Written On the Body #34, April 4, 2021 — New Beginnings, and a Memorial

Easter Sunday today, Passover (Pesach) began on March 27 and ended April 3, and the Spring Equinox was March 20: all times of renewal, rebirth, and resilience, after tragedy, hard times, or just the cold bleakness of winter. The world has been going through its own plagues (the pandemic, racism and violence toward “the other,” killings of various kinds, damage to the climate: the land, air, and ocean). Let us hope we can leave the “narrow place” of fear, lies, despair, and hate and move toward a world where we can work and live together in harmony. (Egypt, which the Jews fled in the Exodus, is often referred to as the narrow place; it can be anything that enslaves or restricts us — including the harm we do to ourselves.). Even many quantum physicists, such as Carlo Rovelli, now believe that the world is made up not of separate entities but of relationships and context — echoing what some spiritual leaders, poets, and activists like Petra Kelly have been saying for years. (This is an over-simplification of Rovelli’s explanation — but it is the essence of it.)

On a sad note, April 4 is the anniversary of the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, 1968. I was living in New York at the time, and remember riding on a city bus and feeling the shock waves from this event in everyone around me. In an article about the assassination that Nat Hentoff wrote shortly afterward in the Village Voice, I learned about a writing group of and for young people in Fort Greene, Brooklyn (at the time, a slum area; it has since undergone “gentrification.”). “The Voice of the Children” was sponsored by the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and led by Black poet June Jordan and white teacher Terri Bush. Terri’s husband, a doctor, had cared for the little girls killed and many other people injured in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 15, 1963 — an attack widely known to have been planned and executed by members of the Ku Klux Klan. I was working for the left-wing , listener-supported radio station WBAI-FM at the time, and arranged for several members of the group, plus June and Terri, to give a reading on the radio. This led to my working as a volunteer with the group for about 3 years, going to the Saturday morning meetings in an old church in Fort Greene and, that first summer, spending two weeks with them at a camp in Toronto, Ohio (near Steubenville, not too far west of Pittsburgh, PA.) This was my first experience of being close to a group of Black and Hispanic people — we played, danced, ate, wrote, and bonded together. And we actually integrated the town swimming pool! The group put out a weekly newsletter, called “The Voice of the Children,” using the mimeograph machines that were the only way to do mass copying at the time. I remember how the kids were at first afraid of the trees, the insects, the silence — after the noise and commotion of their city neighbourhood — and then grew to enjoy it. I wonder where they are now? They would be in their 50s — if still alive. June Jordan sadly died of cancer in 2002, only 62.

This experience, in turn, led me to start teaching writing in schools and community groups, first in England, where I lived from 1972-79, and then in Canada, when I moved here in July 1979. The teaching, with grants from the Ontario Arts Council, the League of Canadian Poets, the Writers Union of Canada, and Learning/Living Through the Arts (as well as occasional funding from individual schools) began about 1990, and I have even managed to do a few zoom workshops during the pandemic. These workshops have taken me to inner cities, farmland, and the Indigenous communities of Six Nations and Moose Factory. I also did one session at the Miami Museum of Contemporary Art for their “Girls on the Rise!” program (for teenage mothers and other troubled girls). These experiences, with both young people and adults, have been incredibly meaningful for me; it is an honour to help people find their voices and the words to say what they need to say.

Back to the present, and to medical news. Roger and I got our first vaccines (Pfizer), on March 26. We both feel very relieved, though continuing to stay masked when outside our house and pretty much isolated, as the numbers of people with covid-19 (including variants) continues to rise in Ontario and other provinces.

I am on a short break from chemo, and will start another new drug in late April or early May. The news from the latest CT scan is mixed: further thickening of the esophagus tumour (picture a doughnut with the hole staying the same size, but the cake part getting bigger outward.) But the liver lesions (there since diagnosis) are stable or smaller and there is no further spread. Rather than put me back on the chemo pills I had been taking, the doctors want to try another drug, which will also target the genetics of the tumour — like the drug I have been on since June 2020 — but in a slightly different way. It is fortunate that there are several of these kinds of drugs being developed now, especially to deal with cancers with a HER2 positive gene, so there are more treatment options than even a few years ago. A few friends have told me about a recent New York Times article discussing a new, “game-changer” drug to treat esophageal cancer; I’m mentioning it here in case some of you have seen it. I looked up the drug described in the article and it is probably not appropriate for the type of esophageal cancer I have, because of the type of cells that became cancerous and because it targets different genes. That’s the science lesson — no test after reading!

A few notes about the “mechanics” of treatment, tests, etc. You get used to people observing, touching, and manipulating your body in ways that wouldn’t have seemed possible before — but now become ordinary and even helpful. I’m grateful that the technicians and nurses are all caring as well as professional. I sometimes think of T.S. Eliot’s line, “like a patient etherized upon a table,” though I am not usually etherized but awake and aware. It helps to take deep breaths, visualize a place in nature, or think of other (more hopeful) lines of poetry.

Also, I’ve pretty much given up driving. At first it was because of anxiety, then feeling that the effects of chemo would impede my judgement and reaction time, and now it just doesn’t seem necessary. There is plenty of public transportation where we live, as well as shops within walking distance, and during the pandemic I have been taking cabs to the hospital. We do have a car, and Roger drives on the few occasions we need to go to a place that requires driving. I may try driving in the neighbourhood as the weather gets better, but we shall see. And I’ve given up earrings and make-up, except for a bit of eye-shadow now and then (pandemic as well as cancer treatments). Though it seems insignificant (a “first world problem”) with all the serious problems of this time — and I am grateful to have kept my hair during chemo — I am now longing to get a haircut. I had an appointment in November, cancelled by the lockdown, and then one in late April, just cancelled for the same reason. So maybe the third time will be a charm. And I appreciate my hairdresser, Edwin, for hanging in during this difficult time — as well as all the small-business-owners who are doing their best to survive in business and to keep themselves and their customers well and safe.

Spring is here, the days are lighter and longer, the crocuses are blooming in our garden. So, as my friend Marjorie Baskin said, “life is still an adventure.”

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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