In the chin
I haven’t been writing much lately for various reasons: Accidentally reading every take on newsletters to be found on the internet! Burnout! Feeling crushed by the state of the world! Going back and forth to the beach for weeks at a time! It happens. I have, however, been practicing calligraphy. And it is writing, sort of. Even if it's a stream of consciousness or repeating a Britney Spears lyric (“Oops I did it again”) or doodling “L O L” over and over again—I’ll count it.
In April, I took a 6-week online scriptorium, or calligraphy class, taught by the Berkeley art collective 2727 Street. Though I’m still gaining my footing, I’m hooked on calligraphy now—it awakened a new noticing for me as a reader and a writer. I have never thought so much about the weight of a serif or the space between the branches and the arc of an “n,” how characters connect to or distance themselves from one another. I get why people are so into typography now, I do. I can’t stop looking closely at letters, mesmerized by their darting angles and suggestive curves. The New Yorker’s “Q” floats away like a balloon let go. The serif of the “v” in Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness is a little fist, raised in protest, or maybe the narrator’s hand calling for the check at a cafe. The “Y” on the bottle of my supplements stands symmetrical and firm, a grounding fork.
Our teachers covered the basics of Italic calligraphy in two-hour bursts: lower case, upper case, numbers, layouts. Practicing is an exercise in balance. When I apply too much pressure, the ink fuzzes like a caterpillar’s coat. My hand, which hasn’t fully regained sensation 10 months after surgery, often cramps and locks, and I have to pause. And my mind can wander; I’m too used to the rapid-fire typing that can keep up with the speed of my thoughts. Calligraphy, I’m learning, is a slow practice.
Yet I’m impatient to be just as good as the people who have been doing this for years. I’ve picked up a few books to help me along, including Italic Calligraphy and Handwriting, by Lloyd Reynolds, and Jacqueline Svaren’s Written Letters. Both are instructional manuals, but they also feel like philosophical texts. In each teacher’s words, writing becomes a full body exercise, mental and physical. You are guided to sit up straight, hold your pen just so, inhale, exhale, pull down, flick. You are taken through the history of scripts beyond the why and how of iterating them. You are advised that what you write will reflect back at you with whatever meaning you imbue.
Svaren’s directives, especially, have stuck with me. They are blunt yet gentle, always earnest, often funny, perhaps spiritual. If you are interested in writing, art history, or meditation, I think you’ll enjoy reading the book straight through, as I did. I couldn’t resist taking pictures of some of my favorite quotes (she calligraphed the whole book, so they look much more beautiful there) and I’ll share them here with you.
On comparing your script to that from a machine, she reminds us: “YOU ARE NOT A TYPEWRITER. Admit mistakes, correct them, and go right on.”
To focus on the task at hand: “HURRY IS ONE OF THE CURSES OF OUR TIME. Slow down. Enjoy what you are doing. Enjoy yourself.”
In discussing whether to more heavily club ascenders or not: “NEVER DO ANYTHING WHICH SEEMS UGLY TO YOU. TRUST IN YOUR SENSE OF THE BEAUTIFUL.”
On using contemporary designs: “Be a now person. Don’t content yourself with emulating the past….move and grow—even though it is sometimes painful.”
On using blackletter as an alphabet, since it’s so hard to read: “After all, the primary function of writing is to be read, NOT TO BE FANCY.”
And to focus in our distracting, fragmented world, she recommends doing some yoga and breathing before sitting down to write: “Now you have become still inside. You can become the pen. Become the letter. Become the word. Become the spirit. Remember that where you are is good. What you do today is for today, and what you do tomorrow is for tomorrow and will be different.”
I have been trying to keep Svaren’s missives in mind as I work through the alphabet, and move through time. When I practice, I’ve been focusing on what I’ll call the chin of the “a”—the little bowl, or chin, in the swoop of the lower case letter. To make it, you must form a rounded vessel with your straight-edged pen, then drag the outer line upwards in an arc, and connect the whole thing. This same motion is used for the “d” and the “q,;” reversed, it’s used in the “b” and the “p.” Somehow I keep getting stuck on it, making the chin a little too pointy or a little too squat. My lines wobble and veer when I pull up. It’s a fitting place to work in for now, in this little valley, when my mind knots up and my chest feels heavy. Even when I have nothing to say, I write the letters over and over and over, scrawling whatever comes to mind: the lyrics of “House of the Rising Sun,” a Mary Oliver poem, the date. “Today is June 9, 2021.” I breathe, move through the chin, and close the loop.
Highlights of reading, watching, listening, and cooking over the past few months: I watched the documentary Crip Camp, which I loved—different groups like the Black Panthers and machinist unions supported protests for Section 504 legislation to end discrimination based on disability (the union hired U-Haul trucks to transport people in wheelchairs when they came to DC, pretty rad). In addition to Pretend It’s a City (meh), I watched the original documentary Public Speaking, which isn’t streaming anywhere but was much better. I thought Minari was a gorgeous cinematic treat. Evolution was a true campy delight. I’ve been on a David Lynch kick, and watched Wild at Heart (whew) and have started in on Twin Peaks. I blazed through the brilliant Call My Agent. I’m working my way through High on the Hog, which refuses to be binged.
Anna North’s radical feminist Western, Outlawed, was fun, smart, and so tightly written. Esmé Weijun Wang’s Collected Schizophrenias was beautiful and poignant. Ottessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands left me unimpressed. Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness was a total stunner. I’m working through Torrey Pines’ Detranisitioned, Baby, Mathew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World, and Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower. And I’m pre-ordering Dan Koeppel’s upcoming book Every Minute is A Day, about his cousin who worked in the ER during the height of the pandemic (Dan is one of the best writers I know, so I’m really looking forward to this one).
The NYT’s reporting on anosmia in the magazine and food section has really stuck with me over all this time, and so has this New Yorker story about a Catholic cartographer. Several of my friends and acquaintances have launched great newsletters or columns over the last few months that I’ve loved reading: Tammie on cooking with alcohol at Saveur; Sabrina on nature and identity at Sierra Club; Michelle’s newsletter on cooking and identity, with a great first interview with farmer Christina Chan of Choy Division; Daniel’s newsletter on Plop Art. I loved listening to Naomi’s longform narrative reporting podcast How it Happened, which is on the final days of the Trump administration. And though we aren’t friends, I’ve also been appreciating the Time to Say Goodbye podcast—highlights have been their nuanced analysis on “Interpreting the Atlanta massacre” and “Buddhism, writing, and mixed martial arts with Ocean Vuong.”
If you’re interested in writing, I’ve really enjoyed Meredith Talusan’s free workshops on everything from short stories to PR; you can sign up for their newsletter for future events. There’s been a lot of union news lately as the New Yorker prepares for a strike and the NYT Tech Guild fights for recognition (you can sign a letter in support). I enjoyed going to union steward training to help my colleagues remember their Weingarten rights should the need arise. I did a refresh of bystander training with Hollaback too in light of continuous anti-Asian hate crimes—it’s an hour and free. Memorial Day weekend marks 4 years since fellow Reedie Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche was killed on a train trying to intervene during a racist attack, and I always think of him and his family during this time.
I’ve barely been cooking, mainly relying on what I lovingly call “mush meals”—cobbled together stir fries or vegetable add-ons to Trader Joe’s stuff, but maybe the combinations will inspire you? Think tomato/pesto/garlicky greens on polenta with an egg or sauteed mushrooms/chard/feta on that fast farro they have or a snack plate with crudite and smoked trout on seedy crackers or good tuna with spicy arugula, red onion, crunchy vegetables, seeds, and vinegar. I have been making one salad I can’t get enough of: grate carrots, make a lemon honey olive oil salt and pepper dressing, add mint, let it sit in the fridge for a bit, then add feta or walnuts. It’s so zippy and good. Some nice meals with friends have been homemade pasta with blistered, glossy cherry tomatoes and oily-crunchy rosemary and lots of flaky salt, and grilled pork loin with fennel-apple-walnut salad and baked Japanese sweet potatoes. My mom also made a standout avgolemono soup when it was colder (the recipe came from a friend’s elementary school class cookbook, but you can find one online)—it’s ethereal.
And lastly, I’ve published some fun stuff—guides to non-alcoholic cocktails, wine fridges, ice cream makers, how to hand wash dishes better, and food storage containers. Julia Bainbridge interviewed me about how we tested non-alcoholic drinks, too.
Here’s a song to leave you with:
Until next time.
This was lovely. Reminds me of the zen practice of drawing a circle. The mindfulness of calligraphy was transferred beautifully into the writing here. Thank you for this gift.