“You cannot put a Fire out”

Fire wove its way throughout a recent weekend.

Friday night

A horrible multi-family house fire in our small community. Multiple fire departments. Blocked streets. Low water pressure at the hydrants. Prayers for the occupants and first responders.

Saturday

Opening day of artist Richard Friedberg’s “Terrible Beauty” exhibit at our downtown art museum. Fire as sculpture. Mesmerizing. Stunning in subject, scale, and execution.

Fire Storm, 2017 [above and below]
Oil Fire [below]

Sunday

The Season 2 finale of “Dickinson.” Amherst’s beloved church goes up in flames, while two hearts find their way back to each other. Spark. Smolder. Flare. Blaze.

The episode’s poem copied into my Hobonichi with a pen that looks like lava and an ink called Fireopal.

So. Much. Heat.

Forsaking All Others

Every now and then you hit upon a pen and ink combination that makes you want to clean out everything else you have inked. I’m currently obsessed with Birmingham Pen Co. Ultramarine ink in my Karas Kustoms tumbled INK with a medium titanium nib. Oh, my! What a pair!

Ultramarine is a deep, deep blue with a trick up its sleeve.

In the right light—like in the light of my desk lamp—the sheen POPS. Deep dark blue with red sheen? Yes, please.

When the ink arrived, I was mulling over which pen to put it in when I noticed my uninked INK and remembered that I always enjoyed the titanium nib on that pen. It turns out that “enjoyed” is quite the understatement. WOW. It’s smooooooth and springy—truly effortless.

I have ten or so inked pens at the ready, but this combination—along with my homemade cold-brew—is what gets me out of bed at 4:30 am every weekday morning to journal for an hour or so. It’s that good.

I can’t do this nib or ink justice with my simple words and imperfectly lit photos. You have to be there—feeling and watching your handwritten words flow from that nib, pool up on the page, then slowly dry, revealing high sheen in just the right light.

It’s incredibly satisfying to pair the right pen with the right ink purely by chance. This is a simple pleasure that’s difficult to explain and photograph, but you definitely know it when you find it. I think that’s the pen-lover’s quest in a nutshell—pairing a pen and an ink that triggers a “WOW!” every single time the nib touches the page. Pure bliss.

Note: The Karas Kustoms INK fountain pen and Birmingham Pen Co. Ultramarine ink were purchased with my own funds. There are no affiliate links in this post.

Stretching Those Gratitude Muscles

For the past three Fridays, I’ve been taking a “full-body barre” class that my niece is teaching, via Zoom, at my workplace. Woof…it’s TOUGH! Fifty minutes of isometric holds, (allegedly) controlled movements, and core exercises that leave me sore and muttering about the uncooperative state of my 62-year old body. I walk a lot, but this is different. These movements push my muscles to the max and leave them shaking with fatigue. Yet I keep going back for more because I know that stretching these oh-so-tight muscles is good for me—that eventually I’ll get stronger and maybe a little more flexible. And, to be honest, once I get started, I enjoy pushing through physical and mental resistance.

This week, as part of a Lifestyle and Movement Challenge at work, we were asked to try a different type of exercise—to begin or end our day by listing twenty-five things we’re grateful for. “TWENTY-FIVE?!” my brain screamed. I’m used to jotting down a few things every now and then, but twenty-five?! Every day?! This would definitely stretch my gratitude muscles—muscles that I haven’t been flexing strongly enough lately.

On Monday, I squeezed out a random list of things for which I’m grateful. A quick little workout. That felt good and my day went better than your typical Monday. I walked into the work week feeling better prepared to handle whatever the day threw my way. Less like a raw nerve.

On Tuesday, I did the same, and found myself straining a little harder. “Coffee” showed up again. Maybe that’s cheating.

By Wednesday, I decided to try another strategy. Instead of mentally flailing around, I picked a daily theme for my gratitude list. Over the course of the next few days, I focused on journaling about the following:

  • The people for whom I’m grateful. How fortunate I am in this regard.
  • Special places, some of which appear to be quite ordinary at first glance—the wooded trails at work, a local museum, this desk, a warm bed.
  • Difficult experiences that turned out to carry positive gems inside of them. This took some doing—like trying to perform those pretzel-like movements in exercise class.

Whether it’s exercise or some other lifestyle practice, I almost always find myself initially resisting—prone to contemplating the easy way out. I’d rather take an easy walk than do planks. I’d rather read a book than do lunges. I’d rather drink coffee than water. But once I push through that resistance, I feel a little bit stronger, a little bit healthier. And in the case of this week-long, pumped-up gratitude exercise, much more fortunate and hopeful.

It’s never a mistake to flex your muscles—to push beyond what’s comfortable—in both physical exercise and gratitude. It’s been a good week with an abundance of things, people, places, and experiences to be thankful for. (Without this exercise, would I have appreciated them?) I’m glad I dug a little deeper. I’m glad I stretched those gratitude muscles.

Now to keep going. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.

And, hey, if you have some ideas for more gratitude themes, send them my way!

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Pens and inks used in this post:

  • Pink: Esterbrook Estie (medium nib) with Organic Studio’s Emily Dickinson
  • Blue: Waterman Phileas (“L” nib) with Monteverde Sapphire
  • Caramel: Diplomat Aero (broad nib) with Monteverde Fireopal

Retreat

This is all of us, isn’t it?

While we’re trying to make the best of things—scribbling about gratitude in our journals, Zooming with friends, family, and co-workers—we’re fraying around the edges. We’re running a 5K that surreptitiously morphed into an Ironman Triathlon for which we have not trained. We’re tired in ways that sleep doesn’t cure—kind of emotionally wrung out. Some of us dream about arguing with crowds of people who refuse to wear masks. Or maybe that’s just me.

When we were kids, my sister got mad about a parentally-imposed restriction, packed a suitcase with Oreos, and ran away to the backyard. I recently did the same. But instead of Oreos, I packed pens. And instead of running into the backyard, I went just a little bit further.

St. Margaret’s House Ecumenical & Retreat Center is less than ten miles from my current home and is just down the road from where I grew up. I knew the home was once the residence for Episcopalian Sisters, but until last summer, I didn’t realize that the building is open to the public—available for use by anyone needing a quiet space to read, meditate, pray, or, in my case, write.

When I found myself with a couple of Fridays off, I knew exactly what I was going to do—run away to St. Margaret’s library with my pens and paper. On the first Friday, I settled into my cushioned chair and wrote a 12-page letter in about three hours. Working in this room warmed by hot-water radiators and surrounded by books, I quickly shed both my sweatshirt and my mental agitation. The housekeeper, vacuuming a faraway hallway, apologized for “the noise.” The staff are friendly, courteous, and very, very quiet, even when they’re vacuuming.

On the second Friday, I spent time updating and reworking my various to-do lists, something I’d ignored for far too long. It took a couple of hours to get things back in order but working in such a peaceful place made me feel invigorated, rather than worn down, by all there is to do on those lists. I’d regained a grip on things, at least for the time being.

Once I finished that work, I started another letter before heading out into the world—this crazy, messed up, beautiful world.

I feel incredibly fortunate to have found this sanctuary, this retreat, this second home. I hope you’re able to find your own quiet place. Running away, if only for a few hours, makes all the difference.

Peace to you, my friends.


For local folks, from St. Margaret’s director: “We know that COVID-19 is still very much active in our area, and around the world. We are open at this time and welcome you to come and find respite here.  It’s still very much necessary to wear your mask, have your temperature taken at the door, answer the all too familiar questions regarding COVID, and to keep your distance while here at the house. But please do come. There’s a special calmness here that is like none other.

Flow

I wrote two pages in my Nanami Paper Seven Seas journal yesterday morning, as I always do. Then I took my 2.5 mile walk, as I always do. These two things are a combination that never fails to clear my head so that I go into the day (mostly) calm and focused. Except for yesterday. I felt edgy and agitated as I wrote and my mind ricocheted all over the place as I walked.

WHERE IS MY PEACE?—I yelled, internally, in a not-very-grounded way.

I flipped though my mental Rolodex looking for an answer. Was it Covid, pre-election jitters, sadness over not seeing my dad in his nursing home for eight months? While all those things are possible reasons for how I was feeling, they’ve all been true for months and I’m typically able to shake them long enough to write and walk and find that core of inner stillness.

That elusive, desired core.

Then it dawned on me. The pen I’d picked to write with was one that wrote finer and drier than I enjoy. I even cleaned it and swapped inks in the middle of my journal entry to see if that would help. It didn’t really, but I kept going. I had to press harder to see the wetness of the ink on the page, to catch a glimpse of that red sheen I so enjoy. I had to bear down harder with both my hand and my mind. The pen writes perfectly fine for jotting down notes or even writing a letter, but lacks that good wet effortless flow that journaling requires. My mind felt as tight and cramped as the pen’s stingy line. It choked and sputtered and started pinging around to all of its perceived grievances and difficulties. My mind. Not the pen.

Today I wrote with a broad wet nib and page after page of things to be grateful for flowed out of me. My walk was a bitterly cold one, but I found the inner warmth that I was longing for yesterday.

I found flow. In a pen, and in my mind.

Recipe for a calm morning

I’ve been working on establishing a meditation practice but I think it’s a little too soon to declare this endeavor a success or failure. Further practice is definitely needed. Despite floundering with meditation, I have cobbled together a morning routine that kicks my day off in a way that feels both calming and healthy. No matter what the day brings, this routine assures that I’ve had a a least a few hours that soothe my whirring brain.

Coffee first. The promise of a good hit of caffeine takes the sting out of that 4:30 am alarm.

Cold-brewed, black, and iced. Yum.

After 10 minutes of stretching (especially good for my still-healing shoulder), I fill up a couple of pages in my journal.

Then it’s time for a 2.5 mile walk which takes about 45 minutes. Right now I’m walking in the dark. It’s interesting to notice how much more attuned I am to sounds (a train whistle, the rustle of squirrels in the leaves) and smells (the strong scent of pine from a towering tree felled in a recent wind storm) than I am when I’m walking in daylight.

After a long, hot shower (that’s where I do my best thinking), it’s time for breakfast. I completely fell for the packaging of this hot cereal. A peaceful morning for a mere $6.99? That’s an offer I couldn’t refuse. Topped with a little oat milk and coconut sugar, it’s delicious, even if the peaceful morning it promises doesn’t always pan out.

Lately I’ve been working to break myself of the unhealthy habit of doom-scrolling through the news while I eat my breakfast and have turned to solving cryptoquip puzzles instead. Each puzzle provides you with a letter-substitution clue, then it’s your job to decipher the rest.

These decoding puzzles give my active mind something to chew on rather than worrying about what the day may bring, or mindlessly absorbing a host of negative headlines that wear me out before I’ve even finished my breakfast.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned a handful of lessons from these simple puzzles—lessons as applicable to life as they are to solving a word puzzle.

Take a guess! Dive right in!

Look for patterns. Use your past experience.

Don’t be afraid to start over.

Resist the urge to cheat.

Finding the right answer is very satisfying.

When you’re grinding on a problem, walk away. The solution may very well appear after you come back to it with fresh eyes. (This happens soooo often.)

Something as basic as pencil on paper both activates and calms my mind so that I head out the door feeling ready for the day, not prematurely dragged down by it.

I used to stay in bed until the last minute, drink coffee loaded with cream and sugar, devour the news and Lucky Charms for breakfast, but none of that served my mind or body well.

I look forward to this well-honed morning routine as much as I look forward to crawling into a warm bed with a good book every night.

Simple practices. Simple food.

That’s my recipe for a calm morning. What’s yours?

The Birmingham Pen Company: Seriously Addicted

I’d been eyeing pens on The Birmingham Pen Company site for at least a year before I made a purchase. I shouldn’t have waited that long.

It’s not hyperbole to say that I’ve been journaling with this pen every day since it arrived at the end of July.

Though they have some cool looking orange acrylics (my weakness), I decided to go in a different direction and instead picked a pen that matches my love of blue ink—the Sixth Avenue model in an acrylic they call Photon Torpedo. It’s swirly and interesting, with a little red amongst the light and dark blues. Though it doesn’t show up well in the above photo, there’s a bit of chatoyancy in the base acrylic. I always enjoy that deeply shimmery look.

<Taking a quick break. Be right back.>

JUST FOR YOU I went outside to take a few better photos.

Truth be told, I could not resist the name “Photon Torpedo.”

“The pen factory is humming.”
-Dad

Birmingham Pen Company is a four-person family-run pen and ink maker based in Cranberry Township, PA, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. As their website explains, brothers Nick and Josh started the company in their parents’ basement in 2008, but it wasn’t until 2018 that they began offering in-house made pens. Their dad is now the “chief pen machinist,” and their mom pitches in by doing some of the processing work and by contributing catchy product names. Maybe like “Photon Torpedo”?

I spent my first few years of elementary school in the Pittsburgh area (Mt. Lebanon) and have very fond memories of the neighborhood with its yellow brick streets, my first close friends, and fun times at school. I learned to ride a bike at in Mt. Lebanon and still remember the liberating feeling of FINALLY learning to balance on two wheels. I think my warm childhood memories of a Pittsburgh suburb factored into my decision to give this tiny pen company a try.

Their packaging is superb—distinctive and classy without being overdone. I ordered the pen and two bottle of ink, (The ink is shown above and below in the small boxes).

The two packages, featuring old-time maps of Pittsburgh, fit into a single sleeve.

The pen is packaged in the narrow “Writing Instrument” box, while the converter and a debossed Certificate of Authenticity arrive in the wider “Accoutrements” box. Receiving and unboxing a pen from the Birmingham Pen Co. is like opening the perfect gift from a special friend.

You care because it’s obvious that they care.

So far so good—cool pen name, interesting acrylic, well-designed packaging—but is all of that why I’m so addicted to this pen? Not exactly.

As great as all those things are, the reason I’ve picked this pen up every single day for weeks on end is the 0.8 mm #6 Nemosine stainless steel stub nib. It’s hard to explain how smooth and perfectly wet this nib is. For me, it’s the writing experience I look forward to every day when I sit down to write my morning pages at 4:45 am. Cold-brew coffee + this nib = happy Mary.

Not long after ordering and receiving my Sixth Avenue Photon Torpedo pen, a slightly/lightly used Sixth Avenue Ariel popped up on Instagram’s Virtual Pen Show for a very good price. I mulled it over for just a couple of minutes, then quickly DMed the seller. Basically an insta-buy.

This pen arrived with an EF nib that wrote well, but was much finer than my current tastes. To remedy this, I ordered a separate 0.6 mm Nemosine stub nib, also available from Birmingham, and swapped that in with only a little bit of difficulty (i.e., I did not impale myself as I feared I might). Another winner! Sometimes I journal a page or two with one of these pens, then a page or two with the other. They’re both fantastic.

If there’s one drawback with this small company, it’s that sometimes supply doesn’t keep up with demand. The models and acrylics available tend to ebb and flow, so not all pens are available at all times. This makes perfect sense given the fact that this is a mere four-person operation, with only two of the four working full-time. To stay abreast of their current offerings, follow the Birmingham Pen Company on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, or sign up to be notified when the sold out pen you’re stalking is available on their website.

Birmingham Pen Company also manufactures and bottles their own house-made ink. I’m plowing through my bottle of Ice Rink while a bottle of Waterfront Dusk is waiting in the wings. I’m very intrigued by their new Twinkle inks and will be ordering a bottle or two of those very soon. But which ones? That’s the head scratcher.

It’s obvious that the family team at the Birmingham Pen Company cares as much about the customer experience as they do about the quality and value of their pens, inks, and accessories. That’s why my Birmingham Pen Company addiction is just getting started.

Supporting the USPS

Oh, thank God! My coffee’s here!

Lately the USPS has been messing with my lifeblood—coffee and ink. Both are vital fluids for my morning routine. Without them, I can’t function.

A recent ink order was shipped immediately but apparently holed up in motels along the way as the tracking stalled several times. After a couple of weeks, the package inexplicably boomeranged back to its place of origin, then reversed course and was finally delivered 21 days after it was shipped. Over the course of those three long weeks, I often found myself yelling at my computer screen, irrationally pleading with the tracking to update and the package to pick up the pace and finish strong. It was like cheering on a fading marathon runner. “You’ve got this! You’re almost there!”

My coffee started its journey a couple of hours from here but similarly stalled once shipped (“Acceptance pending” for DAYS). My coffee stash was running precariously low so I tried to limit my daily intake to make it last. No one needs coffee stress during a pandemic. Or ever, really. Six days later, the postal worker handed over my two precious bags of Irving Farm coffee while exclaiming that they made her truck smell fantastic. That coffee made us both happy!

Such are the recent USPS shenanigans. Who knows what the real details are but it’s clear that something is amiss. I feel for the postal workers who are just trying to do their jobs as much as I feel for the customers waiting for their goods. Ink and coffee are one thing. Vital medications are another.

I love the USPS and hate to see it flailing. I’m one of those oddballs who ponder which stamp to put on which card or letter. Does it match the washi tape? Which one fits the recipient best? I love leafing though the USPS’s Philatelic catalog picking out stamps and gifts, but I rarely actually order anything that way.

Until now.

There’s not much I can do to fix federal bureaucracy run amuck but I can shop in a way that shows my love for this agency. Ironically, my USPS order was also slow to arrive, but eventually it did, and, boy do I love this stuff.

Did I need another backpack? Nope. But I love this one and have been carrying it to and from work every day. Making the swap also prompted me to pare down my daily carry which bordered on the ridiculous. I’m feeling much lighter—both physically and mentally.

The toy mail truck and its miniscule mailbox are for my desk at work. They’re a good reminder to send cards and notes to friends and family, even in these rushed days. (I work at a college, so….)

The coin purse is made from a mail bag and was half-price so I could not resist.

Mr. Zip! We need you!

This t-shirt with its vintage image is my absolute favorite purchase. I wish the mail was moving as fast as Mr. Zip appears to be, but maybe it will again someday.

Of course I added some sheets of stamps to my order. Newly released stamps give me a little thrill that probably only dedicated letter writers understand—a tiny piece of art attached to that carefully addressed envelope.

I hope the USPS weathers this current storm and that it’s able to pick up the pace of our letters, cards, and packages once again. In the meantime, I’ll try to have patience, leave thank you notes for my mail carriers, and proudly wear that Mr. Zip t-shirt.

Stay strong, USPS! You’ve got this!

Note: Many of the items mentioned here appear to be sold out on the USPS website. This is a common problem, as supplies seem to be quite low, unfortunately. I wish local POs offered goods for immediate purchase. They make cool gifts.

My Personal Time Capsule

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2020 as a waffle

I’ve heard 2020 described as a “Coronacoaster” and that absolutely captures my own experience. I’m fine and dandy one day, then in a mental trough another. 2020—the year of emotional whiplash.

It’s easy to get stuck in those down times, but finding little joys in your days and weeks can help your emotions chug up from the abyss to the summit once again. Last Saturday I was handed one of those joys.

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Whatever could this be?

The mail carrier dropped off this curious package—an overstuffed bubble mailer. The return address revealed that it was from one of my college roommates. We stay in touch via social media but aren’t in the habit of sending each other things so I had a swirl of question marks floating over my head, just like in a comic strip.

Tearing into the mailer revealed this…

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More question marks.

A note from her quickly solved the mystery.

“Hi, Mary! I just spent 4 days cleaning out cases of memorabilia from the upstairs bedroom to pass some time in these boring Covid days. I happened upon loads of letters from the 80’s and thought you would get a kick out of reading some of yours!”

My own nearly forty-year-old letters were being handed back to me. What a surprise gift! What a cool chance to look back at twentysomething Mary—my handwriting, my joys, challenges, and anxieties. Here they are—pages and pages of the day-to-day details of my post-college life as I made my way in a new state and in a new job. They document a fresh start that was as exciting as it was terrifying.

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I was surprised to see that a few letters were written with a fountain pen because I have no memory of owning one back then. My handwriting is better than I remember and is the seed of how I write today. I’ve definitely made some progress in that regard over these forty-ish years.

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It’s embarrassing to misspell “embarrassing.”

I do remember having a “fancy” electronic typewriter—my pride and joy—that displayed a few lines of text before printing. That sleek machine felt like the pinnacle of modern technology in the early 80’s—at least to me.

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Bonnie Raitt performed at the college where I now work. How’s that for the circle of life?

The Bonnie Raitt concert mentioned in this letter cost me a mere $5.00 because my cousin was a student at the college and got me in with his ID. What a steal, even then. Thanks to this letter, the memories of her performance are as fresh as if I were standing in that crowded gym at this very moment. Such is the power of the written word.

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I had no idea I’d written enough letters to overstuff a bubble mailer, but what else was there to do back then without computers, phones, internet, or cable TV? My stereo system (another pride and joy) was constantly blasting Pat Benatar, Heart, Sinead O’Connor, and the Eurythmics—those powerful 80’s women. That era will always represent my favorite music because it was a huge part of my quiet little life.

I look forward to arranging these letters by date and reading about Mary. That Mary. Surely there will be some surprises, some cringes, and some laughs.

I’ll always treasure this personal time capsule. What a surprise. What a joy.

EDCC: My Everyday Covid-19 Carry

I’m not really a hardcore EDC type of person. Except for the mini Leatherman tool and Write Notepads Pocket Flip Book that are always with me, what else I carry varies with my mood. Pocket pens have become a big thing with me lately so there’s usually one of those tucked away, but that’s a topic for another post.

That said, because of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, I’m now religiously carrying my own little Covid-19 kit. Starting on March 26—once I came out of my initial pandemic paralysis—I started recording county, state, country, and world case and death counts in a pocket notebook. I use the first few pages in each log to jot down noteworthy “news”—mostly personal things like when my dad’s nursing home closed to visitors (March 13th) and when my workplace went to “minimal operating status” (March 21st). The pandemic continues as one big blur of days, months, and even seasons, so I find it helpful to mark down meaningful dates in the ongoing saga.

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Cases in our county (pop. 230,000) continue to increase—usually by 20 or so a day—as do the deaths, which, though relatively low, still make my heart sink every time I record the numbers. It’s interesting to see how the statistics change with time, and though things are generally looking a little more optimistic, I suspect I’ll be filling up pages and notebooks for months to come.

I write down these statistics—remembering that each number represents a person—not only to track the data, but to remind myself of the lives altered and the lives lost. It’s a very, very simple remembrance of the Covid-19 patients, victims, and their families, as well as all of the healthcare workers on the front lines. I’ll keep recording the numbers as long as there are cases. Maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel less helpless by doing something, as insignificant as this is.

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I recently added another pocket notebook to the same Nock Co. case—a homemade Covid-19 Location Log. Ever since the cases in New York State started ratcheting up, I made it a practice to jot down where we went and when we went there. But my jotting was pretty haphazard. Sometimes it was in my to-do list notebook, sometimes it was in my Hobonichi, and sometimes it was in my Write Notepads Weekly Planner. Sometimes I just forgot.

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A couple of weeks ago, I took the free Contact Tracing course offered by Johns Hopkins. Though I may never work as a contact tracer, the information presented was eye-opening and made me realize that I needed to revamp my casual and disorganized documentation. If I ever contract the virus, I want to be able to tell the contract tracer where I’ve been, when I was there, and who I was with with complete certainty. Though I might have been able to piece some of that information together prior to starting this log, carrying this notebook all the time—so that I can make entries in one place, on the fly—has made all the difference. I’m also able to check our whereabouts when those “local exposures” lists pop up on the news. All of this to say that—NEWSFLASH!—my memory is unreliable and needs constant assistance. A pocket notebook and a $1.50 Muji pen was all I needed to fix this problem.

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The 70% copper Careful Key

Do you now eye all doors and surfaces with suspicion? Do you try to open doors by touching the part of the door handle that your nervous brain judges to be the least handled part? (As if there is a least-handled part.) Do you pull your hand up into your sleeve and use that as a barrier between a handle and your hand? Me? Yes, yes, and yes.

I recently found a better solution to the door handle dilemma in the Careful Key which is made from 260 brass (70% copper). Using this tool, I can now hook door handles and pull them open, or push open the lid on a trash container—two things that I did several times today. I can also use this tool to type in my passcode on an ATM or punch an elevator button—things that I wouldn’t have given a second thought to before the pandemic. SARS-CoV-2 virus remains viable on copper for only about four hours versus days on other surfaces, so the Careful key disinfects itself naturally. I have one tucked into a back pocket at all times, but it’s quite slim and could easily slip into the Nock Case holding my notebooks.

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What about masks? Gotta have those, too. I have masks stashed all over the place, but my favorite is the one pictured above—made by a friend and fellow scientist—for obvious reasons. It makes me smile and think of her whenever I wear it.

Smiles and friendship. Maybe they’re the most important things to carry with us every day.

Note: There are no affiliate links in this post. All items shown and mentioned were purchased with my own funds.