The image above is a 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. The light lasted no more than a few seconds.
This essay was first published nearly three months after the presidential election of 2016. Three weeks had passed since the inauguration of the new president.
(Haiku Fish I – White, lithograph in colors,
from an edition of 32, signed and dated, 22.5” x 28.5” 1979)
Today I woke up, climbed into a hot shower, dressed, and went out.
It is Friday the 10th 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 will 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.
A week ago, 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 always had days like this but, in recent years, they are days rather than weeks or months. Last Friday, I recognized the danger signs. Whatever happens to the balance of chemicals in the brain that turns deep sadness into something lethal had begun.
The next day, 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, while reading about what is happening in the world, and in the country, may or may not be causing my flirtation with depression, it certainly can’t be helping, and so I traded information, ideas, and opinions for beauty. I thought of a friend from many years ago, with whom I had not stayed in touch, and I went searching the Internet. My home page is now the website of 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.
Back in the 1970’s when I first knew him, Joseph often quoted the artist, Robert Bresson, who wrote:
“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.”
That was exactly what I needed: the mystery made visible. Beauty. And here it was.
(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.
(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.
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 the 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.
We are still in touch. His emails are longer,
his signature changed only to include Lannis.
Today is the twenty-fourth of October 2020. It is ten days out from the presidential election. Anxiety is palpable. If the election goes badly, I don’t anticipate depression. I expect my reaction to be the rush of adrenaline that accompanies the fight-or-flight instinct.