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The Courtesy of Cursive

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Clockwise from bottom left: Cross Aventura fountain pen in Starry Blue; botanical notepaper; Lotus India Ink for dip pens and brushes; modern postcards from France and Italy; lidded box for two rolls of stamps; vintage reading spectacles; antique postcards dated 1912; cream envelope with wax seal; vintage mother-of-pearl letter opener with gilt handle; all shown on an antique fall-front secretaire.

I’ve always hated my handwriting. Not the childlike printing that everyone seems to use these days, but the careful, flowing script we were taught in grade school. Oh, I learned how to do it, alright, but somehow I never developed a distinct style; I’ve never quite managed to put pen to paper with panache. (And don’t even mention my signature. Yuck.) This is, perhaps, why I’m such a procrastinator when it comes to tackling personal correspondence. I would much prefer to send off a quick (but always well-edited) e-mail than to handwrite a letter or thank-you note.

In Canadian schools, cursive writing is being phased out or has already been dropped from curricula. The other day, when I gave some handwritten notes to my youth archery class, I had to ask my students whether they could understand my cursive script! (Some of them could; some couldn’t.) I suppose the reasoning for the decision – if there is any, besides lack of classroom funding – is that in the Digital Age, people can communicate instantly with their thumbs (you don’t even have to learn how to type, for crying out loud) or even voice-activation, so handwriting is obsolete. Add to that the seeming abandonment of proper spelling and grammar, and you have, my friends, the downfall of civilization as we used to know it.

So perhaps, in reaction to these alarming things, I developed an interest in calligraphy and fine writing instruments. Murano glass dip wands and marbled fountain pens, silver nibs and inkpots filled with jet black India. Rosewood writing desks with secret drawers, crisp ivory parchment and red wax seals. Sepia postcards and lavender-scented billets doux, tied with a silk ribbon from a lover’s hair!

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A secretaire writing desk, with all its delicious cubbyholes, is the perfect place to store treasures such as antique books, postcards and this modern Jinhao fountain pen with rosewood barrel.

I’ve treasured a small collection of writing-related paraphernalia for many years, and I was fortunate to have been given, as a teenager, an old writing desk (shown here) to put it in. What fun it was using that desk, with all its pigeon holes and tiny drawers and two hidden compartments! It sat in a corner of my bedroom, lit by a Victorian-style lamp, its fall-front lid providing a sturdy surface to practice my calligraphy or hold the old Underwood upon which I tapped out all my school essays!

A particular interest of mine, if you haven’t already guessed, is the fountain pen. I love the great variety of styles, from filigreed antique ones to sleek, modern designs, available today. I have a couple of utilitarian examples from my youth and have recently added one or two (or three) more! (I’m waiting for the delivery of a plum-coloured Pilot right now.) Outward appearance aside, weight, proportion and balance in the hand are important factors in deciding which model to buy, as well as its ink delivery system (cartridge, piston, squeeze converter). And, of course, it’s hard to decide upon just the right ink from a dizzying selection of colours and effects: Diamine’s Shimmering Seas, Noodler’s Nightshade or Herbin’s Eclat de Saphir, anyone?

While I may never have the money to buy a 1920s Waterman sterling silver fountain pen, I do have a few items on my wish list. I’m saving up for a Platinum Plaisir fountain pen with rose gold-tone finish (I think I’ll fill it with a Diamine ink called Ancient Copper), a demilune rolling ink blotter, and a vintage cut glass inkwell.

Now, it’s time to lay down a fresh desk pad, dip my quill into that bottle of encre de Chine and put my head, and hand, to those long-neglected thank-you notes!

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This Speedball Classic B-style wooden nib holder in Gold & Black with Speedball 512 nib can be used with the India ink shown here or any fountain pen or drawing ink.

Herbal Hearts & Hand Wash

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Just For You: a pretty heart of dried lavender buds and rose petals. May your day be sweetly-scented and filled with flowers, champagne, chocolate and lots of love!

Here’s a body product I’ve been meaning to make for some time now: organic scented foaming hand cleanser. This easy-to-make soap requires only three main ingredients:  liquid castile soap, distilled water and the essential oils of your choice (omit the fragrance if you wish). If you don’t have any essential oils kicking around, you can purchase the scented varieties of castile soap. If you want to try your own fragrance combinations and aren’t sure which scents work together, try the oils out first, drop by drop, on a cotton ball or makeup remover pad.

A note about Dr. Bronner’s Pure Castile Soap: It’s billed as organic, certified fair trade and 100% biodegradable and contains the following ingredients: water, coconut kernel oil, potassium hydroxide, palm kernel oil, olive fruit oil, hemp seed oil, jojoba seed oil, citric acid and tocopherol (Vitamin E). In addition to the unscented variety, it also comes in lavender, peppermint, almond, citrus, tea tree, rose and eucalyptus. Although it’s rather expensive, you only need a small amount for this recipe, and the soap has a multitude of other uses, including facial packs and body rub, for shaving, dish washing and laundry detergent, to mop floors, etc. Keep out of eyes.dsc_5418-3

Scented Foaming Hand Wash

• 500 mL (16 fl. oz.) pump dispenser bottle
• ¼ cup Dr. Bronner’s 18-in-1 Pure Castile Soap in Baby Unscented
• 1 cup distilled water
• 6 to 12 drops essential oils of your choice

Combine ingredients in bottle and shake (with the dispenser cap in closed position) before using. Makes about 250 mL. It’s important to use a larger bottle than the amount you’ll make to allow space for the mixture to foam up without overflowing.

I made my softly-scented Citrus Rose hand wash (shown here) using 4 drops each of rose geranium, rosewood and lemon essential oils, reusing an empty hand soap container.

Writing Rocks

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Pilot Metropolitan Retro Pop fountain pen in Turquoise Dots; Winsor & Newton drawing ink for dip pens in Cobalt; leather-bound journal

Blocked

Fingers romance a steaming cup –
small comfort when the night sighs
like a sleeping husband.
Dawn approaches; I’m alone with the keys,
beseeching the blue screen.
I call for the iron horseman,
hero of my pages
who has forsaken me:
Quit the shadows, and finish this thing.

“Blocked” © 2017 Valerie Barrett. All rights reserved.

Stones for Writers and Artists

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Celestite, an excellent crystal for writers, complements this J. Herbin glass dip pen in Sky Blue and Noodler’s fountain pen ink in Walnut

When writer’s block strikes or creativity wanes, some people believe crystals help refocus their energies. Blue topaz, for example, is known as “the writer’s stone” because it is said to enhance written and verbal communication; public speakers may find it inspiring, too. The following stones are said to be helpful for writers, artists and craftspeople. Note that many of these crystals are blue-green, the colours of the throat chakra which is associated with the voice, communication, creativity, truth and expression.

Clear the mind / invite inspiration:  amethyst, lapis lazuli
Remove mental blocks:  bloodstone, celestite
Find focus:  agate
Restore confidence to speak effectively:  aquamarine, turquoise
Enhance creativity:  amazonite, aventurine
Promote patience:  moonstone
Improve communication:  blue topaz, sodalite

A Writer’s Life

“There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.” – Beatrix Potter

dsc_5172-4My love of books, of language, of the power of words, started very early. From the time I was a tiny tot, my parents read me a bedtime story every night. My favourite books back then were the charming tales by Beatrix Potter. Who could resist the likes of Mrs. Tiggywinkle and Squirrel Nutkin? To help prolong the life of these beloved volumes, my mother made covers for them from purple-flowered wallpaper left over from my room. The beautifully-illustrated little hardcover books still wear those slipcovers and occupy a special place on my bookshelves to this day.

Perhaps because my parents instilled a love of books in me from such an early age, I became adept at reading and writing. (My mom also encouraged me to sing before I could read, which I believe helped develop my ear for music.) Spelling always came easily, and I was never confounded by the rules of grammar.

“let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences” – Sylvia Plath

I took typing classes in high school. Throughout those years and in university, I wrote all my papers on a manual Underwood typewriter similar to the one pictured here. (The circa 1912 machine in the photos belonged to my husband’s grandfather, a clergyman who likely used it to compose his sermons and prayers.) Our old typewriter was already a relic when it was handed down to me; frustratingly, the e (the most frequently-used letter in the English language) always got stuck. Imagine how pleased I was later on when, with the proceeds of a stint as a community college English teacher, I was able to purchase – wonder of wonders! – an electric typewriter! This was before personal computers became a household staple, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.dsc_5220-3Although my language skills were pretty polished, I didn’t yet have a firm understanding of punctuation. In a university Old English course, as we studied the Venerable Bede, the Great Vowel Shift and the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, I learned a valuable lesson. My professor (we’ll call him Æthelbert) handed back a graded essay of mine. The first couple of pages were covered in red Xs; after that, there was one last acerbic note from the prof. He was thoroughly exasperated with my overuse of commas, he said, and would I, please, stop using them, before he acted on his desperate urge, to commit a rather, unfortunate, violent act. His plea was followed by about a dozen exclamation points.

I took the hint and cleaned up my grammatical act. Thanks in part to Professor Æthelbert, I went on to earn my degree in languages, literature and translation.

I’ve always found it easier to write my thoughts down rather than express them verbally, especially if I’m struggling with a decision or when I’m upset. The process of getting thoughts, feelings and frustrations down on paper is cathartic and therapeutic. And I’ll often think – hours later – of what I should have said: a biting response or a witty bit of repartee. Far too late, I know, but churning words over in my mind and writing them down helps me work through problems and see things more clearly. No one will ever read those scribblings, but I almost always feel better.

“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Around 2010, I began work on a novel. It’s based on dreams I had when I was much younger, and the fantasy has been growing and morphing and causing agonizing self-doubt about my writing abilities ever since. There have been days and nights when I sit down at my laptop, forgoing food and drink, conversation and participation in real life for long stretches. Suddenly, I’ll look up to find that, whilst I’ve been lost in my dream world of words, testing phrases on my tongue and searching for le mot juste, a full eight hours have flown by. My characters have lived, loved, fought and sometimes died, and I’ve rejoiced, struggled and wept along with them. Nothing else exists for me during this time, and I’m at my happiest when I’m tapping away in this world, alone yet not alone.dsc_5211-4

That novel is far from finished. Sometimes I go great guns, writing pages and pages; other times, I feel the thing is complete rubbish. Certainly the story has strayed far from where it started, and that doesn’t sit right with me. I know I need to make major changes to its plot and structure, but for the last couple of years I’ve been stricken with a terrible case of writer’s block, an inability to see how it can be done. There are other big issues going on in my life which are undoubtedly damming the creative flow. Perhaps when I sort those out, I can get back to doing what I love most.

Still Life: Perfect Prose

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Jane Austen collection by Penguin Classics, with beautiful foil-stamped clothbound hardcovers designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, shown with Heathcote bone china teacup.