Written on the Body #14, December 15, 2019: Looking toward the Light

We’re a week away from the shortest day and the longest night in the year, the Winter Solstice (aka St. Lucy’s Day). Since returning from British Columbia in November, I’ve felt the increasing darkness in late afternoon and the increasing cold and damp, which seem to be making the chemo fatigue and low energy worse (or perhaps vice versa — the side effects of chemo make me feel the winter more intensely.) I’m now in the latter part of the current cycle, so my energy is on an upswing — and the doctors have given me an extra 2-week break over the holidays, so I can both relax and restore myself.

Light is important, in both physical and spiritual terms. The Jewish holiday Chanukah, which can fall anywhere from late November to late December (this year it begins on Dec. 22), celebrates the “miracle” of the returning light. This is not only — I think — the oil that burned in the renewed temple for 8 days instead of only one, but also the returning light of the sun after the winter solstice and the light that can brighten and lift our spirits, even during dark and devastating times. And then there is the Star of Bethlehem, leading the wise men forward. And the lights that many other religions celebrate, and that warms our hearts no matter what our beliefs.

Of course, things need to balance — darkness can be comforting, as Dylan Thomas wrote; bulbs and seeds need darkness under the earth to sprout and grow; animals hibernate in caves. And there is the descent into the dark depths of sleep.

But I am glad that, for example, the Talmudic scholars and rabbis decided the order of the Chanukah candles should go from 1 burning, to 2, and on to all 8 — rather than beginning with 8 and diminishing downward. We want to see the increase of light, warmth, hope.

In terms of my life right now, I am glad (and perhaps a bit surprised) to still be here alive, living a fairly normal life — getting out, seeing friends, etc., and not experiencing pain or loss of appetite. I know, however, that my energy and activities are diminished; I rarely drive (fortunately, we are very close to public transportation — and cabs), and there are literary/art/music events that I would love to attend, especially if friends are presenting, but can’t muster the energy to get to them. On the other hand, I enjoy each day and often think, yes, I would be doing this (cooking, writing, reading, talking) if I didn’t have cancer. There is a heightened sense of pleasure in everyday moments and experiences. And I gave a poetry reading on Nov. 28, at the Urban Folk Salon organized by Tom Hamilton at the Mount Pleasant Library. I felt strong and tall, and read a variety of poems — including two from the sequence “After the Diagnosis,” written last February and March when I was even more in the grip of uncertainty. It felt good to read my words aloud — and to see people respond. (Copies of my new book, The Day I Saw Willie Mays, and Other Poems, are still available — contact me for info.)

I have another CT scan in mid-January, and I hope that shows the chemotherapy is still working to shrink the tumour and lesions and stop their spread.

The world, too, needs more light at this time — more reasoned thought, and more compassion. So I send that wish into the night air. May all your holidays — Chanukah, Christmas, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Solstice — be bright (and not over-stressed), and the new year bring you joy. Below is a new poem with photo.

Glass Flowers at Princess Margaret Hospital (atrium rooftop garden)

Glass flowers

in the snow



to invisible music

pink icicle flamingos

or a frozen rainbow

fragile yet permanent

permanent, yet


like – yet so unlike –

 the flowers in my garden last spring and summer

tulips, iris, day-lilies,

bleeding hearts.

Their sweetness

blown and carried in the wind

flowers that die back

but will bloom again next year,

unless eaten by squirrels,

or blighted by frost

the rainbow of our lives,

storm and promise,

colour and a void,

fragile yet enduring.

In the snow, glass flowers

catch the light

says the man next to me, as I take photos.

Even in winter, light of spring,

of summer,

still glows

as long as we can see it

through the dark.      

(Ellen S. Jaffe, December 2019)                                                                                    

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Written On the Body 13, Nov. 24, 2019: Beautiful British Columbia

We had a wonderful trip to Vancouver and Vancouver Island, Nov. 2-10 — beautiful, mostly sunny weather, too. This was an important trip, mainly to see close family and friends, but also to see if and how well I could travel. We planned the trip for the last part of the 3-week chemotherapy cycle, the time I usually have the most energy and stamina. And we were not disappointed, on either count! Everything was even better than our expectations — including smooth travelling connections.

Englishman River Falls, near Nanaimo B.C.

We arrived in Vancouver on Saturday afternoon, were met at the airport by my dear friend, writer Shaena Lambert, who welcomed us to her home. Roger’s daughter Terri and her husband and two of her three children (both in college) drove from Washington State to Vancouver for the weekend to see us. We had dinner at a middle-eastern restaurant, then the next day enjoyed a leisurely brunch at Shaena’s. (Thanks, Shaena, for your hospitality.) The next day, Roger, Shaena, and I drove to Richmond to see the migrating snow-geese on the estuary near the airport: at one point, we watched a flock of geese flying, with an airplane flying in the background. On our short walk, we also saw two eagles (probably an adult and a juvenile) sitting together in the same tree, then flying off — one after the other. And a circling hawk, a seal, and a bird we couldn’t quite recognize: a cormorant? a heron?

Then we drove to Steveston, for a seafood lunch and to look at the old, abandoned salmon-canneries which once employed many people: Japanese, Indigenous, and others. Sadly, we saw the reconstructed home of the Murakimi family: the parents were Japanese immigrants who came to B.C. separately, met and married, started a family, and moved to Steveston, working at the Pacific Coast Cannery and other jobs. They lived in their (now-restored) home from 1929-1942, when — along with thousands of other Japanese in Vancouver and on the Pacific coast of British Columbia — they were stripped of their property and rights, and interned to isolated areas in the interior of B.C., Alberta, and Manitoba (where the Murakimis were sent), to work on farms in harsh and oppressive conditions. The house and garden have been restored by their children and grandchildren, including a Japanese bath, cooking utensils, sewing machine, and family photographs; these homely domestic details highlight the tragic injustice of what happened to them, and gave more context to the exhibit I saw at the Royal Ontario Museum last August, Being Japanese Canadian: reflections on a broken world — art made by people who survived the internment (children or teenagers at the time) and their children and grandchildren. see https://westcoastlivingcanada.com/2015/07/05/murakami-family-in-steveston/ for more on the Murakimi family and this subject. This is the website for the ROM exhibit (closed now, but the website is interesting): https://www.rom.on.ca/en/exhibitions-galleries/exhibitions/being-japanese-canadian .

That evening, we had an informal story-telling and poetry reading session, both fun and inspiring, with Shaena and some of her family, Roger, and me.

The next day we had morning coffee and conversation with my friend Marilyn Lemon, whom I met in Woodstock over 30 years ago (when our kids played t-ball together, and we then participated in a year-long poetry workshop with bill bissett.) Marilyn moved to Vancouver some years ago, so we enjoy visits when we can.

Then it was time to head to Horseshoe Bay and the ferry to Nanaimo. We spent a night in the Grand Hotel (whose dining-room decor and music made us feel we were in a 1940s movie, and then my son Joe drove us to his home in Parksville, which he shares with his partner Christina and her son Elijah — and their dog Ruby, whom they rescued when she was abandoned as a puppy. They moved there in August, after working in Cape Dorset for a couple of years. It was lovely to see them in their home and feel comfortable there, get to know Christina and Elijah better, spend more time with Joe than I have a for a while and see him enjoying the role of dad (taking Elijah to soccer practice, for instance), and do some wonderful walks — to Cathedral Grove with its mystical trees, ancient and giant; at Englishman River Falls, and along the boardwalks in Parksville and nearby Qualicum Beach. Water and trees are so healing — we know this intuitively, and there is much current research showing that being among trees (taking a forest bath) is physically and spiritually beneficial. My soul really opened in all this nature and family-feeling — and I was glad to be well enough to do this trip. And in Qualicum Beach, I found a small bookshop which offers occasional concerts and poetry readings — and the owner offered me a chance to participate in a reading on my next visit (if I give him enough notice). I am hoping I will be able to do that next spring or summer — we will see. Elijah did a drawing of the mountains, and a stalking cougar, for our wall at home of art by our kids; Roger and I both feel we have extended our family and see Elijah as a grandchild.

On our final evening, we had dinner at Dining in the Dark in Parksville, one of the restaurants that have recently sprung up, offering people a chance to see what eating is like for blind people (though, of course, as sighted people we can only experience a nano-fraction of the experience.) Still, it was fascinating: you can choose your food from a menu in the lighted reception area before entering the full dark of the dining room, led by one of the blind servers (you can also opt for a mystery entree, as well as the mystery starter and dessert). What we all noticed was the need to focus on the smell, taste, and texture of the food, how to negotiate the mechanics of eating, and also the way we focused on conversation, listening intently to each other as there was no eye-contact. Our server was friendly and capable, and we had a good evening. (Joe and Christina had done this before, in Vancouver, and wanted us to experience it, too.)

Too soon, we had to take the ferry back to Vancouver and the airport. The good memories linger. I wish I could just whisk back for another trip to the market at Qualicum Beach, or another walk in the woods, but it is good to see Joe happy in his life, even though distant (and not THAT far). As Kahlil Gibran says, our children are the arrows, we are the bows — and they travel on their own arcs and journey.

We arrived home at midnight, the morning of November 11 — just in time for the first snowfall in Toronto. Winter is coming…

Roger and Ellen in Cathedral Grove, B.C., by an 800-year-old, 76 metre tall tree (Douglas fir, I think, or cedar).

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Written On the Body #12, October 24, 2019: After a Break

The sun is starting to shine after a cloudy early-morning, and today I go back on chemotherapy after a four-week break to let my white blood cells (especially the neutrophils) replenish themselves. The doctor says it is normal for the cell-count to drop after 6 rounds of chemo, and he expected it would rise again — which it has done! There is not much I can do to help this inner process, but during the break I rested a lot, ate well (one good thing is that I have never lost my appetite or taste for food), and enjoyed life at home and a good visit with friend from university who came to Toronto to see me over Thanksgiving weekend. I know I have a lot to be thankful for, even now.

I am glad to be back on chemo, as it is proving effective in shrinking the cancer cells and stopping their spread, but I realised this morning, swallowing my pills (after battling once again with the child-proof, almost Houdini-proof lids on the bottles) how nice it was not to be on a strict medical routine. Still, it is better to be doing something about the illness, rather than nothing. I go for an IV treatment today, then continue the pills for two weeks. Then the regular week off before the cycle starts again.

Continued October 28: the chemo went smoothly, and it was not hard to get back into the routine, both at the hospital and at home. I have a couple of particularly bright spots over the next few weeks, which gladdens my heart. Roger’s son Simon, who is in the Canadian Navy, is in Toronto from Oct. 26-30 with his ship HMS. St. John’s, as they are doing a Great Lakes deployment, visiting various cities. We had a fascinating tour of the ship on Sunday (tours were open to the public, but we saw a few extras). I had never seen the inside of a ship before — lots of ladders to climb up and down, and huge engines. Simon is learning to work on the ship’s engines, and enjoys the work and challenges.

Then, on November 2, Roger and I go to British Columbia to visit my son Joe and his partner who recently moved near Nanaimo. (Joe is in the RCMP, and previously was stationed in Cape Dorset — which would have been fascinating to visit, but a lot harder to get to). We’ll start in Vancouver for a few days, to see a couple of old friends and Roger’s daughter and her family, who will come up from Seattle. A busy time — so I will build in rest periods (naps are great) and manage my energy. I am really looking forward to these visits.

That’s it for now — I’ll write again from B.C. Enjoy the end of October, Hallowe’en, and All Souls and All Saints Day.

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Written on the Body #11, October 6, 2019: L’Shana Tova, the New Year

This is the time of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur (these holidays occur at different times in the regular calendar, sometime between early September and early October, but always on the same dates in the Jewish calendar.) The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the High Holidays, or Days of Awe. It is a time of turning, not only for the autumn season, but for the heart and mind — reflecting on the past; accepting, learning from, and asking forgiveness for mistakes; discovering what to keep, what to let go, what to aim for as we move toward the future. There are prayers and chants we say as a group, recognizing we are all fallible; as my partner Roger’s mother used to say, “Welcome to the human race!”

Last year, I was happy to have moved to Toronto to live with Roger by the time of the new year. This year, I am happy to be alive, and relatively well, at this time. The good news from my CT scan on September 30 is that the chemotherapy is continuing to work to shrink the tumour and related lesions, and to stop their spread — there are no new ones (so far, the less optimistic part of my mind adds). But clearly this is good news. Also, I feel a sense of well-being– eating well, talking, not in pain, able to go for walks, meet friends, go to a play, read, write. True, I am more tired and have discovered the pleasure of afternoon naps, and have less energy for activities like meetings, especially in the evening. And sometimes I get mired in worry, or feel forgetful and “fuzzy-minded.” And I have a new sense of vulnerability, and watchfulness about my health (including things to monitor, like weight, temperature, formerly-minor sniffles and aches – are they still minor, or significant?) But I enjoy the “small beauties” of daily life — flowers, desserts (which, as we know, is “stressed” spelled backwards), music and movies, conversation, loving touch. I am grateful to all my friends, near and far (email is a great help!), to the doctors at Princess Margaret, to my son Joe and his partner Christina, and of course to Roger. If all is well, we are hoping to go to visit Joe and Christina and her (now their) son Elijah in their new home near Nanaimo, B.C., later this fall. I went to a sound-healing workshop at the Wellspring Cancer Centre in downtown Toronto that felt very healing, physically and emotionally, and continue to go to a guided imagery and relaxation group at Wellspring.

I have been reading a lot — re-reading some old favourites and discovering new ones. I am deep into Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale: a chilling but deeply-meaningful book, especially in these turbulent political/social times. It is written with passion, intensity, and focus — with the truths that a good novel creates.

I’m also enjoying another of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilgour series of mysteries: lighter in tone, but interesting, especially as one follows Joanne and her family through the twists and turns of family life and love as well as the plot of the mystery.

On a present-day news note, I was glad to see Greta Thunberg speak at the U.N. and then in Canada, and see the widespread student demonstrations for climate change and the many young (and not so young) people talking about this issue on CBC, including many Indigenous youth. However, I was sorry to see Greta demeaned and diminished, as a “child” (she is almost 17), a girl, a person with “autism” (Asperger’s) and a “mental illness”– her honesty and passion were attributed to this illness rather than to her perceiving the urgent need for action on the climate. And she was blamed for causing “anxiety” among children. People, especially female people, have been discounted for these reasons for many years. And could all the people talking about the climate emergency and advocating action be mentally ill — from Rachel Carson, to David Suzuki, to scientists around the world, to the many student and Indigenous activists?

Returning to the theme of the New Year, may this be a year of hope, health, happiness, and healing — for all of us.

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Written On the Body, September 8, 2019: “The Good Patient”

It is now one year plus one week that I moved to Toronto — a decision I have never regretted, and still feel good about. It is wonderful to have caring support in this illness — and also to enjoy my life with Roger. I am glad we made the decision to live together before I got sick, when we both felt free to make this decision when we thought we had many years ahead. (And still might… or something else might have happened suddenly, to either us.)

It is also 3 days after my sixth chemotherapy IV treatment. At the end of this one, I will have another CT scan to re-assess the situation. I felt full of energy and good cheer yesterday (unusual so soon after an IV), but today have slipped back into some fatigue. Hopefully, that will pass as the days go on.

I have been thinking about what it means to be a “good” patient. Partly compliance with the procedures — but that is too passive on its own. I think, and my experience shows, that it is important to ask questions, to understand what is happening (as much as possible), to be engaged with the process. I had a bit of practice with this about 15 years ago, when I had a “bulging disk” in my back and had to spend 6-8 weeks recovering: not long, as illnesses or injuries go, but enough time to learn to listen, slow down my life, accept what was happening, and find ways of healing, using medicine and physiotherapy, and also finding my own inner ways of healing.

It certainly helps to have trust in the doctor’s skill, compassion, and humanity, as I do; I am fortunate to have this kind of doctor, and all the medical, nursing, and support staff at Princess Margaret (at least those I have met) have these qualities. It is good to tune into your own body, and to make choices when you can; for example, last week I was due to have my teeth cleaned (“a gentle cleaning,” the doctor had emphasized) but was able to cancel the procedure at the last minute, when the dentist and hygienist asked if I was comfortable doing it right then — and I was not, for various reasons. They understood, and wished me well. It is important to manage medications correctly at home, and I have a special place for mine, and a calendar to chart taking them (it is easy to lose track, especially with a sometimes-foggy mind.) It is important to talk about the symptoms and worries as they arise — but not to dwell on them. I have been reading a variety of books (from Stephen King’s book on writing, to American War by Omar El Akkad, to mysteries Lee Child, to non-fiction like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, a fascinating story of medicine and cultural clashes). We’ve been watching movies and TV series (“Sense8” on Netflix is a favourite, and also a show originally on Spanish TV, now on Netflix: “The Money Heist.” I see friends, email friends and family further away, go to the nearby pottery class and relaxation/guided imagery groups at Wellspring Cancer Centre. I went to the moving, meaningful exhibit at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum): Being Japanese-Canadian: reflections on a broken world: art by Japanese-Canadians dealing with their and their families’ forced displacement to the B.C. and Alberta interior during World War II. I have been able to correspond with a few of the artists, in interesting discussions about culture, history, family, loss, and memory. https://www.rom.on.ca/en/exhibitions-galleries/exhibitions/being-japanese-canadia

If all is going relatively well in October, we have plans to visit my son and his partner and her son, who are now living and working near Nanaimo, British Columbia. Joe and I talk on the phone often, more openly than we have for a while, and I just sent some money to the boy’s new soccer team. (I am glad Joe has emotional support in his life, too.) I have not been writing steadily since the publication of my book, The Day I Saw Willie Mays and Other Poems, but I have given a few readings from the book. I am starting to write some new poems and have an idea for a story.

And there are small but welcome pleasures and vanities. Nail polish on my toes (though I do have to wear socks and sneakers, not sandals, to protect my feet). Coffee ice-cream, and good food of all kinds (thankfully, I can eat well). Long, necessary naps. New, colourful clothes, and what my grandmother would have called “fancy” underwear. My friend Shaena, who went through treatment for cancers some years ago and is now doing well, asked if I had been buying clothes. Surprised by her question, I admitted that I had — dresses, flowered tights, a hat. She said she had done the same thing, and we both found out that we avoided wearing black during the treatment (a colour I had worn a lot). It makes me feel better to wear these bright garments, as well as some old favourites — and finding ways to feel better, even in a difficult time, is part, I think, of being a “good” patient — even when it is hard to be patient. As Mary Oliver says in “Wild Geese” :

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

A feeling to cherish.

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Written On the Body — August 24, 2019: “Both…And…”

Here we are, in the last half of August. The nights are turning cooler, sunset comes earlier, and there is a bit of “pre-autumn” feeling in the air, even on sunny days. I realised recently that I have passed the 6-month mark after my diagnosis…. and at first, I wasn’t sure I would be here in 6 months — let alone living a reasonably good and normal life: eating well, walking, not feeling pain, enjoying spending time with my partner, visiting friends, talking to my son, small-scale gardening, reading, writing, going to and giving poetry readings (though I have had to miss some of these readings and other events, due to fatigue.) So far, there has been no pain to deal with.

Of course, life has also changed in many ways: just being aware that there is cancer inside my body, and that its activity is internal and often beyond (or below) my awareness, has made life uncertain and led to some anxious thoughts. I am now in chemotherapy treatments, with an IV approximately every 3 weeks, that leads to several days of fatigue and some nausea. I am a week into my 5th round of chemo, and it is such a RELIEF when I begin to feel better after a treatment, and feel like myself again. I have to realise, mentally and physically, that I have less energy now and can do less — but I can still enjoy what I do (even if it is in lower-gear), and also enjoy the rest and relaxation I need.

In thinking about this situation, I am reminded of a workshop I took, years ago, with psychotherapist Yvonne Dolan. She told us about living with her grandmother when she was young; they lived near a lake and when Yvonne was quite young, she saw only the beauty of the water, the sky, the birds on the shore. Later, she saw oil tankers and pollution, and saw only the ugliness and danger. Her grandmother suggested she needed to see both sides — the beauty and the problems. That way, one could work on fixing the problems while not losing sight of the good things. A life-lesson that went beyond that particular body of water.

This does apply to me, now — and perhaps to many people faced with similar issues. Without sounding like “Pollyanna,” I am grateful for each day — being alive this moment, in the light and air, and held by a circle of people who love me. It is a liminal area — I could fall into despair, or I could deny my feelings of fear and anxiety and the “superstitious” thoughts that sometimes come (for example, a workshop in sound-healing that I wanted to take is full, and I first thought that was a bad omen — the disease would get worse!). It took thinking about this thought, and naming it to myself and to my partner Roger, that let this type of “magical thinking” lose its power.

It also is much easier and more relaxed to live in a world of “both…and…” rather than the binary thinking we are exposed to so much, in politics and ideology as well as everyday life. I have always tried to be inclusive in my life, not exclusive (us and them). This applies to one’s inner life of thoughts and emotions, as well as to dealing with the world outside.

Sometimes a situation is so bad, it is hard to see any good. And it can take courage to admit the problems in a situation that seems ideal. I think this can be true in larger, historical/cultural situations as well. Acts of kindness can happen, even in brutalizing situations; and people can create art — at the time and years, even generations later, that helps us empathize with those who have been hurt, displaced, imprisoned, or killed. And, perhaps, help us act in ways that prevent these oppressive situations in the future. No matter what, making art lets the artist express her thoughts and feelings through images, sounds, movement, and search for meaning in raw experience.

I will continue these thoughts in later posts. Enjoy the last week of August!

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Written on the Body — Goldilocks: August 1, 2019

Here it is, August 1 already. Sun is shining (here in Toronto), leaves are green and flowers thriving as we’ve had a lot of rain. I am on the next round of chemo, after a two-week break for R&R (from the side-effects!), and seem to be tolerating this well. Afternoon naps really help (naps are something I haven’t done since childhood — when I rebelled against nap-time in nursery school age 3.)

I have started the next cycle of chemotherapy, after a short break for R&R. The doctors have lowered the medication doses slightly. They are trying to find the “Goldilocks” dosage — the “just-right” balance between medical effectiveness and managing side-effects. Probably, as in most cases, this balance will shift, and I am glad they are looking at my personal situation.

It occurs to me, as I write this, that the Goldilocks concept of “just-right” — or, in many cases, “good-enough” (in the words of British psychotherapist and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott) — is helpful to think about, during this time of changes. I want to be aware of my body and symptoms, but not obsess about them. I notice that I am more concerned than usual about dishes being clean, food being fresh, etc. — things I can control, or believe I can. But I don’t want to get too anxious, too fussy. I am trying to find a balance between doing my “normal activities” and getting enough rest — and this is hard to predict, as my energy levels fluctuate from day to day. Sometimes, after a burst of energy, getting tasks done and enjoying visits with friends, I do have to listen to my body and get some rest. That is why my plans may change at the last minute: I do not want to avoid friends and activities, but sometimes postponing a visit is necessary to maintain the balance.

I think the reason the “Goldilocks” story endures is that we are all trying to find these balances in our lives. Scientists even talk about “Goldilocks planets,” with just the right conditions to support life. And we have memories from childhood, the “just-right” bed, the favourite meal, the perfect toy. We can feel this place of harmony when we are in it. Part of growing up is knowing that sometimes we have to make do with less than just-right, but as Winnicott wrote about parenting, it is important to health — physical, emotional, spiritual — to find what is “good enough” and nurturing enough most of the time. And to know we have the power to make the balancing-act work in our favour.

So I wish you an August of ice-cream, sunshine, relaxation– finding the Goldilocks sweet spot that is right for you, right now.

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Written On the Body: Good News, and Thought on Private and Public Information

This is the week between chemo treatments, though the side-effects are persisting a bit. I have, however, had good results from a CT scan — no new lesions in my liver, nor in any other part of my body, and those there are getting marginally smaller. This is a sign of hope. Even my doctor smiled broadly as he gave me the news. He’s actually given me a pause of another two weeks between treatments, so my body can rest and be ready for the next round.

So this leads into something I’ve been thinking about — how one’s body, both the visible, felt body and one’s internal organs, become much more public during a time of illness or injury and treatment. Privately, you become more aware of all your symptoms and nuances of feeling and sensation. Is this a side-effect? a new symptom? something completely different? And on the public side, various professional people ask you to monitor all kinds of bodily functions that normally you take for granted or notice only in passing; then they want you to share this information with them — information you normally would keep to yourself, or perhaps mention only to a spouse or partner. Then there are the blood tests, CT scans, and other tests that monitor the interior secrets of the body — things no one, including yourself, can know without these procedures. Things that would have seemed miraculous to people living in previous centuries, or even 50 years ago. Amazing that a test can show, for example, not only the interior of one’s liver and other organs, but measure the change in size of a lesion from 7 millimetres to 5, or define the exact genetic structure of a particular tumour, which helps determine the appropriate medications. “Body language” takes on a whole new meaning, a new vocabulary and grammar.

Friends, too, want to know at least some of these medical details, not in a professional way but interested in how you are doing. And you find, surprisingly, that it is okay to talk about. (Very different from the days of my childhood, when the “C-word” implied shame and secrecy, at least for my family and many others).

And then it is good to take a break, sit in the July sunshine watching the day lilies open their orange hearts, and be grateful for this day, the people in it, the ongoing life around us.

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Written on the Body — Summer Solstice

Here we are, just past the longest day, the Summer Solstice, as well as National Indigenous People’s Day (formerly National Aboriginal Day). So several reasons to celebrate. I am happy to be here, enjoying the summer (finally arriving in Toronto) and the flowers. I have started the third chemo cycle, so am a bit “under the medical weather,” but want to share a wonderful event that happened last Sunday, June 16. As some of you know, I have self-published a new poetry collection, The Day I Saw Willie Mays, and Other Poems, with the help of my dear friend and colleague Lil Blume, through our publishing company Pinking Shears Publications (our last book was Letters & Pictures from the Old Suitcase, to accompany our 2012 Canadian Jewish Literary Festival, held at Temple Ansche Sholom in Hamilton. The book probably will have to go into a second printing (!); please contact me if you are interested. Proceeds will go to cancer research.

I was getting ready to work on and finish this book-in-progress over the winter and early spring — helped by a Recommender Grant for Writers from the Ontario Arts Council (recommended by Guernica Editions — and then send the book to Guernica, who published my last collection, and, if necessary, other publishers. But the reading and publication takes two years and more and I wasn’t/still am not certain of the time I have left, and I wanted to see the poems in print. Also, between February and mid-March, I wrote a series of poems about my diagnosis and my responses to it, as well as some other new poems about my great-grandmother and ones inspired by photographs by Karin Rosenthal. Karin is a photographer I have known since university, and her pictures of bodies in water — where bodies become landscape, and also shape-shift into layers of reflection — have long been part of my life. Karin and I have talked about a poetry series for a while, and this seemed a good time to start.

Lil’s enthusiasm and support for the book got the project going and gave me confidence. She also made arrangements with the printer, delivered proofs and books to Toronto, and did a superlative job as editor. And she opened her home to a mini launch on June 16, at which I read some of the poems; this was also a great opportunity to visit with friends and colleagues I had not seen in a while. Despite Father’s Day and other activities that weekend, there were about 30 people present — thank you to everyone. I will donate the book sales to cancer research at Princess Margaret Hospital.

Below is a poem I did not read, but am thinking about, especially as I witness politics in the U.S., in Ontario, and in Canada as a whole. I remember the summer of 2011, when Jack Layton was dealing with his own cancer. Jack, we miss you. As you said in your last letter to Canadians, ” 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.”

FOR JACK LAYTON: State Funeral and Celebration, August 27, 2011

                        Dream no little dreams  (Indigenous prayer, spoken at the funeral)

The bagpipes play their strange sad lament – 

TV lets us see everything without being there:

Olivia Chow’s strained face, baby Beatrice,

the silent surging crowd.

This morning I cleaned my kitchen cupboards,

touched up the orange paint (Colorado Dawn) –

death does this, makes us clean, straighten, see, listen, and touch –

loved ones, flowers, household clutter.

Rise Up – Amazing Grace – Hallelujah

O Canada, how can we lose this man, who gave a voice to the voiceless,

home to the homeless, a song of hope to people in need –

not a saint, but a very human being.

I regret I did not know you, met you

only once – an NDP meeting – shook your hand,

saw your smile.  The political is personal,

the personal political – you knew this by heart.

Now you go from the ordinary world – bike paths,

jam sessions, elections – into the mystic…

Into The Mystic, where we can’t yet follow.

All our love goes with you – love is all 

we need to keep your dreams alive.

Poem by Ellen S. Jaffe,

First published in Jack Layton: Art and Action. Edited by Penn Kemp. Quattro Press, 2013. Republished in The Day I Saw Willie Mays, and Other Poems.  Ellen S. Jaffe, Pinking Shears Publications, 2019.

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Written On the Body. June 5, 2019. “We’re All Improvising…”

I have started the second round of chemo, with a new drug added (I won’t go into all the medical details here), which has stronger side-effects and hit me harder than last time. However, I am learning to cope with this, with rest, drinking liquids, eating small meals, walks, reading, visits with friends, and sun on the balcony. (well, we keep hoping!) My weekly relaxation and yoga classes at Wellspring Cancer Centre (the branch on Charles Street, downtown Toronto) are also very helpful and give me some structure and the company of people going through similar situations. I am slowly getting used to this new normal, of treatments, side-effects, and reactions — all uncertain, because this normal could easily shift into a newer, different one. The fatigue from the chemo is the most ongoing effect, and probably means the medication is working. I feel I am moving in slow motion, in a kind of universal present in which I am also feeling a kind of ennui or apathy — and then the curtain lifts for a while and there is enough energy to complete a task — writing this blog, or making a sandwich.

And this leads into what I really want to mention today: a performance I saw on Friday night by Toronto’s Choir Project. Six members of the choir, including a writing student of mine, worked for 10 weeks with Tracy Erin Smith of SOULO Theatre to create a story about each of their lives, accompanied by the choir singing pop music relevant to each dramatic monologue. This gripping performance, at Toronto’s First Unitarian Congregation on May 31 and June 1, showed each person not only facing and struggling with difficulties in their lives, but also finding courage and resilience, learning how to live with, love, and express the self that feels most true and real, despite inner and outer messages to the contrary. At one point in her deeply-felt monologue, my student (also a friend) mentioned taking an Improvisation course (Improv for Anxiety) and said that we are all improvising together, on one stage, finding ways to connect and live our lives. That rings true. We keep improvising, writing and rewriting our scripts, or throwing them away and listening to the other characters’ lines, and to what we really want to say in return. My heart was touched by this thought about improvising, as well as by all six soul-stories. In most improv exercises, there are no “but’s,” only “and’s.” This happens, and this happens. We keep on.

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