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)                                                                                    

About Ellen

I am a member of The Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, and CANSCAIP. I have received grants from the Ontario Arts Council for both writing and teaching. I currently work with Learning Through the Arts and Living through the Arts, programmes run by the Royal Conservatory of Music that enable artists to work in schools and community organizations. I have also taught in many other school and community programs, and have been a judge for various writing contests for both young people and adults.
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