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

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

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

Tumour, March 2019

I lodged in your throat

(esophagus, to be precise)

the place where you swallow food, make love,

close to where you speak,

indigestible

but insidious, too small to cough up.

I lurked there, biding my time,

growing, cell by cell by cell,

burning your heart with my secret.

Now you have found me,

a bad dream come true

but you are stronger now,

surrounded and filled with love

and powerful words.

I am exposed, open to treatment,

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

“We’ll fight it through!”

Don’t choke!

Find the sweet spot

Give it all you’ve got

Hit me out of the ballpark

Come home safe to your life.

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

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

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

Letter to the World

(after Emily Dickinson)

This is my letter to the world,

that writes to me, to all of us,

in the language of sea-foam and sunlight,

tornadoes, typhoons, tsunamis,

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

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

her heartbeat, her children.

This is my dream for the world —

let us learn before it is too late

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

molecule to mollusk to human,

connecting our flowing currents,

keeping us whole,

restoring our broken-ness.

These are our hopes for the world —

hear our cries,

teach us to cry before it is too late,

before fire, flood, and ice consume us.

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

reborn in new and silken welcome,

shining with abundance and new light.

I am the world, writing in response,

hoping against hope

for more light, fresher air, water

clean and clear as starlight.

I have whispered to you in flowers and fruits,

thundered and wept in tornadoes and hurricanes,

scorched in drought and fire,

 opened my heart to rebirth.

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

Will you listen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Written on the Body #23 August 10, 2020: The Incredible Shrinking….

A few weeks ago, I might have said this phrase applies to me: “The incredible shrinking woman.” Despite eating well, I was losing a few pounds that I didn’t want to lose, and, as I noted, was dealing with some side-effects of chemotherapy and not sure if the new medication would be effective. Then I had a CT scan on July 27 — regularly scheduled scans are part of the protocol — which showed that the cancerous lesions in my liver are significantly reduced in size – The Incredible Shrinking Lesions! And there is no metastasis to other organs.

When I saw my oncologist on Aug. 4, he said he wanted me to actually see the results, rather than read about them in the report — so he took me into the inner office, for doctors and staff, and showed me the computer images of the lesions, comparing May to July. It was like looking at a map where a very large island has suddenly shrunk to one-quarter of its size. (we’re talking about centimetres here, say 4,2 x 3.3 cm reduced to 1.9 x 1.5.) This is very good news… though my optimism is still tinged with caution. I feel as though my “borrowed” time is now extended… and hope to enjoy it with grace and love.

So now for some random thoughts:

We have had a couple of friends come visit, one at a time, and sit on our balcony. Thanks to Shawn and Vernon for the mint plant, and Catherine for the gelato. (Even my doctor is advising me to eat ice-cream!)

And the Raptors are back, with a shortened but intense season. It’s great to see our favourite players again. And especially good to see how the Raptors, and all the NBA, are speaking out for Black Lives Matter, with players wearing meaningful slogans on their shirts (though the League wouldn’t let Norm Powell wear “Am I Next?”) and with excellent interviews and commentaries on the racial situation and the need for change. I hope these messages reach out beyond the already-aware to a larger audience.

By the way, I gained some notoriety in chemo last week, when a man in a nearby chair was trying to remember the name of one of the Raptors players, and I called out “Anunoby!” How do you know so much about basketball? the other patients and a nurse asked, looking at this small, grey-haired woman, holding a book. We’re fans, I said.

I also marvel at the chemo nurses’ skill in doing what they do, handling powerful drugs and delicate equipment with professional correctness and also taking the time to be caring. This past week, my bra was pressing too tightly and I was trying to wriggle it off — not easy when you’re sitting in a chair with IV tubes going into the port (small device) on my chest. A nurse nearby (not the one specifically treating me that day) saw my struggles and came over to help, drawing the curtain for privacy. Between us, we accomplished the task, and I felt more comfortable — and grateful to the nurse for her kindness.

As Roger and I watch TV in the evenings, we’ve noticed that many new shows on Netflix and Amazon, as well as some movies, feature two things: 1) protagonists who are young girls, ready and able to fight and to lead their people; and 2) the struggle for racial/cultural equality and respect, even in fantasy worlds (e.g. the Fey, in both “Carnival Row” — a different world that somewhat resembles Victorian England — and “Cursed,” a version of the King Arthur legend. I think these two things are not unrelated; women are taking stronger roles, and we are seeing that all people (even so-called “not-human” ones like the Fey) have equal rights and should not be disrespected and attacked. Another show portraying a strong young woman fighting against the system is “Hannah,” set not in a fantasy world but in a slightly futuristic earth where young people (both girls and boys) are being genetically engineered and trained to be weapons; Hannah fights for their humanity. These shows are, I hope, harbingers of change.

And weapons leads to my final thought for today: we have just passed the 75th anniversary of the first (and second) use of the atom bomb, which the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 1945, and then on Nagasaki on August 9. This is something that should never happen again. I want to thank Bryce Kanbara of the You Me Gallery (330 James St. North, Hamilton) for his many years of organizing the Shadow Project, in which people draw each other’s outlines in chalk on the sidewalk, the evening before Aug. 6, to show how the blast burned images onto walls and streets, and to help us remember this horrific event and to urge us to work for peace. I participated in this project several times, and wrote a poem about it: I am honoured that the poem is being used as narration for a short film about the Shadow Project and the bombing itself. When the video is available for viewing, I will let you know. There were many victims in World War II, as in all wars, and we can honour their memories by finding new solutions.

So we continue in this brave, and strange, new world. As Jack Layton said, in his last words to Canadians (August 2011), My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful, and optimistic. And we’ll change the world. Thank you, Jack.

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Written on the Body #22, July 18, 2020 — Corona Blues and Chemo-Therapy

The last post took a while to write because of so much happening in the world. This took a while because of internal events and changes.

First of all, today is my father’s birthday: born in 1907, he would have been 113 years old today; he died on Aug. 10, 1993, at the age of 86. I miss him always, but in the past couple of years, I have been really wanting to talk to him about the medical matters I am facing, and also the changes in cardiology since he retired from practice in 1982. With a few other doctors in New York, he helped develop the first stress test, then called the two-step test– patients walked up and down a two-step ladder and then had an ECG to measure their heart function. I find myself telling this to the technicians as I have ECG’s and echocardiograms now, all part of the procedure for the new drug I am taking (which could affect the heart, though so far I am doing okay).

I have been experiencing more side-effects, probably due to the increased dose of the chemotherapy pills I have been taking since last year rather than the new drug itself (I am not mentioning specific drug names here, as everyone reacts differently to these medications and their combinations). Fortunately, I have a wonderful oncologist at Princess Margaret who listened to me when I said I was feeling “not great,” instead of my usual “things are going well…despite a minor side effect here and there.” The major issues were fatigue, some digestive problems, and red, burning (like a bad sunburn) on the palms of my hands and soles of my feet — a known effect of the pills on the capillaries of those area, now worse than before. The doctor stopped the pills for this round of chemo, so I only have the IV of the new drug, and will reduce the dose for further cycles. It is great to have a doctor — and his team — who listen to me, and try to balance the need for these powerful drugs with my own tolerance level. And it is a delicate, changing balance. I am now beginning to feel better, which is a relief. Needing to pay so much attention to my body and its physical needs (e.g. Sleep Now! Pay attention to these symptoms!) is important, but draws energy from other things I would like to do and think about.

In my chemotherapy session this past Thursday, I was in a room with a woman who was there for her very first chemo treatment — understandably overwhelmed and scared. The nurse asked if I would talk to her about my “port” — a device about the diameter of a nickel, implanted in my chest to take in medications and draw blood, which is much safer and better than using a vein in the arm. I was glad to do this, and our talk expanded to thoughts about the illness and treatment in general; possible things to expect (e.g. sudden episodes of fatigue, even when you were feeling okay ten minutes ago), and how to talk to her kids. Unlike me, she has young children — something that would add greatly to one’s stress and anxiety; I know it would have been much harder for me if my son were 9, not 39. (It’s still hard, but at least he is launched in his life and we can talk as adults). We agreed it is important to take things day by day, and be honest with the kids (according to their age level), and I gave her a few suggestions for helpful resources — e.g. my relaxation group at Wellspring. As a friend of mine said when I told her about this conversation, “You’re back at work doing therapy.” “Chemo-therapy,” I replied — a new twist on the word.

I also think I, like many people, am feeling the continued effects of the COVID-19 isolation and fears. Though our basic daily life hasn’t changed that much, as Roger and I are both retired and used to spending time at home, I miss the visits with friends over coffee, occasional visits to a museum or seeing a play, just walking casually on the street. And he is looking forward to his physiotherapy clinic reopening: loss of that treatment has increased his pain from arthritis. Even contacts with neighbours are restricted; we are fearful of talking to people without masks on, worry about people not following “social distance” at the grocery store or drugstore. And we wonder about how long this will last — especially seeing the horrifying increase in numbers in the U.S. We worry about friends and family, in Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere — and also about the general state of things, in this time of turmoil and change: schools, the arts, sports, politics, all in flux. These fears and precautions are necessary — and much better than the “I don’t care/I have a right not to wear a mask!” attitude that some people have, but they do put a damper on human sociability. I am grateful to Zoom, for letting us make some connections with loved ones and also letting us experience some events (readings, concerts, talks, etc.) — including ones I would not have been able to attend in “real life,” such as my friend Lisa Alther’s readings and discussions of her new novel, Swan Song, which I recommend highly. As Lisa says in the book, “When you started seeing only the sadness of life, with none of the simultaneous beauty and humor, you were in trouble.” https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/612219/swan-song-by-lisa-alther/9780525657545

So my thought for today is — keep trying to see all these facets of life — beauty, love, humour, grief. And thanks to friends who keep sending good wishes, cards with flowers and hummingbirds, and healing thoughts. It does help, so much!

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Written on the Body #21: June 15, 2020 — Pandemic of Racism and Police Violence

Note: I started this on May 29, but only completed it on June 15 — for reasons mentioned below.

It’s been a critical few weeks for the U.S., since the police killing of George Floyd, but the epidemic of racial hatred and racist violence by those supposedly charged to uphold the law and protect citizens (even those being arrested) is rampant in Canada and throughout the world, in various forms. I was going to write about some reflections on the virus pandemic, but this mental/emotional/spiritual violence and the fight against it is definitely more urgent.

Despite the fact that many of us are seeing this violence on television (as we have, time after time in the past), it is disturbingly real for those who live through it every day: those who are killed and their families, and for millions of Black, Indigenous, Latino/Latina, Asians in the U.S., Canada, and other countries who fear for their safety each time they leave home, or say goodbye to their children in the morning. And the same is true, with changes of name, in other countries around the world, and in different periods of history. More and more, it is clear how much the U.S. — despite the words of the Declaration of Independence — was built on attitudes of white superiority toward Africans, brought to the U.S as slaves, and toward the Indigenous people. This included the use of violence, both during slavery and later. In Canada, too, there was an ongoing attitude toward Indigenous people, which led to the Residential and Day Schools and policies of removing children from their families and culture. Eventually, other groups — Blacks, Asians, other people of colour, also experienced these racist attitudes, which translate into housing, education, employment, nutrition, policing and law, and other areas of society,

As someone who grew up in the U.S., born in 1945, I witnessed the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s (and let’s not forget Viola Desmond in Nova Scotia in 1947, and similar fights for racial justice in Ontario during this period). I still feel the shock and horror I felt on hearing about 4 little girls bombed in a church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1962, for instance. And I worked with a writing group in a ghetto area of Brooklyn for Black and Puerto Rican young people.

There were, indeed, some changes after the sixties, new legistation, new awareness. But not enough — and with opportunities to “get around” the required changes., one way or another. So it seems we are on a repeating loop. Or we go a few steps forward (Obama’s election is one highly public example), and then fall several back.

So watching the latest videos, including police actions during the protests, I am heartsick. And I am also encouraged by the military personnel, as well as others , who have spoken out against Trump’s wanting to use the U.S. military against U.S. citizens, by the articulate young Black people I listened to, and by former President Obama’s seeing this time as an “awakening” for the whole country. Initiatives in Canada, such as the “Black Like Me” panel discussion by actors and other theatre professionals from Stratford — broadcast on youtube, with over 2000 listeners (and recorded for later viewing) show both the pain of systemic racism, and point to ways we can work to truky overcome racism.

It has been hard to finish this blog: partly because so much was happening in the protests every day, and with new incidents of violence in Canada and the U.S.; partly because we are still worried about COVID-19, and partly because I was getting ready for my new chemotherapy regime, which started on June 4 and involved several preliminary tests at the hospital. So far, it is going well — I have been tired, but not as much as usual; that’s probably also made it hard to write. I feel overwhelmed by all of this. And I am grieving for the country where I grew up (and which I chose to leave, during the Vietnam War era), and for the country I have chosen to live in for over 40 years. I am thinking about my son, who is in the RCMP after several years as a social worker: I know he brings those skills and a non-racist attitude to his work — but he is working in an organization that (like so many) is fraught with systemic racism. How does he deal with this? I am impressed that Brenda Lucki, Conmisioner of the RCMP, could admit that she should have said there is systemic racism in the RCMP, when she made an earlier statement, and I hope she will deal with this effectively. Thinking about being Jewish: My ancestors in Europe were oppressed;if my family had stayed in Europe, we could have been in the Nazi death camps; even in the U.S. my family had faced a few incidents of anti-Semitism. And yet, I grew up and have lived with white privilege, including economic privilege, and definitely would be “white” when people see me on the street, the TCC, a store, etc. And I need to recognize the complexities of all that. It’s also been good to talk with friends and relatives about what is going on, and what people really live with.

I hope you are all staying well, and dealing with these issues as best you can. My next chemo. treatment is June 25. ‘Til next time.

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Written on the Body, #20. May 13, 2020. Mother’s Day and Beyond

Hello — I know it’s been about a month since I’ve written; the days seem to slide by — as someone said, “day, day, day, day.” On the other hand, I am feeling well, and the time at home would pass pleasantly — as neither Roger nor I have work to go to, and most of our family is too far away to see regularly. We do miss their occasional visits; Zoom calls are great, but not like seeing family and friends in person. I know this Mother’s Day was strange — with few hugs and face-to-face visits; perhaps waves in the yard of a nursing home, or a zoom call, or meeting in person but 6 feet apart. I spoke with my son and his partner, and also thought about my mother Viola, my grandmother Rose, my great-grandmother Mary — all in memory now — and my two living aunts, one each on my mother’s and my father’s side, both (coincidentally) named Jackie.

Meanwhile…as Stephen Colbert says… my son and his family continue to go hiking on Vancouver Island, in relative safety and isolation; he just sent me an amazing photograph of rock formations in an embankment:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-1-1024x1024.png
somewhere on Vancouver Island,

I have just passed the first year of chemotherapy treatment: as I told my oncologist, I have had a much better year than I expected when I was diagnosed in February 2019. I am not only alive but enjoying life — even in the midst of the pandemic, which has now, like the cancer itself, become something I am living with, along with many others. My heart goes out to people who are ill from this, or who have lost loved ones, or who are struggling financially — and to people to have no homes to shelter in, or only makeshift ones.

In terms of my treatment, the oncologist wants to try a new drug (one newly-engineered in the past few years), specifically for people with my type of cancer and who have been on another gold-standard drug for a while (Herceptin, one of the 3 meds i have been taking). This combination has stopped the cancer from spreading further (beyond my esophagus and liver), and actually helped shrink the esophageal tunour. It seems that a few of the liver lesions are becoming resistant to the drugs, as often happens, and this new one could help overcome that situation. It sounds promising, and is supposed to have only mild side-effects. I am waiting to hear about the details of the treatment protocol, but it will probably start in late May or early June. I’ll keep you posted!

I have been doing some editing, helping a friend with poetry about the pandemic, and also writing some new poems — partly in response to contests on-line. CV2 magazine still had its annual contest, giving poets 10 words (a few ordinary, some extra-ordinary or obscure) which you have to incorporate into a poem over one weekend (48 hours), 48 lines or less. Do you know what peristeronic means? Neither did I, until now. And the Power Plant, a gallery at Toronto’s Harbourfront, had its first ekphrastic poetry contest – poetry about art, specifically for poets during the lock-down. They showed 5 images of art installations that had been shown at the Power Plant in previous years and invited poets to choose one to write about. It was fun and interesting (even though I didn’t win). Won’t hear about the CV2 contest until July.

I am very impressed by how many writers, artists, musicians, even theatre people and dancers are finding ways to publish and perform work on line. The Art Bar in Toronto is continuing its weekly Tuesday night readings, with poets creating videos at home. My friend Jaclyn Piudik did one this past Tuesday and I will be one of the poets featured on July 21. Stay tuned for more information. Also J.J. Steinfeld in P.E.I. had a play, The Star of David, performed at an on-line theatre festival in Jersey City, Eleanor Albanese did a facebook launch for her new novel, “If Tenderness Be Gold,” from her daughter’s backyard in Montreal….and there are many more examples. Congratulations to all! Not quite the same as being there, but way better than nothing.

And here is the link to an interview that appeared in the Saskatchewan-chapter newsletter of CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators, and Performers). I wrote it several months ago — before COVID-19 was front and center, or even about to make its entrance onstage — and I was actually surprised to see that I mentioned how I enjoyed writing in “cafes, trains, planes,” and other public places. Maybe again someday — or maybe not. We are moving into a very different world, I think, even when the worst of the crisis is over. Whenever that will be. We are becoming familiar with living with uncertainty. https://skcanscaip.wordpress.com/2020/05/02/meet-our-national-members-ellen-jaffe/

I do get a bit overzoomed sometimes, and need time-outs. I’ve found a great oatmeal cookie recipe to make, and also bake our favourite muffins. I read books that have been on the shelf for a while. We managed to do our tax returns by Zoom and email — kudos to our tax people, Artbooks, for helping to keep their staff and their clients safe,and still do the work. And we’ve made some food for a neighbour who has been quite sick with diabetes. I have a cousin in New York who had a mild case of COVID-19, and know about a friend’s uncle in a nursing home in Ontario who died from the virus. The pandemic has certainly shown how nursing homes and long-term care homes really need reform of their policies and ways of operating.). And I am saddened by the news that a friend is very ill with cancer — though she is at peace, and glad to see the May flowers one more time. So each day continues to unfold.

Be well. Be safe. As my friend Sharon said before she died, 4 years ago, “Enjoy everything.”

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Written On the Body, #19: April 12, 2020 – Pandemic continued

Easter and Passover — holidays usually marked by celebrations with loved ones, and this year only with the people we live with (if we do live with family or friends, not alone) and with many other friends and family on electronic screens of various kinds. We are all going through the wilderness, as in the story of Passover (the Exodus), learning to move from slavery to freedom; or we are experiencing deaths (literal and figurative) and hoping for rebirth. For those who are grieving, who have lost someone during this pandemic, I offer deep sympathy. For those who are ill, I send hope for recovery. For those with financial losses, I hope you can receive adequate support. And for all of us, let’s try to keep balanced and connected even through this time of intense uncertainty. Life is always uncertain, though we are often lulled into not being aware of this — until a crisis stops us in our tracks.

Roger and I, and our families (both in Canada and in the U.S.) are virus-free. Because of high risks due to my cancer and the weakened immunity caused by cancer, Roger and I are mainly staying home, except for occasional trips for groceries and medications. My cancer treatment is continuing, in a modified form: the oncologist has taken away one drug that is hardest on my immune system; I still have two other medications, and we are hoping this will work on the two fronts, reducing the cancer while helping my immune system. The hospital is taking many new safety precautions, and as it is only a cancer hospital, there are no actual COVID-19 patients there.

We are grateful to be in our own home, with familiar things around, and the opportunity to talk by Zoom to family and friends far away. This is not true for everyone. I also appreciate supports like yoga and relaxation on line, and the way people are working together to find solace and solutions. And of course, I feel deep appreciation for all the health-care and other frontline workers who risk their own health and well-being during this time.

After dealing with my own illness for a year, I find that suddenly I have gone from being in a personal, individual existential crisis to being part of a world-wide existential crisis. I wrote about this in a piece published online in Understorey magazine, a publication from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Here is the text of that piece. ‘Til next time, be well, be safe, be calm (as calm as possible). Find something in nature to love, as the spring comes inevitably, and the flowers keep blooming.

FROM ONE TO MANY by Ellen S. Jaffe https://understoreymagazine.ca/2020/04/from-one-to-many/

Since February 2019, when I was diagnosed with a strange cancer, visible on CT, PET, and all the other alphabetized scans—but not making me outwardly ill—I have become used to staying at home, more and more. I go out for treatments at the hospital, which leave me fatigued and with a suppressed immune system, so I spend time at home, napping and having hot baths. When I have enough energy, I go out to meet friends, see a show at a museum, attend a play, read a few poems at a reading, have dinner at a restaurant with my partner. Even routine things like shopping, going to the bank, the library, the hardware store are restorative—for a while, I can feel normal in a normal, functioning world. Then fatigue, or fear, overtakes me. Sometimes, I wonder how the world can continue normally while I am ill, straying closer to the brink of death.

And then everything changes. The virus spreads like wildfire over the world: China to other parts of Asia, Europe, the US, Canada, South America, Africa. People are dying. More people are dying. Everything is cancelled, one event after another. The old “domino theory,” in a new guise. No sports, no readings, no theatre, no museums, no schools (except for online teaching). No businesses open except essentials.

Both my partner and I are in self-isolation because of the high risk from my illness  and because of our age (we both turned 75 in mid March). Already used to enjoying time at home with each other, we now sink into this new rhythm of only going out for essentials. We cuddle closer, cook meals, watch old movies. I find time to write, to clear a junk-drawer, to look through old photographs. I do my relaxation and yoga classes on Zoom, and find this actually works. Our neighbours are helpful, and we help them. My cancer treatments continue, though the hospital has greatly increased safety precautions. We call our children, our siblings, our other relatives and friends, many in the now hard-hit US. So far, everyone we call or email is well, but the anxiety is there, in ever-widening circles: our friends here who are out of work; people in shelters; people in refugee camps with tents crowded close together, no clean water or soap to wash hands. I am washing many times a day, feeling like the title character in a 1990 book on obsessive-compulsive disorder, The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing by Judith L. Rapoport. But this is not a disorder; the danger is real. We listen to Justin Trudeau telling us to “Go home and stay home” and “We’ll get through this together.” Far different from being told (south of the border) that it will all be over by Easter, and get back to work.

Easter is coming, and so is Passover. Last winter, in pottery class, I made a Seder plate, not sure I would even be alive in April to use it. We did use it last year, and will again this year, as families gather at virtual Seder tables and Easter services, trying to find our way through this worldwide wilderness.

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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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