“A Route of Evanescence”

The hummingbirds have returned, but I’ve only been able to catch two fleeting glimpses of them at our feeders before they vanished into the woods, which is why Emily Dickinson’s poem about them rings so true.

I haven’t been able to get her description out of my head ever since I googled “Emily Dickinson” and “hummingbird.” Evanescence, Emerald, Cochineal (which I had to look up to find that it’s an insect from which carmine-colored dye is extracted) perfectly describe these brilliantly-colored birds that seem to evaporate as soon as you lay eyes on them. I would expect nothing less from our brilliant Emily.

Then it dawned on me how her words are also a spot-on description of one of my favorite inks—J. Herbin’s Emerald of Chivor. Emerald, cochineal, with an evanescent shimmer. So hard to capture in photos—both the tiny birds and the ink’s best characteristics. Look one moment and it’s there. Another moment and it’s gone. Fleeting. Dazzling. Always a surprise.

That’s what makes them both so special—the iridescent bird and the sheening/shimmering ink. That Route of Evanescence.

Thank you, Emily. Yet again.

Pen used in this post: Diplomat Aero, bold nib with an Architect grind by The Nibsmith.

Ink Is Everywhere

I’m not talking about the time that I poured ink from an eyedroppered pen onto the carpet, thankfully. (Ink truly WAS everywhere, in a very bad way.) What I mean is that I’m always seeing colors out in the world that would make great fountain pen inks.

I even saw the potential for a super desirable ink in the blue/black paint job (Carbon Black, I believe) on a high-end BMW at a car show. Looking at it from one angle revealed glistening black metallic finish while looking at it from a different angle revealed a deep, deep purpley blue. I probably looked like a weirdo swaying back and forth in front of the car, but I was mesmerized by that paint job because I could envision it as a very cool blue/black sheening ink.

I guess you could say that I’m always wearing ink-colored glasses. Is it just me?

P.S. > If you have suggestions for inks that match any of the colors in these photos, please share! I’m on a quest. A never-ending quest.

The TWSBI Draco: I Had My Doubts

First things first. I have two cats—TWSBI and Edison—the sweetest kitty brothers you ever knew.

That’s TWSBI on the left, Edison on the right

When one names one’s cats after pen companies, there’s a high probability that the cat owner is a fan of said companies. So there’s that.

(Truth be told, I also get a kick out of hearing vets try to work out how to call out TWSBI’s name in the waiting room. This name will never make sense to them, and their butchered attempts always make me snicker. Weird pen humor, I know.)

Pet names aside, when the TWSBI Draco was announced, I had my doubts. Brad and Myke raked the pen over the coals on Episode #453 of the Pen Addict podcast, and their criticisms sounded completely justified. I usually agree with their assessments, so I pretty much wrote the pen off.

Then it was released. And I kind of liked the look of it. But I waited. Mulled it over, as one does. As one should.

Hmmm. What to do? What to do?

At $150—much higher than your typical TWSBI—this wasn’t a purchase to take lightly, but in the end I went for it, because, honestly, I’ve never used a TWSBI that I didn’t love. Even the super-economical TWSBI GO, that I swore I’d never own because of the clunky look of that inelegant spring, has become a favorite. I now have three GOs, in various nib sizes, and they’re all great writers (as well as being SUPER EASY to clean).

I anxiously awaited the arrival of my Draco. Had I made a $150 blunder? <eyes mailbox nervously>

In a week or so my TWSBI Draco arrived, and I immediately inked it up with Organics Studio Emily Dickinson Posey Pink because of the way that ink complements the pink flecks in the very pretty acrylic.

I really do like the look of the pen—the rose gold-plated steel nib and trim against the predominantly deep red acrylic—but it’s those little hints of pink, where you can see some depth, that really made me love this pen.

Speaking of the nib, that’s what really makes or breaks a pen, doesn’t it? Turns out, the bold nib on my Draco absolutely sings. It is very, very smooth. Phew.

That said, would the Draco look better with a more-to-scale #6 nib versus the #5 it’s equipped with? No doubt. Is the $150 price tag too high? Probably. (This is a limited run of 3000 pens worldwide, so I suppose that justifies the un-TWSBI-like price tag.) But I don’t care about either of those criticisms. The pen feels great in my hand as my fingers rest comfortably on the slightly flared grip. The nib makes me happy every time I use it, and the colors in the acrylic give me an opportunity to write with some of my lesser used red and pink inks. (I’m strongly drawn to all kinds of blues, and it takes quite a bit to pull me away from those colors.)

After I drained this decently large capacity piston-filler by journaling with it every morning, I refilled the pen with Iroshizuku Yama Budo—another great match.

Mary Oliver in Yama Budo

This may not be a perfect pen, but it’s a true joy to use. My TWSBI Draco brings me as much joy as hearing the vet try to pronounce “TWSBI.”

High praise, indeed.

“Hey, vet- it’s easy. Just say TWIZ-BEE.”

“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!

_____________

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.