Treehouse Down (2020) with Recording by Sean McDermott

Hovering at the height of the telephone wires,

the man in a cherry bucket sheers a section of tall maple,

an aerial chef dispatching vertical stalks for the chipper.

The chunk of trunk falls to the sidewalk,

splintering the moment into a thousand perceived realities.


The sky-worker, one section down,

four more cuts to go before the break.

His co-worker below who feels the thud of dead wood

buzzing through his boots and grey hiking socks

all the way to his toes, soles, heels.

The startled squirrel that leaps with instinctive flair

from a truck to the trunk of an intact tree.

The papa two doors down from the amputated maple,

his baby fascinated by the moving shape

silhouetted against the morning sun

that makes the roaring beast chew the air.

A frail witness across the street

pausing in the task of sweeping her walk

to remember playing in the neighbour’s treehouse

that once rested on today’s fallen branches fifty years ago.


And in the house newly bereft of a steady shelter

a solitary woman stands sentinel,

long flowy curtains to one side,

nothing to hold back the rush of memories.

Like the day her father nailed the last plank

against the trunk, the ladder’s base

low enough for her, the youngest, to reach.

The crinkle of waxed paper that preserved sandwiches

packed for the children living out entire summer days

way up high in the branches with their comics, jacks, and fairy tales.

They would descend when the fathers returned from the munitions plant

 and the mothers called them to gather for dinner.


She turns away from the window,

wanting a reprieve from the present,

switches the kettle on, and cradles her favorite mug

against the inner curve of her shoulder.

The cabinet opens, shortbread biscuits inside.

The curtains fall back and summer subsides.

Cleveland Bus Terminal 3:30 am

This serious night that knows only waiting

wearies the line of us bound for Fort Wayne.

It slumps the postures,

turns luggage to chairs,

and makes a bed of the floor,

where a man dressed in scrubs

has stretched his length against a wall.

Head resting on the hard-ribbed shell of a suitcase,

the man’s casual waistband has fallen low

and prompts a woman to mutter,

A lot of people these days

are comfortable with their ass.


But the ass is forgotten

when headlights flash the gate open,

 and we jolt alert, tense as night lynxes

as our backs arch then straighten,

the smallest of muscles poised to hunt for a seat.


Within seconds of boarding,

we survey our chances,

calculate the odds of rejection,

and pounce on the first empty chair we see.

Claims staked and bags settled,

sixty-four strangers commit their souls  

for passage through Midwestern expanses beyond,

vast curved platter that once cupped an ancient sea

now gathering and immersing us in anonymous intimacy.


Soon the last of the dark folds itself into our dreaming minds

as we slumber upright past town after town,

and the sweet cadence of a Spanish lullaby

gently counters insistent beats

that leak from pulsing headphones near the back.

Individual snores rasp out here and there,

like the first kernels to punch the popcorn bag bigger.

And far ahead in the first row,

a small rectangle burns in the gloom,

action film inflaming an insomniac screen.


Drifting in and out of wakefulness,

we nod to the rows of tall highway lamps

that follow the loose curving lines of the highway,

hypnotizing us as we hurtle past.

The lamps unfurl, curl, whip left, sway right,

creating patterns like feathers being shuffled,

the tremble of tall prairie grasses before the storm,

bluestems tossed and sown by spinning wheels of chance.


Come seven o’clock, a deep veer in the bus shakes us awake,

signaling an exit that breaks the spell of endless highway.

Soon the chiming incantations of awakened phones

ring out like singing bowls

that circle and magnify an Indiana dawn.

Sleeping Bag Transfer

Ron Raine (1937-1995) on Midway Island in the late 1950’s

Dad, I’m giving your military sleeping bag to the Anglican Church of Canada. The last time you unrolled this large pocket for sleepy cadets and folded your tall frame into it, Eisenhower was president and your younger brother was still in high school.You were serving in the US Navy and training to become an air traffic controller. From Midway Island, you witnessed atomic testing in the Pacific, received a gooseberry pie in a package from home, and wrote long letters to your sweetheart.

Midway Island, late 1950’s

After you returned to civilian life, you kept this olive-green souvenir of your time at Midway’s Naval Air Facility, and after you died in 1995 the bedroll that once padded your barrack’s bunk remained unclaimed. It was stored away in a perpetually coiled state in my Missouri childhood home.

Dad at the U.S. Navy Training Center, San Diego in 1957 and as a TWA executive in the 1960’s

Not long after the 20th century spiraled into the current one, the sleeping bag was unearthed from the depths of storage and given to me. Upon completion of its passage from Missouri to Ontario, it continued its quiet, unfurled existence. Out of active service for 61 years, it didn’t seem likely to ever be called up again, and if the pandemic had not struck, it might have lain in limbo for another decade or two.

1957 or 1958

But today your Navy sleeping gear is needed again, recommissioned by the Community Director of a downtown Toronto church. He recently requested emergency donations of sleeping bags, water, and hygiene items for people who have pitched their tents against the sheltering bricks of the Church of the Holy Trinity.

So I plucked your bedroll from its dusty cupboard and ran it through the washer and dryer. Then I carefully spun it around itself — a ritual winding prior to resurrection into practical relevance — before bundling it into a large Foody World bag for transport.

On a designated donation day, I arrived fifteen minutes before the doors of Trinity opened. To pass the time, I walked the nearby labyrinth with the loaded dolly — containing your sleeping sack, a case of water bottles, and a friend’s gift of soap, deodorant, hand sanitizer, and a blanket — that trailed behind like an awkward pilgrim on wheels.

As I twisted and turned according to the guidelines of an ancient pattern, I meditated on the evolving, looping journey of the sleeping bag — from Midway Island to the Midwest, United States to Canada, Cold War to global pandemic, Navy to non-military encampment, father to daughter, car trunk to dolly, labyrinth to arched door.

Midway Island, late 1950’s

In the gentle maze of my mind’s centre, images related to the transfer of ownership appear: my father is in the sleeping bag, 21 years old and having just seen the ocean for the first time. And now it’s 2020 and a new person is snuggling into the bedding, someone who needs it.

Dad, I see your spirit in the sleeping bag gift. I remember how you volunteered as a job counselor at a local shelter and as a listener for a cancer hotline. I still see you in acts of service and care, the unrolling of a temporary bed, its careful placement in a tent, a shelter during a time of pain. If you could send a message to your brother or sister in sleep, I believe it might go like this:

Mid 1980’s

Take this donation with my blessing and heartfelt prayers for your well-being. May it provide a protective layer between you and the hard ground as well as the cold without.

Like you, I have known struggle. I fought a cold war, lived with epilepsy, and battled for my very life, surviving two bouts of cancer before the third one got me. I was vulnerable. I was scared. I often felt alone. But suffering passes. You keep smiling. You keep making jokes.

May this old but sturdy bedroll of mine help you sleep through the night, giving you strength to face the morning. May it contain some of my optimism, fight, and love to match yours. May it not let you down.

Sleep well, dear comrade, and may sanctuary enfold you always.

Be warm. Be well. Be safe.

Be at peace.

Bath Bombs at Last

Putting bath-bomb enjoyment on hold for six months does not rate highly as an example of noteworthy sacrifice during a pandemic. However, from March to August of this year, it made me sad every time I saw the lovely non-violent bombs (a Christmas present from my sister-in-law) languishing in the bathroom cabinet.

Without access to a spacious lounging bath at home, I usually count on hotel rooms with tubs to provide ideal conditions for foamy immersion in swirls of moisturizing colour. During this unreliable year of ordinary expectations dashed, travel restrictions grounded my bath bombs on the shelf, turning them into symbols of the luxurious freedoms that I had previously indulged in without a thought.

On July 31st, Ontario entered Stage 3 of re-opening from lockdown, and I celebrated by planning a trip within the province, vowing, “I must not take this privilege for granted ever again!” The chosen destination was Bancroft, and I booked a motel for five days near the end of August.

When the day of the road trip arrived, I carefully packed the four bath bombs that had remained inactive for so long. Upon settling into the motel, excursions to Silent Lake Provincial Park, Papineau Lake, Egan Chutes, and downtown Bancroft took place in the days that followed, and evenings were devoted to long soaking sessions in playful combinations of fizzing blues, purples, yellows, and pinks.

On the last day of the holiday, bittersweet satisfaction accompanied the ceremonial dropping of the fourth unexploded bathing-device in the tub (indigo with gold stars) before fully packing up for departure. Never had I appreciated with such fervour the deferred pleasure of travel, motel life, and a return to decadent bathing.

Mechanics of Forgiveness (2019)

Neither smooth nor automatic,

the mechanics of forgiveness

clank fist-first into the soil

broken by a rusty plow

that moves so slowly

it strains to finish the first row.

Forgiveness is not a miracle.

It is work to be done

and redone as the seasons cycle.

It requires the engagement of gears,

calls for the mallet, the shovel, the hoe

to smash resistant brick

and stony clods of dirt

with the energy locked

into coils of resentment.

Muscular labour turns the wheel,

pulls up the choking nettles,

and digs a clearing for rain,

for seedlings,

for tenderness to grow.

Say yes to this employment.

Grab the tools from the shed.

Go.

Thistle Seeds of Kindness (2020)

A single fluffy nipple detaches itself

from the bed of its closely-nestled siblings

and rises free to ride a forest updraft,

sail the length of three trees,

and land in the crook of a sister thistle.

This flight so miraculous, so matter of fact,

is the work of gossamer gliders

that carry their freight of weighty seeds,

trusting the wind to lift and distribute them.

Ghost stars that surrender to be drifted,

flung into the future,

they commit to move beyond limits,

beyond expected life-spans,

and beyond the hope of praise or reward.

Without guarantee of fulfillment,

the feathery travelers are like wishes

blown from hushed candles to the ears of gods,

cotton lyres tuned to spiritual chords

that call for exquisite listeners.

So also, when the smallest compassionate action

leaves the nest of our minds

and vaults into the loom of the world,

connective strands weave a furrow

for the sowing of kinship and love.

Like the time the guest met a grieving daughter

at her cousin’s wedding and said,

“My older brother was your dad’s friend forty years ago,

and I used to tag along with this teenage crowd.

Your dad showed me how to dribble and shoot a basketball,

taking the time to coach me when the others didn’t bother.

I never forgot that.”

No matter how worn from the telling,

threads spun from memories of empathy

go home smiling into the unknown,

illuminated pilgrims with the power

to comfort a yet unborn daughter

whose father lives again in the story

of a kindness that defies death

and returns to bless the living.

For a legacy can be borne lightly through the air —

almost weightless —

but land with the density of possibilities,

such as the seeding of fiercely-protected blossoms

by aerial beings with no ability to steer,

zen pilots who abandon all control.

As for the daughter at the wedding,

she is too old to conceive a child,

but her heart still connects to the open fields

where compassionate deeds

land silently with the sweet rain today

but echo with glad harvest for generations.

May the beloved descendants

one day trumpet the creation of heaven on Earth.

May they transform narrow conceptions of family

to cultivate wide communities whose deep bonds testify,

We are all of love-bearing age.

Sidewalk Glacier (2019)

The slick gray humps —

shadows of glorious glacial whales of old —

have ebbed from cycles of freeze and thaw and rain

to create islands of receding winter.

From January to March,

these masses have shrunk,

slunk much lower to the edges

of the sidewalk by the cemetery.

Saturated with soot and exhaust,

the sullen ice-beasts resist the warmer air

and clutch at soggy remnants of broken

plastic spoons, cigarettes, and coffee cup lids.

It’s not time to release caution and rejoice in change,

for the evidence of a harsh season

still lies in gritty drifts on the ground.

Spring is not to be fully trusted

because she hasn’t earned it this long winter.

Nevertheless,

see how this reticent mistress has lifted

the curled edges of sidewalk ice

so that currents of rippling melt-water lift the floes,

stirring hopes we guard like hungry seeds.

Ragged (2020)

What’s left of me is ragged lace,

more absence than presence,

gnawed upon but not consumed.

I forbid you to pity me.

If you impose sympathy

with those I’m sorry for you eyes,

wholesale disdain will meet your gaze.

Instead, reach below O poor leaf!

to ask yourself ‘Where am I torn?’

‘Who would recognize me if they knew

how fragile the web is that holds my flesh together?’

Once you have opened the gate

that isolates my suffering from yours,

I will accept empathy from you.

But only then, mind.

I might even tell you about the time

I believed romance meant total surrender.

And you can describe the trusted beloved

who professed support but undermined from within.

As we share stories side by side on the forest floor,

let’s strengthen our arteries together,

arching them upward without apology,

neither holding the heartstrings hostage

nor concealing our corporate wounds.

Farlinger Ravine Loop Poem (2017)

Meet me at Farlinger Ravine,

Ravine west of Kennedy Road by the Dollarama,

Dollarama that conceals the lost banks of Taylor Massey Creek,

Creek that is witnessed from this rusty bridge.

This bridge where I loll at the rail and examine,

examine the sticky burrs on my mittens,

mittens that spell “Love” on my knuckles,

knuckles that soften with warmth as the sun rises,

rises to lavish its image on the stream.

Stream of Farlinger where youths from the shelter,

they shelter under maples, entwine limbs on fallen logs,

logs that block the narrow path to the culvert.

This culvert that thunders in storms, eases the stink of sewage,

sewage that swirls over submerged shopping carts,

carts from Giant Tiger, condoms, and Tim Hortons cups,

cups whose rims did not win.

Win next spring, maybe, but today ice curls at the edges of flow,

flow of water that plays with the sun’s colours,

colours of frozen glass in red, purple, and silver,

silver that polishes the depths of Farlinger Ravine.

Partly Frozen: Leaf’s Lament

A screen of ice has pinned my body to a puddle.

Caught between the surface and the depths,

my fluted edges have been numbed and blurred,

robbing me of external definition.

The blessed sun has melted my face to visibility,

fooling casual viewers with its tawny cheer.

In fact, the roots of my smile do not reach the deepest veins,

which await the entire body’s liberation

from constraining clutches of fear.

Testifying to repressed power,

iced etchings echo the shapes of submerged wings,

wavy carvings that design their whims

as they skate on the very surface they groove.

The stem lives in contradiction;

part of it captured in ice

but the tail released from confinement.

Not gripped by the dark blue crystals,

nor defined by white scratches,

this licensed grace heartens me,

strengthens my desire for freedom

to be lifted whole from this chill bed.

Hopeful of return to movement,

the blood irrigates polar and temperate veins alike

whether I believe in restoration or not.

If I desire to be more fully alive,

I must warm and be warmed –

reviving faith in winter’s promised end.

Celebrating the Seasons: Haikus by Ellen Jaffe in Response to Photographs by Catherine Raine

Taylor Massey Creek (2017)

Tree branches, blue sky

reflected in melting ice —  

winter hieroglyphics.

Wexford Woods (2017)

Fractal patterns,

webs of connection,

forest’s neurons awake.

Port Union Waterfront (2020)

Branches stretching out

over cold morning waves

sunlight glints on stones.

Lord Roberts Woods (2017)

Bluebells in spring,

spring into life,

forest wakes in mute beauty.

Taylor Creek Trail (2020)

Reeds stand sentinel,

green and straight against a wavy background —

one moment in a changing world.

Taylor Creek Trail (2020)

Cormorant on a stump,

its shadowy image

echoed in still water —

listening, watching, waiting for a sign.

Banks of Highland Creek (2020)

Wildflowers nestling

by a fallen fence — sweet colour

on this spring morning.

Morning Glory, 2020

Tilting its delicate head

the morning glory listens

to the world’s song . . . and silence.

Tree Shelter in North York (2020)

Tree-shapes sheltering

this quiet forest clearing —

a splash of sunlight.

Wilket Creek, 2018

Sparkling light in the darkness

shower of stars

fallen

down to earth.

Fall in Ottawa (2018)

Dewdrops on a leaf,

red, yellow, dark purple

expanded moments, radiant.

Montréal’s Mount Royal (2019)

Profusion of golden leaves

reflections in the stream —

The world is a narrow bridge

we need to cross.

(Note: italicized words from Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav)

The Saint of the Lake (2017) with Recording by Sean Mc Dermott

The saint of the lake sits high in a sequoia

that grows from an ait kissed by mild waves.

Alone yet expansive, the art of silence

presses the holy woman’s heart between two ferns,

releasing notes of dried clover, cornflower, and marigold.

Rain begins and the saint stirs, prays and praises

the blesséd cover of a thick branch overhead,

its tough bark more waterproof than a nimbus.

Though distance obscures the hermit’s face,

one brown palm is visible against the green.

Cupping the rainfall has awakened her birthing sense,

and she is listening to the tadpoles’ legs emerging,

the fox lining her den with leaves for the coming kits,

and the egg-teeth of baby finches tapping their shells into openness,

their long embryonic wait almost at an end.

When the creased cup of the saint’s hand overflows,

she empties its reservoir with a dancing turn of the wrist.

Backing closer to the tree’s broad column,

she gathers heels into the thighs’ shelter

and circles warm knees with her arms.

Breathing into the curled nest of a compassionate self,

she sleeps in Love, heartbeats lapping in sync

with the lake’s gentle rhymes deep below.

Highland Creek Park on a June Afternoon

Just behind Cedar Ridge Creative Centre, a steep switchback trail leads me to the west bank of Highland Creek, where tall grasses sway beside a sandy bank with cheerful stones below. As I continue along the narrow path beside the bank, I stop to photograph an elegant monarch butterfly before moving into deeper tree cover beyond.

I soon come to a tributary of the stream that is flowing much more slowly. Thanks to its shallowness, I can cross by hopping on the most stable stones. As I pause on the series of stepping-stones to survey the next viable perch, I experience moments of flowing water, such as a chartreuse leaf bathing in the stillness.

Although sunlight struggles to filter through the thick canopy, the very steep bank offers a vision of hopefulness in grasses that are beginning their rooted stance, a scrap of sky above, and more tree leaves arching over the negative space. I have the sense of inhabiting a cut-out furrow or deep groove in an earthy canyon, transforming me into a creature who has been given the option of crawling up and out from a den.

And I do just that, scrambling up the bank with the steadying aid of roots and branches for balance. I emerge onto the manicured openness of Scarborough Golf Club, owner of the footbridge I had glimpsed in a clearing on a previous walk. After I observe a few treasures of the golf course, including a short boardwalk in a marshy area, a group of four irises, and an apiary, I return to the creek’s edge. Then I retrace my steps to the departure point of my hike on this lambent June afternoon.