Autumnal Arrival

How was the weather where you’re at yesterday? It was St. Matthew’s Day, a traditional weather marker:

Matthew’s Day, bright and clear
Brings good wine in the next year.

St. Matthew’s Day comes with or near the autumnal equinox each year, and this year, that moment of balance arrives tonight on the 22nd of September: Here in Lake Worth, which is currently in Eastern Daylight Time, we enter autumn at 9:54 PM. With it, day and night are in balance, and the sun, for a few days now and a few to come, is pretty much rising due east and setting due west. But after this, the days in the Northern Hemisphere will be shorter than the nights.

With our planet in balance, it would seem a good time to seek balance in our own lives, as well. Whatever that means for you, this is what I wish you. For me, I know it means balancing the time I give away with the time I need myself so that all the things that are important to me receive their fair share and that I take the time to enjoy the things of this world––especially in the season I call my favorite, filled as it is with the beauty and abundance of gifts from the earth. And so, a good autumn to us all.

Image: Park in Autumn by Michał Gortskin-Wywíorski. Oil on canvas, circa 1900 [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.


.918 or, You’re Sure to Get Somewhere

Every now and then, out of the blue, I will get a text message at precisely 9:18. Usually in the evening, sometimes in the morning. It’s from my pal Paul Moxon. The message will simply say “918,” or if Paul is feeling particularly precise, it’ll say “9:18.” That’s it.

Paul knows Vandercook printing presses perhaps better than anyone out there these days, and when he writes me at 9:18, I know he is doing so with a wink and a smile, because printers know the significance of those three digits. And today we come to the granddaddy of 918s… it is 9/18, September 18: It is a day each year that letterpress printers hold dearly for it matches beautifully with .918, which is the standard height of type in the US and the UK. And since this blog, odd as it is, is written by a letterpress printer and book artist, it is a day held in high esteem here in this house for sure.

Last week I set a type forme on the 1890 Wesel Iron Handpress from historic wood types at the nearby Jaffe Center for Book Arts, and the print shop at the center will be open today welcoming anyone who would like to come print it. The message is adapted from some good advice delivered by the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which is one book featured in JCBA’s current exhibition called Scale: Proportion Play, exploring extremes of scale within the Jaffe Collection (largest book/smallest book, monumental prints/tiny prints, and other pairings along those lines).

So if you’re nearby, come see us at the Jaffe Center’s 9th Annual Letterpress Appreciation Day Open House. I’ll be there all day showing folks how to operate that lovely old printing press, as is my distinct pleasure… and, as usual, Convivio Bookworks is supplying the Italian cookies, too!

Seth Thompson and I are teaching a workshop this Saturday, too, in Downtown Lake Worth at Hatch 1121. It’s called “Calavera Prints” and it’s part of the festivities here leading up to Lake Worth’s annual celebration of Dia de Los Muertos in early November. The workshop is only $25 and it begins at 1 PM. In it, we’ll teach you the basics of linoleum cut printing with the goal of all of us making some festive calavera prints inspired by the historic prints of José Posada. To learn more, visit the Facebook event page, and to register, call (561) 493-2550.

Image: One of the proofs we pulled last week on the Wesel Iron Handpress for this year’s Letterpress Appreciation Day print. The types are all vintage but recent acquisitions. I’m more than a little in love with the the large font that we used to spell GO.

In closing, I learn an awful lot from all of you, too, and it was exactly three years ago today that Convivio Book of Days reader Gene Mahon offered the following commentary about printers and the 18th of September. It’s just the kind of detail I find so fascinating. Gene wrote, “You may be interested to know that here in the UK, 0.918 (of an inch, I believe) was exactly the height of a one shilling piece, an old unit of pre-decimal currency, when stood on edge. So a letterpress printer here, back in the day, would almost always have had, in his/her pocket, an instant means of checking the height of any block or piece of type should there be any doubt. Happy Letterpress Appreciation Day!”


L’shanah Tovah

Last autumn, Julius Lester honored us by letting me share on the blog an essay he had written about Rosh Hashanah. I had never heard of the man before reading his essay, which was thanks to a mutual friend, Paula Marie Gourley, and I had no idea how esteemed he was when I asked her to ask him if I could share his essay on the blog. But Paula did ask, and Julius graciously said yes. And apparently I needed to read it again, because just yesterday I wished a colleague at work a happy new year. Julius would not have approved.

Julius passed from this life on January 18 of this year. His accolades were many: author, professor, host of two radio shows… just to name a few. And I hope he wouldn’t mind if I share his words once more. And once again, I’m paring his essay with Pearl Silman’s Aunt Ida’s recipe for Taglach, for everything I know about this special day comes from others––a village approach. Perhaps we should all make some taglach today. And may we all have a good and sweet year. ––John

Rosh Hashanah begins Sunday night, September 9.


I don’t like it when gentile and Jewish friends greet me at Rosh Hashanah with “Happy New Year.” Rosh Hashanah is not the Jewish equivalent of January 1.

But I have never understood what “Happy New Year” is supposed to mean. I’ve never been sure that I want to be wished happiness. I’m not sure I know what happiness is, or that it is as important as we think. Happiness feels better than misery, but some of the most significant periods of my life have been the ones of profound unhappiness. For all the feelings of well-being that happiness bestows upon us, it is not a goal of life. I may spend the next year totally depressed, but that may be where I need to be in my life. A better greeting at Rosh Hashanah is “May you have a sweet and good year.” Even if the next year is a difficult one for me, it may be a good year, even a sweet one, even though it feels otherwise.

There is another aspect to Rosh Hashanah. It is also known as hayom harat olam––“the birthday of the world.” On our birthdays we mark our passage through time. One year of our lives has ended; a new one has begun. Rosh Hashanah is an invitation to mark the passages through time that have taken place in our world, and how big or inclusive “our world” is depends on the person. On birthdays we celebrate what has been and anticipate with joy what is to come.

The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur are called Yamim Noraim––“Days of Awe.” It is a space in time for reflection, a time to withdraw energy from the world in order to renew one’s love for the world. We withdraw from the world in order to become more conscious of who we are and what our relationship to the world has been during the previous year. It is a way of celebrating the world, not by blowing noisemakers and getting drunk, but by taking responsibility for who we are in the world, because, in the deepest sense we are the world.

It would be incredible if, once a year, for ten days, the world would close up. The television and radio stations would go off the air (and ten days without hearing anything about Donald Trump would be purifying). Newspapers would stop publishing; the internet would shut off (though sales of tranquilizers would sky rocket just to quiet my anxieties as I suffered through internet withdrawal); companies would pay employees not to come to work, stores not selling essentials like food would be closed.

For ten days people would reflect on and talk to each other about what they had done to the world over the previous twelve months. What had they done that contributed to easing suffering of any kind? What had they done that contributed to increasing joy of any kind? And what could they do in the coming year to alleviate needless pain and contribute to senseless joy?

I know. I am an unreconstructed and unrepentant idealist. But so are Rosh Hashanah and Yamim Noraim. They hold before us unattainable ideals which we must strive toward if we are going to be as fully and wonderfully human as is within our grasp.

The greeting I prefer at this time of the year is L’shanah Tovah. Literally, it means “To a good year.” This leads me, at least, to reflect on what is “good,” which creates possibilities for new ways of being, creative ways of doing. However, if one is not comfortable with Hebrew, say “Have a sweet year,” or “Have a prosperous and sweet year,” or anything that comes from your heart. But please save “Happy New Year” for December and January.


Thank you Julius and Paula, and to Pearl and her Aunt Ida. A few years ago Pearl’s daughter Rita asked me to make facsimile copies of Pearl’s handwritten recipe book for her children, Pearl’s grandkids. I thought it was a wonderful book, and I couldn’t resist making a copy for myself, too. And now you and I know how to make Aunt Ida’s Taglach, too. L’shanah Tovah.


Essay © 2017 Julius Lester.