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.


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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Written on the Body #35, May 5, 2021: May Day

This will be short, as I am writing on my phone because our regular internet is not working, along with the cable TV, on the same system. Thank goodness for my Samsung smart phone! (which also suddenly stopped working for a short while, then restarted). It’s good not to lose all communication with the world, but also nice to have the house a bit quieter.

May Day, the call for distress, comes from the French “m’aidez,” help me. And the world does need help right now, with covid-19 and its variants still ravaging, especially in India, Brazil, and marginalized communities all over the world. And the growing dangers of climate change caused by human behavior snd attitude, and the continuing work to achieve racial and social justice. Not to mention the personal tragedies many of us face.

But May also brings hope, renewal, spring flowers, and the possibility of healing on all levels, including greater communication and understanding. I agree with a quote I heard recently: the intention to heal oneself is also to heal the world.

On a personal medical note, my doctor is dealing with some bureaucratic delays in getting access to the new medication he wants me to have, but he thinks this will finally happen in a couple of weeks. Abd there is alternative drug he can use if the delay continues. He thinks I am doing well enough that another short wait won’t hurt. And he did write a note saying that I am eligible to get my second dose of vaccine sooner than four months after the first one — so I am trying to schedule that.

I did a wonderful Sound Bath meditation- listening to and absorbing a carefully-chosen collection of sounds – on line through Wellspring (Toronto), led by Rufus Glassco of Sound Body Collective. Rufus and I worked together in Learning Through the Arts some years ago, and it was great to see him again in this context. Sadly, two friends of mine have recently been diagnosed with forms of cancer; I have been trying to provide support for them the way people did for me when I was first diagnosed. It is good to have a hand to hold on this strange journey.

For leisure, Roger and I saw an excellent movie, Concrete Cowboy, on Netflix. Heartening without being sentimental. And I am reading Margaret Atwood’s striking new poetry collection, Dearly, and, as a contrast, “urban fantasy” novels by Patricia Briggs. I entered CV2 magazine’s 2-day poem contest, in which poets are given 10 words to use in a poem written over 48 hours, no more than 48 lines. Some words are common as mustard, others… well, have you ever heard of “nubivagant”? Can you guess what it means? Shall I leave you in suspense? (though you can find it online, of course). Here’s a hint: a famous line hy William Wordsworth. The contest is always a fun challenge.

Be well, and I will write again when there is more news.


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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.”

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