Dec 232010

I discovered Dawn Raffel through her stories in The Brooklyn Rail. But then I heard her read at The Brooklyn Rail anniversary reading and that sealed the deal. Here is a piece from her memoir in vignettes, The Secret Life of Objects. She has a short story collection Further Adventures in the Restless Universe (see the amazing book video at the bottom of the post) just out with Dzanc Books earlier this year, and she is also the author of Carrying the Body and In the Year of Long Division. It’s a pleasure to be able to present her work to NC readers.

(The photo was taken by Bill Hayward, part of his Bad Behavior project. Coincidentally, Bill took the author photo for my novel The Life and Times of Captain N. The Bad Behavior project, as I understand it, consisted of giving subjects—artists of various sorts all—a huge sheet of backdrop paper and a bucket of black paint and letting them act out. The results were/are amazing. See above. See some of the photos on his web site, or buy the book. Hell, buy everyone’s book! It’s Christmas.)


from The Secret Life of Objects

(A Memoir in Vignettes)

By Dawn Raffel


The Moonstone Ring


My future husband bought the ring in India in 1981 with the idea that he would give it to the woman he married.  Besides, he said, when he presented me with the ring in 1984, it was only $15. The ring is silver with a moonstone flanked by blue gems. It was not my engagement ring—that was a quarter-carat perfect diamond. Anyway, the moonstone ring was too large. My fingers at the time were a child-sized four.

I took the ring to be sized. During the three days it was at the jeweler’s, the 400-square foot apartment my future husband and I had just bought together in Chelsea was burglarized, and my jewelry, including the few pieces I owned that had belonged to my grandmother, was stolen. All I had left was my engagement ring, which was on my hand, and the moonstone ring in the shop.

In a few months, I also had a wedding band, and over the years my husband bought me jewelry, in part to make up for what I had lost. I rarely wore the moonstone—even properly sized, it seemed too big, too serious. Years went by; we moved from one apartment to another and out of Manhattan and had children.  The diamond fell out of my engagement ring, never to be found, though the kids had a field day looking for it, pulling the cushions off furniture, sifting through the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag. I took off that ring with its empty prongs and thought about wearing the moonstone in its stead but by now, my knuckles had thickened and the ring was too small. So I returned it to the jeweler to be made bigger, only to be told it could not be sized again without destroying it.

The ring sat in my top drawer for more than a decade.  During this time, a man in our small town opened a jewelry booth inside the liquor and soda store across from the takeout pizza joint, and I would occasionally browse while I waited for the kids’ slices to heat. One day I was looking at a pair of earrings when someone dropped off a ring to be sized. “Do you do that?” I said. “Sometimes,” he said. I brought in the moonstone-and-blue-gem ring and he looked at it and said he thought he could enlarge it, despite what the more established jeweler had told me. Sure enough, he did.

So now, 29 years after my husband brought the ring from India, I wear it next to my wedding band. Those sapphires, the jeweler said, with some surprise, are real. The band slides over my knuckle and the ring fits fine.

—Dawn Raffel

See another  excerpt in The Brooklyn Rail.

YouTube Preview Image





Dec 212010


Once upon a time, sermons were a vibrant literary form, not to be forgotten.  This is a Christmas sermon delivered by my friend Rev. John Ekman (we once or twice went downhill skiing together, now we meet at the gym from time to time) five years ago at his church in Saratoga Springs, New York. John often  preaches from “extended notes” or thought points, but this Christmas sermon is the full written out version (for an example of the thought points alone, see a second sermon which I have appended below).

I use “extended notes,”…what you received is what I would call FULL text. Some preachers go from memory…I can do that for a short piece but not for 12-15 minutes. I usually go on the shorter side: “The mind can not absorb what the butt cannot tolerate.” Other preachers would read their sermon from a text like I have sent you. And others (that would be me) use notes where “the unnecessary words” have been taken out and the speaker is left to supply verbs/adjectives, etc. My method allows me to take a quick look at a “section” and then make eye contact with the congregation as I have then “re-memorized” a short script.  I’ll send you an e.g. and you can pretty much tell what I am saying just by looking at key words and supplying your own connectors.

John’s text reads as a kind of poetic argument. His mix of typographical emphasis and parentheticals is rhetorical, meant to be spoken; it reminds me of the essays of the Black Mountain poet Charles Olson (see “On Projective Verse”). John’s message is earthy, comic and highly political, but political in the way the Old Testament prophets were political, critics of their own culture and time, critics of the effete and useless rich and their shallow piety. His socially engaged Christianity seems a far cry from the family values Christianity we hear about on Fox-News.

For another example of a sermon at NC, see Hilary Mullins “Hear My Call“.


We Feed Horses in the Hopes that the Lowly Sparrows Might (eventually) Benefit.”

(Luke 1: 47-55, Is. 61:1-4, 8-11.)

A sermon by the Rev. John Ekman, Presbyterian/New England Congregational Church, Saratoga Springs


I.                 Folks who run ad campaigns know that they’ve got to change the message and rework the images, or in the case of the lottery alter the game in order to keep interest up. Failure to update for public consumption means death to the product. Buick tried this with “It’s not your mother’s Buick.” [Of course it--still--was your mother’s Buick!] The NYS lottery has gone with King Kong. I guess there’s not much marketing value in the Lion King.

II.               In matters of our faith story there is a danger (actually a severe danger) that by growing so familiar with the Biblical images the message loses its power to change and transform us. The meaning of the story becomes lost in the mundane commonality. “Frankly: we’ve  {just} heard THAT story too many times.”

III.             The FACT is that our biblical faith is pretty radical stuff. In fact the Bible ought to come with a warning, “Dangerous to your sense of well being and comfort.” The Bible should say, “Use with caution. Drink plenty of water if you believe you’ve ingested too much of this product.” The Bible story should be toxic to our common assumptions and it should actually alter our understandings of life.

IV.             Take Mary’s song in Luke. The Magnificat, when set to music is a wonderfully artistic creation. BUT look at the words! Radical. Totally disquieting and discomforting. If you live in poverty in the third world you can find solace and hope. We, you—I—the very comfortable—should be dismayed!

“Pull down princes from their thrones. Exalt the lowly. The hungry go away full…the full empty.” OUCH! There are lots of refugees along the Gulf Coast or in Darfur or in Gaza who will have trouble putting food on the table. What are we planning for Christmas dinner?  “Please pass the stuffing—again.”

When we actually read the text and really seek to comprehend the meaning, the lovely notes of the Magnificat should fade into unabridged message of terror.

V.               Let’s move on to Isaiah. Surely, we say, it cannot be worse than Mary’s song? Jesus got into big trouble reading this passage in his home town. I reckon if you’re a prophet you ought to be from somewhere else! Isaiah’s story says:  “Gods spirit is upon me. Good news to the poor. I mend the brokenhearted. I free the captives. I hate robbery. I love justice. I despise all wrong. This is the year of the Lord’s favor.”

VI.             Actually the year of Jubilee (or the year of the Lord’s favor) never did happen as Biblically stated. It was too radical!   Supposedly the year of Jubilee was a time when all debts were to be cancelled…the land returned to the original owners…and the entire society would start over again. The slate would be cleaned. Life, hope, opportunity and promise would all be renewed. Jesus said, “This time is now!” That’s radical stuff!!

For us this should be another Biblical OUCH! In the year of Jubilee your credit card debt would be cancelled—I guess that is good news for lots of Americans. But it is only momentary good news! The Biblical finger is always pointing (back) at us. Let’s face it, our comfort pretty much comes at the expense and discomfort of others!

We like cheap lettuce. Our salads come on the backs of underpaid, illegal, stoop labor. [If we do not understand that practical lettuce growing business truth…we aren’t paying attention.]

Continue reading »

Dec 202010

C. M. Mayo is a former-student-turned-old-friend. We met years ago when I taught at the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute at Skidmore College. She was working on a story collection called Sky over El Nido which eventually won the 1999 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She is a tremendous story writer, a travel writer, a translator, editor and novelist as well as an indefatigable teacher of writing. She is from northern California but has lived much of her adult life in Mexico and Washington. A visionary publisher, she started her own magazine, Tameme, specializing in translation of writing in English into Spanish and vice versa, an amazing cross-border cultural and literary project.  This excerpt is from her historical novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, named a Best Book of 2009 by the Library Journal. Based on a true story, the novel focuses on the heartbreak and tragedy of a half-Mexican, half-American toddler adopted by Mexico’s childless Emperor Maximilian and his wife Carlota. Maximilian was a hapless Austrian archduke parachuted into Mexico in the 1860s to stop the endless series of revolving-door governments, revolutions and social chaos. Even as things begin to go badly, Maximilian refuses to give the child back to his parents. Eventually, Carlota goes mad, and Maximilian is shot by firing squad. And the child…? Read the book.


from The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire

By C. M. Mayo


March 4, 1866:  RÍO FRÍO

The Belgians had enjoyed their visit to Mexico City immensely. Although it had not gone unremarked (feathers had been ruffled) that Maximilian had remained in Cuernavaca, and that certain senior French officers had not attended the entertainments, in all, they judged their mission a success. They were proud of Charlotte— their own princess— “swan of our Old World gifted to the New,” as one of their members toasted her, after having imbibed a few too many cups of champagne (and made some tasteless remarks about ‘our ginger-colored protegés.’) Also, they had seen an exotic land; they’d had a true-blue adventure and their steamer trunks and valises were crammed with the souvenirs to prove it. Of the delegation, no single member was more satisfied, more inspired, more, well, overflowing with joie de vivre about the whole thing than Baron Frédéric Victor d’Huart.

An intimate friend and officier d’ordonnance of Charlotte’s brother, Philippe, Duke of Flanders, Baron d’Huart might have been described as dashing had he not developed a paunch and double chin. Since departing Ostend in late January, he had been unable to follow his regime of fencing and hunting. The crossing had been brutal. For days, frigid gales had tossed the ship like a firkin in a tub; some feared they’d be shipwrecked off the Azores. Unlike the others, confined to their cabins with nausea, Baron d’Huart, who often joked that he must have had Viking blood, had gone on eating and drinking without pause.

By the time they docked in Veracruz, he had consumed prodigious quantities of foie gras, bonbons, and champagne. And in Mexico, well, was there anything more delicious than a humble taco of beans with this marvelous sprig of an herb called the epazote? And he indulged in the candies— dulces de cacahuates, the cigar-shaped camotes, lime-skins stuffed with sugared lard, and the almond nougat “buttons” soaked in honey— baskets of candies had been left in his quarters, replenished each day. At the farewell dinner at Chapultepec Castle, under his cummerbund, he’d had to leave the waist of his trousers undone.

The round of balls and dinners had been intense. All of the Belgians, and especially Baron d’Huart, had been limp with relief to finally get out of court dress: the coats bristling with decorations and epaulettes, the clanking swords, the hats with feathers. This morning, for this first leg of the journey home, he’d thrown on his roomiest breeches and favorite deer-skin jacket.

He is riding up top with the driver, who wears a sombrero with the circumference of a buggy-wheel. Baron d’Huart had started out wearing his sombrero— a loosely woven one, not so big as the driver’s but the biggest they had in that labyrinth of an Aztec market— but once the coach had climbed to altitude and the air turned chilly, he’d exchanged it for the poppy-red cap he wore for grouse hunting in the autumn.

It is late; their coach has just departed from the inn at Río Frío. The sun having fallen behind the trees, the road is bathed in the blue shadow of the brief, disconcertingly brief Mexican twilight. Baron d’Huart throws his shoulders back and fills his lungs with the pine-scented air.

Que fresco,” How fresh, he says, eager to practice his Spanish on his companion.

The driver, throwing his lash, makes no reply.

Continue reading »