About Me

With a B.A. in English, an M.A. in Education, and advanced training in psychotherapy, I have more and more been following my passion and the field where I want to put my energy: writing, and teaching writing. And also enjoying life and the people around me, while trying to explore and protect the world around us.

Monday, October 4, 2010

October Gardening -- digging, harvesting, giving thanks

Here it is October 4 and the morning glories are still blooming in my front garden -- more and more profusely all September and now into October, twining around the butterfly bush and Russian sage. They are a combination of blue and pink -- reminding me, suddenly, of the colour "sky-blue-pink" from the books about Uncle Wiggly that I read in childhood. And this reminds me of J.D. Salinger's story, "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," which I will re-read soon, and also "The Catcher in the Rye" -- and all of this goes into a poem called "Autumn Equinox."

There has been something wonderful about flowers this summer -- the on-going morning-glories, the pink climbing roses still budding, the zinnias springing up now from seeds I thought had disappeared in the soil and summer heat, the Rose of Sharon bushes in both the front and back yard -- slow to blossom in spring but lasting into fall. And I've cherry tomatoes and basil since July, still going strong. All this has given me a lot of peace this summer, and I like spending time just looking at the flowers. Perhaps this is because I have had a chance to slow down this summer, dig my roots deeper, just take time to live rather than dealing with crisis.

Although, of course, life hasn't been stress-free. I had a virus in early September, just before Rosh Hashanah, that mimicked some heart symptoms, enough to send me to the hospital for a stress test -- stressful in itself. One friend thought the test would measure how much anxiety and stress I was feeling -- but no, it's walking fast on a treadmill and having a CAT scan roam over your body, taking before and after pictures. As it turned out, my heart is fine, which is an affirmation and a relief. I think all the walking in the woods I did during my holiday helped me on the treadmill, and has made me decide to continue walking in the woods -- at least while the weather is good.

This reminds me of my university English teacher, Naomi J. Diamond, at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. In first-year English class, she had us read Robert Frost's poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay," and walk around the college lake -- about 2 hours -- really looking at nature, the leaves, early buds, debris from seasons past. I was one of the few who actually did this -- and enjoyed this: as a girl who grew up in the city, this was one of my first solitary walks in nature -- and I have never forgotten it, and how I learned to see how the poem sprung from really seeing and being in those woods. Naomi was from Thunder Bay (then Fort William) and Winnipeg -- though I didn't know it at in college. She returned to Toronto in the early 1970's, and was often a guest on Morningside with Peter Gzowski.

I came to Ontario in 1979, and had the joy of meeting her again at Ryerson in 1988. She was a professor I really wanted to see again, and I was touched and pleased that she remembered me. In our English 100 class, she had been hard on my writing with her red-pencil -- but always, I felt, to make it better, to make me think harder, see more clearly, feel more deeply. I began attending her reading groups in Toronto, and -- now with more experience -- appreciated her sharp intelligence and deep compassion even more keenly. We became, in a sense, friends. Her special loves in literture were Chaucer and George Eliot -- two writers who could see the whole range of human behaviour and life, and who, without judging, helped us become more human. Naomi died this past August, at age 84. We will miss her. Nothing gold can stay (but it is certainly worth loving while it is with us).

Another golden character, Kerry Schooley of Hamilton, also died suddenly this September, at age 61. Kerry was a big man, with a generous spirit, a big heart, a deep love of writing, of his family, and of Hamilton. He had a sense of humour -- and of "noir" fiction. He helped create the now-thriving Hamilton literary community, and encouraged us as a group and individually. He will also be deeply missed; his spirit will live on.

Finally, I had the pleasure -- and challenge -- of hearing David Suzuki speak in Hamilton on October 2. So as we approach Thanksgiving, let us give thanks for what we enjoy on earth -- from flowers to beloved people -- and do what we can to atone for what we hurt, and help each other -- and our green-gold earth -- to thrive.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The last month has slipped by, and in Ontario we're moving from summer into fall (not too quickly, though, I hope). I'm about to go on holiday to Vermont, visiting old friends in the Burlington area (and one person in Plattsburgh, NY, just across Lake Champlain from Burlington). On the way home, I will go to a 3-day poetry workshop at Wintergreen Studio (www.wintergreenstudio.com), near Kingston ON, with Lorna Crozier. I did a class with Lorna's partner, poet Patrick Lane, in Metchoisin B.C. in 2001, so this will be an interesting loop.

The workshop goes from Aug. 29-31, and August 31 is the anniversary (yahrzeit, in Yiddish) of my mother's death -- this year is the first anniversary (as I mentioned in my last post), so it is very significant. In Judaism, we light a yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of a death, and each Friday night at Shabbat services, the congregation recites the Kaddish, the Mourners' Prayer, for people in the community who have died within the past month OR whose death-anniversary falls during that week, whether one year ago or fifty. This is a very comforting and connecting tradition.

I would welcome the opportunity to work with Lorna Crozier at any time, but realize, too, that I will want and need to do some writing about my mother during this anniversary, and a workshop with other poets, in a beautiful wooded setting -- in a building off the grid, using solar power -- will be a great place to do that. I once had a dream that equated Solar power with Soul-ar power -- and I'm sure both kinds of powers will be in full force. I have spent much of this summer thinking about events of last summer, when I visited my mother in July and could see she was beginning to prepare for death, and then in August, during her last few weeks. She was 91, had been in Assisted Living near her home in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, for two years, and was physically "frailing," though her mind was clear until very near the end -- the days when she subsided into death, with morphine easing both her pain and her need to be in control. The hospice people, who let her finish her life in the familiar surroundings of the Assisted Living home, were wonderful and supportive -- even though my mother first thought that hospice meant a one-time shot to let her die, as one would do for a dog or cat. She remembered the movie, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" But gradually she let nature and the universe take their course, and fell into a final coma after seeing my son, her grandson one last time, touching his face as well as hearing his voice on the phone. I was glad that he could be there, accompanied by his partner Rebecca and their friends Jason and Jaunna (and Jaunna's twins, in utero!) Life goes on.

Just before I received the phone call to come down to Pennsylvania, on August 14, I had written a poem, "Moving," about her coming journey. Writing this helped me envision and prepare emotionally for what was coming, and I want to share this poem here (below). I recently rediscovered another poem, that I wrote in 1972, about the closeness my mother and I (an only child) had -- and the dangers of being too-close, like vines entwined around two trees, binding them together. Life is about creating an always-changing balance between being alone and individual, and being connected to loved ones and in community -- we need both, I think, but our needs are different at different times in our lives. As the currently popular film-poem. "How to Be Alone," tells us, it's important to cherish and nurture our time alone -- our relationship with ourselves -- but also, it's good to connect and enjoy time with others; this even seems built into our bodies: babies need to be touched to develop well and "turn on" some of their genes, and we have "mirror neurons" that allow us to empathize with and respond to someone else. Of course, we have to be two separate people to do this effectively.

Around the time I wrote the poem, my son (age 30) and I went to see a performance of Cirque de Soleil -- not only spectacular in itself, but also a beautiful metaphor for these emotional and "soul-ar" acrobatics. (in many of the acts, the performers are both indivduals and intimately connected to the others in their act, depending on each other for the show and even for their lives).

My father died in 1993, so now I am an "orphan" -- the dreaded word from 19th century novels! -- but also experiencing another "rebirth" into a world of both connections and spaces-between.

So here is "Moving," recently published in Living Legacies: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, Volume II, edited by Liz Pearl (2010). I'd be interested in hearing other people's thoughts about the death of parents -- which, of course, is experienced differently by each of us, depending on many things, including our relationship with our parents, our age when they die, what we feel is our (intangible) "legacy," and so much more. For more information about Living Legacies, please visit: http://at.yorku.ca/pk/ll.htm.


My mother is moving to another country

one without borders or passports.

She doesn’t need to buy a ticket – the moving date

is open, and it’s only

a one-way trip.

They speak another language there,

vaguer than ours, with no past

or future tenses,

just an eternal present.

She doesn’t need to pack up her property;

everything will be taken care of

by the proper authorities.

In fact, her body is getting lighter,

unpacking itself

little by little –

these organs, muscles, bones

becoming cumbersome,


She still reaches out, casting lifelines

to people back home,

she remembers names, faces

(even her grandfather’s three sisters,

so long ago – she throws me this memory

like a faded rose, almost disintegrating

in my outstretched hand)

but they are losing their meaning, their connection.

Does it really matter who is who,

or who said what to whom,

or even who’s on first?

She will have the last word,

which may be silent,

not waving, not drowning, but disappearing

before our eyes – the final act of magic

in this earthly cirque de soleil et de la lune.

My mother is moving

far away, alone,

into another, unknown country.

Ellen S. Jaffe, for Viola A. Jaffe, May 17, 1918—August 31, 2009

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hello --

It's been a long time since I've posted anything on this blog: shortly after my last posting in 2007, my mother (who was living alone in her own house in Pennsylvania, aged 89) became ill suddenly, went into hospital and then assisted living for 2 years, and passed away peacefully on August 31, 2009. I was with her for the last three weeks, and it was an honour to be there to help her with this transition (though as hard as anything I've ever done!). More thoughts on my mother in a future message. I'll just say that my energy went to taking care of her, as well as to my own struggles and joys in living, writing, and teaching in schools across the province, from Toronto and Hamilton to Moose Factory near James Bay! It feels good to be writing on the blog again, and I hope to do a regular post each week.

In my last blog, I talked about writing and community, and today I want to talk about the launch of a new book, Implicate Me: short essays on reading contemporary poems, by Elana Wolff (Guernica Editions, 2010), launched on July 13 at Bar Italia in Toronto. I wrote the introduction for this book, which is a compilation of Elana's articles on poetry for Surface & Symbol, the newspaper of the Scarborough Arts Council, edited by Andrea Raymond from 1999-2005. Andrea accepted Elana's proposal for a monthly poetry column, called "How to Approach a Poem." One of my poems was included, and I was very moved by Elana's commentary, and actually learned new things about my poem from her insightful and perceptive reading -- she brought to the surface of consciousness ideas about both form and meaning that made the poem more accessible to the reader. As I read her column, I gained insight into many poems by contemporary Toronto-area poets -- poems I enjoyed at first reading, and poems that I needed a bit more help to appreciate fully. I was one of the people who suggested that Elana turn her columns into a book -- and offered to help with the introduction. When her own journey into these poems had progressed far enough, she was ready to do this and took me up on my offer. She reviewed and, in some cases, "re-visioned," the columns, and I helped her with the editing as well as writing the introductory remarks. During this process, I became more familiar with each poem and with Elana's sensitive approaches to the writing. The title, Implicate Me, comes from her reaction to the first poem she discussed -- the one that prompted her to begin the series: "Pearl," by Ruth Panofsky, from Lifeline (Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2001). Elana wrote that the poet "could have been speaking directly to me; I felt so implicated in the intensity of her terseness." We agreed that this is what good poems do -- implicate the reader in the poet's mind, heart, and world; make us, as well as the poet, witnesses to the events she has seen, whether it is the fall of a leaf or the death of a child. "Implicate" comes from the word "ply," to fold, and as readers we are folded into, or enfolded, in the architecture of the poet's words and world. In doing so, the layers of the poem unfold and open up. I like the way Elana reads the text closely, and discusses form -- assonance and consonance, rhythm, metaphor, rhyme, pattern, punctuation, line-length, etc. -- to illuminate the meaning of the poem. She does not "tell" us "the" (one) meaning, but muses on various meanings and nuances, and lets each reader follow the trail of meaning for himself or herself. As I wrote in the introduction, she becomes "a kind of metaphysical tour-guide for these travels of the imagination." She does not lose the soul of the poem in her approach to it. Years ago, I read Jerome Rothenberg's anthology Technicians of the Sacred, an anthology of poetry from various"indigenous" cultures around the world, past and present. I think in this book, Elana Wolff herself becomes a sacred technician, able to show us the "workings" of the poem without losing its mystery and wonder. Her essays -- like the poems themselves -- have the elegance of mathematics, incorporating truth and beauty.

As the 33 poems and commentaries resonate with each other in this unique book, they do, I think, form a community -- a community of poems, and of poets. This was clearly evident at the launch, when Elana introduced the book and 11 of the poets included in the book read together on stage. It was wonderful to see the poems come to life, adding voices and faces, and occasional anecdotes, to the words on paper. I think we all felt part of this community. More readings from the book would be good -- but the great thing about books is that we don't need a stage, a group of readers, and an audience. You yourself can pick up this book, read the poems -- silently or aloud -- then read Elana's commentaries and go back and read the poems again. Thanks to Guernica Editions and its editor and past-publisher Antonio D'Alfonso for supporting and publishing this work. Finally, booksellers are an important -- a vital -- aspect of community, for writers and readers and all citizens -- and it was great that Charlie from This Ain't the Rosedale Library was on hand to sell Implicate Me and the other Guernica books being launched, Floating Bodies by Julie Roorda and Light and Time by Michael Mirolla. Independent bookstores are not only places to sell and buy books, but important centres of community and it is important to support them -- especially now as they are becoming more and more financially threatened. Bookstores draw people interested in many things -- the arts, politics, science, the environment, food and wine, books for and about children, you name it! They are part of the community -- and just as we need to "eat local" food, we need local "food for thought."

I would recommend Implicate Me for poets, for interested readers, for teachers (who can use it as a guide in approaching other poems), for students -- for anyone who has looked up at the TCC's "Poetry on the Way" and wondered, "How does a poet do that?" I know from my own work in schools that teachers (and students) are sometimes scared of poetry because it seems so far beyond ordinary life. As this book shows, poetry comes out of the language we use everyday, and often from everyday sights, sounds, smells, memories -- all taken to a new, still-approachable, level of feeling and meaning.

Elana Wolff is a poet herself: her three books, published with Guernica, are Birdheart (2001), Mask (2003), and You Speak to Me in Trees (2006). With the late poet Malca Litovitz, she co-authored Slow Dancing: Creativity and Illness (Guernica: 2008).
Check out the photo gallery on the guernica website (www.guernicaeditions.com).

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Poetry Marathon

To celebrate International Poetry Month (April -- "april is the cruellest month," said T.S. Eliot -- who could have been living in Ontario, with our weather this month), the Cooked and Eaten Poetry Reading Series in Peterborough held a 12-hour poetry marathon, on Friday April 13. Poets all over the country read consecutively for 15 minutes each -- passing the pen to each other in poetic reality. Many of the readings were recorded for listening later, as a podcast or in some other format.
I read at Chapters Bookstore in Oakville, Ontario (at Oakville Town Centre), along with a group of writers from the Inkwell Poetry group in Oakville. My friend Victoria Fenner recorded my reading. The readings will be broadcast on the blog-site of Radio Free Peterborough: watch this site for an announcement of how, when, and where to find it.

Poetry is meant to be heard aloud: for poets -- and other writers -- who would like to record their work, either for their own use, for podcasts, or for other uses, it helps to know a professional and writer-friendly recording artist. I can recommend Victoria, who has recently returned to the Hamilton area from travels in Nova Scotia and India: fenner@magneticspirits.com

New Poem
here's a post-Passover poem, to keep us going:

Into the Wild(er)ness

The crumbs of leaven are gone
Swept out of every corner.
Hubris, illusion, ideals
stale and out of date
beyond their shelf life.
We eat flat matzah, baked
in a hurry, food of travel
and disruption,
leaving the old -- no excess,
no waste.
In the wilderness, we eat manna,
food grown on trees, dropped
from the sky, a miracle,
and we drink water from the oasis
springing up in the desert.
Desert flowers bloom suddenly,
colourful as desserts,
fields of yellow like small suns.
Birds gather left-over straw to feather
their new nests, bits of wool
gleaned from lost mitts and winter's scarves.
We pack lightly for the wildnerness,
paring memories down to essentials,
not lost but finding new realities,
new selves,
turning toward the light.

Ellen S. Jaffe, 2007

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Writing Your Way

Hello Everyone --

I began writing this on Jan. 1, to wish you all a Happy New Year, with happiness, good health, and joyful surprises. Life intervened, and I am now sending this out in March 2007, the beginning of my birthday month, so a new year for me -- and soon, we hope, the beginning of spring. The days are getting longer, although my yard is still covered with snow as I write this.
The autumn of 2006 saw the publication of my novel Feast of Lights (Sumach Press, Toronto, 2006), in time for the Hanukkah season, and I hope this coming year will bring us all a feast of light, peace, and travels to new places we'd like to go, as well as a greater sense of coming home.

In this blog, Writing Your Way, I will comment on the passing scene, especially in writing, theatre, and related arts; provide news about workshops, readings, and other events; and share pieces of writing that I have discovered and enjoy.

I'll start with the discovery of a U.S. writer, Josephine Herbst (1892-1969), whom I just learned about, thanks to my friend Irene Briskin, who knew "Josie" in New York over 40 years ago. Born in Iowa, Josie became a radical woman writer in the 1920's and '30's, travelling to the U.S.S.R., Germany, and Spain during the Civil War. She later worked for the U.S. during World War II but was fired because of some of her earlier political activity. She wrote of that time, "common sense always looks treasonable in wartime." (doesn't sound anything like Washington DC. today, does it?) For much of her life, she owned a house in Erwinna, Pennsylvania (Bucks County) --near where my mother lives now, although both my mother and I grew up in New York City, where Josie also lived. This writer's activities are reminding me of my own in the late 1960's -- and I'm surprised not to have heard of her before. Elinor Langer wrote a biography of her, Josephine Herbst: The Story She Could Never Tell (Little, Brown, & Co., 1983, Boston), and four of her essays have been reprinted as The Starched Blue Sky of Spain (Harper Collins and Harper Perennial, 1991). And there was recently a play about her in New York City.

In our own writing this year, let's try to follow Josie's advice: "Come now, be muy inteligente, be valiente. Just try!"

Tribute to Gilda Mekler

I would like to honour the spirit and life of Gilda Mekler (1955-2007), who passed away suddenly in the early morning of February 7. Painter, wordsmith, editor, wife of the poet James Deahl, mother of Simone and Shona, and stepmother of Sara, daughter of Lucy Mekler, a good friend and a genuinely good human being. Her cheefulness, compassion, generosity, common sense, and sense of fairness will be deeply missed. "May her memory be a blessing."