Written on the Body #44, November 13, 2021: The Body Speaks

The title of this whole blog is “Written on the Body” — but today I want to focus on the body. Or rather, just as Einstein spoke about “spacetime,” seeing space and time as inseparably connected, I want to think about “bodymind” or “mindbody”: the idea that we experience life through an inevitable relationship of mind and body. We take in data through our senses — sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and the kinesthetic senses of our muscles, bones, and organs (e.g. stomach cramps, backaches), our feelings of heat and cold, of wind, wetness, hunger and thirst — and the mind (however we define it) interprets that data, names it (or sees that it is new, as yet unnamed), lets us turn it into experiences that we can feel, think, and talk about. Feel attraction or repulsion, love, fear, anger, comfort, need. This begins happening in infancy — probably, even in the womb — and continues, I think, all our life, even if the mindbody begins to fragment in old age. Making love, sleeping and dreaming, experiences of terror and ecstasy, just the act of waking up in the morning… all engage our body, mind, emotions. It is somehow a mistake to see mind and body as separate, or expect the mind to “control” the body.

Interesting that as a writer, I use words — intangible symbols — to create a world of the senses, of flowers, trees, animals, people, weather: both the world I can actually observe in “real life,” and worlds that I imagine but embody with life that both I and other people can feel as real. We even talk about a writer’s — or any artist’s — “body of work,” as if the work itself is a body (in this larger sense of mindbody) with an ongoing life.

We also talk about bodies of water, and the earth itself can be seen as the body of the world, breathing, growing, changing — and now in extreme danger.

Some of these thoughts were provoked by the visit to B.C. — as many people have noted during the covid19 lockdown and its gradual easing, it is essential to see people in person — especially loved ones but also friends and others in our lives. Zoom and other media can communicate voice, faces, information, but not touch, not smell, not the feeling of being (as a friend of mine put it) in the “fabric of each other’s lives.” There is something about cooking and eating with people, walking together, sitting in companionable silence, doing activities like carving jack-o-lanterns or playing sports — all the in-person ways of being together.

Also walking in nature felt really good after so long — being on the beach, reaching into a tidepool, touching the smooth red bark of an arbutus tree. I find this is true at home, too — smelling flowers in the garden, watching the leaves turn colour, hearing a bird sing is an experience you can have just going out the front door.

It also was my son’s 41st birthday on Nov. 5: being pregnant, having a baby, raising a child are ways we experience our own bodymind in new ways, as well as forming an intimate relationship with the child. (This is true for raising a child, where we gave birth to the child or not.). Making love,

We have just passed Hallowe’en, a time when, it is said, the veils between worlds grow thinner, and also Remembrance Day, when we honour the dead — and the survivors — of war…. and certainly war is one of the most horrendous mindbody experiences humans inflict on each other.

In illness or injury, too, we become aware of body parts we have always taken for granted as working well; now, when they don’t, we sense the loss. I am finding this in the current problem with my eyes, as they are affected by the chemotherapy. I can see, and manage to get around, but things are blurry, giving me a sense of disorientation. And I felt a real loss when I could hardly read, even with a magnifier; I realised how much reading is important to my inner life. And of course the illness itself is a huge mindbody challenge — even when I only see the CT scan reports of what is going on, invisibly (but steadily) inside my body. In the next blog, I will bring you up to date, as far as I can, with my current treatments. Meanwhile, as people keep telling me, Carpe Diem — sieze the day! With body, mind, and heart.

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Written on the Body #43, October 11, 2021: Thanksgiving: good news, other news, writing news

This is the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend — and Thanksgiving is a good way to follow “The Meaning of Life.” It is also a week after the first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. As many of us wore orange shirts with Indigenous symbols and the words Every Child Matters, and perhaps went to ceremonies or gatherings, heard singing and drumming, or meditated quietly at home, we reflected on the traumas and tragedies that people inflicted on Indigenous children, families, and cultures. Maybe we ourselves did not do these things, but they were done by our government, our churches, and in our name — and it is up to us to begin to make things right. In the Jewish phrase, to practice Tikkun Olam: to repair the world. And if not now, when? We do this not to show how good we are, but for the sake of the world. And as another saying goes, we cannot do everything, but we cannot do nothing.

U.S. artist Anne Truitt (1921-2004) talked in another way about seeing the world rather than ourselves, in her book Prospect: the journey of an artist. She says: At one stroke, the yearning to express myself transformed into a yearning to express what this landscape meant to me, nopt for my own emotional release but for the release of a radiance illuminating it behind and beyond appearance. This is the sense of a world — of nature and of living creatures — existing beyond ourselves in time and space, which we sense through a kind of radiance. Interestingly, one aspect of Tikkun Olam is the idea of gathering all the broken shards of light in the world into a whole.

Moving back to the personal plane, I have many things to be thankful for this weekend. One is the good news from my recent CT scan, showing that my new chemotherapy regime appears to be working: the liver lesions are smaller and fewer in number, the esophagus is stable, there are no further metastases. Good news indeed, and I am grateful (again) to all the doctors, nurses, and other staff at Princess Margaret, Toronto General, and all the University Health Network. They also manage to do a great job of keeping people safe during the pandemic.

I am also thankful that Roger and I have finally made the trip to beautiful British Columbia — near Nanaimo on Vancouver Island — to see my son Joe, his partner Christina, and their sons Emilio and Elijah. It’s been almost two years (November 2019) since we last saw them in person, though we’ve had visits over zoom and lots of emai, land they have made us feel so welcome. Here is one photo, taken at Qualicum Beach — it was so healing to be by the ocean — I felt the radiance I talked about earlier in this post, the sense of a world — natural and spiritual, larger than myself.

And I’m thankful for a loving extended family and good friends, and for the flowers that keep growing in our co-op garden. Despite the sense of being in a “diminuendo” phase of life, I am very thankful to be alive.

In other news, the world moves on to a “new normal,” still with some people resisting the vaccine, while others (especially in Africa and Asia) are desperate to get it. People in Louisiana are still suffering the effects of Hurricanes Ida and Laura (16 years after Katrina), and people in California are fighting not only wildfires and drought but a new oil spill. I was glad to hear the governor of California say that we have to move toward a future of not using fossil fuels; they are part of the past. And, more personally, I am feeling in my heart the grief of several friends who have lost loved ones in the past few weeks, or are dealing with serious health issues themselves.

Writing News: I’ve been writing new poems this year, and working on a story about two people who meet in an Assisted Living home: I have to make myself “go fearward” on that one. I did a radio interview with my friend Bernadette Rule for her program “Art Waves” on the Mohawk College Radio Station, The Hawk, 101.5 FM. She usually has guests live (I’ve done a couple of interviews with her in the past), but during the pandemic she’s switched to zoom — like so many of us — and I appreciate that. You can hear go to the program’s archives to hear my interview: https://archive.org/details/artwaves.

I’ve also had some poems published in anthologies: “A Shirt, A Star, A Story” in Love Lies Bleeding, compiled by George Elliott Clarke and published by The Ontario Poetry Society. Other poems are included in these anthologies: Hearthbeats, ed. by Don Gutteridge and published by Hidden Brook Press; the online anthology True Identity, edited by April Bulmer, published by Hidden Brook Press; The Beauty of Being Elsewhere, ed. by John B. Lee and also published by Hidden Brook Press; By the Wishing Tree, ed. by Becky Alexander and published by The Ontario Poetry Society, and (to be published in November) a book about the pandemic, published by Main Station in Nova Scotia. There will be a zoom launch (one of several) for this book on Sunday Nov. 28, 2 pm EST: further details to come. And I am doing a reading (precorded on video) for Toronto’s Art Bar poetry series on Tuesday, October 12, at 8:00 pm. EDT: https://www.facebook.com/groups/artbarpoetry. I have the reading on a dropbox file if anyone would like to see it but can’t watch on Oct. 12.

My friend and Finnish translator, Hannele Pohjanmies, has translated several of my poems into Finnish and posted them on her blog. Here is the link, if you know Finnish or just want to see the poems in that language. Hannele also translated some of my poems for the chapbook. Syntymalaulujah/Birthsongs in 2005. Thank you, Hannele. https://hpohjanmies.blogspot.com/

Finally, the film “The Shadow Project,” by Teresa D’Elia, using as narration my poem “Hiroshima Day: James Street North, Hamilton,” which I talked about in my August 6 blog, was selected for presentation at the Helsinki Educational Film Festival International. A great honour.

It is a coincidence to have two places in Finland where my work is represented. I was there for the launch of the 2005 book, which was initiated and edited by my friend Marja Schulman, and it is a fascinating country.

Though writing itself is a solitary pursuit, it has been a pleasure and a learning experience to work together with all these creative editors, publishers, film-makers, and others.

Happy Trails ’til we meet again.

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Written on the Body #42: September 6, 2021, The Meaning of Life

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (the date varies on the regular calendar, but is always on the first day of Tishri, the seventh month in the Jewish calendar — almost always in September or early October. Ten days from now is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and these ten days are traditionally called The Days of Awe: a time for reflection on the past year, the changes we need to make to turn toward a better life; a time for taking responsibility for our lives, for forgiving others and forgiving ourselves. And also a time for hope — hope for health, for happiness, for peace, for sweetness — for ourselves, our loved ones, our community, and the world. We make honey cakes and eat apples dipped in honey.

Surely a good time to think about “the meaning of life.” It is — but this column was also prompted by a dream I had a few weeks ago (during the month of Elul, when people prepare for Rosh Hashanah, doing a kind of spiritual/emotional house-cleaning). Like many people, I have been having vivid and strange dreams during the pandemic, elaborate stories that disappear into the mist when I wake up. Sometimes a few details are left — a frog chasing a smaller frog, moving to a new house, feeding someone’s dog, meetings with people I haven’t seen for years. Some people think these dreams are prompted by the cutting back of our activities during the pandemic, so our minds provide extra excitement while we sleep.

In one particular dream, I was going on a camping trip and specifically chose campsite #42: a detail I remembered when I woke up. When I mentioned this to Roger, he immediately replied that 42 was the number for “the meaning of life” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which I have heard of but have never read. It is also the title of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, a film, which I didn’t see when it was first released in 1983 but which we watched recently on tv. This felt important: an existential question. The pandemic and other world events, have made these questions loom large, in the undercurrents of our minds if not in the forefront. And my dealing with cancer has heightened my awareness of “the meaning of life,” casting light and shadows on the minutiae of everyday activities. Not that I think about it all the time — but it certainly made sense to dream about it. And, in dream-language, to connect with the number “42,” even though, consciously, I was not aware of the connection.

But what is special about 42? (which is, not so coincidentally, the number of this blog post). Did Adams choose it at random, or was there a reason? I looked up the number on google and found it has many mathermatical complexities, most of which are beyond my understanding (look it up, you’ll see what I mean.) But one interesting thing is that it has many factors, including even and odd numbers (2, 3, 6, 7, 14, as well as 1 and 42), and 4 prime numbers (1, 2, 3, 7). Also, looking at the number, 4+2=6 and 4×2=8, with 7 (often seen as a mystical number) in the middle. And apparently it is the angle, rounded to whole degrees, at which light from a rainbow appears most intensely (the critical angle).

In Egyptian mythology, notably The Book of the Dead, it turns out to be the number of questions asked of a person making the journey through death (42 “negative confessions.”). If the person answers reasonably well, she or he can go on to reincarnation; if completely successful, she can go on to become a star, giving light and creative energy to the universe (a comforting thought, and linked to the idea that we are all made of elements of “stardust.”). I haven’t found out what the questions are, but have thought of doing some writing about this. And in Jewish Kabbalistic tradition (mysticism based on numberology), 42 is the number with which God creates the universe. There are more examples. Howerver, in Japanese culture, 42 is considered unlucky because the numerals when pronounced separately—shi ni (four two)—sound like the word “dying.”

To return to the present, with the concerns about the climate crisis, social and economic justice (including justice for woman and people of all genders), the question of the meaning of life is vital — as it has been in many other criticial times. Sorry to say — this blog is NOT going to tell you this meaning. Mainly because I don’t know the answer — and my answer is probably not the same as yours, though there may be similarities. I think that perhaps there is no one answer, and the search is not a treasure hunt — like finding the “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow. And it is not a secret code, to be deciphered by experts. Rather, I think that we make the meaning of our lives as we go along; human beings are “meaning-makers.” (The origin of the word “meaning” is related to the word for “mind.”) The quest is a continuing and ongoing process: as Ursula K. LeGuin says about love, “it doesn’t sit there like a stone./We need to make it every day, fresh, like bread.” Perhaps, indeed, love and the meaning of life are connected, interwoven. Love (of many kinds, including for life and the world itself) gives meaning to our lives, and our search for meaning can deepen and expand our love.

Warmest wishes to all of you for a healthy, happy, sweet, and creative year ahead.

honey cake with apples, baked by Ellen: baking gives me a warm connection to my mother, and to my great-grandmother, who taaught my mother to bake. August 31 is the anniversary (yahrzeit) of the death of my mother, Viola, in 2009. Her memory is, and may it remain, a blessing. And the same for my father, Harry, and my aunt Jackie (Viola’s sister), who each died on August 10, 1993 and 2010 respectively. Both my maternal grandparents, Rose and Lou, and my parents married in August, too — so it is a month rich with family memories — some bitter, most sweet as honey cake.
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Written on the Body, #41, August 22, 2021: Fortunately and Unfortunately…

“Fortunately and Unfortunately” is the name of story-game I used to play with my wonderful Among Friends writing group, at the end of each session. It’s a round-robin story told by people around the circle, taking turns beginning their short segment with “fortunately” or “unfortunately,” and shows both how life can change from moment to moment, and also how we rarely know for sure what is fortunate or unfortunate. The game comes from an old story in which a man buys a horse, then it runs away, then his son finds it, but breaks his leg riding it home, but then the leg injury exempts him from the army — and so it goes.

This week I have some definitely FORTUNATE news: the CT scan I had on Friday August 13 shows that the new drug is starting to work to reduce the cancer cells. This is wonderful, and hopeful. I continue to be in awe of the doctors and all the staff’s knowledge, skill, and caring.

There is also a piece of unfortunate news — but, in balance, not so bad. We had to cancel our trip to Vancouver Island to see my son Joe and his family, because my chemotherapy was rescheduled from last week to this coming week (Aug. 26), the week we planned to be away, when I would have had a week’s break from treatment.. I think because continity of treatment is important, especially as the drug is working well, the doctors don’t want more than a one-week break in the chemotherapy. Roger, Joe, and I all agree that treatment is the first priority, and — fortunately — we can plan the trip for another time. And with fires and smoky air a possibility in B.C., even on the Island, an autumn trip might work out better. Disappointing, as I was looking forward to seeing Joe, Christina, and their family and doing some fun activities, seeing nature — but this is another example of how very little is under our control — except our attitudes. As Roger often says, “Chaos, not conspiracy” — life is just chaotic, in large and small ways.

We also had a great visit at home this past week with Roger’s son Simon (whom I have known since he was nine, and with whom I feel close.) He is now living in Halifax, in the Canadian Navy — working as a marine technician, fixing ship’s engines — and came back on leave.

I’ll leave it here for now, as I have an interesting blog in mind for #42. Be well, and enjoy the end of summer. September in 10 days!!

Mexican sunflower with bee, in our co-op courtyard. We have a humming-bird, too, though I haven’t seen it yet.

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Written on the Body #40, August 11, 2021: Shadows of Remembrance

Note on websites cited in this post: Due to a computer quirk I do not understand, please do not click on the links directly from the website. You need to take the extra step of copying and pasting the site into a new tab on your browser. I am trying to correct this, but for now I hope you take the extra step — it is worth it!

With so much going on in the world today — covid19 and its variants and vaccines; extreme climate change, with droughts, forest fires, and floods; uncovering the graves of children at Residential schools; other instances of systemic racism; the plight of “the two Michaels” held prisoner in China; even successful events like the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo — one can forget to remember a world-shaking event that took place 76 years ago (the year that I was born.) I am speaking of the nuclear bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, and then Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. It is important to remember the victims, the survivors, their families, and all who have been touched by the threat, if not the effects, of nuclear war. And to find ways that this weapon, and other catastrophic weapons, will not be used again.

For many years, Bryce Kanbara, Hamilton artist and owner of the You Me Gallery, 330 James Street North, organized the Shadow Project on/around August 6, in which volunteers would draw each other’s outlines in chalk on the James Street pavement, to represent the shadows of people instantly vaporized by the blinding heat of the nuclear bomb, leaving their shadows on walls or sidewalks. You can see historic photographs and read a fuller explanation of what happened here: https://allthatsinteresting.com/hiroshima-shadows

I participated for several years in Bryce’s Shadow Project. Although, of course, it was theatre, re-enactment and not “real,” lying down on the pavement and having my shadow drawn, or drawing someone else’s, and seeing the ghostly effects was moving, disturbing, even bone-chilling. And many passers-by stopped to ask what we were doing, and became interested. In 2009, I wrote a poem about this experience, which was later published in HA&L (Hamilton Arts & Letters), with an article about the project. Read the article here, and then follow the link to the poem: https://halmagazine.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/the-shadow-project-2016-%E2%80%A2-hiroshima-and-nagasaki/ I also published the poem in my book, The Day I Saw Willie Mays, and other poems (Pinking Shears Publications, 2019.)

Art, like life, works in mysterious ways. In 2019, Hamilton film-maker Teresa d’Elia began making a film of the Shadow Project, and learned about my poem from Bryce. I was honoured that she chose my poem as the narration of her short film; in the film, the poem is read by spoken-word poet Nisha Patel, with music by Kiyoshi Nagata. The film intersperses scenes from Hamilton in the present with shots from history. You can see a trailer of the film here: https://vimeo.com/534256661. (this is a correction from previous site). Teresa has submitted the film to several festivals, and we hope to have good news very soon, which I will share with you. I deeply appreciate Teresa asking to use my poem in this way.

In 2020, because of the covid19 pandemic, there was an abbreviated version of the Shadow Project, with people wearing masks and limiting their activity to a few minutes. In 2021, it was “on hold” for health concerns, but I hope it can take place again next August.

People have asked if, or how, you can make art from subjects as devastating as the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, 9-11, the Residential Schools, slavery, and other horrors. Some have said this is impossible. On the other hand, one of the functions of art is to make us really see and feel these experiences, to begin to understand and learn from them, and also to allow people who have experienced these events — or their children and grandchildren — to begin to heal. Look at Picasso’s Guernica, Primo Levi’s Night, the poems and paintings by children at Terezin concentration camp, Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse, the art exhibit “Being Japanese Canadian: reflections on a broken world,” co-curated by Bryce Kanbara at the ROM in 2019, and (going far back in history) Euripides’ The Trojan Women, for just a few examples. It is mind-boggling to think that the human mind can create both such devastating destruction and such deeply-felt responses in visual art, written word, and music — but we do; perhaps the art comes from using our open hearts as well as our minds.

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Written on the Body, #39 – postscript, July 25, 2021. “Both and…”

Writing one thought often leads to another one that may seem contradictory, but is often the other side of the question, like yin and yang, and so the idea becomes fuller, more rounded. Both and instead of either/or.

So while I do want to reach out and explore/be involved in ideas, issues, & events and connect with people outside my immediate experience of illness, treatment, and daily life, as I talked about in the most recent post, I also find myself focusing in, realising I need to do less in a day and say no to projects and activities that, in other times, might have grabbed my attention. Sometimes i need to tell friends I am too tired to talk on zoom, or turn down a writing project I might have done eagerly in the past, or just say “I don’t have time and space for this right now.” Though I regret some of this, I feel it is also essential for my healing and for where I am now. (As physicist Carlo Rovelli says, “now,” like “here,” is very relative, very subjective, and changes moment to moment.) There are days I need to just lie on the balcony, watching the shadows on the trees, or take a nap, or prepare something delicious to eat (yogurt and fresh blueberries and nectarines, for example.) Writing is important and makes me feel better, so I do that when I can. The same goes for my yoga and relaxation zoom classes, and conversations with friends and family. It takes a little longer to get chores like laundry or official forms done — but they do get done. And Roger and I are very grateful to Melissa, our wonderful house-cleaner who comes weekly. I pick and choose my zoom events carefully — and they are usually rewarding. But too many, or those that don’t “call” to me, are overwhelming. I am reminded of a former client who described her life as being like peanut butter spread too thinly on a slice of bread, so you can hardly taste it. I’d rather have a smaller piece but taste the peanut butter! So this is where I am on my journey (no specific name), walking it slowly and care-fully.

And the the third IV also went smoothly, so that is good.

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Written on the Body, #39: July 21, 2021, The Turquoise Raccoon Bandit (look on the bright side of life!)

The good news is that my new treatment has finally started. I have now had two IV infusions, July 8 and 15, with a third one on July 22. Then a week’s break, and the cycle starts again on August 5. So far the main side-effect has been fatigue (for a couple of days after the IV), which is cured by a long mid-day nap. I remember at three years old, in nursery school, I refused to nap on my cot, but grudgingly agreed to lying there, making up stories in my head. Now I think afternoon naps are a good thing — though I often take a book with me, to help me get settled. There is a possible side-effect of keratitis, an inflammation of the cornea (I don’t understand the connection), so I have to take a series of eye-drops and also wear a cooling eye-mask during the treatment — 20 minutes on, 20 off, for the 90-minute infusion — which makes me look like a turquoise raccoon, especially with my covid19 mask on. (No insult is intended to actual raccoons!). See below and feel free to laugh! It is a relief to be back in treatment, and I am glad these new types of drugs are available.

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Not really any bad news for me personally, just the ongoing larger grief about the Indigenous children buried on the sites of residential schools — and also grief for the children who survived these abuses. As I told some U.S. friends during a zoom call recently, I think all (or most) of Canada is now in a state of grief over this.

And concern for the wildfires burning in B.C., Oregon, Northern Ontario, the droughts in California, the floods in Germany, the destruction of the Amazon rain forest — all signs of the climate change emergency that is not just “coming,” but actually here.

So I have been thinking about why, on this blog, I also talk about world events, historical events, holidays, books and films, and other matters beyond the “cancer journey.” And a friend recently asked me about this, too. I think it is for the same reason that, when I facilitated writing groups for people with cancer and with mental-health challenges (well before my diagnosis), we wrote about many different subjects, including childhood memories; personal treasures; reflections on poems, paintings, photographs, music; topical subjects like space flight, etc. And the people I worked with were very glad about this, bringing in their specific issues (or not!) when it seemed relevant to them. This is because all our lives are rich and full with many things, past and present and hopes for the future, and these things bring a mixture of thoughts and emotions which writing helps us see and understand and weave together. Cancer, mental health, poverty, abuse are only one thread in a larger tapestry. As one woman in a group said, “I live with cancer all day, it’s nice to think and write about something else.” And the act of writing helps us (including myself) who are dealing with these serious, existential matters to broaden our gaze, remember who we are; what is beautiful, mysterious, interesting; what makes us whole.

This leads to a few observations as Toronto moves out of lockdown. Roger and I are still being careful, despite our two vaccinations, but I have twice had lunch alone at a restaurant patio — the Free Times Cafe on College Street, a place with good food, including some Jewish dishes (latkes, borscht, matzoh-ball soup), and the scene, in the past, of great music, including Klezmer, and poetry readings. I went because I had time to spare between appointments, but it was nice to just sit outside, eat, and relax, without feeling fearful, and then wander around, one day buying clothes at a small store near the restaurant (trying on clothes in an actual store, something I haven’t done for over a year!), and then, another time, discovering an amazing art installation in a window-gallery further west. I have missed this kind of random wandering, without an agenda, finding things that please my senses and my soul. So if you are near 402 College Street West, check out the Tower of the Sacred & Ordinary, by Daniel Toretsky, in the window-gallery — an exhibit sponsored by FENTSTER (which means “window” in Yiddish.) And we are making plans to visit my son and his family in Nanaimo, B.C. at the end of August — if covid, my own medical issues, and climate-change let this happen. The doctors have given their okay, so that’s a good start.

Stay well, stay safe, un-lock carefully!

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Written on the Body #38, June 28, 2021: Father’s Day, Summer Solstice, JuneTeenth, National Aboriginal People’s Day, and Pride

Much to commemorate this month. First, fathers, grandfathers, people who stepped into the role of father when needed. Memories of fathers in our past, alive or gone to spirit; relationships with fathers now; painful or loving memories; hopes for the future. I am thinking about my dad, who died in 1993 after nine years of living with the effects of severe strokes, taking away his language and mobility, though I know he continued to love me. I wish I’d had more chance to talk with him, adult to adult, and that he had gotten to know my son as a teenager and man: Joe was almost 5 when the first, major stroke hit, and 13 when his grandfather died. But I know Joe has warm memories of visiting him, and often would surprise me by saying, “Grandpa Harry would like that….”, whether it was a sports event or water striders on a pond. My father remains a touchstone of integrity in my mind and heart.

I am also thinking about other fathers: my grandfather Lou; Roger and his three children and his grandchildren — and his own father; my son Joe who has stepped into being dad to his partner Christina’s two sons, building loving relationships; Joe’s dad Allan, despite the differences we had as a couple.

The Summer Solstice: the longest day, the shortest night (of course, this is reversed for people in the Southern Hemisphere, where June 20 (or 21) is the winter solstice. Celebration of light, growth, renewal, flowering, fruits to come, and more light in our hearts and minds. As I wrote in a poem called “My Letter to the World” (after Emily Dickinson), published in the We’Moon calendar for 2021, “love is the force that greens and grows us all,”

In Canada, June 21 is also National Indigenous People’s Day, in the midst of Indigenous History Month. This year, especially, it is a time of soberness and grief, with the unmarked graves of 215 children at the residential school in Kamloops, B.C., and 751 more in Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan. There is much healing and reparative work to be done — and a sense of urgency about doing it. One good thing is that, this month, Canada passed bill C15 saying that  “the Government of Canada must take all measures necessary to ensure that the laws of Canada are consistent with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and must prepare and implement an action plan to achieve the objectives of the Declaration.” It acknowledges there has been systemic discrimination and injustice, and rejects as racist and unjust any doctrine or policy based on the superiority of one nationality, religion, or culture over others (the doctrine which served as the basis for colonialism and slavery). In the U.S., Juneteenth commemorates the day (June 19) that the last slaves were freed, in Galveston, Texas on June 19, 1865. It is another instance of a day to acknowledge the atrocities of the past — and how they still affect the present — as well as a day to celebrate freedom and work toward making it a reality in every aspect of life. And it has special meaning this year, I think, after the killing of George Floyd and the arrest, trial, and conviction of Derek Chauvin, and the .ongoing Black Lives Matter movement.

Finally, Pride month, in Canada, the U.S., and around the world, celebrates people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transexual, queer, +; at the same time, it takes into account all the injustice and violence that have been — and are still being committed — against people who are not heterosexual.

These holidays, whether just one day or a whole month, honour people’s lives and identities, their history and their presence in the present, but they also bear witness to the injustice and discrimination and hatred (both systemic and individual) against particular groups of people, singled out as somehow less than human. They are a reminder to all of us to recognize and fight against prejudice, in our own lives and in society, wherever it exists. As Emma Lazarus wrote: “Until we are all free, no one can be free.”

And now for the medical news: As I mentioned in the last blog, June 12, I had a test on June 14, a biopsy of the esophageal tumour, to see if I still have enough of the HER2 gene for the new drug to be effective. That went well; we are still waiting for the results, but I went on to have more tests last week based on the belief that the outcome will be favourable. These included another CT scan, an echocardiogram, an eye exam (as the drug can affect the eyes), and an MRI of my brain — all requirements of the clinical trial. The MRI was quite scary in anticipation (like many people, I felt panicked at the idea of being closed inside a machine), but thanks to friends who suggested visualization and breathing exercises, and a small dose of an anti-anxiety drug — and a nice technician — I felt no anxiety at all during the test itself; even the loud noises became background sounds without being invasive. So that was a relief. The CT scan showed slightly more growth in the tumour and also, unfortunately, in the liver lesions — so I am glad to be going back into treatment, starting July 8. This will be an IV infusion every week (with a break every 4th week), requiring a few hours at the hospital per session, so a bit more intensive than before, but there are good hopes for this treatment; as I’ve said, it is great that these new drugs are being developed. And I am still feeling well, able to eat, talk, walk around — and write. I will report how things are going after a few treatments. As always, your good wishes and thoughts mean a lot and are helpful in so many ways: thank you.

(and I realise my remarks about Pride, Juneteenth, and Indigenous People’s Day can only touch the surface of these problems, from the point of view of someone who does not know these situations first-hand.)

for hope, here’s a lily from my garden

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Written On the Body #37, June 12, 2021: Entropy…and Beyond

In simplified terms, entropy is a scientific concept describing the way things inevitably move from order to disorder; to break down, to become more random, uncertain, and chaotic. (This concept is used in physics and chemistry, biology, and more recently in fields like sociology and information theory). It reminds me of the lines by poet W.B. Yeats, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…” The past year and a half has, in some ways, seemed a time like this, with the spreading effects of the pandemic, the exposure of systemic racism and social injustice, continuing climate change. This is true even though there have been, and still are, many creative efforts to deal with and overcome these problems. As Roger, who has studied several sciences, told me, “everything runs downhill — but there is a lot of downhill before the bottom.”

Over the past month, I felt that everything began running down for me personally…. though now order is starting to be restored. (In some new scientific research, order — e.g. crystal-formation — does seem to arise from entropy, too.) In addition to cancer and covid-19, and the social-political pandemics of hatred and bigotry, Roger and I were dealing with a slew of lesser (first world) problems: Our internet and cable tv kept breaking down, despite technicians coming to “fix” the problem — but now, for the past couple of weeks, they are working again. My cell phone, as I mentioned last time, also began going dead even when charged, and wouldn’t take a new charge — except, of course, when I took it in to be repaired; it would then work for a few days before going silent again. I have finally gotten a new phone that is working (though of course the old phone took a charge just as I was on the way to the store to get my new one; that did make it easier to transfer the data.) Even my desktop computer in my office stopped working, so I couldn’t use that familiar space for writing, with family photos around me and windows looking out on the trees. Finally, after some attempts at repair, I bought a new (small but good) desktop computer, and just installed it today — so I have my space back. Finally, the mysterious rash I had on my arms turned out to be bedbugs (which are having their own epidemic in our co-op), so we had to call the exterminator, and dry all our clothes in very high heat. Getting ready for the exterminator did motivate us to clean up the basement, the closets, and paper in my office — getting rid of old junk and paperwork that had been sitting there for years, in entropy of its own. These problems are now just about resolved

And the VERY good news is that Roger and I got our second vaccines on May 31, the day more supplies opened up. Although we’re not over 80, I could register because I am high-risk and the Shoppers’ where we went for the shots easily accepted Roger as my partner/caregiver.

But most anxiety-provoking aspect of the past month is that I have been feeling in a kind of treatment limbo re. the new drug treatment I have been hoping for — and that my doctors are trying to implement. So I’m glad to report more very good news:things are finally moving forward, and I have an appointment on June 14 for a test that I need, in order to see if I am eligible for the treatment. I mentioned several weeks ago that the doctor was hoping I could get into the clinical trial of one drug; it turns out that is not available, but there is another, very similar drug, and I am being screened for the clinical trial of that one.

Simplified biology lesson: Both drugs are antibody-drug conjugates; they carry an antibody for a specific gene in the cancer cell, which attaches to that gene and then releases another chemotherapy drug to kill the cells. (This is an area where a lot of research is being done.) In my case, it is a mutation of the gene HER2, which makes the cells grow out of control. (This gene is often associated with breast cancer, but can be found in tumours in other parts of the body.) I had a biopsy when first diagnosed that showed that my esophageal tumour was HER2 positive — but now, after a couple of years of treatment, they need to do another biopsy to see if there is still enough HER2 to make the drug effective. Unfortunately, the test to do that (an endoscopy) was delayed by covid19 complications. They considered doing a liver biopsy, as the disease had spread to the liver early on — but those lesions have now shrunk to almost nothing, because of the treatment. This is good, of course, but left me waiting for the endoscopy. So I am relieved it is finally scheduled, and I appreciate the doctors and the co-ordinator of the clinical trial working really hard to get this done as quickly as possible. I continue to feel well, eat well, have good energy and no pain — but CT scans show the esophageal tumour is getting bigger (only by a few centimetres, but not a good sign). So I need treatment. And I am so glad these new treatments are being developed, just as it’s good the covid19 vaccines have been developed so quickly.

Meanwhile, of course, terrible and tragic things are going on in the world. Finding the graves of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, in British Columbia. The murder of 4 members of a n Islamic family, and the wounding of the fifth, a 9-year-old boy, as they were taking a pleasant evening walk in London, Ontario (murder by truck — the killer deliberately drove his vehicle into them as they stood on the sidewalk). How will this boy go on living? And the trauma of so many survivors of residential schools, and their families, has been evoked, again, by the discovery of these graves — with more to follow, I’m sure. In June 2008, I was doing a writing project at a school in Moose Factory, northern Ontario, sponsored by the Ontario Arts Council — by coincidence, the same week that then-Prime Minister Harper made his apology to the survivors of the Residential Schools and their families. I was with one of the teachers while she watched the speech on televison (alone in the school’s front office, while I stood behind a counter). I have always remembered that experience, and have now written about it, in the way that poetry can bear witness to terrible events. Maybe with grace, good will, and hard work, we can begin to move out of personal, cultural/generational, and world-wide entropies and disorder, toward a new and more life-enhancing creative order so we can all live well on this planet, in a climate not destroyed by the toxins of pollution and hatred.

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Written on the Body #36, May 9: Mother’s Day

Still on my cell phone for internet, and even the cell phone had to be revived 3 times this week. I finally took it to the Mobile-Klinik in the Eaton Centre, which seems to have done the trick, thanks to technician there. I worried about covid safety ‐- but Eaton Centre was almost deserted on a Saturday afternoon, either more security guards than people… like a post- Apocalypse movie. They only let in people like me, with an actual reason to be there.

I didn’t mention Mother’s Day in my last post, and want to take this time to honour all Mother’s…starting with Mother Earth and the connection between all living things, and the earth itself, including the waters and the air. Then all our mothers, whether still living or gone to spirit, annd all the mothering people in our lives, grandmothers, aunts, mothers by birth adoption, or marriage, teachers, friends. And all of us as daughters and sons, perhaps mothers ourselves and as caregivers and nurtures to ourselves and our loved ones and community. May you have good memories and good times in the present., even in the pandemic. May these people be, in writer Jane Rule’s words, a “speaking presence” in our lives.

Personal thanks to my mother Viola, my aunt Jackie, my grandmother Rose, great-grandmother Mary, great-great grandmother Esther (as far back as I have pictures). And to my father’s mother, Grandma Sarah. And to my son Joe, who has brought joy to my life, and his partner Christina. And Roger’s family, his parents, siblings, children. Family trees keep extending and interweaving, like roots of trees in the forest.

Below: 4 generations: my great-great-grandmother Esther (for whom I was named), sitting; my great-grandmother Mary, at the rear, then my grandmother Rose, and my mother Viola sitting on Esther’s lap. About 1920-21. My mother’s birthday is today, May 17 — she would have been 103. (She died in 2009, at age 91, happy to have made it to over 90). She loved lilacs and they are in bloom now!

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