Jupo the Spider Monkey, Part II

When my baby monkey, Jupo, jumped out of my arms and onto the branches of the 80-foot tree, my heart stood still. She had never left my side before, except to go into her enclosure some nights, or when I went to school during the day. She had never been out in the wild aloneInfants rely, the encyclopedia said, completely on their mothers until they are twelve months old. Jupo was barely nine months. This was far too soon for her to be leaving me.

I watched in horror as she agilely made her way from the outside branches towards the center of the tree. Then, without any hesitation, she began to climb up the thick trunk. Seconds later, she was at the top. I let out a blood-curdling scream, and within minutes both my parents came running.


Spider monkeys, my encyclopedia told me, have prehensile tails that serve as a fifth hand. When a spider monkey walks, even a baby one, its arms are so long they practically drag on the ground. Their hands are long and narrow, too, and they have no opposable thumbs. They are highly agile, and, when they reach a certain age, can easily jump from tree to tree.

“Call the fire department,” my parents both screamed when they reached my side and saw what the situation was. “Call them immediately!”

“Jupo is on the highest branch and it’s too light to hold her safely,” my father added, as he began to climb up after her.

“Oh no,” my mother cried. “Dear baby Jupo. I don’t want her to fall.”

While my parents both watched Jupo, who was now tilting back and forth on the top of the tree, I ran into the house and called the fire department.

“Hello,” I said, trying to keep calm. “We have an emergency. Please come right away.”

“What is it?” the fireman who answered asked. “And tell me where you live.”

“Sunny Hill Farm,” I answered. “It’s my baby monkey. She is stuck at the top of a tree.”

There was a brief silence, and then the phone went dead.

I had to call back several times before anyone at the firehouse would take me seriously. But when they finally did, they came running. Three fire engines came, in fact, with sirens blaring and lights flashing. Since none of them had ever seen a monkey except at a zoo, and especially a monkey stuck in a tree, all the firemen at the firehouse had decided to come along for the occasion.  It was the two youngest ones, trainees probably, who were sent to climb to the top. The others climbed up too, but separated themselves so they were each five feet apart.

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According to the encyclopedia, when a spider monkey sees a human approaching, it barks loudly, much like a dog. It climbs to the end of the branch it is on and shakes it vigorously to scare away the possible threat. It shakes the branches with its feet, hands, or a combination of the two, while hanging from its tail.

When Jupo saw the two men climbing up after her, and all the others behind them, she was so terrified that she let out a piercing howl. Then she began to bark. Leaning out to the edge of the branch she was on, just above one of the firemen’s head, she began to shake it fiercely, while still hanging on to the narrow trunk with her tail. I was so afraid that she was going to let go and fall, I had to close my eyes and bury my head in my mother’s arms. But before she let go, the top of the tree was hastily clipped off. Clinging tightly to her branch, she was carefully handed down from fireman to fireman, until she was finally safe in my arms again.

The following morning, my mother, Jupo, and I went out into the orchard, picked dozens of apples, and made half a dozen pies, which we delivered to the fire station just in time for lunch.


Jupo’s first time out in public was when my mother and I took her to the Acme supermarket. I had her all wrapped up in a soft pink baby blanket, which had a triangle flap at one end that I used to cover her face. Pushing the shopping cart with one hand, I held her very carefully with the other. It was on aisle three, I remember, just as my mother was asking if I thought we needed more pickles for the hamburgers we were going to grill that night, when a sweet little old lady came over with a big smile on her face.

“Oh my,” she said sweetly. “Would you mind if I saw her face?”

My mother was a few feet away reading labels on the pickle jars. Smiling, I answered, the sweet old lady, “Certainly.” And as I did, I proudly lifted the triangle flap aside so she could get a good look.

Spider monkeys have coarse hair and it ranges in color from ruddy gold to brown and black; their hands and feet are usually black. Their heads are small, their nostrils very far apart, and they have hairless faces. Mostly, their eyes are blue. With her twinkling blue eyes, the same color as mine, Jupo stuck her head out from the blanket and smiled happily.

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My mother had moved back in time to catch the dear old lady, who was on the verge of fainting. “Oh dear,” the lady mumbled, her face as white as a ghost. When she was steady on her feet again she looked at my mother and me.

“Oh dear me,” she said, shaking her head. “I am so, so sorry.” Then, putting her quaking hand over her mouth, she all but ran away.

To be continued…


Half & Half

It never occurred to me when I was a little girl growing up on a farm in Philadelphia, that a person with both a vagina and a penis was terribly unusual. I knew I had a vagina. My brother had a penis. My parents… well… when I was little… I didn’t really know. I did know, however, that it was possible they had both, because I would occasionally look through a large leather scrapbook my father kept on one of the living room bookshelves. It was a book containing photographs of his co-workers, the ones he had befriended right after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania when he joined the carnival as a sword-swallower and fire-eater.

During the three years he spent swallowing swords and eating fire, he lived and performed with freaks. “I have always been interested memfullin freaks because I am one myself. By the time I started fifth grade, I was over six feet tall,” he would say. Later, after he’d left carny life to become a writer, when the circus came to town many of the freaks he knew came and stayed with us in our spacious farmhouse. I remember dinners outside with them, all of us eating fresh ears of corn. I remember stories being told, a lot of laughter, and late night swimming in our pond under a starlit sky.

There was Priscilla, the Bearded Lady, her husband, Emit, who had alligator skin, and their children. There was Sealo, a man with flipper-like arms, and the midget twins, Margo and Mat. There was also a lady called Francis-Francine. They were all pictured in the big leather scrapbook, but Francis-Francine was my favorite. In my young eyes, because of her photograph, which depicted her totally unclothed, displaying both her penis and vagina, she was perfect in every way. Unlike me, she could choose to be anything she wanted. Francis-Francine, my father told me, earned over five hundred dollars a week, and that was during the Depression.

I recently read about a model competing in Poland’s Next Top Model. “With her flawless skin and versatile look, it is little surprise that Michalina Manios is a favorite to win,” Tamara Abraham from Mail Online recently wrote. “But the 22-year-old stunned viewers last night when she revealed to judges that she was born a hermaphrodite.” And she is stunning.


{Each one of us begins life as a hermaphrodite. The fetus possesses identical sexual glands that will eventually, in most cases, become either ovaries or testes. An estimated 1 in 2,000 children, however, are born each year as neither boy nor girl— they are intersex. For those interested, true hermaphroditism is the coexistence, in one individual, of male and female glands, or of gonads containing both male and female cells. Usually neither the male nor the female gonads are fully developed, but are each present to such an extent that it is impossible to determine the sex of the individual. Perfect hermaphroditism is when a person possesses all the generative organs, properly developed and functional, at least to the extent of copulation.

Hermaphroditism is found in all of nature— in plants, animals, single-celled organisms, as well as in humans. In ancient times they were generally treated with a sense of awe–the Greeks considered them to be a third sex.  Many of them were revered for their alleged powers of prophecy.  Their rarity and the mystical nature of their “condition” assured them a place in society.}


In Greek mythology, Hermaphroditus was born to Hermes and Aphrodite. Some say that he was a god. He was born with a body, however, which was beautiful and delicate like a woman’s, but also had masculine characteristics, with the vitality of a man. At the age of fifteen, Hermaphroditus traveled to the city of Lycia, near modern-day Turkey. There, in the woods, wading in a pool of water, he came across a nymph called Salmacis. Overwhelmed with lust for this very exquisite young man, Salmacis tried to seduce Hermaphroditus. He rejected her. When he thought she was gone, Hermaphroditus stripped and entered the empty pool. But Salmacis sprang out from behind a tree and jumped into the pool after him. Draping herself around him, she kissed him and called out to the gods that they should never again be apart. Her wish was granted and their bodies blended into one form, “a creature of both sexes”.

1976DanMannixYes, when I was seven and eight I did think that my father’s friend, Francis-Francine, was perfect. And I am glad now, as I look back at my young self, that the seed of acceptance of the strange and wonderful was planted early in me, no matter how unconventionally. I am grateful that I grew up aware that the possibilities in our world go much further than what many of us imagine. But mostly I am beholden to my father for teaching me that the unusual people in this world are worthy of great consideration. The rarest gems, after all, are always the most memorable.


The Best One

The day I met Patty—the first time we came face to face—we just stared at one another with nothing to say.  It was our first day on the soap opera, The Best of Everything, produced by James Lipton (who now does those incredible interviews on Inside the Actors Studio). The Best of Everything, originally a best-selling novel by Rona Jaffe, was the story of four girls who move to New York City and work for a fashion magazine like Vogue. It was to be a splashy and splendid soap opera, and we were to have costumes and sets that were impressive and elegant. Jimmy, that’s what we called Mr. Lipton back then, had persuaded ABC to give him everything he wanted.

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I played a character named April, who was an innocent country girl. Patty played Linda, who was the same age, but more savvy and sophisticated. In the script, we became best friends immediately.  But in real life, we met in our shared dressing room at 7 am every morning, five days a week, and hardly said a word to each other.  I was thrilled to be working with Patty, and very open to conversation. But she was stiff and remote and very aloof.  We have nothing in common, I thought to myself. And besides, why would Patty McCormack want to talk to me? She had a Tony Award for her stage performance in The Bad Seed, which she received when she was just eight years old. Not only that, but she had a star on Hollywood Boulevard and an Academy Award nomination. Yes, I felt ecstatic to have won the part of April over hundreds of others vying for the roll, but really, I was just an actress with a quarter of her experience, and that, I figured sadly, in her eyes, did not make me ‘friend material’.

BestofEverythingclip1-editedIn our street clothes, our hair askew, Patty and I, and the others in the cast, went about the business of blocking and rehearsing our scenes under the glare of the hot lights, as three cameras followed us around.  In between, throughout the day, as we all checked in and out of hair, make-up, and the costume room, we miraculously transformed, slowly but surely, into the characters we played. By the time we were ready to tape the show eight hours later, we were line-perfect, chic, and ready to be invited into millions of homes all over the United States.  But even though the rest of the cast and I were friendly, the most said between Patty and myself wasn’t spoken until the end of the day.

“See you tomorrow,” she would barely utter as she darted out of our dressing room.

“Yes,” I would say to the back of her head as she disappeared around the corner. “See you tomorrow.”

Then, one day, totally without warning, Patty sat me down one early morning and whispered to me behind our closed dressing room door. “I’m pregnant,” she told me, grinning, and her face aglow.  She had never smiled at me before, and I thought to myself how very beautiful she really was. “You are the first person to know. Besides my husband, of course,” she continued. “That’s why I’ve been feeling so sick all this time. That and the fact that I always get so nervous when I start new things, made it doubly hard for me these last few weeks. But,” she laughed, “I think I hid it pretty well. “

Filled with happiness for her and relief for me, I stood, reached over and gave her a hug.  And unexpectedly, she just melted into my arms.

And then, just like that, we became best friends.

The Best of Everything caught on, and it felt like all of America was watching us. We were so proud when the fan mail began pouring in and our ratings flew sky-high. Pictures of our entire cast were filling magazines and newspapers everywhere.  Seldom could any of us walk more than a New York City block without being recognized and asked for our autographs.

Patty was able to conceal her growing pregnancy under beautiful costumes, and by carrying stacks of files and sitting behind desks. And the funny thing was, my character, April, became pregnant and was all set to marry the father of her baby, Dexter Key, the head of the fashion magazine, when suddenly the cast and crew were gathered together and told that The Best of Everything was going off the air. “Why?” we all asked totally dumbfounded. We were told that the cancellation was due to a dispute between the producer and the network.

Of course, we were all dazed and appalled. Our fans were devastated, too. But there was nothing any of us could do. The last scene in The Best of Everything included the entire cast gathered in a gorgeous cathedral. April, in an exquisite wedding gown, a slight bulge in her stomach, accompanied by her best friend, Linda— a bulge in her stomach, too, except this one real, and hidden by a bouquet of wildflowers— walk down the aisle, side by side, and then… off into oblivion.

Patty and I both moved from New York City to LA several months later, after her baby was born. She named her daughter Danielle. I, too, had a daughter named Danielle. And we each had a son. Many set friendships don’t last. Fortunately, ours did. When we weren’t visiting one another in our various homes, we talked on the phone for hours. One way or another, we connected every day.  Why we stayed friends, we never really knew. It was just the way it was, and we were too busy raising our children and pursuing our careers to question it.

We both continued acting, but were never in the same show again. I was there when her son got his first real guitar for his fifth birthday, and she was there when my husband produced his first movie for television and sat with us at the screening party. When my family and I opened Portrait of a Bookstore in 1986, Patty was there for days helping to unpack hundreds of boxes of books into all the new shelves. When her Danielle got married, I stood by her side while she cried and cried.

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It’s now been many years since we first met, and we still pretty much live in each other’s pockets, we are so close. For forty-some years we have shared the tragedies, raptures, and small day-to-day pleasures concerning our children, their spouses, and their children. (We have four grandchildren each; she, four grandsons, and me, four granddaughters, all eight of them brilliant and dear.)

There isn’t one thing that happens that the other does not know about. We are confidantes, sisters, and intimate friends.  All judgment is suspended between us. It’s always been that way. No matter what one of us is going through, the other is there.  We can’t not be friends, we say occasionally, laughing. Who else would remember that fleeting incident that happened ten, twenty, thirty, forty years ago, and associate it with something that happens today?

I have a handful of other close friends whom I cherish, and so does she. Yet, it is to each other that we turn in times of worry or times of delight. It takes a long time to grow a friend, but even longer to grow the best one in your life.


My Menagerie

The Christmas of my twelfth year, I received a wonderful baby spider monkey, whom I named Jupo. After I opened her crate and let Julie VonZerneck_Page_09her out, she immediately climbed our Christmas tree and wrenched away most of our beautiful family ornaments. A floor-to-ceiling wire enclosure had to be erected in my bedroom, but she cried when I put her in it at night. Also, it was so cold that winter that all the blankets in the world wouldn’t have kept her warm enough, because she would just toss them off. She even ripped off the little doll-sized, red-striped pajamas I’d put her in. So, in the end, she slept with me, inside my nightgown, stretched out across my chest, where she could hear the sound of my heartbeat under her own. Jupo only loved me and would cling to me, her arms around my neck, all day long. She kept my life exciting with all of her antics for five wonderful years. And then it was time for her to find a mate, which she did—Butch, a strapping young spider monkey, who lived at the Norristown Zoo in New Jersey.

Julie von Zerneck in formal wear w- squirrel monkey, MachoWe had a cheetah named Rani who lay out on my bed some afternoons and slept ‘till it was her feeding time.  And of course we also had the American bald eagle, Aguila. We had Otty, the otter, who liked to attack me in the pond and nibble my toes and make me scream bloody murder when I was swimming; and Coy, the coyote. We also had several ocelots, a bunch of skunks, vampire bats, a tarantula that we used a toothbrush to clean, six peacocks and pea hens that cried heeeelp, heeeelp when anyone drove up our quarter-mile drive; eight falcons, an unattractive hyrax, a fox named Tod, whom my father wrote about in one of his children’s books, foxdpmThe Fox and The Hound; and many other animals, including dozens and dozens of various snakes, some very poisonous, that came and went through the years. We also raised rats and rabbits to feed these animals. And then there was the roadkill that we found along the country roads. Our icebox in the shed was filled to the brim with not only the usual chicken and lamb chops, but with square enamel trays of dead furry things that had wandered too close to Route 401 just off Bacton Hill.

When I was little and still living at my grandmother’s house, it was actually safer keeping me inside a cage because so many of the animals my parents brought back had free range; my playpen had a top cover and was made of metal mesh. As a young child, I was not encouraged to have friends, but later, when I was a teenager, school friends would flock to our house because they were utterly and completely captivated BabyJulie-wSkunkby what they and their parents referred to as “the eccentric Mannix family and their menagerie”.

At least once a month there was an article in one of the Philadelphia newspapers about adventurers Jule and Dan Mannix returning from Kenya, or leaving for India, or acquiring a pair of kinkajous, or having just written a new book. I hated when my friends brought cameras when they came to visit and had me take pictures of them with Rani licking their hands.rani


[excerpted from Secret Storms]

Slipping and Sliding

Sometimes, when my mind needs to be refreshed, I look at some of my favorite quotes. They stimulate my little grey cells, kick me in the butt, and butter me up so that I can slip and slide.

Let’s see… I may write something like this:

She swung around with a bucket of the blackberries she had been picking for the last hour. A noise in the bushes had made her turn. But when she looked, no one was there. Disappointed, she turned back…


At this point, I am going to go through some of the quotes that inspire me, and choose one to butter me up.

I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free.

– Charles Dickens

Beware that you do not lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.    


The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it. 

-Jean Paul Sartre

Never forget me, because if I thought you would, I’d never leave.

 -A. A. Milne

I can’t go back to yesterday – because I was a different person then.

Lewis Carroll

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none. 

-William Shakespeare

Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.

-F. Scott Fitzgerald

It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. 

-Joseph Campbell

If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.         

-Khalil Gibran

When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. 

-Maya Angelou

Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who  want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm. But the harm does not interest them.

-T. S. Eliot

There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.

 -Robert Frost

If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.

-Katharine Hepburn

A compliment is something like a kiss through a veil.

 -Victor Hugo

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book. 

-Marcel Proust

If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life.

 -Oscar Wilde

Your time is limited; so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.

– Steve Jobs

It always seems impossible until it’s done.  

-Nelson Mandela

All right. Now that I’ve gone through my quotes, I think I’ll choose ….

If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life.


She swung around with a bucket of the blackberries she had been picking for the last hour. A noise in the bushes had made her turn. But when she looked, no one was there. Disappointed, she turned back.

Her old hand, stained with blackberry juice, wrinkled and scratched, reached out to finish off the bush she was working on, when handsuddenly she just let it drop limply by her side. She was tired. She was tired of picking the berries day after day, year after year. She was tired of listening to only one heartbeat at night. She was tired of waiting for someone that might never come.  

“I’ll meet you in the spring,” he had said so long ago. “In the forest where the berry bushes grow.”

“All right,” she had answered coyly, swinging her long glossy locks over her shoulder. “I’ll wait for you,” she smiled, looking up into his ardent blue eyes. “But don’t keep me waiting too long.”


 Now I’ll try another one of my quotes. This time I think I’ll choose…

There are two kinds of teachers: the kind that fill you with so much quail shot that you can’t move, and the kind that just gives you a little prod behind and you jump to the skies.


She swung around with a bucket of the blackberries she had been picking for the last hour. A noise in the bushes had made her turn. But when she looked, no one was there. Disappointed, she turned back…

pailHer bucket was only half full. Or was it only half empty? She looked down into it, but couldn’t tell. Night was beginning to fall. Another noise in the bushes made her turn around again.

“Who’s there?” she called out. Her heart began to tremble. Her lips went dry. Just this afternoon she had been warned that there was someone lurking around the farms. It was all over school. One of the teachers had warned that no one should go out alone, at least not until it was discovered who it was. Another teacher had suggested that they just remain vigilant, but to continue on with their regular lives.

 “Who’s there?” she called again.

 That’s when she saw a long shadow pass over her and she froze in place.

 “It’s me,” a voice whispered. “I’ve been looking and looking and finally I’ve found you.”

Carefully, she set her pail down. The voice was one that she knew. She didn’t turn and run. She didn’t scream out.  She didn’t do anything but smile.

“You’re back,” she laughed, throwing her arms around him. “Oh Tom, you’re back. You’re alive and well and I don’t have to worry about you anymore. ”

 Later that night she told her brother, who had finally come home from the war, that she had picked a half-full bucket of berries for him and that the next day, after school, she would make him a great, big, beautiful American blueberry pie.


            If you have a quote you’d like to share, please send it to me!



Borrowed Things

There are times when I regret certain things. Not things I said or did (though, believe me when I tell you, I do wish I could take back many things I’ve said or done in my lifetime), but instances when I became attached to things. Things like a certain pen, or a hat, or even a home— and then let them go, wishing that I had not.

Let me start with the pen. It was a beautiful tortoiseshell-style Bakelite fountain pen, emerald green in color, with an excellent, broad nib. The heart of a pen, they say, is a good nib, and my nib was very good. It wrote when I wanted it to, not like some fountain pens thatpen scratch out invisible letters on the paper without delivering ink for the first few words. My pen was so gorgeous that when I took it out of my purse to sign things, I could actually hear people gasp with delight.  I always felt that my emerald pen cheered the world up a bit.  Made people sit back on their heals for a moment, to see such an unexpected, marvelous thing. And then, one day, without any forethought whatsoever, I just gave it away. Simply because the person I handed it to seemed to love it as much as I did. To this day, and that was almost five years ago, I still ache a little inside that my pen is in someone else’s hands.  And I hope this person has not grown tired of it and stuck it in the back of a drawer somewhere.

My hat was also green.  Soft heather green felt, in fact. I wore it on good hair days and bad ones, too.  It was perfect for my face; made me look kind of rakish when tilted in a thehatcertain way. It also made me seem taller, and very important too, as it had some lovely feathers in the band around its wide brim. I could wear it morning, noon or night. It didn’t matter. Men and woman both looked at it with desire in their eyes.  And then one day, a charming lady, a lady I had never met before, sitting in the Algonquin Hotel at a single round table across from me, said she wished she had a hat like mine. I took it off my head and handed it to her. She put it on, paid for my vodka martini, and left almost immediately, certain, I’m sure, that I might change my mind. I never saw her, or expect to, again. (Although, on occasion, I think I have spotted my dear hat at The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis, or Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel.)

Brookside Cottage was a home away from home, located in the small village of Buckland, a half hour down from Stratford, and anBrookside Cottage hour and a half from London. When I first saw the cottage I fell on my knees and wept. It was made of honey-colored Cotswold stone, had moss-covered roof slates, and a brook ran in front of it. To arrive at the front door you had to go over a little bridge. Next to it was an ivy-covered wall, which was shared with the village cemetery, and across the lane was St. Michael’s Church, the bells of which rang out through the surrounding rolling hills, on the hour.  Brookside Cottage was over five hundred years old and was enclosed by a garden devised and planted in the 30s.  There were always little surprises, summer, winter and fall. Sometimes the plants climbing the front wall bore white flowers and sometimes bright red berries, and, occasionally, several yellow daffodils would pop up in the middle of the back lawn.

DSC02395     For thirty-five years the cottage was ours. I cooked breakfasts, lunches and dinners on the old stove when I went to stay, with or without my husband, every two or three months for weeks at a time. I knew our neighbors and they knew me.  I watched their children and grandchildren grow up and they watched mine do the same. I shopped in the nearby villages with a basket on my arm, and I picked vegetables from the garden in the back—rhubarb, carrots, potatoes and string beans.

Then the big flood of 2007 came, and water washed down the hills like waves, flooding our cottage. All the furniture in the bottom rooms had to be carried upstairs. Several years after that, we had a winter so cold that it immobilized our water heater, which IMG_0038exploded and filled the kitchen below with water that froze solid as an ice skating rink. The ice was so high that I couldn’t open the door and we had to wait a week for it to melt so I could get a machine in and vacuum it up. There were other weather-related problems, which, had I lived there full-time, I could have coped with from day to day. But I didn’t live there permanently and finally it began to dawn on me that having the cottage was becoming impossible.

Yes, it wrenched my heart to give Brookside Cottage up, although it was to dear friends, who cherish it as much as I, and let me stay there whenever I want. But when I look at pictures taken through the years, tears pour down my cheeks and I get a sharp pain in my heart.

I think it’s impossible not to become attached to things that you love. At least I find it so. But I recognize that though I may no longer have certain things, my recollection of them remains. I now muse on the fact that the things I have given up are borrowed things. They are things that I have borrowed for a while in my life, and have passed on. And I trust that my memory of them will always be there to bring them back to me whenever I want.

cottage snow




My Half-Hour Game of Trust

            wave 1) She took the ring off her finger and threw it into the sea. The diamond sparkled in the sun for a brief moment, and then disappeared into a heavy wave. Her heart felt as though it were free falling at first… and then, suddenly, she felt enormous relief.

            2) “The best is yet to come,” they told her. But she knew they were lying. They always lied on Fridays. Friday was empirelying day and everyone knew it.  It was a good way to end the week.

            3) She watched as the ten-foot boulder fell from the top of the building. Four men were sitting on it having their lunch. She screamed, but her cries were unheard as the bolder crashed onto the sidewalk, making a sound one hundred thousand times louder than hers. 

Above are three sentences that just came to mind. Didn’t try to think of them, just let them pour out and appear on the computer screen in front of me. This is a game I play with myself. It helps me trust that even though I might not have something to write, in fact, I always do.

Now, I consider which one I’ll continue with: the first, the second or the third? Which one appeals to me the most? Makes my juices flow. I think it’s the third.

           3) She watched as the ten-foot boulder fell from the top of the building. Four men were sitting on it having their lunch. She screamed, but her cries were unheard as the bolder crashed onto the sidewalk making a sound one hundred thousand times louder than hers. She had just turned eighteen, and this was her first trip to New York City. She had one suitcase, a purse, and wore a bright red beret.  She had no one to turn to because she had come alone.

All right, now that I have that much, I can really go on forever. I can give her a name, a background, a reason for being there. Or I can just skip to the next moment and see what she does. Or…I could do both.

            3) She watched as the ten-foot boulder fell from the top of the building. Four men were sitting on it having their lunch. She screamed, but her cries were unheard as the bolder crashed onto the sidewalk making a sound one hundred thousand times louder than hers. She had just turned eighteen, and this was her first trip to New York City. She had one suitcase, a purse, and wore a bright red beret.  She had no one to turn to because she had come alone.

            Crowds pushed in around her. They came out of buildings, from up and down the streets, around the corners. Possibly because she had been the first on the scene, no one shoved her aside or struggled to get in front of her. So she was left where she had been standing when the boulder fell, which was on the pavement across the street from Grand Central Station.  She had never seen so many people in one place. Where she came from, just the dozen people on her left would have filled her small parish.  

            Looking down, she noticed a half-eaten ham and cheese sandwich on the sidewalk next to her feet. Her instinct was to pick it up and save it for the wife who had girlheadstudiesmade it for her husband that morning, before he had gone off to work. When she leaned down to gather it up, she noticed yellow mustard had splattered onto the leg of her pants. Without any warning, she threw up.

So that’s my half-hour game of trust, which I attempt to play every day. I just keep writing, without stopping to think. The minutes tick away and at the end I have an entirely new acquaintance that I didn’t have thirty minutes before.  I save the ones I like, add to them, revise them, play around with them a little later, and then, sometimes, I introduce one to another. Right now, I have a novella that I have put together over the last year. Maybe I will do something with it, maybe I won’t. It doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. The point for me is purely one thing: courageously jumping in, and trusting myself to write, without hemming and hawing or censuring myself.  It’s kind of like swimming naked in a cold mountain stream after being in the confines of a swimming pool, wearing a suit.

tongue pot lake district sized



Don’t Let Your Feet Touch the Floor

I have a ritual when I write. I think most writers do. Mine is something I have perfected over the years. It begins when I am still in a dream state, just before I rise in the dreamingmorning, so that when I awake I just fall right out of bed and begin it. I couldn’t always do it, not when my children were growing up, certainly. And I can’t do it if something is expected of me before noon. Also, it’s impossible for me to continue to do it if I’ve done it for more than five weeks in a row, because if the ritual becomes too predictable, then it becomes an absolute bore. I can’t bore myself when I write. When and if I do, God have mercy on those around.
What is important to me is that I sleep until I wake. Years of unnaturally being awakened in the morning by nuns in long flowing habits, all but throwing cups of ice water on my face, in the six or seven boarding schools I attended while growing up, has taught me that my mind, when compelled to do things it abhors, strikes back. It refuses to preform cheerfully, gladly or willingly in any way. When it is forced against its will, it mopes. My blood flows like a river heading upstream, my reasoning stops being reasonable, and it crushes my little gray cells. And my feet refuse to arrange themselves flat on the floor.
However, if I wake when I please, life is so different. If I am allowed to come out of my slumber at will— that is, easily, gradually, progressively— my body gently begins throbbing with desire to begin the day. I lie there letting anticipation, excitement, enthusiasm fill me to the brim. It’s only then that I rise. And I rise with such desire that sometimes I don’t even feel my feet touch the floor, as I glide to my office not too far away, sit in my chair, and begin to write.
Still in my nightdress, which I will stay in all day, I write and drink bottles of water I have stored nearby. I’ll take a moment here and another one there, to brush my teeth, wash my face, and run a comb through my hair. I will also go down into the kitchen, make a bowl of cereal with berries on top, and walk around mindlessly as I eat, before oneuponheading back up to my writing again. Undisturbed, I can write for hours, ignoring the phone and the messages and emails that flash across my screen. I even have the capacity to disregard the occasional knocking at the front door.
Since it is something I wear all day, my nightgown/nightdress/ pajamas have to be elegant and somewhat stylish. Not only do I have to look at myself on occasion, but I have a husband, too. It is for this reason that the search for the exact right attire is essential. In the last seven years I have narrowed it down to wrinkle-free cotton French designs that look like smart striped men’s shirts. It seems I can only find these on the Left Bank in Paris across from Les Deux Magots; at Beauchamp friends-writingPlace in London; and on Madison Avenue somewhere near 76th Street, in New York City. Needless to say, I covet these pieces of my daily wardrobe. When I find one I like and it fits, I have been known to acquire four or five at a time. When I complain about the prices my husband tells me, “This is your writing uniform. It doesn’t matter.” If I am lucky, he will give me a box of them, each wrapped in soft tissue, for Christmas or my birthday.
4:30, 5:00, sometimes 6:00, if I am writing hard, is my stop time. It’s then that I head for the shower. As the water pours down over me, I mull over what I have written that day and make little mind-notes of things I want to revise. Then I blow dry my hair, put a little make-up on, dress in street clothes—maybe slacks and a crisply starched shirt—a necklace, a bracelet, my complicated thirty-year-old watch with a dark turquoise strap, which even I sometimes can’t decipher, and a squirt of Bal a Versailles. Thentheend I head downstairs and carefully merge into the world.
As I said, this ritual didn’t just materialize for me. It devised itself, little by little, day by day. And it can’t go on for more than a month at a time. There has to be a break in it, as there must be in everything, if you are to stay in your right mind.

What writing (or non-writing) rituals do you have? I would love to know!