Jewels in the Crown

Originally published in 2007 and shared today for the 12th consecutive year. 


Nancy Topf Gibson

Pearl Primus

October 29 marks two anniversaries for me and my family. Today would have been my Aunt Nancy’s 76th 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 z”l, was African-American and 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–with which Pearl identified deeply–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 newborn 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.

You Are Already Remarkable

Photo: Greyson Joralemon

How do you define remarkable? What does this work evoke for you?

I have felt a near-constant pressure throughout my life to be remarkable and/or to do remarkable things.

Remarkable has meant: Special, stands out, makes something out of itself (myself), impressive, the kind of thing that would garner an announcement or win an award, big, impactful, (in)genius.

Remarkable has also meant: Self-evaluation, but not in a self-reflective way. More like in a self-measuring and measuring up or against kind of way.

In other words, this kind of remarkable will always fall short except on the occasions when something big *is* happening, which is not most of the time.

Most of the time, we’re not skipping from height to height.

We’re walking on a path in the deep woods, and there are no cameras or reporters. We’re getting bitten by insects, finding clean water, and curling up at night to sleep. We’re discerning which flowers are safe to eat and who we’d like to share our time with. But we are not being or doing anything particularly remarkable — at least as defined above.

But what if that is the remarkable part?

What if the remarkable thing is getting up every morning, brushing your teeth (flossing, too, if you’re extra remarkable), and making breakfast for your kid. Letting the dogs out to pee. Drinking your coffee or tea.

What if the remarkable thing is that you made it this far? That you’re still here at all, with so many memories beneath the scars no one sees.

What if the remarkable thing isn’t only how brightly you shine, but the fact that you can turn and see the shadow?

What if you redefine remarkable, never to disappoint yourself again?

The other day, Mani read me a few pages from a book she’s enjoying. The writing described, in such accessible language, the many workings of our human bodies, from individual cells to entire systems.

Listening to it was breathtaking. We were both left feeling, well, remarkable. When you take a few moments to truly tune into the magnitude of things your body is doing at any given time, it’s difficult not to.

At the same time, many of these are not conscious choices. Anyone with any kind of illness or disability is especially aware of this, as when something doesn’t function in the same way it once did — or does for many others — you develop a heightened awareness of what can be taken for granted.

We are already remarkable. Our mere existence is a mind-blowing miracle. How will we care for and support our innate remarkability?

This, to me, presents a very different kind of doorway than a habitual pressure to do remarkable things. When I begin from a place of already enough, already worthy of celebrating, I can turn my awareness to what will help me bring myself to the world in a way that reflects my values, my heart.

And that makes all the difference. It takes the judgment out of it, the comparing, the proving and striving, and brings it into the realm of connecting, truth, beauty, kindness, and justice.

We Are Each Other’s Keepers

Photo: Jonathan Simcoe

This happened yesterday. Chikesia Clemons requested to have plastic utensils. And when she questioned the extra charge (which was new since her last time eating there), the employee canceled her order and called the cops, who were violent and inhumane in their treatment of her.

Meanwhile, white customers continued eating.

Meanwhile, a 29-year-old white male with an AR15 murdered four people, injuring others, at a different waffle house, and not a single politician has mentioned the shooting. The victims, Akilah Dasilva, DeEbony Groves, Joe Perez, and Taurean Sanderlin, were black — as is James Shaw, Jr., the man who disarmed the shooter.

Meanwhile, 400 Nazis marched through a small town in Atlanta this weekend, burning huge wooden swastikas, wearing Hitler t-shirts, guzzling beer, and wearing Confederate flags. One of them had this to say: “We need to round illegal immigrants up and put them in camps if need be. We are at war with the illegals.”

(By the way: It is illegal in Germany to perform a Nazi salute. Why? Because Germany knows that if you don’t confront history, it repeats itself on loop.)

Meanwhile, teachers in Asheville, NC have been walking children home from school, because their parents are too scared to leave the house because of ICE raids. Here in the Pioneer Valley alone, there are now at least four individuals receiving sanctuary in places of worship while lawyers work overtime to try to secure their safety.

Meanwhile, Trump is brazenly tweeting anti-semitic slurs, with zero accountability or consequence.

This is all connected.

Do your day. Love your people. Enjoy the beautiful spring weather. And: Call your representatives. Talk with your neighbors and kids. Don’t look away. We are each other’s keepers.



When police stop killing black people, dayenu.
When police who kill black are put away for life, dayenu.
When we worry about the promising futures of ALL youth, dayenu.
When women no longer die at the hands of abusers, dayenu.
When people with mental illness receive compassionate care, dayenu.
When schools in poor neighborhoods receive equal state and federal funding, dayenu.
When we don’t wait for tragedy to strike our school, our town, our family to take action, dayenu.
When we look back on how silly it was to worry about which bathroom people were using, dayenu.
When it is safe and legal to get an abortion no matter what, dayenu.
When being sick isn’t something that can destroy you and your family financially, dayenu.
When all young people have green spaces where they can play safely, dayenu.
When the wealthiest pay more taxes, dayenu.
When every shelter has a bed, dayenu.
When every addict has access to treatment, dayenu.
When every community has clean drinking water, dayenu.
When healthy food options are available and affordable no matter one’s income level, dayenu.
When Black Lives Matter, really matter, dayenu.
When it’s safe for me to hold hands with my wife in every state, city, and town in this country, dayenu.
When Islam is no longer branded as dangerous, dayenu.
When we care more about oceans than iPhones, dayenu.
When we learn how to sit together and listen, dayenu.
When environmental terrorism is no longer perpetrated by the government and private corporations, dayenu.
When politicians can no longer be bought, dayenu.
When the land is returned to itself, dayenu.
When Native Americans and people whose ancestors were stolen from their land and brought to this country in slave ships receive reparations in the form of money, community development, education, and health care, dayenu.
When the state of Israel treats African refugees by welcoming and caring for the stranger, for we too were once strangers in a strange land, Dayenu.
When pink and blue no longer represent gender “norms,” dayenu.
When non-binary pronouns become part of our everyday speech, dayenu.
When the clothes on our backs don’t come at the expense of human lives, dayenu.
When voting obstruction and tampering are things of the past, dayenu.
When artists are treasured and and elders are honored, dayenu.

Chag Sameach + Shabbat Shalom. 

Jewels on the Path: Register Now for the Spring Session


Space is limited to 12 participants
The spring-into-summer session is now full!

Preregister below for the next session: July 30-November 16, 2018

  • You’re working on a book or writing project… or keep meaning to.
  • You write in fits and spurts but struggle to get a routine going.
  • You hear yourself saying you don’t have time to write.
  • Writing always gets pushed to the bottom of the to do list.

Sound familiar?

With structure, sisterhood, and solidarity, prove to yourself that you CAN make time. You CAN make progress. And you CAN believe in yourself more deeply and steadily as a writer.

Since 2016, Jewels on the Path (or “Jewels,” as it becomes known in the group) has helped dozens of women commit to getting words on the page, take more creative risks, and connect to a supportive community of fellow travelers. In addition to sharing new work on a regular weekly basis, each participant practices asking for the type of feedback and response she most needs and wants.

Over the course of our time together, you’ll see not only a growing word count, but a growing confidence in your one and only voice. 

There are THREE sessions of Jewels each year, with a one-week break between sessions. Many people do multiple sessions, others come and go, while some writers complete one session and move on to other aspects of their creative writing and work. There are no prerequisites for participation other than a commitment to showing up to yourself and your fellow Jewels with whatever emerges.

Week after week, fully engaging in this special group will offer you accountability to your own self-directed goals, as well as the gift of reading, befriending, and and encouraging fellow women writers.

What began with the concept of “creative ease” has evolved into a powerful, ongoing working group for writers of all levels and genres who are ready to commit to their creative process. 

Register below for the summer-into-fall session (July 30-November 17, 2018). Continue reading