It’s Not as Easy as It Looks

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When I saw the drill sheets for week one, I almost laughed. Easy peasy, I thought. In fact, I was wondering if I was going to be bored with this whole learning calligraphy thing.

And then I started. Who knew? First of all, it took weeks of detective skills to track down the special pens I could choose: big brush, small brush, hard tip, soft tip, pointed pen, nib holders… and the list goes on and on. Even Amazon seems to have to look to Japan for some of the pens. The ones I ordered on February 3 have still not made it here yet. And that’s just the pens.

I’ve also been visiting paper supply stores and “petting” all of their stock feeling for just the right smoothness. Most of the papers we use all the time are quite abrasive and can apparently wreak havoc on pen nibs and tips. Rhodia has  a paper that is very smooth, a high grade vellum. Pens just seem to want to write on this surface.

The drills started this past Monday and were accompanied by a video. How hard can this be? A simple upstroke and downstroke and a combination stroke. It turns out, it can be very hard! There’s slant and pressure and holding the pen in the right way to get those nice thin and thick lines. Just to demonstrate, I am showing you some of my first results.  Yes, those ARE “drunken cobras” you are seeing where a downstroke should be.

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Now that I’ve been humbled, I can see I have work to do. Apparently people can become quite tense while practicing and some people have suggested a glass of wine and relaxing music. I can do that. My teacher has suggested yogic breathing as being helpful too in getting the right speed and rhythm. Inbreath up, outbreath down. You laugh, but this is probably the most helpful piece of advice I’ve received so far. It seems we all go way too fast, especially in the beginning. Isn’t it amazing that in calligraphy, as in most things in life, the secrets to success  are the same:

  • Relax
  • Breathe deeply
  • Exercise

If anyone else is interested in learning calligraphy, I have included the link here to the online course I’m following.

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Fragments

Weaving in the Ends

I started this scarf/shawl while my mother was dying in the hospital. Knitting was a way to calm myself while accompanying my mother on her last days. And I think it calmed her too.  Knit, purl, knit….. a steady incantation in a predictable pattern, like breathing.  Knitting was one of the womanly arts that was big in my mother’s life and in her mother’s life before her.

It is now March and the scarf is almost finished. It continued to work its magic over the months since my mother’s passing as memories of a long life lived arose and faded while I knit.  I’ve had a hard time finishing it, but I have a hard time finishing most things. Now it’s time to weave in the ends of which there are many, as you can see. Fitting, I guess.

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The Crows are Gathering

The spring migration of crows has reached our area. Now as I lie in bed in the early morning light, I hear the birds awaking too. The crows have been the first to break winter’s silence. Robins won’t be far behind. Migrations are happening as they should which feels comforting in a world so full of bluster and chaos these days.

Something New

I have some new socks on my knitting needles. I joined the Handmade Sock Society during the winter. I just loved the name. It speaks of a different time when people gathered for simpler reasons. Except now, of course, we gather online – hashtag handmadesocksociety. I love knitting socks, they suit my practical nature.  I rarely knit socks with patterns, but I’m making an exception so that I can be a society girl.

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Winter Rose socks.

And…

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Today I start learning calligraphy.  I’ve always felt this pull to create with my hands. It’s something passed down to me from my mother’s lineage – they were knitters, and dressmakers and midwives.

I guess all of this is just another way to weave in the ends.

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I Was Going to Write…

I was going to write about the woes of March. I was going to call her a lyin’, cheatin’, bad friend full of broken promises. I was gathering sad pictures to prove my point.

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Our sad woodpile with only one row left.
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Our very sad, muddy road full of potholes.

But then something shifted. I had written earlier that our love or hate for winter was a question of attitude. If that was true, and transferable to other seasons, my loathing of March and April might be in need of a serious attitude adjustment.

My body tenses just thinking about March and April. My mind is wanting to embrace the beautiful idea of spring but my body memory tells me of cold, northerly winds, fast  moving weather systems  that dump 30+ centimetres of wet snow overnight, and interminably grey skies. We don’t have spring in southern Quebec, we have winter’s slow and painful exit.

Buddhists would say I have set myself up for stress and suffering – one part of me desiring an early spring  and the other part resisting what is present.  And they would be right. Since I’m on the path to ending suffering, there seems to be work to do here.

The first order of business is changing my thinking about spring’s arrival. If I no longer believe that spring arrives here on March 21st,  I can’t be disappointed when she doesn’t show up. So, I’m officially moving the start of spring to April 21st. This is much more realistic and a very good first start in my attitude adjustment.

Now that I’m not expecting spring until the end of April, I can move into acceptance.  I anticipate there’ll  be some exquisite days when the sap runs in the trees and our bodies will feel a joy that only people who have wintered here can really know.

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On those days, I’ll be outside breathing it all in.

It’s the other days that might be more of a challenge.  Facing challenges reminds me of a story that Fred Rogers, the creator of the children’s program Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, used to tell. He said that when he was a boy and would see scary things, his mother would say to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I’m wondering if a similar strategy could work in facing the challenge of a winter that never seems to end. We could seek out the helpers:

  1. Visit a local maple syrup producer and breathe in the sweet aroma of boiling sap. Have a sip of fresh maple syrup or eat some sugar on snow while we’re there.
  2. Listen and watch for the returning birds.
  3. Invite friends for dinner or meet them at a local pub or eatery.
  4. Add lighter foods to our diet – more vegetables, less carbs.
  5. Buy some tulips to add a little colour and to remember that spring has arrived in other places.
  6. Look for the beauty in the changing light, the sun’s last rays, the moon rising…

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I’ve Been Wearing My Mother’s Perfume

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I’ve been wearing my mother’s perfume. The first time I put it on was the day she died. In my blurry-eyed grief, my gaze settled on the perfume bottle sitting unobtrusively on her bureau amongst other personal care items strewn there during her final days. Without thinking, I picked it up and spritzed some on my neck. I wore my mum all of that day.

I’ve worn her perfume twice since. I wore it the day I went to pick up her ashes at the funeral parlour. Without much thought or reason, I again spritzed it on my neck and drove to the funeral home to pick up her ashes which by now were safely stored in the blue china urn I had chosen shortly after her passing. The urn reminded me of my mother. It was her colours.

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I wore it again yesterday, this time for no reason at all, except I like it. It’s strange. I spent most of my life distancing myself from my mother and her choices. Her clothes, not the ones I would choose, her shoes, sensible and comfortable, but not at all stylish. I wasn’t judging,  they were all perfect for her and I was happy that she had found her style. (Actually, I wasn’t happy when I tried to choose tops for her with the perfect neckline.)  It seems though that I have spent most of my life looking for differences instead of celebrating what we shared in common.

In the interest of righting this imbalance, I’ve decided to share some of the many things we did have in common:

  1. We both turn in the wrong direction when we exit from elevators or shops in malls.
  2. We both are introverted and prefer small gatherings of people to large groups.
  3. We both believe a good cup of tea can cure just about anything.
  4. We both love hearing and telling good stories.
  5. We both enjoy our own company and can spend many excellent hours alone.

And…it turns out, we both love the same perfume.

 

 

The Lost Art of Cursive Writing

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Writing as unique as its creators.

It was close to the end of the period and there were some notes that I wanted to quickly put on the whiteboard. I grabbed my marker and began to write in cursive, “Canada’s population…” I was just getting started when a boy at the back called out, “I can’t read joined letters.” I was floored. I knew we were no longer teaching cursive in elementary schools,  but this was the first time I realized the full scale of the loss.

I’ve been thinking about handwriting a lot these days as I sort through paperwork and personal items that belonged to my mother and father and grandmother. Their handwriting says more about each of them than any portrait possibly could. My father’s handwriting is large and flowing and my mother’s much more measured and cautious. I feel their presence as if they were sitting beside me when I see snippets of things they have written. It’s as distinctive and personal as any work of art. Which begs the question, what will we have lost when handwriting becomes extinct?

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Back in my day, cursive was taught in grade three and by grade four we had graduated to our first fountain pens. It took some practice to learn how much pressure to apply and how to stop dragging our hands through the freshly written letters. We all had ink stained fingers and sides of the palms in those days.

I remember realizing early on that even though we had all been taught the same way, handwriting morphed into something unique for each person. In the interest of experimentation, I tried out large letters, small letters, different slants, and the full range of coloured inks – all to explore who I was and who I wanted to become.

A few years after these experiments with my fountain pen, the Bic Cristal made its appearance. It was cheaper, handier, and certainly less messy than a fountain pen, but it wasn’t the same writing experience. Which brings me to this article I recently read in The Atlantic titled, “How the Ballpoint Killed Cursive.” Many people will tell you that computers spelled the end to cursive, but the author of this article, Josh Giesbrecht, thinks it might have started well before that with the emerging popularity of the Bic pen in the 1960’s.  The ink in the Bic was made much thicker to prevent leakage and the long nib of the fountain pen was replaced by a rolling ball. The fountain pen with its thinner ink dances across the page while the Bic needs to be coaxed and pushed across. Giesbrecht puts it this way, “Fountain pens want to connect letters. Ballpoint pens need to be convinced to write.”

Handwriting expert, Rosemary Sassoon, makes some really interesting observations about the experience of writing. She explains that children today are still being taught the same pen grip that’s been used for generations. She points out that ballpoints and other modern pens need to be held at a more upright angle to the paper and this position is uncomfortable with a traditional pen hold. It seems the ballpoint was straining our hands long before keyboards and carpal tunnel syndrome made their appearance. She writes:

We must find ways of holding modern pens that will enable us to write without pain. …We also need to encourage efficient letters suited to modern pens. Unless we begin to do something sensible about both letters and penholds we will contribute more to the demise of handwriting than the coming of the computer has done.

There seems to be a general consensus that joined letters are faster to write than separate ones.  And new studies suggest that writing by hand may be better for kids’ learning than using a computer. So where does this leave us? Our modern tools don’t seem to support writing in traditional ways.  It’ll be very interesting to see how this all unfolds.

For my part, I’ve decided to take a step backwards and learn calligraphy.  Surely there’s still a place for the art of beautiful handwriting in this world.

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Wonder how these new Japanese calligraphy pens will work.

 

You can read the full article in The Atlantic  here.

The Snow Sings

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A winter painting by artist Antoine Bittar that sits above our fireplace.

I wrote a blog post awhile back asking if you were a winter lover or hater. You can read it here if you missed it. I concluded that it was a question of attitude: how willing we are to embrace winter. I realize I am a winter lover, especially when we have an old fashioned winter with plenty of snow.

DECEMBER

I love the deep dark of December. The lights are brighter and the music sweeter because of the dark.

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JANUARY

January is traditionally our coldest month and finds me in full hygge mode. There is always a fire in the fireplace, I have the books I haven’t had time to read  stacked on the coffee table by the couch, a knitting project or two in the basket, and a list of Netflix shows friends have recommended to check out. I am so ready for all of this!

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FEBRUARY

There’s not much that I don’t love about February. I love the peachy light that floods the fields and woods this time of year.

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I love that the sun rises just that much earlier and sets an hour later than it did at solstice. And I love the snow. After my month of hygge in January,  it’s time to get outside and move. The snowshoes and x-country skis are left in the entrance way or by the front door and it doesn’t feel quite right if they aren’t used once a day.

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I especially love ending February outdoor days  having a drink in town in one of the bistros that the after ski crowd frequent. It’s contagious, this enjoying winter thing.

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Mary Oliver, the poet, writes: “The song you heard singing in the leaf when you were a child is singing still.” I’m thinking that the song we heard singing in the snow when we were children is singing still too.  We just have to be outside to hear it.

Life Calls

I haven’t been getting up early to write since my mother became sick and passed away. It didn’t feel right to be back to “normal” when nothing at all felt very normal.  I took care of things that had to be taken care of and I started cooking again, but there was a real reluctance to take up life as before.

That’s why looking out at the post dawn view from my writing place this morning is all the more special.  I’m being called back it seems. It happened slowly. I went for a first walk, looked up at the trees, and remembered being part of something far greater than myself. I knew I had to be outside again. And that’s how skiing has become the great healer for me.

It has helped that it has snowed almost non stop for the last week or so and conditions are just perfect on the network of trails that zig zag through the woods behind our house and beyond.

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A neighbour who owns a massive tract of land has been busy clearing trails and building bridges for the last year or so. The network of trails is so extensive that I feel giddy with excitement at the prospect of exploring a new section each day. The trails are all marked with different colours of  surveyors tape.

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This is the pink trail that runs closest to the back of our house.

It becomes really interesting at the places where the trails meet.

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I don’t know much for certain these days, but I do know that movement and being in nature is the great healer for me. So every day I’ve been clicking my boots into the bindings and heading outside. It feels right.

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Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

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If the news is the first rough draft of history, when did the media become the enemy of the people? Do we not like the history we are living at the moment? The fact checkers and the story tellers have suddenly become the enemy.

I’m very sensitive to media bashing. I’m a bit of a news junkie myself and my daughter works in the media. I know how hard most journalists work to bring us accurate and meaningful stories, sometimes endangering their own lives in the process.

I’ve had two experiences this week that have shone the spotlight on the media. The first was an online discussion about a political event that turned out to be  quite divisive. I could understand the different viewpoints being expressed, but I was shocked that so much anger was being directed at the media who broke the story. Somehow we need someone to blame for our personal discomfort. We feel badly that the stories that are being told are impacting real people and the implications are far reaching. But is the media to blame? Did they deliberately set out to ruin someone or were they telling the stories that are circulating in our culture and need to be resolved?

The second experience I had was going to see the film The Post about the brave decision made by Washington Post owner, Katharine Graham, to publish the Pentagon Papers. The publication of these papers impacted political careers and changed the course of American history. It was a BIG story and was not told without personal risk. Stories are like that sometimes. They need to be told because people deserve to know the facts if they hope to participate meaningfully in the democratic process.

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It is  our responsibility to stay informed and that means following news organizations that fact check, provide multiple sources, and search out their own biases in order to bring people the very best information available. So you will not hear me crying out fake news and blaming the media for stories that aren’t in alignment with what I want to believe. I check out the best and compare them to each other. Do they err? Sure. But they are also quick to retract when they do. Their agendas are not to bolster fragile egos or maintain the status quo at any cost. They are doing their jobs, and I’m grateful they are.

We’re living in interesting times.

The Best Laid Plans….

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I am a planner.  At the start of the new year you can usually find me in a sunny spot in the house with journals and papers and an assortment of coloured pens reflecting on the year that has passed and projecting myself into the year to come.  It’s my way of tying up what has ended and looking forward to what is to come.

Not this year…not part of God’s plan. At the end of the Christmas holidays which were a riot of family and fun, my mother was unexpectedly hospitalized. I received a call in the middle of the first night from the doctor who told me my mother was in respiratory distress and I should come. My mother did not pass away that night as it turns out, but was given another twenty-four days. We both had this time to rest in each other’s presence and for this I am grateful.

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This beautiful lady, who just happens to be my mother, passed away on January 21, 2018. 

Moving into acceptance feels like the opposite of planning to me. It is a much quieter place and doesn’t involve any grand schemes of what might or might not happen in the year to come. It’s about being okay with what is.

Acceptance, it turns out, is not letting me bypass grief or the visceral sense of loss deep in the cells of my body. But it is calling me back to life. Can happiness be that far away?

 

Beauty – an Inside Job

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A detail from “The Birth Of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli.

I’ve been thinking about beauty lately. The other night while I was watching the Golden Globes I saw Frances McDormand with nary a trace of makeup. She looked strong and authentic… and beautiful.

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Beauty, it seems, comes from a far deeper place than winning the genetic lottery and being blessed with chiselled features and high cheekbones. Look at Jane Goodall, an eighty-three year old who has been following her passion for primates her whole life – beautiful.

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And Malala Yousefi who has a face radiating love and kindness… and bone deep beauty.

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I am not an advocate of criticizing people for their appearance. Maybe because I know how hurtful it can be and how we look is not something that can be changed, at least quickly or easily. I believe that if we have a problem with someone, talking about their words and behaviours and actions are all fair game but denigrating people for their appearance is not. That is why I never share or retweet unflattering or embarrassing photos of anyone. This doesn’t stop me, however, from being intrigued by appearances and especially radical changes in appearance.

I think about this when I see old footage of Donald Trump. He is a good looking man with a nice smile and he sounds rational in some of the clips I have seen. Which begs the question, what happened between then and now? His facial expressions and body language seem to suggest an awkward, uncomfortable, and angry man.  He looks unhappy and many of his actions and words come from a mean spirited and defensive place. What happened to Donald to make him seem such a caricature of his former physical self? Is it that the farther away we get from our true genius (the purpose for which we have come here) the more distorted everything becomes, even our physical appearance? Or is it something else?

I don’t have the answers, but this I do know. Each of us has something genuine and true to our inner nature to offer. And this just happens to be what also makes us beautiful.