Posted in My Writing, Writing

Heading Into the Stretch: Final Edits with Three Readers (High School Boyfriend Continuing)

Due to problems on their website, the deadline for submission of manuscripts to the Faulkner-Wisdom Competition has been extended again, to May 31.

This is wonderful news for those who are  having problems with editing and could use the extra time.

It is a snare and a delusion for anyone whose approach to life is to wait until the last possible minute then race to meet deadlines.

I am not having problems with editing and, in fact, have three skilled readers searching diligently for everything from simple typos to contradictions in names or dates between chapters.. I am especially prone to setting up time frames that under no circumstances are workable, or even believable.  I have traced this flaw to my compulsion to put actual dates to events. I seem unable to curb my need to be specific. That first mistake is  compounded by my inattention to detail, so I never catch the fact that, if Camilla is born in 1893 and Martin in 1880, my  repeated claim that he is twice her age is nonsense and anyone who knows basic math and is even half alert will figure that out. This is the sort  of error that puts a reader off and can also involve considerable re-writing should I be lucky enough to have editors who aren’t afraid to point out that  portions of three chapters will need some work.

I have always been a get-it-in-two-weeks-early kind of girl, and I suspect this time will be the same. My third reader, a friend from Michigan, is coming for a week’s visit and the extension will  give  us time to read the entire manuscript out loud so I can finally get a sense of it as a novel  rather than isolated chapters.

I will hope to submit to the first competition no later than mid-May and will then turn my attention to submitting the same manuscript to at least one other contest.  This will require no further editing  of the main text, just a careful adherence to the particular requirements of each. No two are  alike. Some want a synopsis; others do not. Some require an author bio. Some want a  particular font. For some, you pay the submission fee online. Faulkner-Wisdom is one of a very few that requires you send the short entry form, with check or money order, through the post.

Meanwhile, the readers:

Reader #1

  • ID: My friend, co-author, and fellow editor
  • History:
    • Met in a book club
    • Wrote one novel together
    • Fought like demons during the process then realized we had strengthened our friendship and become better writers
    • Now edit one another’s manuscripts
  • Skills:
    •  Rearranging paragraphs or whole chapters. After reading through the manuscript, it’s as  if she tosses the chapters  up in the air and they fall together in a new way
    • Spotting inconsistencies in every detail of time, place, charactersSuggesting changes that are entirely consistent with my style and purpose
    • Sitting at home, alone, reading the manuscript out loud

Reader #2:

  • ID: The High School Boyfriend
  • History:
    • Met in second or third grade, so have known each other for about 65 years
    • Were sweethearts during our senior year in high school, broke up  when we went away to college
    • Contacts since the break-up:
      • 1970–went out for a beer
      • 1996–got together in our small hometown to walk the territory and see a few old friends
      • 2018–reconnected when I contacted him about identifying someone in a photograph
      • 2019–have been in regular touch ever since
  • Skills:
    • Retaining his southern accent (perfect for this book
    • Framing his comments as questions, an approach that forces me to rethink
    • Having an intuitive feel for the integrity of the story because  he knew the people on whom the main characters are loosely based
    • Having fun with the whole thing

Reader #3:

  • ID: Close friend and teaching colleague from my Michigan days, about twenty years ago
  • History:
    • Met when we both worked in the writing center at a small college
    • Had small offices right across a tiny hallway and so unavoidably got to know  one another
    • Survived and  provided mutual support for an entire year when the work environment became  hostile
    • Have stayed in close touch traveling to  visit in each  other’s homes
    • I consider her probably my best friend
  • Skills:
    • Willingness to devote a good chunk of  her time here sitting in my living  room reading this book with me
    • A hard bargainer, having notified me that she will read for food, specifically scrambled eggs with cream cheese and dill; salmon with veggies cooked in tiny tinfoil tents; Brussels sprouts salad
    • All other  skills remain to be discovered since she has never edited with me

Reader #4:

  • ID:  Me–Retired English teacher who, seemingly by accident, discovered she could write
  • History: Pretty much forever
  • Skills:
    • An instinctive use of language and manipulation of sentence structures (I didn’t spend nearly forty years reading Shakespeare and Faulkner to no avail)
    • A continuous editing of my own work. I edit  as I go, reworking sentences  many times as I write them, then circling back on several paragraphs, or a chapter, to read, double-check, rewrite
    • An appreciation of language as  sound and music,  hence the development of reading out loud as my  primary editing tool–both of my own work and when I am editing  for others.
    • A talent for introducing my friends to this technique. I hold out hope that this isn’t just a talent for manipulating

And  so, onward. If the reading goes  well at the end of April, I might actually decide  to  submit right after my third reader boards her plane for Grand Rapids on May 3.

 

Posted in My Writing, Personal, Writing

Final Edit Before Deadline: How Many Ways Do I Procrastinate?

To be fair to myself, I am reading and editing my manuscript as often as I can squeeze it in. I am awfully busy right now establishing my presence on Facebook and. repairing my relationships with my favorite online merchants: Amazon; Zappos (recently sucked up by Amazon); CraigsList; eBay. I often don’t purchase anything but am capable of spending a day just “window shopping.”  For those of you who might be interested: eBay has a fine line and a large supply of both Brooks Brothers and Tommy Bahama men’s shirts.  Very reasonably priced.

Oh, and there’s this blog, certainly a worthwhile endeavor that keeps me writing, but clearly not readying a manuscript for a May 1 deadline. Writing about deadlines is so much more rewarding than actually meeting deadlines.

But to belabor the point, I have not been idle in my romp through my to-do list and I am reasonably certain I will make that deadline.  What I am not doing is allowing myself any margin of error. Yesterday, I re-read. the “Tips for Editing Your Manuscript” from the contest featured in last week’s blog.  After a small fit of indignation, I dutifully began working my way through the list.

The main offender, of course, is Facebook, which provides a kind of one-stop shopping for all of my sins.  I have gotten so lazy that I am doing one of those things I swore never to do. I am spending most of my time scrolling through and “sharing” other people’s posts.

Occasionally, I make a kamikaze run on a political thread and succeed in offending nearly every one. Take the recent brouhaha about Joe Biden.

I am especially enjoying, this time around on FB, the humor that has been inspired by items like “Windmills cause cancer” or “We don’t want wind power. If the wind stops blowing, you won’t be able to watch television” or the incredible blooper on Fox News about the three Mexican countries.

Last week I made the terrible mistake of combining my shopping with my tiny FB addiction, and I clicked on one of the ads for clothing. I looked at a pair of linen pants and by the time I returned to my FB feed (probably ten minutes) it was packed with ads from every company on the planetthat makes linen pants.

One day I scrolled down further in my feed than ever before, into a dark and mysterious land where I was puzzled and unnerved to find that I did not know one person whose posts I was reading.  Not one. Total strangers. Names not even familiar.

I am sure there is an algorithm that explains all those unknown people.  I’m not sure I want to know what it is.

The Internet is calling, but I’m thinking I might try to change the display on my first ever cell phone, the one I can’t quite figure out how to answer but have encased in a pink holder (or whatever it’s called).

As a last resort, there’s always that manuscript.

 

Posted in Writing Fiction

Dean Speaks Out: Images

When I chose the image for background on this new website, I didn’t intend to create A Mystery or A Topic of Conversation. I like the way it looks, it is relevant to my writing, and the scribbled out lines reminded me of the way editing used to look before computers.

People keep asking, and there is a story, so here goes.  I have carried around with me for many decades a photograph of my grandmother and grandfather, taken when they got married. It is a typical formal portrait from the period, 1909.  She was fifteen. He was a twenty-seven-year-old cavalry officer and a boarder in her home.

Late last year I started writing a novel about them. I didn’t know my grandfather, who died when I was two years old, but my grandmother was a constant presence in my life as I was. growing up. Because of their ages, and because of her attitudes about anything sexual when I knew her, I have always drawn the obvious conclusions. It seemed to be supported by what is on the back of that photograph.

I have spent a good deal of time working on that image–lightening it, tinting it differently, getting it into focus. In the handwriting I recognize as hers, my grandmother has recorded these facts:

 

“L.M. & Cornelia Robertson. February, 1909.
(I was sixteen years old preceding January 28th)”. 

My grandparents were married in late February 1909.
My father’s birthday was November 2 1909.

 

Below this is more writing, but it is heavily scribbled out in the way someone does who really doesn’t want it to be legible. I have struggled on and off for years to read that, have made out a few words, but finally gave up on being able even to make a guess at what the whole inscription might be.

 

 

 

I found a man who restores old photographs and who had done wonders with the two I had sent him, and my hopes soared.  I scanned this and sent it off. I know that he used every trick in his arsenal to pull the words up, but ultimately he had to tell me he couldn’t do it.  He sent me a shot of his efforts, the few words he identified marked in red. I wasn’t at all sure the handwriting was the same.

 

 

 

Not too long ago, I had one of those moments when something flashes through your mind and is gone, but I suddenly felt absolutely sure that I had written and crossed out whatever is on that photograph. I still think that’s right. I have no idea what I might have written, but instinct tells me it about the horrors I imagine in my grandmother’s marriage at that age.

However, the mystery remains a. mystery and, in the meantime, I wrote this novel about the two of them.

The image is the story of my experience with the redeeming power. of writing and especially writing fiction. My novel didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. The characters surprised me on every page.  I will almost certainly never know the facts about my grandmother’s early life and her marriage, but the writing of fiction has softened the edges around her life and has given me a grandmother who was a source of stability and great love during my childhood and not the terribly unhappy girl I have always been sure she was.  Did I write the facts? I don’t know many facts about these two people.

But Kafka once wrote that a novel should be an axe fort he frozen sea within us. For me, this novel has been that axe.  And so, the image.

 

 

Posted in Writing Fiction

Literary Competition Season

 Make a List and Stick to It

I have a checklist, much like an old friend, Eddie, had when he took his seat in the cockpit of his small plane and prepared for take-off.  Everyone who knew Eddie casually–that is, anyone who had not been flying with him–thought of Eddie as an almost careless individual who lived life spontaneously. He embodied cliches like on-the-spur-of-the-moment,  on-the-fly, by-the-seat-of-his-pants. Eddie was an adamant opponent of planning of any kind.  I recall vividly the first time he took me up in the plane.  He pulled out a yellowed card on which someone had written a checklist with a small diagram next to each brief, numbered instruction. Eddie’s reading skills were minimal.

I am a retired English teacher. I read with the best. I am one of those mostly undisciplined people who give the impression of great order in my life and, to preserve both my reputation and my sanity, I make lists. I am, in fact, a compulsive list-maker, a person who can rewrite a list several times a day because it has gotten messy or to add a new task to the bottom of the list every time I cross off one at the top.  This is a terrible way to live, especially given my total dependence on those lists. If I don’t write it down on my list, it doesn’t happen.

In the case of the entry process for the high-end literary contests, these omissions can eliminate you from the competition before the judges even see your manuscript.  There is one contest in particular that I entered last year–honorable mention, only–that issues veiled warnings like,

“It is important to label your documents properly. Unlabelled documents will not be opened.”

Chilling.

So, with a deadline of May 1 looming, I now have a completed novel, proofed and edited several times, still needing some tinkering but a clean manuscript and, I believe, a good piece of writing.  I am girding up my loins to read this year’s instructions very carefully, as I have been reminded of the importance of tracking down those misplaced commas because,

“No judge wants to read your errors!”

I recall asking myself a year ago, “Is this really worth it?”  The answer, of course, is yes.

Below you will find my personal checklist, to which I adhere slavishly:

  1. Create a new folder on your computer for each competition.
  2. Choose the first competition you’ll enter and, if possible, work on only one at a time.
  3. Read every word of the competition’s guidelines and requirements. Read them at least twice.
  4. Copy and paste the instructions specific to the submission of your manuscript into a Word document.
  5. Print those instructions and the required forms and read them again, highlighting the essential regulations.
  6. Go ahead and create a Word document for your manuscript.
  7. As you do your last editing, copy and paste one chapter at a time into the document that you’ll submit.
  8. If at all possible, find at least one reader for your manuscript.
  9. Read the manuscript out loud with your reader.
  10. Carefully re-reading the requirements, continue to transfer one edited chapter at a time into the document you will submit.
  11. Double-check details. Last year, I did everything precisely and correctly and, on the form for payment, I transposed two digits on my credit card number and it took a couple of weeks to get it sorted out.
  12. Final check that you’ve followed their directions.
  13. Keep good records, to include your own list of contests entered, with the dates you entered, and the emails you receive acknowledging your submission and your payment.
  14. Send it off, take a 24-hour break, and move on to the next competition.

At this point, I am not quite halfway through the list. I have two people reading and editing. When I get a chapter back with notes, I read it again, out loud, then move it to the form for my first contest.  I am about as obsessive about having a system as it’s possible to be, and I circle each number as I complete it.

My first competition is the very one that gave me the most trouble a year ago, including my credit card error.  The process is difficult and confusing. The payoff is impressive, both in prize money and in prestige. I expect I will re-submit last year’s revised manuscript again.

 

Posted in Reviews

“The Diary of a Novice Investor” Delivers More Than Its Title or Its Cover Suggest

Mark Slauter’s Diary of a Novice Investor is a book about one man’s first serious attempts to manage a portfolio of investments. It offers detailed and practical suggestions for new investors who don’t  know where to begin. Slauter sets out his goals in the Preface:

“I wrote this book to provide insight to readers who are interested in investing, but have no previous exposure to the emotional roller coaster investing can create. I am not an analyst nor certified in any way as an investment advisor or financial planner, and I do not intend for anyone to use the information provided in this book as professional investment advice. Rather, my goal is to express my first-person experience learning about investing, and offer the read- er insight into the angst, frustration, elation, and thought-processes I experienced as a novice investor—and continue working through today.”

 This is going to be a book about a great deal more than investing.

Slauter’s Diary is also the account of a son’s painful experience with his elderly parents. It is not, like the investing, something new, but rather a story as old as humanity, described in an intense narrative that tells us that there is no “technique,” no adequate approach to  dementia and death.  Slauter and his sister discover, as we all do, that the decline of parents is not a problem to be solved but a process to be lived through with as much love and understanding as we can muster.

It is difficult to say which narrative is the most compelling, so intertwined are the two. Slauter’s mother becomes forgetful, then begins a slide into dementia. His father, determined to take care of her, has a difficult time letting go and, in the classic marker of so many aspects of aging, he fails a driver’s test. Unexpectedly, he dies. Slauter is left with a mother who is not able to manage her investments.

The responsibility falls to him. It is a job he has never done very well for himself.

A Prologue, called “The Set Up,” tells the story, in the rawest and most personal terms, of the events in his family that led up to his struggles with the stock market and the challenge he set himself of learning enough to not only maintain his parents’ investments but to improve them, and it begins:

“Problems can be elusive creatures. Even though you may recognize a problem as it’s happening, its genesis and evolution become clearer when you stare backward through the looking glass of time. In 2008, my sister, Mary, and I knew Mom and Dad were in real trouble . . .”

A family vacation gone wrong.  A glimpse into what was ahead.

Every chapter begins with one of Douglas Fuchs’ full-page illustrations and “You know you’re a Novice Investor when,” images and text both suggesting layers of meaning.

This first one remains my favorite.

 

What we have in hand is a book about middle-aged children and their aging parents, about self-discovery in the midst of sadness and struggle, and–oh, yes–a book about investing so thorough, such a good read, that it could be the primer for investors who will be delighted that they don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

The “Introduction”  plunges us into the world of stocks and portfolios, and pages and pages of numbers, a lot of numbers, charts, tables, columns filled with numbers.  I’m not a Numbers kind of girl. I’m a retired English teacher. I still sometimes count on my fingers.

Why didn’t he warn me about all these numbers?

Of the three hundred pages that comprise this book, it appears to me that far too many have charts and tables, estimates and projections all based on numbers.

But Slauter has a plan. He creates a “fantasy investment portfolio.” I had not the vaguest idea what that could be and, given my relationship with this sort of thing, I’m afraid you will have to read the book. But here’s what it says:

“The Diary of a Novice Investor emerged from a need to determine what my skill level was with investing and understand how well I could support Mom’s needs. I only knew one way how to figure these details out for her and avoid costly mistakes: I created a fantasy investment portfolio. Think of this approach as a variation on playing Monopoly where I can buy and sell Boardwalk or Park Place without using real money. Only in this instance, my game board is Wall Street.”

I have to trust the author on the use of this metaphor because I am also not a Board Game kind of girl. That said, it is a masterful piece of writing that captures you with the personal story then gives you a step-by-step path to becoming a successful investor.

Slauter keeps the reader with him every step of the way. At the end of each trial, when he has tried and failed and tried and failed again, he lays out not only his process, but a list of “Lessons Learned” and the results.

If you have never invested, or if you have dabbled in it but never been pressed to get serious, this is the book you need.  It can save you a great deal of time.

Diary of a Novice Investor is a rich read, whether you are in the market for advice about investing or not. It is funny, with the kind of self-deprecating humor that brings the reader into an immediate and comfortable relationship with a writer who laughs at himself for his mistakes then comes right back and dives in again, trying one approach after another until he begins to get the hang of it.

Mark Slauter once wrote a guest blog for me. The subject he chose was “Perseverance”!!

He is confronted with the terrible decline of the very people on whom we rely, with the sudden need to figure out how to manage money, and with his own fears and uncertainties all at the same time. It proves to be hard duty and it sparks not only a dive into investing but a season of introspection. In the most difficult circumstances, here is a man who takes advantage of the opportunity to learn and to move forward.  He is brutal in his honesty about himself:

The Diary of a Novice Investor (The Bullet Train to Wealth Left When?) tells the tale of my experiences in coming to terms with Mom’s declining health and my need to learn a higher degree of financial responsibility.”

We are invited into the author’s world, a world filled with the struggle to accept what is happening to his parents, with his flashes of humor and insights, and with his growing excitement with his portfolio:

“Holy crap! The market is off about 560 points in 2 days. The Federal Reserve intimated they will be reducing the bond buying if the economy continues to improve. Here’s the dilemma: I like what I have and don’t want to sell – emotion says hold, but the head says sell; think I’ll sell on those that are still up. Maybe this will afford me an opportunity to buy some of them back cheaper. Part of the problem is the flight mentality of investors… “Well, if others are selling then I’d better sell too!””Of course, this also means I’ll have to find other new stocks to invest in. With bond rates creeping up a little I would expect my bond fund to improve but it has continued to fall. If I sell the winners, I’m stuck with the losers.”

By this point, I’m beginning to like this guy.

”When my co-workers ask me why I bring my lunch every day, I say it saves me money so I can buy more wine. This is only a partial truth, so I’ll describe it another way. Let’s say it costs me $1 dollar per day to make my own lunch, which means I spend about $20 per month for lunch. Now, if I went out to lunch and spent $5 every day, that equals $80 per month, meaning I save $60 in expenses by bringing my own lunch! This means that I could now use this money to invest $720 a year — or buy several cases of wine. The cheapest 100 shares I bought with fantasy money was only $636, and at one point, the stock was up 116%!”

The book’s true genius lies in its easy melding of two narratives–the one, an age-old tale of parents at the end of their lives; the other, the story of Slauter’s determined pursuit of mastery in the world of investing. And, as he moves through both these experiences, we hear the voice of a man who is getting to know himself in some new and important ways.

And, finally, I can avoid it no longer. Here is the very first of the charts logging in the data on Slauter’s Portfolio. For the investors among the readers of this book, this looks like risk-taking and fun. For the rest of us, I include just two more illustrations.

Bravo, Mr. Slauter and Mr. Fuchs. Diary of a Novice Investor:The Bullet Train to Wealth Left When?? lays out a measured and tested plan that might just get you to the station in time to grab your ticket on that train and, in the meantime, it’s a heck of a good read.

 

 

 

 

Posted in My Writing, Writing Fiction

My Short Story: Thirty Chapters, Still Writing

I suppose the time is approaching for me to admit that I am not, and possibly never will be, a writer of short stories.  At the very least, this current effort can no longer compete in that genre. I hold out hope that it might be a novella, but I confess to not knowing the requirements for that genre, and I can’t quite bring myself to find out.

September:

  1. I posted a piece called “Ordinary Rituals: A Story,” but that was one of those classic cheats–an edited chapter from a novel.
  2. I finally challenged myself to write a story from scratch. It was to be a story about my grandmother.
  3. At the end of the month, I was still calling it a story and still writing.

October and half of November:

  1. The blog was silent.

November and December:

  1. I published one blog each month about problems with Chapter Nineteen of what, by that time, I had abandoned all pretense of calling a short story.  I managed to make a few smart remarks about my high school boyfriend.
  2. I continued to write.
  3. I rescued from the flames of an old website several blogs about the artist Joseph Raffael.

January:

  1. It crossed my mind that somehow combining photographs of my grandparents at two different stages might, as a cover, suggest a novel about a marriage over time. I spent the entire month and more juxtaposing and printing photographs for every friend and family member I know. I created a great book cover. I was taking a break from writing.

February: 

  1. I had to reorganize and rewrite Chapters Twenty-Seven through Twenty-Nine.
  2. I have just completed a draft of Chapter Thirty.

I am still writing.

And I did, finally, do a bit of research. I found this:

“A novella is a long short story or a short novel.”

That is the kind of thing that makes me want to start pulling my hair out.

Eventually, in time to save my sanity, I found something more specific:

“A novella is a text of written, fictional, narrative prose normally longer than a short story but shorter than a novel, somewhere between 17,500 and 40,000 words.”

 

On the tenth of February 2019 at 8:54 PM Eastern Standard Time, my manuscript is

42,936 words.

I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Posted in News of the Day

A Light in the Wilderness; A Virgin Mother; The Mother of All Living; An Ancient Fertility Symbol; A Goddess of Compassion; and RBG

(A Menorah; The Virgin Mary; Eve; An Ancient Egyptian Fertility Figure; Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and, The Buddhist Goddess of Compassion)

These figures sit on a two-hundred-year-old piece of furniture that belonged to my Aunt Margaret.  It is a biscuit bin, covered with drawers of various sizes and shapes. The top of the bin is heavy, but it can be lifted all the way back to reveal a cutting board and a large sifter. My biscuit bin is a magic cupboard holding secrets. I often wonder what was stored in all those drawers.  I can assume that it belonged to a woman who, in the nineteenth-century, would have considered it something practical, a place to make the bread that was the basic substance of life.  A place of fertility.

In the desert, the seven branched menorah kept the light of God alive for the legendary Moses as he led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. In first century Palestine, Christian mythology tells us that a young girl, a virgin, gave birth to a man who promised eternal life. After she had disobeyed God and eaten of the forbidden fruit, Adam named his wife, Eve, the mother of all living. Excavations over many centuries have turned up many hundreds of these small fertility figures, their breasts exposed. Kwan Yin is a Buddhist goddess of compassion, of love that makes no demands.

The Ruth Bader Ginsburg action figure was a Christmas gift. Justice Ginsburg had just undergone her third surgery for cancer. The box in which the figure came was inscribed on the side, “I DISSENT.”  It is a reference to the vote she cast, from her hospital bed, that decided the fate of Donald Trump’s most recent effort to further restrict the entry into this country of men, women, and children seeking asylum.

Donald Trump has appointed two justices to the Supreme Court–Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. Both are white men. Both are to the right of conservative, although I am not sure what exactly they are conserving.  Judging from his testimony during his confirmation hearings, Kavanaugh is an especially loathsome human being, but his position on the issues so far seems to be a little less extreme than those of Gorsuch.  The difference, however, is not sharp enough to save us.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. She is eighty-five years old and has just undergone her third operation for cancer, this time a malignancy in her lungs. She has served on the Supreme Court for a quarter of a century, and says she plans to continue. She works out with a personal trainer. There is a wonderful video on YouTube of Stephen Colbert interviewing her during one of her work-outs. She agreed to the interview, but insisted it happen at her gym. Colbert is having trouble keeping up with her.

Today I read this in the NYTimes:

“Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. announced his colleague’s absence at the start of Monday’s session, saying that “Justice Ginsburg is unable to be present today.” He added that she would take part in the court’s consideration of the day’s two cases based on the briefs submitted by the parties and transcripts of the arguments.”

In other words, as on the day of her surgery, Justice Ginsburg, too sick to come to the Court, participated from her bed. She intends to go on doing that for as long as she can.

As I have watched all this unfold, it occurs to me that I cannot imagine being eighty-five years old, with cancer, and carrying the burden of the implications that my death will have on the country for many decades ahead.

How would it be possible to bear that burden as gracefully as this woman is doing?

 

Posted in Art, News of the Day, Personal

Joseph Raffael, Early February 2017: Beauty Is Truth in Any Season

(Photograph I took of the sunlight shining through old casement windows into my living room, reflecting off the handle of an even older brass coal shuttle that belonged to my mother)

 

This essay was first published over two years ago and on a different website. I have updated the small personal history in the opening paragraph and have written a short note at the end. Otherwise, it  stands as written on a day not long after the presidential election of 2016.

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(Haiku Fish I – White, lithograph in colors,
from an edition of 32, signed and dated, 22.5” x 28.5” 1979)

 

The lithograph, “Haiku Fish,” stayed with me for years as I moved from place to place. It was always the first thing to go up on my living room wall.  Until a year ago, it held pride of place in my son’s home. In April of 2017, my first and almost certainly only grandchild turned two, I reclaimed the fish, and it now hangs in his room in my co-op.  “Haiku Fish” was a gift to me, many years ago, from the artist. Today it is a part of all our lives, a gift from the man my grandson calls “The Flower Guy.”

IMG_5856

 

It is Friday the 3rd of February 2017, just past 1:00 in the afternoon, and I am home from some time with good friends, looking ahead at a few hours that include a couple of phone calls and some uninterrupted reading.  I have two books in hand and will face only the problem of choosing between them.

Yesterday I had a whole day in front of me for reading, and I found myself nearly paralyzed by the old familiar depression.  I couldn’t sit still; I couldn’t concentrate. I was sleepy enough that I actually couldn’t hold my head up.  Eventually, early in the afternoon, I gave up and crawled into bed, fully clothed.  I slept away the rest of the day.

I have days like this, but they are days rather than weeks or months.

Today I woke up, climbed into a hot shower, dressed, and went out.

Yesterday, I made a change in my morning routine. The home page on my web browser is The New York Times, and it is an incredible bargain.  For $15/month, I have the Times in front of me, with its mostly even-handed coverage of events and its always thoughtful, varied, and wonderfully well-written opinions and editorials.  I have had it for several years and wouldn’t consider giving it up.

Nor am I giving it up now.  But yesterday it came into my mind that reading about what is happening in the world, and in the country, may or may not be causing my flirtation with depression, but it certainly can’t be helping, and so I traded information, ideas, and opinions for beauty. My home page is now the website of a friend from many years ago, Joseph Raffael, whose paintings are so exquisite that I have no words for them except “Go, and look.”  As of this morning, the first thing I see in the pre-dawn hours, when I succumb to the seductive voice of technology, is beauty.

We have lost our direction, misplaced our compasses, turned ourselves around, faces backward.  What to do with it all?

At the top of Joseph Raffael’s website is this quote, something I recall his saying in one way or another back in the 1970’s when I first knew him:

“My painting is and has been a kind of conversation with Mystery.”

Below that is this new painting.
large_JR17x3_DawnRose

 

 

(Dawn Rose, watercolor on paper,
17.50″ x 19.50″ 2017)

 

In the time since November 8,  I have been carving out a way through the wilderness, a way that does not involve sitting at home, focused on every detail of the bad news.  On November 9, I raged and wept and talked all day to friends who were also weeping and raging.  On January 20th, I came home at 1:00, found Leonard Cohen on YouTube, and cooked.  Today, I look at paintings. Today I will be at home in my silent house. Today I will read.

It is still Friday and I am just ending over an hour on the telephone with my cousin, Jane, to whom I introduced Joseph’s paintings over a year ago.  Today, we both went to his website and looked at every link, every canvas, every photograph. We read a long interview.  We remembered looking on the Internet at paintings with prayer flags and we searched until we found them.

large_JR11x8_TurningPoint

 

 

(Turning Point, watercolor, 550″ x 441″ 2010)

I kept discovering paintings I remembered from decades ago and pointing them out. It was a lovely hour, an hour well-spent.  I remarked at one point that “I could do this all day,” and then realized that I could also read the Times or get stuck on Facebook all day–and what a difference this time with beauty makes.  At the end of reading the Times, I feel depleted and discouraged.  At the end of the incredible, and incredibly addictive, waste of time that is Facebook, I feel exhausted, disgusted with myself, and most of all sad for the time lost.  At nearly seventy-one, I don’t have time to spare.

But today, it is 5:30. I got some reading done and then, without planning, I was handed this time with my cousin, sharing something beautiful.  And I do feel tired out from so much time on the telephone, but what I most feel is exhilarated, encouraged, enriched, and just plain happy.

I think suddenly of the title of one of my favorite books by C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy.

And I remember the words John Keats wrote in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,”

“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

This has always been among my favorites.

efad8ed8-cf24-446e-bc85-099a061e100a_570

A NOTE:
Almost immediately after I published this essay, I realized I had not asked anyone for permission to use Joseph’s 
paintings, so I went onto his website and found that I could send him a message through Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York.

I did that, unsure if he would even remember me after many years.

He did remember, and I received this short response.

joseph_01

We are still in touch. His emails are longer,
his signature changed only to include Lannis.

jwl

Posted in Personal, Writing Fiction

Chapter Nineteen: Rewritten twice, still not good. Old Boyfriend perseveres, and I’m moving on. Chapter Twenty-Two: Complete.

This is the third draft of Chapter Nineteen. I might well come back to it later, but for now I am moving on–from the chapter, you understand. The Old Boyfriend and I moved on half a century ago.


Chapter Nineteen
The Ford and the Teacher
“I knew that I . . . came across as a school mistress.”

 

During the years of her marriage to Martin, Camilla thought often and fondly of her grandfather with his church that was packed every Sunday and his house full of books overflowing the shelves that had been built for them. Someone, probably the housekeeper, occasionally tried to put the extra books into tidy piles just in front of the shelves, but her grandfather had a cat who considered those stacks of books his personal challenge, and so the effort was abandoned. That clutter of books was always a comfort to Camilla. When her grandfather died, she had wanted badly to have the cat, who was white and handsome, but she was busy with the baby and, by the time she mentioned it to her parents, the cat was gone.  His name was Icarus, and he had sat in her lap for whole afternoons while she read or talked to her grandfather about books. It was her grandfather who had introduced her to reading and then had seen to it that she always had something to read.  He died a year after Bill was born. She didn’t think of him with any sort of regret nor did she make pointless comparisons between the old pastor and her Martin.  Still, she did think of him.

It must have been partly the memory of her grandfather that inspired her, one morning a few months after her mother’s death, to look into what would be required for her to become a schoolteacher. Looking back on it, she was ashamed to admit that she had not given a passing thought to Martin or to the obvious need to talk with him about a decision that could change both their lives. Normally careful of Martin’s feelings, she hadn’t considered at all what this would seem like from his perspective.  Of course, it would have appeared that she wanted to find a way back to the world she had inhabited before her marriage. She would have adamantly denied it at the time, but wouldn’t that have been at least part of what she wanted? If she had considered telling him, if she had let it even slip through her mind, she would have seen what was obvious–that the whole idea would be hurtful and an insult. No, Camilla dared not let her mind turn in her husband’s direction for fear she would comprehend all too well that by doing this she was saying—without the bother of actually saying it—that she was dissatisfied with her life and that she wanted more of somethingthat Martin wasn’t quite providing: more books; more people who wanted to talk about them; a little more money; some unnamed quality in the marriage. Whatever it was, she had sat down at her kitchen table with a tablet and a pencil and, with no worries about Martin weighing her down, had tried to decide where to begin.

As she considered her options, she saw how completely she had cut her ties to the old life. She had lost touch with Dora and Mrs. Randolph, the two people who defined that life and its promises–promises that had been well within reach. At this point, two things occurred, one on top of the other and without Camilla’s having to stir from the table. First, she discovered that she was sitting with her hands in tight fists in her lap. She didn’t know how long she had sat that way, but she took a deep breath and relaxed her hands so her palms were loose and open. Those fists suggested anger, of course. Camilla understood that, but she wasn’t prepared to think any further than that general acknowledgment. It was a coincidence, probably the purely physical response of sitting in the hard chair, bent over the table and more than a little anxious that she wouldn’t be able to find out what she needed. Whatever was causing those fists, Camilla was sure of one thing. It wasn’t anger. She was not angry. She was not angry about anything she might have lost, certainly not. She couldn’t be angry with Martin, who had done nothing more than love her, and obviously she wasn’t angry with her child. She couldn’t even imagine being angry with Bill. She wasn’t angry at all, and that was that. Because, somewhere down very deep, Camilla knew that anger was her dragon, just as pain was Martin’s. And, while Martin had defeated his dragon with her help and Delia’s, there would be no one to help her and she, and her life, would not have survived. And so, Camilla wasn’t angry.  Whatever happened had simply happened. There was no one to blame.

She had stopped going to the small schoolhouse when she was married, and pregnancy, then a baby, barred her altogether.  The years had passed with a terrible speed, and once she and Martin had moved, Camilla’s attention had turned to what was in front of her. Martin had found a piece of land he liked and could afford, and Camilla was caught up in the endless job of setting up housekeeping and raising her son.  And now it was obvious that Mrs. Randolph was the person who would know how one might go about becoming a teacher, and Camilla was sure she would also know where Dora was.  She felt a rush of excitement.  And in the few minutes required for all this to pour through the filters Camilla had set around her awareness on certain subjects, the second thing happened and cut right through her mostly unconscious decision to carry out her plan without consulting Martin.

He came in so quietly, closed the door so soundlessly, that Camilla didn’t know Martin was there until he pulled out a chair and sat down across the table. She was startled and, irrationally, she felt guilty. She had written nothing on her tablet except the two names—Mrs. R. and Dora—but she moved too quickly to put her hand over them and Martin was curious. “If that’s the start of a list for shopping, Mill, I am going to town in a while and I can pick up anything we need.”

“Thank you, but I think we have plenty of everything. Most likely we won’t have to bring in any groceries from town for at least another week.“  And then, by some instinct, Camilla had the good sense not to try to hide what she was doing.  “I wasn’t making a shopping list. I was scribbling down my ideas for finding out if I could ever go to school, or do anything else, to become a teacher.”

She laughed when she said, “So far I have written down two names: Mrs. Randolph—who was my English teacher—and Eudora Marker, a girl I was just starting to like. I think we were becoming friends.”

Martin was looking at her curiously, so she added, “And that’s as far as I got. I guess it should have been obvious that my old teacher might know something about how to become a teacher.”  When Martin didn’t respond, she went on, “I was thinking I might drive over there tomorrow early, leave Bill with my parents, and just take a run by the school. What do you think, Martin? Would you be able to do without the car?”

Camilla never did unravel the mystery of Martin’s face at that moment, but chances are she tried. Whatever was going through his mind, whatever he was feeling, what Martin said was, “Of course I can do without the car, and you must leave Bill here with me. You’ll spend a lot of time with Megan and William when you probably want to use it all at the school. It’s a pretty exciting idea, Mil, and I’ll do anything I can to help you with whatever you need to do.”

Camilla had no response to this short speech. What with one thing and another, there was an awful lot of silence in that conversation. Camilla was genuinely amazed, not so much by what Martin had said as by her own apparent blindness to the depth of simple goodness in this man.  It was just his nature. It was who he was. It wasn’t what he thought he should say or any kind of posture or performance. It was just Martin. If it were brought to his attention, he would have shrugged and been slightly confused that anyone would make a fuss about it.  As far as Martin was concerned, it was just the way you acted. Camilla hadn’t said a word yet, but he was watching her and he could sense she was about to tell him how wonderful he was. He really felt that he wouldn’t be able to tolerate it, so he cut right in before she had an opening,

“Alright, then, I am going to town to do the few things on my own list, then you can have the car as early tomorrow as you want to start, and with Bill staying here, you won’t have to eat up your time getting him ready to travel. And you’re sure you don’t want to add to the list?”

“I’m sure, Martin. Thank you for tomorrow. Bill staying here will make my day easier and possibly shorter. So you think I’m on the right track to consult Mrs. Randolph first?”

“Yes, I do.  It sounds like she’s so obvious to ask you could throw any other names that come to you right out the window.”

Camilla didn’t have the heart to tell Martin there were no other names, and early the next morning she left him and Bill sleeping soundly, tip-toed out to the car and headed down the road in search of her future.  As she drove, it occurred to her that she wasn’t even sure that Mrs. R was still there.  She was appalled that she had allowed two people who had been so important to just disappear.  Mrs. Randolph’s encouragement, and the confidence she had in Camilla, had been life-changing, and perhaps even more was the friendship with Eudora, her only relationship like that either before or since.  Before, she had her parents and her grandfather. After, there was Martin and then there was Bill. There was no time for friends. Mrs. Randolph had seen the need and made the arrangements for them.  Goodness, she could hardly wait to find Mrs. R and then to track down Dora.  How exciting. Life certainly did have its twists and turns and most of them recently had been because of this automobile. Without it, she would have had no way to even make the trip.

As usual, Camilla was distracted while she was driving and very nearly ran herself into a ditch.  She turned the wheel just ahead of disaster and tried to keep her attention on the road for the rest of the short drive.  It wasn’t long, however, until she nearly wrecked the car a second time. When she drove up to the schoolhouse, to what used to be a one-room frame building accommodating twenty or twenty-five children, she slammed on the brakes and almost threw herself over the steering wheel.  Was it actually possible that in seven years, it had been transformed into a large brick building, with two floors? And more than that, could it be true that for those same seven years, as she came to see her parents, she had never once driven past the school, never seen what was happening, never even tried to visit Mrs. Randolph or ask where Dora had gone?

Much more cautiously, she pulled the Ford into a vacant parking place—they were actually marked out and numbered, right on the pavement.  Camilla was nervous. Actually, Camilla was so badly frightened that her legs were trembling and she was finding it difficult to get her breath.  Determined to pull herself together, she approached the building, climbed the few stairs to the front entrance and pushed open the door. The inside was even more of a shock than the outside.  White walls were covered with student art—bright paintings of every color; hardwood floors gleamed; and she could hear, down the long hall, the quiet murmur of a good many more than twenty-five voices. She looked into a few classrooms and could hardly believe she was in the town where she grew up. She had taken in the radical changes, could see what the school had accomplished, and she was eager to talk to Mrs. Randolph. She found the school office and before she knew it she was inside, asking a bright-looking young woman to tell her where she might find Mrs. Randolph. Mrs. Randolph, Camilla explained, had been her teacher when she went to school there, not too long ago.

The young woman, whose name was Lois, looked genuinely sorry to disappoint, but she shook her head. She had remembered Camilla’s name, and used it in hopes it would soften the bad news.

“I am so very sorry, Mrs. Ainsworth.  Mrs. Randolph left when the plan for the new building was approved.”

This didn’t quite make sense to Camilla, and it was a minute before she responded, “That is a surprise, Lois. Mrs. Randolph dreamed of teaching in a building like this, where the students had plenty of room and there could be more teachers—a teacher for every subject. Goodness, I am puzzled by this news.”

“No need to be. Mrs. R loved the building plans, loved the drawings of the whole layout, loved the classrooms. None of that was a problem. She was very excited about the new possibilities for her classes.  No, it was because every other teacher was in favor of tearing down the old school and putting up this new school right where it was.  I hope I’m not being disrespectful to call her Mrs. R. It’s what we all called her.”

At this, Camilla had to laugh. “Not only don’t I think it’s disrespectful, but it was two of us in my class who called her that for the first time.  But I still don’t understand why she quit her job. That seems like a pretty serious thing to do.”

“It must have been. I think when her ideas were ignored entirely, she just felt she couldn’t stay.”

That day, on the first of many visits she would make to the school, she said goodbye to Lois, closed the office door behind her, and made a decision. She would talk to whoever took Mrs. Randolph’s position, hoping that person had at least gotten an address that she would be willing to share with a former student. Although she didn’t know it, Camilla would spend most of the rest of that day in the building.  She felt both envy and a desire to one day teach in just such a place.

She spotted a classroom with a sign for 10thgrade American Literature, taught by a Mrs. Watkins.  Somehow, although Mrs. R had always taught younger students, this felt right. Mrs. Watkins might even be Mrs. R’s replacement. If she wasn’t, this was still a small town and she would surely know the whereabouts of Mrs. Randolph and Eudora Marker and, for Camilla, just knowing where they were would be a comfort, even if the news was that they had moved across the country. She would feel she had made at least indirect contact and it would give her the courage she would need to do whatever came next.  Camilla was getting more determined and more hopeful.

She reached for the doorknob and turned it without making a sound. She could hear the rustle of clothes and papers and the murmur of student voices. The door was only open a crack and sound was too muffled for her to tell what they were saying. Occasionally, she caught a deeper voice, definitely a woman, most likely Mrs. Watkins, but Camilla couldn’t see whoever belonged to that voice.  She had relaxed a bit and was leaning on the wall, taking the opportunity to get her bearings while she waited for the class to be over.  Her eyes were almost closing when she was nearly jolted out of her skin by a familiar voice shouting her name.

“Camilla Whitfield, you left before we could discuss The Scarlet Letter! I don’t know how you managed it, but you are in luck today. Come in here right this minute, and no arguments.”

Camilla had by now opened the door and, before she could see a thing, she found herself enveloped by a warm body and two strong arms. She couldn’t remember ever being embraced with that kind of enthusiasm.  She suddenly realized that she felt happy.

`           “Dora? What on earth? Is this your class? You’re teaching here? Did you come when Mrs. R left? Oh, heavens, you are right in the middle of a discussion and here I am asking questions. I am so sorry. I’ll go back out and wait in the office until you have time.” Camilla was embarrassed and, as she usually did when she was embarrassed, she was talking much too fast and much too loud. She had begun her quest for information about teaching by making a fool of herself in front of a room full of students.

Meanwhile, Eudora had turned around to face the class and was saying something about The Scarlet Letter.

“Class, we have a visitor. She is an old friend and we were interrupted quite some time ago in the middle of a discussion of this very novel.  Mrs. Ainsworth—is that right? Camilla, meet my class. We are honored to have you.”

Camilla checked herself to be sure she actually felt the way she felt. It was like taking her pulse. She was no longer nervous, not a bit. As a matter of fact, she felt confident and completely at home in this unfamiliar school, facing a room full of young people every one of whom was a stranger. She was going to have to say something about a novel she read years ago. She barely remembered the story, let alone why it was so important. And then the strangest thing happened. She walked toward the front of the room, looked out at the sea of faces, smiled and said,

“Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is possibly the best-known American novel. What do you think it is about? Take a minute or two to think before answering. Raise your hand if you have something to say.”

And that was that. She spent the rest of the day with Dora, joining discussions in her other classes, watching her friend teach. She was good. Camilla knew she could be good, too. She and Dora agreed to share a quick supper and go together to see Mrs. Randolph.

December 11 2018: A Note on Chapter Nineteen: No, I had not forgotten this, or any of the other chapters in this difficult novel. I will confess that, although I had not forgotten them, I had certainly set them aside and once again devoted my energies to writing about my friend, Joseph Raffael, and–for my sins–reading the NYTimes.

Posted in Art, Personal, Reviews

Joseph Raffael, 2016: Reflections and Memories, Moving Always Toward the Light

(Moving Toward the Light II, watercolor on paper, 87 1/2″ x 49″ 2015)

The description of Moving Toward the Light on Joseph Raffael’s website reads in part: “A major new book on the artist covering the past 17 years of his life and work in the South of France. Reproducing 88 works in rich color, the book has three illuminating essays: by Lanie Goodman on the artist’s life, by Betsy Dillard Stroud, a dialogue on the artist’s work artist-to-artist and by David Pagel, Art Critic for the L.A. Times, on the philosophy of beauty.”

When you open your copy of Moving Toward the Light, you will be opening the door into a world of beauty–the incomparable beauty of the paintings that Joseph Raffael has created over the last two decades, and the clear, clean beauty of the words of three fine writers on the life and the art and the thoughts of the man who painted them.

And that is how I began this review, two years ago. I have changed nothing in the text  but have added four more images of Joseph’s wife, Lannis.”

large (1)(Moving Toward the Light I watercolor on paper, 94 1/2″ x 45″ 2015)

This finely crafted and intelligent collection of some of Raffael’s best and loveliest paintings will delight you, will enchant you, will not only please you but will fill you with gratitude that something this exquisite exists in our troubled world. It is a splendid volume, about which I am going to offer an odd piece of advice: When you open your copy of Moving Toward the Light, be a little cautious. Stay awake. There are signs along the road; watch for them.

I have often felt that the galleries and museums that exhibit Joseph’s paintings, the galleries and museums where people stand, or sit–sometimes for hours–gazing at those paintings, should post warning signs, although I’ve never been quite sure what I would have them say. All those rooms, filled with all those paintings, many very large, hold you close with images that invite and intrigue–flowers; prayer flags waving over ponds filled with ancient fish; lush gardens; a wall of the artist’s studio; the Mediterranean seen through a window; seashells in a rock garden; a beloved wife. This is the stuff of pure happiness.

But once in a while, and then only if you are paying a particular kind of attention or are in a certain frame of mind–once in a great while–consoled by beauty; your perception shifted in some puzzling way by the intensity of this particular beauty; in any case, disarmed, unprepared–on a day like any other day, you are ambushed. Perhaps, if you are attending just at that moment, you will catch a glimpse of the shadow beneath the swimming fish or the evening darkness at the edge of the magnolia, and you might feel a chill. You might, just perhaps, feel an undefined sadness and reach up to touch tears on your face. You might break down and weep. I have seen it happen.

These paintings, that Joseph Raffael assures us, in Moving Toward the Light, know exactly what they’re up to, pull back the veil–or move it slightly aside–and, in that split second of our mindfulness, reveal something less comfortable, something more ambiguous, something a little disturbing. Something like life.

Next to the painting, Bali Pond VI, a  large watercolor on paper dated 1998, the book quotes Thich Nhat Hanh,

“N o  m u d,  n o  l o t u s.”

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The beauty that Joseph creates is not a perfect beauty. It is, instead, a beauty that is whole and complete, a beauty that leaves out nothing. It is an important distinction. He has been asked many times if he considers his work “realistic.” I have even read it described as “photographic” in its realism. Joseph’s answer is always “No.” He tells us, in this wonderful new book–and has been telling us for decades–that his paintings are about painting, and that painting is about color. He lifts a brush and puts down one drop of color; he follows it with a second, and a third, guided by that which the painting will become.

“I don’t paint flowers. I paint energy.”

Joseph Raffael paints life.

large_JR17x3_DawnRose

 

(Dawn Rose, watercolor on paper
171/2″ x 191/2″ 2017)

 

 

 

large_JR07x5_prayer(Prayer, watercolor on paper, 85.50″ x 55.50″ 2007)

 

And so I come, by this circuitous route, to the backstory of these reflections.

 

On 15 February 2017, Joseph and I had this exchange at the end of a thread of emails:
Joseph: “if you don’t already have my book ‘Moving Toward the Light’
i’d like very much that you receive a copy”
Dean: “I do not and I would love one.”
Joseph: “you’ll be receiving it in about ten days”
Dean:“How would you feel about my writing a review?”
Joseph: “you can write it whenever & whatever you want i’d be delighted”

From the start of our correspondence, Joseph signed his emails

I haunted the mailbox, I watched through my old casement windows for a UPS or FedEx truck, and I waited. While I waited, I explored Joseph’s website and cast my net wide for all the images I remembered, and there they were, not only on the website but all over the Internet:

Joseph Raffael, Fish;
Joseph Raffael, Water Lilies;
Pond; Flowers;
Joseph Raffael, Lannis.

Joseph Raffael, Lannis

The last time I saw him was in 1989 at a showing of his work at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in Soho. The exhibit was called “Lannis in Sieste,” and around every corner, on every wall, were the paintings. I was stunned by the enormous watercolors of Lannis. There was a feeling of inevitability about them. Their tenderness broke my heart.

large_JR88x11

(Lannis in Sieste X”,watercolor on paper,
68.1/2″ x 44.1/2″ 1988)

Lannis in Sieste X, is five feet long and nearly four feet wide.

Try to imagine it.

It took the air out of the room that day in 1989. From the doorway of the gallery, I saw the colors and the woman. And it had me; I couldn’t leave it for long. I saw the pillows pushed back, the arms raised, the clear line of the fabric as it folds into slightly parted thighs.

Rich with color, almost consumed by its own hues, it is, like most of Joseph’s work, an incandescent mosaic of colors, one color laid down beside another, and another after that. Stand close and each tiny piece, each square inch of the whole, is a painting complete in itself. Walk away, turn, and the bits of color have resolved themselves into Lannis, lying on an unmade bed in a flowered dress whose pattern bleeds into the sheets underneath her. She looks entirely satisfied and comfortably seductive, as a woman can only be in the company of a man who loves her well enough to have earned her trust, who loves her well enough, perhaps, to have painted this portrait. A man for whom the surrender to paint and water is an act of love.

I think these are the most wonderfully sexual paintings I have ever seen; they are full of pleasure and laughter just beneath the surface. My cousin, Jane, sees in the paintings the likeness of a saint. I cannot  disagree. I have never quite understood why they make me sad.

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(Le Printemps I, 1988,
watercolor on paper,
61″ × 44 3/4″)

 

 

(Lannis in the Garden, 1986,
30″ x 22-1/2 ”
watercolor on paper.   

large_JR88x10

(Lannis In Sieste XIII, 1988,
watercolor on paper, 66″ x 44″)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Ancient Longing,
watercolor with
acrylic border on paper,
52 ½” x 44″ 1985)

 

The beauty that Joseph creates is not a perfect beauty. It is, instead, a beauty that is whole and complete, a beauty that leaves out nothing. Joseph Raffael paints life. The paintings are enigmatic–yes, even the seashells, even the roses. They are mysteries–not to be solved, but to be embraced. They invite you to participate in their complexity. Only turn the pages of Moving Toward the Light. You will find yourself reaching for that embrace; you will find yourself hungry for complexity.

While I am waiting for my copy of Moving Toward the Light, I discover a video on YouTube in which Joseph, only his hands visible, opens the book. The video is called, simply,

“Moving Toward the Light. The Book.”

The hands that move with a kind of courtliness across this testament to his art are the same hands that linger expectantly over the outline of a leaf, brush held just off the paper, waiting for the painting to tell them where that whisper of blue belongs. If I didn’t know that Joseph Raffael is eighty-four years old, I would say these were the hands of a young man.maxresdefault

The sound of his voice, as he talks about his book, startles me. It is completely familiar, but I had forgotten the slight Brooklyn accent. Even after twenty-five years in France, it is there. Recollection snags on that voice, rough with the edge of New York, fine in the way I imagine must be the result of a life lived in conversation with paint and paper and the gods.

As he turns the pages, he often seems to be talking to himself. When he comes to Lannis, in photographs or in paintings, he sighs. He explains, with something like wonder in his voice,

“I painted this when Lannis was sick.”
It is a repeated point of reference, as is,
“Soon after we got here.”

“Color is what keeps the painting . . . moving.”
Perhaps one of the reasons for the unforgiving loveliness of Joseph Raffael’s paintings is that they are never at rest. They are always moving, and always moving toward something–something just ahead, glimpsed but not quite visible, something around the next bend, past that big cloud bank.

large_JR11x8_TurningPoint

 

(Turning Point
, watercolor on paper, 550″ x 441″ 2010)

 

 

Every painting I have ever seen is in motion. The prayer flags lift their ragged edges; petals drift from flowers; and, of course there are the fish, koi of every size and hue, which were my favorites right from the beginning.

large_JR04x18_lifestreams

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life Streams,
watercolor on paper,
56″ x 391/4″ 20

 

 

 

 

larger

(Crescendo,
watercolor on paper,
 631/2 x 751/2″ 2013)

 

Even those paintings that evoke calm and stillness–I am thinking of the the water lilies that were among the first of Joseph’s paintings I ever saw–have some indescribable tremor at the center that reflects that balance between “the still point and the dance” that marks Joseph’s life as I imagine it to be.1003

 

(New Light,
watercolor on paper,
66 1/2 x 443/4″ 2010)

 

 

 

 

Like St. Benedict, Joseph Raffael has chosen stability of place in which constant change and movement of spirit are possible, has elected a firm ground in which everything is “alchemical,” as he says of the watercolors in which he works–engaged in a perpetual process of becoming something else, something other, something more, something gold.

Joseph is neither a monk nor an alchemist. And yet, in the Spring of 1986, he and Lannis moved from their home in California to the South of France. They moved there to make a life that was pared down, focused, simpler–a life about painting, a life about beauty. A life of intention. They have been there ever since, in a house by the sea, surrounded now by their gardens and prayer flags and ponds full of koi, sharing their days with their animals, lifting up to the gods–like the sweet incense of sacrifice–the full truth of beauty. Lifting up the radiance that is born every day through the relationship between this remarkable man, a few pots of paint, and a stoppered carafe of water.

The first time I watched the video,“Moving Toward the Light,” that carafe caught my eye, and I thought, “Even the container for the water is beautiful.Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 6.08.31 PM

 

Joseph believes that “watercolor has a mind of its own, it dries in ways I can never imagine and insists upon being itself.”

“Transmutation” is the language of alchemy, and it suggests change at depth; change at the cellular level; chemical change. Turning lead into gold. Movement. Magic.

Will we who love his paintings know it when it happens? Can we mark the small corner of one of those huge water lilies, or clock the exact moment in time as the paint dries on the fish and the flags? Can we say “There! There is where the magic happens!” Whenever and however it occurs, at some point in time the laying down of paint with a touch so delicate it almost seems not to happen becomes the magnolia tree seen and photographed in the early evening in a garden in France. A garden in the south of France, on the Mediterranean, on Cap d’Antibes. Joseph and Lannis Raffael’s garden, which they chose in 1986 as they walked away from years in California, from exhibitions of Joseph’s paintings in New York, as they walked toward the light.

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Joseph and Lannis Raffael have been home for over two decades. The gardens that Lannis planted are extravagantly overgrown. The paintings, with their unbearable colors, their light, their loveliness, their undertow of the sorrowful beauty of the whole world, continue to emerge under Joseph’s hand.

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(Life Streaming, watercolor on paper, 55 x 931/2″ 201

 

When the book arrived, although I had lived nothing but Joseph and his paintings for close to a month, nothing could have prepared me. I held it as if it were the gold of the Philosopher’s Stone. It is eleven inches square, one hundred and ninety-two pages long. For such a substantial volume, it is a remarkably comfortable fit in the hand. The pages are heavy stock, silky to the touch. They cast back the light from the antique lamps that belonged to my aunt. It is impossible not to slide your hand over every image. The art involved in putting it together is evident.

Before I even open it, I can see that Moving Toward the Light is a book lover’s book. There is water. There is Lannis. There are shells of every shape and size and hue. There are the prayer flags, of course, and the fish. There are flowers. There is that magnolia tree. There are two brilliant essays and an interview, to be read, discussed and savored over time. There is a full catalogue of the paintings. It is the definitive reference work for this important period in Joseph Raffael’s life as an artist. But for now, there are only the paintings. Even from the pages of a book, they issue an invitation it is impossible to refuse.

larger(Life Streaming,
watercolor on paper,
55″ x 931/2″ 2014)

Joseph says of the lifetime of beauty he has created, “The painting is most successful when the ‘me’ is mostly absent.” There are, in Moving Toward the Light, three small black and white photographs of Joseph as a young man, one of him as a boy, two photographs in color of him and Lannis.  The photograph of Joseph Raffael, on the book’s last page, is barely more than a silhouette, as he leans on the railing outside his studio looking at the endless Mediterranean that is his daily companion. “The painting is most successful when the ‘me’ is mostly absent.”

Joseph Raffael, born in February 1933, is eighty-four years old. Here is a shimmering record of what he has done with almost twenty of those years. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be Joseph Raffael and to hold this volume in your hand. When you open your copy of Moving Toward the Light, you will be opening a door into the world. Therecover-moving-toward-the-light-joseph-raffael are signs along the road; watch for them.

 

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