sighted people we can only experience a nano-fraction of the experience.) Still, it was fascinating: you can choose your food from a menu in the lighted reception area before entering the full dark of the dining room, led by one of the blind servers (you can also opt for a mystery entree, as well as the mystery starter and dessert). What we all noticed was the need to focus on the smell, taste, and texture of the food, how to negotiate the mechanics of eating, and also the way we focused on conversation, listening intently to each other as there was no eye-contact. Our server was friendly and capable, and we had a good evening. (Joe and Christina had done this before, in Vancouver, and wanted us to experience it, too.)

Too soon, we had to take the ferry back to Vancouver and the airport. The good memories linger. I wish I could just whisk back for another trip to the market at Qualicum Beach, or another walk in the woods, but it is good to see Joe happy in his life, even though distant (and not THAT far). As Kahlil Gibran says, our children are the arrows, we are the bows — and they travel on their own arcs and journey.

We arrived home at midnight, the morning of November 11 — just in time for the first snowfall in Toronto. Winter is coming…

Roger and Ellen in Cathedral Grove, B.C., by an 800-year-old, 76 metre tall tree (Douglas fir, I think, or cedar).

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Written On the Body #12, October 24, 2019: After a Break

The sun is starting to shine after a cloudy early-morning, and today I go back on chemotherapy after a four-week break to let my white blood cells (especially the neutrophils) replenish themselves. The doctor says it is normal for the cell-count to drop after 6 rounds of chemo, and he expected it would rise again — which it has done! There is not much I can do to help this inner process, but during the break I rested a lot, ate well (one good thing is that I have never lost my appetite or taste for food), and enjoyed life at home and a good visit with friend from university who came to Toronto to see me over Thanksgiving weekend. I know I have a lot to be thankful for, even now.

I am glad to be back on chemo, as it is proving effective in shrinking the cancer cells and stopping their spread, but I realised this morning, swallowing my pills (after battling once again with the child-proof, almost Houdini-proof lids on the bottles) how nice it was not to be on a strict medical routine. Still, it is better to be doing something about the illness, rather than nothing. I go for an IV treatment today, then continue the pills for two weeks. Then the regular week off before the cycle starts again.

Continued October 28: the chemo went smoothly, and it was not hard to get back into the routine, both at the hospital and at home. I have a couple of particularly bright spots over the next few weeks, which gladdens my heart. Roger’s son Simon, who is in the Canadian Navy, is in Toronto from Oct. 26-30 with his ship HMS. St. John’s, as they are doing a Great Lakes deployment, visiting various cities. We had a fascinating tour of the ship on Sunday (tours were open to the public, but we saw a few extras). I had never seen the inside of a ship before — lots of ladders to climb up and down, and huge engines. Simon is learning to work on the ship’s engines, and enjoys the work and challenges.

Then, on November 2, Roger and I go to British Columbia to visit my son Joe and his partner who recently moved near Nanaimo. (Joe is in the RCMP, and previously was stationed in Cape Dorset — which would have been fascinating to visit, but a lot harder to get to). We’ll start in Vancouver for a few days, to see a couple of old friends and Roger’s daughter and her family, who will come up from Seattle. A busy time — so I will build in rest periods (naps are great) and manage my energy. I am really looking forward to these visits.

That’s it for now — I’ll write again from B.C. Enjoy the end of October, Hallowe’en, and All Souls and All Saints Day.

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Written on the Body #11, October 6, 2019: L’Shana Tova, the New Year

This is the time of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (these holidays occur at different times in the regular calendar, sometime between early September and early October, but always on the same dates in the Jewish calendar.) The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the High Holidays, or Days of Awe. It is a time of turning, not only for the autumn season, but for the heart and mind — reflecting on the past; accepting, learning from, and asking forgiveness for mistakes; discovering what to keep, what to let go, what to aim for as we move toward the future. There are prayers and chants we say as a group, recognizing we are all fallible; as my partner Roger’s mother used to say, “Welcome to the human race!”

Last year, I was happy to have moved to Toronto to live with Roger by the time of the new year. This year, I am happy to be alive, and relatively well, at this time. The good news from my CT scan on September 30 is that the chemotherapy is continuing to work to shrink the tumour and related lesions, and to stop their spread — there are no new ones (so far, the less optimistic part of my mind adds). But clearly this is good news. Also, I feel a sense of well-being– eating well, talking, not in pain, able to go for walks, meet friends, go to a play, read, write. True, I am more tired and have discovered the pleasure of afternoon naps, and have less energy for activities like meetings, especially in the evening. And sometimes I get mired in worry, or feel forgetful and “fuzzy-minded.” And I have a new sense of vulnerability, and watchfulness about my health (including things to monitor, like weight, temperature, formerly-minor sniffles and aches – are they still minor, or significant?) But I enjoy the “small beauties” of daily life — flowers, desserts (which, as we know, is “stressed” spelled backwards), music and movies, conversation, loving touch. I am grateful to all my friends, near and far (email is a great help!), to the doctors at Princess Margaret, to my son Joe and his partner Christina, and of course to Roger. If all is well, we are hoping to go to visit Joe and Christina and her (now their) son Elijah in their new home near Nanaimo, B.C., later this fall. I went to a sound-healing workshop at the Wellspring Cancer Centre in downtown Toronto that felt very healing, physically and emotionally, and continue to go to a guided imagery and relaxation group at Wellspring.

I have been reading a lot — re-reading some old favourites and discovering new ones. I am deep into Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale: a chilling but deeply-meaningful book, especially in these turbulent political/social times. It is written with passion, intensity, and focus — with the truths that a good novel creates.

I’m also enjoying another of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilgour series of mysteries: lighter in tone, but interesting, especially as one follows Joanne and her family through the twists and turns of family life and love as well as the plot of the mystery.

On a present-day news note, I was glad to see Greta Thunberg speak at the U.N. and then in Canada, and see the widespread student demonstrations for climate change and the many young (and not so young) people talking about this issue on CBC, including many Indigenous youth. However, I was sorry to see Greta demeaned and diminished, as a “child” (she is almost 17), a girl, a person with “autism” (Asperger’s) and a “mental illness”– her honesty and passion were attributed to this illness rather than to her perceiving the urgent need for action on the climate. And she was blamed for causing “anxiety” among children. People, especially female people, have been discounted for these reasons for many years. And could all the people talking about the climate emergency and advocating action be mentally ill — from Rachel Carson, to David Suzuki, to scientists around the world, to the many student and Indigenous activists?

Returning to the theme of the New Year, may this be a year of hope, health, happiness, and healing — for all of us.

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Written On the Body, September 8, 2019: “The Good Patient”

It is now one year plus one week that I moved to Toronto — a decision I have never regretted, and still feel good about. It is wonderful to have caring support in this illness — and also to enjoy my life with Roger. I am glad we made the decision to live together before I got sick, when we both felt free to make this decision when we thought we had many years ahead. (And still might… or something else might have happened suddenly, to either us.)

It is also 3 days after my sixth chemotherapy IV treatment. At the end of this one, I will have another CT scan to re-assess the situation. I felt full of energy and good cheer yesterday (unusual so soon after an IV), but today have slipped back into some fatigue. Hopefully, that will pass as the days go on.

I have been thinking about what it means to be a “good” patient. Partly compliance with the procedures — but that is too passive on its own. I think, and my experience shows, that it is important to ask questions, to understand what is happening (as much as possible), to be engaged with the process. I had a bit of practice with this about 15 years ago, when I had a “bulging disk” in my back and had to spend 6-8 weeks recovering: not long, as illnesses or injuries go, but enough time to learn to listen, slow down my life, accept what was happening, and find ways of healing, using medicine and physiotherapy, and also finding my own inner ways of healing.

It certainly helps to have trust in the doctor’s skill, compassion, and humanity, as I do; I am fortunate to have this kind of doctor, and all the medical, nursing, and support staff at Princess Margaret (at least those I have met) have these qualities. It is good to tune into your own body, and to make choices when you can; for example, last week I was due to have my teeth cleaned (“a gentle cleaning,” the doctor had emphasized) but was able to cancel the procedure at the last minute, when the dentist and hygienist asked if I was comfortable doing it right then — and I was not, for various reasons. They understood, and wished me well. It is important to manage medications correctly at home, and I have a special place for mine, and a calendar to chart taking them (it is easy to lose track, especially with a sometimes-foggy mind.) It is important to talk about the symptoms and worries as they arise — but not to dwell on them. I have been reading a variety of books (from Stephen King’s book on writing, to American War by Omar El Akkad, to mysteries Lee Child, to non-fiction like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a fascinating story of medicine and cultural clashes). We’ve been watching movies and TV series (“Sense8” on Netflix is a favourite, and also a show originally on Spanish TV, now on Netflix: “The Money Heist.” I see friends, email friends and family further away, go to the nearby pottery class and relaxation/guided imagery groups at Wellspring Cancer Centre. I went to the moving, meaningful exhibit at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum): Being Japanese-Canadian: reflections on a broken world: art by Japanese-Canadians dealing with their and their families’ forced displacement to the B.C. and Alberta interior during World War II. I have been able to correspond with a few of the artists, in interesting discussions about culture, history, family, loss, and memory. https://www.rom.on.ca/en/exhibitions-galleries/exhibitions/being-japanese-canadia

If all is going relatively well in October, we have plans to visit my son and his partner and her son, who are now living and working near Nanaimo, British Columbia. Joe and I talk on the phone often, more openly than we have for a while, and I just sent some money to the boy’s new soccer team. (I am glad Joe has emotional support in his life, too.) I have not been writing steadily since the publication of my book, The Day I Saw Willie Mays and Other Poems, but I have given a few readings from the book. I am starting to write some new poems and have an idea for a story.

And there are small but welcome pleasures and vanities. Nail polish on my toes (though I do have to wear socks and sneakers, not sandals, to protect my feet). Coffee ice-cream, and good food of all kinds (thankfully, I can eat well). Long, necessary naps. New, colourful clothes, and what my grandmother would have called “fancy” underwear. My friend Shaena, who went through treatment for cancers some years ago and is now doing well, asked if I had been buying clothes. Surprised by her question, I admitted that I had — dresses, flowered tights, a hat. She said she had done the same thing, and we both found out that we avoided wearing black during the treatment (a colour I had worn a lot). It makes me feel better to wear these bright garments, as well as some old favourites — and finding ways to feel better, even in a difficult time, is part, I think, of being a “good” patient — even when it is hard to be patient. As Mary Oliver says in “Wild Geese” :

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

A feeling to cherish.

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Written On the Body — August 24, 2019: “Both…And…”

Here we are, in the last half of August. The nights are turning cooler, sunset comes earlier, and there is a bit of “pre-autumn” feeling in the air, even on sunny days. I realised recently that I have passed the 6-month mark after my diagnosis…. and at first, I wasn’t sure I would be here in 6 months — let alone living a reasonably good and normal life: eating well, walking, not feeling pain, enjoying spending time with my partner, visiting friends, talking to my son, small-scale gardening, reading, writing, going to and giving poetry readings (though I have had to miss some of these readings and other events, due to fatigue.) So far, there has been no pain to deal with.

Of course, life has also changed in many ways: just being aware that there is cancer inside my body, and that its activity is internal and often beyond (or below) my awareness, has made life uncertain and led to some anxious thoughts. I am now in chemotherapy treatments, with an IV approximately every 3 weeks, that leads to several days of fatigue and some nausea. I am a week into my 5th round of chemo, and it is such a RELIEF when I begin to feel better after a treatment, and feel like myself again. I have to realise, mentally and physically, that I have less energy now and can do less — but I can still enjoy what I do (even if it is in lower-gear), and also enjoy the rest and relaxation I need.

In thinking about this situation, I am reminded of a workshop I took, years ago, with psychotherapist Yvonne Dolan. She told us about living with her grandmother when she was young; they lived near a lake and when Yvonne was quite young, she saw only the beauty of the water, the sky, the birds on the shore. Later, she saw oil tankers and pollution, and saw only the ugliness and danger. Her grandmother suggested she needed to see both sides — the beauty and the problems. That way, one could work on fixing the problems while not losing sight of the good things. A life-lesson that went beyond that particular body of water.

This does apply to me, now — and perhaps to many people faced with similar issues. Without sounding like “Pollyanna,” I am grateful for each day — being alive this moment, in the light and air, and held by a circle of people who love me. It is a liminal area — I could fall into despair, or I could deny my feelings of fear and anxiety and the “superstitious” thoughts that sometimes come (for example, a workshop in sound-healing that I wanted to take is full, and I first thought that was a bad omen — the disease would get worse!). It took thinking about this thought, and naming it to myself and to my partner Roger, that let this type of “magical thinking” lose its power.

It also is much easier and more relaxed to live in a world of “both…and…” rather than the binary thinking we are exposed to so much, in politics and ideology as well as everyday life. I have always tried to be inclusive in my life, not exclusive (us and them). This applies to one’s inner life of thoughts and emotions, as well as to dealing with the world outside.

Sometimes a situation is so bad, it is hard to see any good. And it can take courage to admit the problems in a situation that seems ideal. I think this can be true in larger, historical/cultural situations as well. Acts of kindness can happen, even in brutalizing situations; and people can create art — at the time and years, even generations later, that helps us empathize with those who have been hurt, displaced, imprisoned, or killed. And, perhaps, help us act in ways that prevent these oppressive situations in the future. No matter what, making art lets the artist express her thoughts and feelings through images, sounds, movement, and search for meaning in raw experience.

I will continue these thoughts in later posts. Enjoy the last week of August!

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