Jewels In the Crown

Reposted every year, since I first wrote it in 2007.


Nancy Topf Gibson

Pearl Primus

October 29 marks two anniversaries for me and my family. Today would have been my Aunt Nancy’s 72nd birthday. My mother’s next-oldest sister, she died on September 2, 1998 when SwissAir flight #111 crashed in Peggy’s Cove, Halifax on its way to Geneva. She was one of 229 passengers. During and after my college years in NYC, I spent some good chunks of time with Nancy at the Tribeca loft where she lived and taught. For that, I’m grateful. She understood the body – and taught me something about how to listen to mine. Happy birthday, Nancy. We miss and love you.

October 29 also marks the anniversary of the death of Pearl Primus. To Pearl, I was “Daughter #3.” The first time we met has become somewhat legendary in our family; I was five or so, nonchalantly reading a book upside-down on our living room couch on Crescent Street in Buffalo, trying to act casual in the presence of this entrancing guest.

When I was in fifth grade at Pelham Elementary School, Pearl came as a guest to my class. Our teacher, Judy Brooks, was African-American, but on the whole, the majority of my classmates and other teachers at this small, rural school were white. Pearl walked in the room, dressed in layers of bright patterns, gold and silver and wooden bracelets jostling halfway to each elbow, necklaces and earrings heavy with meaning. She was regal. Her slightly hushed voice commanded total attention and respect. And she laughed readily when the kids looked around the room, puzzled by her introduction: “Someone in this room is my family, and it’s not Mrs. Brooks.” I beamed.

For many years after that, Pearl would periodically give me masks as gifts – from Barbados, Trinidad, from Liberia and Senegal. But she would never tell me their origins. Ever the teacher and anthropologist, she wanted me to do the research, to find out for myself the source of these treasures, which graced the walls of my room throughout high school. My mother loves to recall that Pearl predicted I would someday become “President of the PTA.” Whether she would feel I’ve lived up to that potential, I can’t say, though I am raising her namesake.

Pearl died in 1994. I was a senior at Barnard. My parents came to the City and were with her in her New Rochelle home when she passed. Just before the phone rang in my dorm room, my mother calling to say she was gone, a butterfly–Pearl’s spirit animal–fluttered in my open window from the air shaft with a narrow view of the Hudson. It landed on the sill and stayed there, beautiful, patterned wings opening and closing slowly, for what seemed like a long while. And then it flew away, towards the river.

This week holds another yahrzeit. In the earliest hours of November 1, 2002, my maternal grandmother, Celia Renner Topf Straus died at the age of 92. I think of the Grammy-ism we most love to love: You are jewels in the crown of my rejoicing. “Love, Grammy,” she would say at the end of a message on the answering machine. Love, love, love. And, God is Love. A Yiddish-speaking Christian Scientist. One of five sisters, mother of four daughters. Whose Hebrew name we finally learned just a few weeks before her death, then gave to Aviva: Simma, treasure.

Each day is a life. Each life is a jewel in the crown. For years and years, I would see the abbreviation Z”L after the name of someone who had died and have no idea what it meant. Finally, I must have asked, or looked it up: Zichrono Livrocho. Of blessed memory.

May their memories be blessings. May we all dance–as Nancy and Pearl did–to the Aztec saying: “Every day is a dance with death.” This week, may you celebrate life and honor the dead. Share a favorite memory of someone you’ve lost, eat something they loved to eat, listen to music that moved them, read their favorite passage out loud or walk some sacred spot. Turn your face toward the sun for an extra beat. Breathe. You are alive.

An Antidote to Stress & Overwhelm

My latest post on the Dominate: Creativity Consulting blog contains an antidote to stress and overwhelm. It’s no big secret. It requires no training and has no monthly fee. There’s no fine print or hidden catch. It takes no time at all. And it might actually be the glue that holds all the pieces together. It’s called doing nothing.

Click here to read more.

If you are someone who pauses in the midst of the busy, Mani & I would love to hear about it. If you’re someone who avoids pausing, we’d love to hear about that, too.

Feel free to leave a comment on either blog, or contact us to share your experience.

Try Not to Kill the Poems

il_570xN.559717632_3am8The most recent poem I wrote gave me a run for my money. The first version came spilling out on Saturday. I shared it with two friends (plus Mani, who reads pretty much everything I write), both phenomenal writers whose opinions I value. One of them said it seriously fucking rocked. The other’s take was that the poem was in there, gleaming, but needed to be uncovered.

I told him I’d go back to revise with a sickle, but his suggestion that I bring a stethoscope was nothing short of incisive, gentle brilliance. I knew exactly what he meant: I had to revise the poem in order to find its heartbeat, a process as risky to poems as surgery is to the heart itself. Some poems are born breathing; others need a little help getting started. And messing around too much can either bring a poem to life or ensure its demise.

This may sound dramatic–obviously revising a poem is not a matter of life and death. Or is it?

There is an intimacy I’ve never really tried to describe to this process of feeling and listening for a poem. Sometimes poems come forth like Athena from Zeus’s head–complete, fully developed, with a wisdom all their own that requires little from me but to sit still and let the words come through. For the mystery of these, I give thanks.

I often write and then work through several iterations of a poem in one sitting. In this case, though, I agreed with my poet friend–whose sparest work is among his best–and returned to the original after a choppy night’s sleep, a stethoscope in one hand and a sickle in the other. I trimmed and shaped and siphoned and sheered. The poem wound up with a series of neat three-line stanzas. And then when I went to listen for it, it had no heartbeat. It even looked sad, deflated, a bunch of flat lines, too neatened up for such taut content.

I left again–because when it’s a poem and not a baby, you can do that, you can leave it alone for 24 hours and it will still be as fine as it ever was when you get home–but decided not to abandon it altogether. I deleted the revisions and went back to original tangled poem. I listened again and moved things around and cut things out and squinted quietly for the vision of what was happening here.

I don’t know if it worked. I don’t know if the original, raw version was better–sometimes revision really is the cause of death–or if its heartbeat is stronger now.

I don’t know why some poems make a reader gasp or tear up or exhale or inhale sharply or feel like a slap in the face or a soothing touch. I don’t know why some things I write seem to speak to many people, while others only to a few, if any.

All I know is that today, when I agreed to have coffee with someone in the area who wanted to learn more about my path–meaning how I became a career counselor–the truest thing I could tell her was that I am a poet, and that this was the only thing I knew for sure when asked, as a child, what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I knew what I wanted to be, because my soul was born with me and breathed all on its own, even as I fought against questions of what to do in life. Being a poet did not indicate a clear path to doing. Which of course is where the living comes in, and the learning and the loving and the letting go and did I mention the learning?

Couldn’t I just write, and share? I asked myself this for years. And know without a doubt: That’s exactly what I’m doing here.

Knife and Dagger

There is fighting against
and there is fighting for–
one deafening in its futility,
the other a deftly handled dagger
digging up the roots
of weeds you yanked
from the bed you said you covered
like a grave;

there is severing the vines
that threaten to strangle
your heartbeat,
and there is the mercy of slicing
open habits disguised as harmonies;

there is forgetting who you are when
you’re asleep remembering
only who you were;
and there is such a thing as leaving
the dead alone, no longer responsible
for what haunts them;

there is meeting your lover’s eyes
to say: Here is the truth, here the lies,
a false gesture dividing man
from woman like a phantom
mechitza down the middle
of the room
you said yes to.

Clarity has no use for disguises.

Image: Bronze & Flower Copper Dagger, by Dylan K. Designs

Marry Life Every Day

10710707_10204255076353631_7973461933437247856_nOK, Yoda. There is no try, only do. It’s 7:30am, and I just got an alert that my office will not open until 10:00am due to a power outage. An unexpected chance to move more slowly into the day.

Today, October 8, was my due date with Aviva twelve years ago; I remember waking with anticipation, as if somehow my body would obey the numbers I’d had in my head for so many months. She waited till the 10th. Last night, I dreamed that she was sad on her birthday morning, and it wasn’t until an hour or so later that I realized why–I’d forgotten and not wished her a happy birthday first thing. Mani asked me this morning, Have you ever actually forgotten one of your kids’ birthdays? No, no I haven’t.

Numbers, somehow containing secrets we may never know the meaning of, if there is a hidden meaning at all. Aviva came on 10/10, which was also my wedding anniversary. I’ve always felt that she knew this; came very deliberately then, as if to announce her place in our lives. Now, October 10 is no longer a day I celebrate as an anniversary of marriage, but it will always be her day, and while it’s not a palindrome like her name, the 1-0-1-0 has a similar quality of wholeness.

My mom and I were talking the other day about October and the other anniversaries and dates and numbers that hold significance. My grandmother died in the earliest hours of 11/1; my aunt Nancy died on SwissAir flight #111. Pearl Primus died on 10/29, which was Nancy’s birthday. My mom notices the clock at 1:11, and nearly every day I notice it at 1:04, Aviva’s time of birth.

When I lived in Mexico in the late 90s for a while, I met a numerologist. She did a reading based on my birth name. I don’t remember the details much, though she said I was meant to be a teacher of some kind. I was 22 and had at once a deep sense of who I was and an equally fraught lack of clear direction in terms of how to apply that to life in practical terms. Back then, there was so much I hadn’t experienced of life–which I realize writing may sound lofty (I can imagine someone 20, 30, 40 years older than me reading that and smiling knowingly). But it’s true. Marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, professional navigation, babies, crises, family life, separation, divorce, coming out, grief, discovery, loss, new love, remarriage… Who knew?!

But isn’t that how it is? We can only know what we know at any given moment of time. So many of my poems from those years refer to hints and whispers; I’m always listening for what I don’t and perhaps can’t audibly hear, but sense. Some pulsing at the outer edges of a container with no edges–an expansiveness that is simply felt.

Yesterday, I asked a close friend if she’d draw a card for me. I just felt that pull–for something to zero in on. She texted me back the Daughter of Swords. “Learning the ways of clarity.” And a second card, from a deck she made herself: Trust.

Clarity and trust. Numbers and knowing. Navigating in the dark, always noticing the light and how it changes throughout the day. Early morning fog so dense it’s impossible to see what’s just beyond, if nearby–this never stops us from proceeding. How is it that that kind of faith is easy–we know the road will not just vaporize, and so stay on it despite the lack of visibility–and yet we can assign such fear to the places in our lives that suggest uncertainty?

As a woman in my early 20s, I was deeply conflicted. The life model most familiar to me and my inner yearnings for something big and free didn’t align internally. And so I poured myself into trying to get them to synch up. Sometimes they did. It doesn’t so much matter now. The important thing was–is–to keep going. Yes, there are Big Moments. And, there is no big moment life is leading up to. Or every moment is big, and some feel more momentous than others.

The day before our wedding, I was still running around town like a crazy lady, tending to final details that seemed to self-multiply, responding to emails, carrying concerns about Mani’s health and wellbeing, which have been compromised ever since her anaphylactic experience in June, concerns about all of our kids having a happy weekend, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s of an event we’d spent months preparing for and planning. I lost–and found–my wallet. Twice. And then, Friday evening at our rehearsal dinner, came these words of advice from Mani’s aunt, who is a caterer and has worked with many a bride: Slow down. Don’t Worry. Let other people do things. Be here. (I may be paraphrasing, but that was the gist.)

I so didn’t want to miss it. I didn’t want to miss my wedding day. I knew it would come and go like that, like everything. Like life, really–happy, sad, good, bad, easy, hard, and otherwise. So at 5:00pm on September 27, when my father and I walked down the aisle, he sat down, and Mani was standing there waiting for me to circle her, waiting to circle me, and then for us to circle each other in a slow dance of intention before entering the shelter of the chuppah, I was all there. I was all there because I wanted to be, chose to be, had to be. Because I didn’t want to look back on that day and think, Damn. I missed it.

That next hour was palpably full with presence. With intention and devotion and so many tears, and thankfully some humor. Our guests felt not like an audience but like participants–which is exactly what we’d hoped for. Our daughters’ voices, beauty, and talent unglued me. My parents’ and our friends’ blessings were just that–pure, genuine. The way Mani’s lip trembled when our rabbi offered his Priestly Blessing. How we said, “I do.” We said, “I am.” We said, “We are.” We said, “We will.”

And then it was over, and the two of us left the building for a few minutes to be alone. We actually walked a block or so up Main Street, me in my dress and Mani in her gorgeous suit and blue kippah. A bunch of college students were hanging out and drinking on front lawns (it was Homecoming Weekend at UMass), and as we walked by they hooted and hollered and cheered. One even shouted, “Mazel tov!” Some cars honked. I felt beautiful. Present. Seen. Elated.

Kids having fun at a wedding seems to me like the best possible evidence of a good time had by all–and did they ever dance. The rest of the weekend carried a similar tone, of basking. In the unseasonably warm days, in the love of friends and family which encircled us from all sides, both here in town and from all over. We felt it. There are no words–or I could dig for them, but don’t need to, so complete and perfect was the experience itself.

Why do we need words? More and more, I’ve come to live my life without as much recording and explanation of it. Some of this is because the stresses and “hard parts” are simply private, not to be processed in the public sphere. But perhaps more than that even, it’s because I don’t want to miss it. Writing can cut both ways–be a portal to integrating and fully absorbing life, and also a barrier or misguided attempt to capture what cannot be held. I’ll take both, and simply trust which is which.

But I can tell you this: I realized, on that morning before taking vows, that I wanted to live that way. Meet each day as if my whole life had been leading me here, as if I’d spent months preparing and now had nothing to do but truly show up. Not every day is a wedding day. Or a birthday. Or an anniversary. We make this distinction and call everything else “ordinary.” Most days, I do not wear fancy shoes or a veil, do not stand before witnesses. Or do I? Am I not my own witness? Are my children, my co-workers, each person I encounter at work or on the street, my sisters and friends, not witnesses?

Marry life every day. Renew the vows, open to joy. The facts of what may be scary or stressful just sit there–they change all on their own, whether I’m relating to them tensely or openly. So why not open, and just be. Here. Now. Blessed. The hints of what’s to come may still whisper; some will surface and others never will. Clarity will brighten and fade, wane and return. Trust is the underpinning, and as long as I remain anchored inside of my own body, come back to what is, this is available to me. Always.

I don’t know where this post started, or quite how I got here. But rather than re-reading and editing and attempting to make sure it holds up, I’m going to post it. Because this space is for letting the words fall out and land where they may; it’s for remembering not to miss it, that day, or this one. It’s for noting the mystery of the numbers and appreciating first the fog, then the clearing. And knowing that everything co-exists, nothing is static, not memory, not marriage, not life flowing and seasons ever-changing.

When I wrote a poem years ago called “What I’ll Miss,” I had no idea it foreshadowed the rest of my life, and would deliver a collection of poems called “Don’t Miss This.” And when I completed that collection, I made a vow. To live that way, to come back to presence. To treat every day like a special occasion. To take Aunt Laurie’s wisdom to heart: Slow down. Don’t worry. Let other people help. Be here.