A Clean(ish) Slate

The urge to hit January 1st with a completely clean slate is a strong one. We step into the new year with new planners full of blank space and the potential for well-planned and productive days. We aspire to be the kind of person whose laundry is neatly folded and immediately put away, whose kitchen counters are full of emptiness instead of catalogs and junk mail on their way to someplace else, whose refrigerators are devoid of expired condiments.

So it makes sense why I saw so many late December Instagram posts of pen people slaving over a bathroom or kitchen sink cleaning ALL OF THE PENS in one fell swoop in order to hit the first day of the new year with everything flushed, dried, and ready for MINDFUL re-inking.

It’s funny how quickly the number of inked pens sneaks up on you. A new ink, a new pen, the hankering to use a beloved ink and pen combo, the urge for a wider nib or a thinner one or a stubbier one—all result in overstuffed pen cases, seemingly overnight. Which leads to a kind of pen overwhelm. “Which ink is in this TWSBI?!” No clue, other than it’s pink(ish).

True confession: Just as the kitchen counter was not in particularly good shape on New Year’s Day, my pen situation was also out of hand. Oy.

Inked pens seemed to be multiplying on their own and playfully stowing themselves in every pen case I own. But rather than look at January 1st as a deadline, I decided to regain control slowly, by cleaning a pen or two per day versus spending hours at the sink. Turtle versus hare.

Pen cleaning is now as much a part of my evening ritual as brushing my teeth is. Pick a pen, flush the converter (if there is one), and toss the nib section into the sonicator I bought in Aldi’s “weird aisle” ages ago. Granted, I’m approaching the middle of January and still have a few pens to go, but watching the “crop” of clean pens grow has been oddly satisfying. My pen cases are breathing a sigh of relief and visions of carefully chosen pen and ink combinations dance in my head. I have, so far, resisted the urge to ink things up all willy-nilly. A feat.

So I’m getting there one day at a time, one pen at a time. New year, clean(ish) slate.

Now about the kitchen counter and that expired mustard.

A word of caution: Casually tossing the toilet paper you’ve used to blot pens into the toilet, then waiting to flush because there’s more cleaning to be done, can result in alarmed family members who mistake Diamine Blood Orange for something intestinally problematic. I’ve even scared myself this way.

The Best Day: The Poet and a Pencil

This road trip to Amherst, Massachusetts was a long time coming. A friend and I had been wanting to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum and Homestead since early 2020. We made a vow that winter to hit the road in the spring of 2020, but the world had other plans. Covid hit and we were all stopped in our tracks. “Well, we’ll go in the summer,” we naively thought.

A White Oak, reportedly planted by Emily’s grandfather, still stands on the property.

The pandemic dragged on, the Homestead remained closed, and our plans for that road trip gathered more dust. Our hopes soared when restrictions eased (“Hope is the thing with feathers…”), but then an extensive renovation project on the home began in February 2021 and lasted for about 18 months. A worthy endeavor, to be sure, but yet another lesson in patience.

The museum reopened in August 2022 and on October 22nd, we finally hit the road for Amherst, MA. What an absolutely gorgeous fall day it was—surprisingly warm and sunny and ablaze in autumnal colors. A real stunner of a day.

We arrived well before our 12 pm tour reservation so we took the opportunity to walk the grounds, guided by a self-paced audio tour. This selection from the audio tour talks about the well-worn path between the Homestead and The Evergreens, the home of Emily’s brother, Austin, and his wife and Emily’s dear friend, Sue Gilbert Dickinson:

The path between the Homestead and The Evergreens was a physical connection for the family. Emily once described it as “just wide enough for two who love.” It was flanked by trim lawn and carefully placed trees for shade and floral interest. 

To see her brother and “Sister Sue,” as she called her sister-in-law, Emily didn’t need to go out onto the street. Her niece remembered her grandfather walking over with a lantern to guide Aunt Emily home after dark. When Emily arrived back at the Homestead, she set a light in her west bedroom window that was answered by one from Sue’s on the east side of the Evergreens.

Over this path, too, went poems. Emily shared many of her poems with the family next door, especially Susan. 

Then—Noon! The tour! At last!!

A few glimpses…

Emily’s conservatory
In the study
Prop books and documents from “Dickinson,” the Apple TV+ series

Finally, finally, finally, we stepped into the room I’ve been wanting to see for almost three years—Emily’s bedroom.

Replicas of Emily dress and diminutive desk
The actual bed in which Emily slept and died

I don’t really recall details of the tour guide’s spiel. I just stood there and absorbed the energy of the space—imagining the days when both the fireplace and Emily’s brain were ablaze. A perfectly ordinary yet very sacred space—I could feel that in my heart.

A short walk from the Homestead is The West Cemetery, where Emily, her sister Lavinia, and parents lie.

“Called back” at 56.

Before we left the graveyard, I placed the stub of my Musgrave 600 News pencil (a very simple pencil that’s become a favorite) on top of Emily’s gravestone.

A pencil left in gratitude—for the poems that remain a mystery and the ones I’ve grown to love.

Nature assigns the Sun —

That — is Astronomy

Nature cannot enact a Friend

That — is Astrology

This was the best day. Time away with a friend. Plenty of iced coffee and conversation. Problems temporarily forgotten. A pilgrimage. A poet.

At last.

Finding Stillness and Embracing Imperfection

I’ve been feeling a little off-kilter for the last few months—maybe since my dad died in January—wallowing a bit and not focusing enough on the things that make me feel like a healthy version of myself. I’ve been drinking more coffee than water, eating whatever (hello, ice cream!), exercising sporadically, and going down online rabbit holes of bad news. So when the Summer 2022 Whole Life Challenge rolled around, I knew that I had to sign up. The Whole Life Challenge is the thing that jumpstarted my wellness journey and always helps me reset my body and mind.

So here I am starting Week #2 and already feel so much better! My clothes fit a little looser, I’m kicking the ice cream habit (yet again), and am once again walking about 2.5 miles every morning. (The birdsong on those walks is a true delight!)

What’s been especially helpful are the weekly well-being practices. Week #1 was a “No News” week. Oh, how I needed that!! The news apps came off of my phone and I walked around the house shouting “NO NEWS!!” if I caught wind of some on the TV. (One does what one has to do.) The only news I took in was via word-of-mouth and, believe me, that’s plenty. Even though I’m now into the second week of the challenge, I’m sticking with this one.

The well-being practice for Week #2 is “Stillness in Daily Life” in which we are to focus on a hobby or activity that we enjoy, for at least ten minutes a day. This is meant as a way to achieve “stillness” without sitting motionless, as in meditation. It’s an attempt to introduce some peace into our noisy and whirling dervish lives. Who couldn’t use that?! Oh-and the best part is YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE GOOD at the activity you choose. The goal is to simply do it.

Journaling would be a good practice, but I already do that every morning so that felt like cheating. And I wanted to try something new, maybe something that I’m kind of bad at but enjoy. Lightbulb moment—I’ll DRAW in my journal. Just as I had that thought, I noticed the little “viewfinder”—the subscriber extra for Blackwing Volume 93—that’s been collecting dust on my desk.

And so my “Stillness” practice was born. I use the viewfinder to draw a small box, then sketch something from my day. Like my breakfast…

Or some flowers from my morning walk…

Tiny flowers in tiny mulch.

What’s cool, is that I’m noticing the little details on my walk rather than focusing on the loop of troublesome thoughts in my head.

AND—I do not have to be good at this. I simply have to do it.

Like the “No News” practice, I plan to keep this one going. Finding stillness and embracing imperfection has become just as important to me as kicking that ice cream habit.

What would you do for your “Stillness” practice?


Updated to add the rest of the week’s “gallery”:

This really has been a blast—much more meditative for me than meditation.

If nothing else, I’m finally getting around to sharpening all of the colored pencils in this box that I’ve had for years, probably decades. (Why rush, eh?)

P.S. Blacktop is really hard to draw. (That’s a leaf in the road, next to the colored pencils. Tough one today!)

Constant Companion: The Write Notepads & Co. Pocket Flip Notebook

Maybe it’s bad form to write about a product that’s no longer available, but I can’t resist jotting down a few thoughts about this diminutive (2-1/4″ x 3-3/4″) Write Notepads & Co. Pocket Flip Notebook because one is ALWAYS with me. The covers and pages are bent and creased, the pages full of scribbled notes in no particular order—messy and random. Like life.

There are comical moments…

Notes for lunchtime walks with a friend…

which sometimes contain little life lessons for myself…

Work reminders made on-the-fly followed by bits of poetry jotted down from a favorite TV show…

So many reminders and moments, fleeting thoughts, and prompts for meandering stories, laughs, and frustrations fill the tiny pages. This is no gorgeous bullet journal, but rather a tiny volume of life’s scraps and curiosities, smudges and scribbles. My days. My treasure.

(I have four left, smartly hoarded. What then?!)

Today I Got To:__________

My dad passed away on January 22nd, and ever since then I feel like I’ve been running on a hamster wheel deciphering confusing mail, filling out inscrutable forms, and settling his financial affairs with an array of agencies, businesses, and people. My lists have sub-lists, an abundance of color-coding, and pages of carefully written explanations of what I’ve done and when I did it. There’s lots of waiting for other people to do things, which they seem to get right about 60% of the time. My brain is a Tilt-A-Whirl of tasks, appointments, and emotions. Wild times.

I bought a 5-Year Hobonichi Journal from Wonder Pens late last year and have have been faithfully jotting down a few lines about each day. For the first month and a half, my entries were simple recaps of my day, trending toward the negative. “Slept badly.” “Work was nuts.” “Cat still sick.” “Dad is failing.” Yeesh. As the entries piled up, I realized that compiling five years of complaints was not how I pictured this project going, but my brain seemed stuck in a “glass half empty” mode.

Until the universe—well, the universe in the form of Johnny Gamber—gave me a way out of the wallowing.

I’m a “Nubbin Stage” supporter of The Erasable Podcast via Patreon, and every so often, the three podcast hosts send little bonuses to us. In February, a sweet pocket notebook printed by Johnny’s Pencil Revolution Press arrived in my beleaguered mailbox. Ahhh, happy mail! While the notebook is great, it’s the list of writing prompts included in the package that’s made all the difference. In particular, Johnny’s prompt (pictured below) flipped my mental switch from the staticky “overwhelmed and anxious” channel to the crystal clear “grateful” channel. Just. Like. That.

Now I write about my lunchtime walks…

and the lazy days…

and letters and cards I’ve written…

and even those pesky appointments that now seem like something to celebrate rather than complain about.

Today I got to: Thank Johnny for his idea—for these four simple words that are helping me find the gems in even the trickiest days. These entries have become a kind of puzzle to solve every evening—looking back through the day to find the goodness, smiles, joy, humor, and connections—all a balm for one’s soul. I honestly can’t wait to see what the next five years bring.

Analog Coping Mechanisms

2022 has been a rough year so far. My 93-year old dad, who lives in a nursing home because of advanced Parkinson’s Disease, tested positive for COVID-19 on January 3rd. I’ll spare you the details but it has been a very tough/distracting/emotional time since then. Yesterday he “graduated” out of the COVID ward and I was finally able to see him in person, but I’m not sure he knew I was there. I like to think he did.

During this time, I’ve craved hibernation and bed, but, of course, one must keep going. But how? I’ll always default to things that keep my mind soothed, simple things that feel good, things that take the edge off, even for a little while.

I’ve been journaling like CRAZY. Lots of pages. Lots of dumping ink and my heart onto the page. Lots of pep talks to myself and to my dad. Conflicting thoughts. Difficult thoughts. Pleas to just stay present and to not play the “what comes next?” game. I’m ripping though ink and journal pages and am proud of myself for showing up every day, though the urge to stay in bed is strong.

And that blue hourglass. Incredibly calming. I don’t know why I bought one, but now I’m glad I did. There’s something soothing about that blue glass and the gently streaming sand. A little reminder that we don’t necessarily have all the time that we think we do.

Sometime last year, I developed the habit of sticking inspiring quotes inside my pocket notebook. I push them along in the notebook as I fill up the pages, then transfer them to the next notebook. They’re starting to lose their stickiness so it’s probably time for a refresh, and maybe some new ones, but, boy, have I been leaning on these lately.

Especially the Rilke one. “Just keep going. No feeling is final.” Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

In my free time, usually in the evening, I’ve been working on a HUGE crossword puzzle that recently came in a special puzzle insert with the local newspaper.

We don’t get the paper, but my mom gave me the section and after I finished the cryptograms (my all-time favorite puzzles), I started tackling the crosswords which are normally not my thing. These particular puzzles are just difficult enough to be challenging but also easy enough to be doable. The perfect balance.

But what I’m REALLY enjoying is the feel of the soft graphite in the Blackwing Vol. 93 Corita Kent pencil on the newsprint. How incredibly satisfying to write an answer in that deep dark print. Soooooooo smoooooooth.

I hope 2022 is treating you well, but if there have been bumps in the road, please know that I am with you in spirit.

“Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

Currently Inked- November 2021

I love reading about what other pen lovers/users are using so why not do the same?

I keep swearing to “thin the herd” of inked pens, and I do have brief cleaning sessions, but then I think of another interesting pen and ink combination to try and I’m right back to where I started. I might as well face the fact that this is a losing battle, or, more accurately, a battle that I have no real interest in fighting.

The current crop...or herd...or whatever
The current crop…or herd…or whatever.

The pen that I reach for more often than not is the Karas Kustoms Ultem Vertex (the first pen on the left). Absolutely LOVE IT!!!! I tried to resist ordering this because the look of the Ultem doesn’t really do that much for me, but I’m so glad I eventually caved and placed my order. A discount code made my upgrade to a medium titanium nib virtually free, which sweetened the deal. Titanium nibs are my favorite, and this one is wet, smooth, and slightly springy. Truly addictive. I have it eyedroppered with Birmingham Pen Co. Electron ink—a bright blue with some red sheen. Gorgeous combo, and a dream to use for journaling and letter writing.

The third pen from the left—a Karas Kustoms INK in tumbled aluminum with another medium titanium nib—gets heavy use as well. This one is repeatedly inked with Birmingham Pen Co. Voltaic Arc—a dark blue with high sheen. (Notice a pattern here?)

The Gravitas Skittles Skull pen is a BEAST. It is HEAVY (74 g capped, 49 g uncapped), but surprisingly usable despite the stunning heft. I have this inked with Waterman Tender Purple, currently one of my favorite purple inks. I’ve started attending “Death Café” meetings (which are much more uplifting than they sound) and this will be the perfect show-and-tell item at a future meeting. Memento Mori in a pen!

The second pen from the left—a Franklin Christoph P45 in the Kaleidoscope acrylic—is a recent addition from their last online pen show. I ordered it with a broad S.I.G nib and inked it with Iroshizuku Yama Budo—a very satisfying combination.

Other current favorites:

  • Moonman C1 perpetually inked with shimmery J. Herbin Kyanite du Nepal
  • Narwhal in Poseidon Blue inked with Birmingham Pen Co. Tesla Coil
  • The TWSBI Draco inked with Diamine Writer’s Blood (with an amazingly smooth bold nib)
  • A couple of Levenger True Writers—Kyoto inked with Papier Plume’s Café Diabolique and the Sea Glass inked with Birmingham Pen Co. Black Olive (pretty sure)
  • Spoke Design Icon inked with Birmingham Pen Co. Jade Inferno
  • Lamy Safari with Sailor Jentle Grenade
  • Franklin-Christoph Model 31 with Waterman Tender Purple
  • TWSBI Swipe with Birmingham Pen Co. Electron

These are a few of my favorite, and currently inked, things.

Write ’em dry!

A Scary Project

Just in time for the full moon and Halloween, when ghouls and ghosts rule our neighborhoods. Mostly inflatable, but still.

What I’m working on, though, will take weeks—probably months—to chip away at this overwhelming project.

I happened to have a work meeting yesterday with someone who suffered a serious house fire a couple of years ago. Fortunately everyone got out safely, but the house and contents were a total loss. As we wrapped up our meeting, he mentioned how he’s still trying to put together, from memory, an accounting of all that they lost to keep the insurance piece moving forward. That triggered the thought that I should proactively assemble that kind of inventory. And then I thought of the horror of trying to remember what pens I own, and providing proof of ownership. YIKES!!

So this morning I began compiling a pen inventory, starting with a single pen case, while trying to track down receipts at the same time. (My husband helpfully suggested that it would’ve been good if I’d done this as I acquired the pens and now he’s buried in the backyard.) Let me tell you, it’s slow going, but I pledge to carry on. My co-worker said that receipts aren’t necessarily required, but if I have them, I might as well organize them in one place.

Then I’ll take pictures of the rest of the house so that I can recall and prove all that we own. Just in case.

But a fire isn’t the only reason to keep such a log. I also worry about when I’ve—shall we say—”moved on.”

Will a niece or nephew hold a garage sale and sell off my collection at $5 a pen? Or less? Gives me chills thinking about it. This record will at least offer some guidance to whoever manages our affairs. Cheery today, aren’t I? (Part of my newfound Memento Mori practice, I guess.)

Another scary piece—maybe the scariest piece—is watching the dollar tally tick upwards on the spreadsheet. This, I’ll admit, is a huge part of why I never attempted this project before. I simply don’t want to know how much I’ve spent on pens.

I’ve only gotten through half of this case so far. There are many more pens to log, but winter is long and cold and will be here soon. This is the perfect indoor project. Even though the whole thing gives me goosebumps thinking about how much time this will take, I feel better having started, and have mentally settled in for the long haul.

Feel the fear. Do it anyway. Or something like that.

(Have you done this? How did it go?)

A Social Media Upgrade

Last Saturday I started another 6-week session of the Whole Life Challenge. After a summer of indulgences and some wallowing, I sorely need this. And once my mental switch flips on, I’m all in—cooking better and more interesting food, making a conscious effort to drink more water than coffee, getting to bed in time to get at least a full seven hours, and taking that early morning walk no matter what. I feel so much better, mentally and physically, when I do these things that I don’t understand why I sometimes slide back into mindless habits.

ANYWAY—last week’s Well-Being Practice was to be more intentional about social media. Not to necessarily force yourself to block it out completely, but to tuck away or delete the apps that make accessing them reflexive and habitual. Except for posting a few “happy birthday” greetings on Facebook, I did stay away—even from my beloved Instagram. Did I (do I) feel like I’m missing out? A little bit. But I also feel much more focused and present. Not tuning out difficult moments and feelings. Riding them out instead.

I also decided, early on, to send more postcards, notes, and letters. In the time it takes to scroll through a Twitter or Facebook feed, I can write a paragraph or two. Boom. Done. A little piece of mail is on its way to a friend.

Even though we’re onto a new Well-Being Practice this week (“Quit the Unquittable” — I’m extending my hiatus from the news that I instituted on my own last week), I’m going to continue this social media upgrade. Pens, paper, stamps, a letter’s journey from here to there.

I love sending mail as much I as I love receiving it. And, boy, do I feel better.

Johnny Gamber, of Pencil Revolution and the Erasable podcast, makes some of my favorite postcards. Visit his etsy shop for these, as well as his always-entertaining zines and original notebooks.

Oh, and I’m back to making my own envelopes, too.