One of my best friends is a spinner. Not the stationary-bike kind, but the turn-wool-into-yarn kind. She spins and dyes her own fibres, and then knits the most beautiful shawls. Not everyone understands her "weird, old hobby," as another friend's daughter referred to it, but I do. I have a weird, old hobby of my own. I'm a calligraphist.
I actually learned to do calligraphy as a Girl Guide. My old blue sash is tucked safely away in a drawer, and my calligraphy badge is one of the first ones I sewed on to it. It was one badge we pursued as a troop, and I can remember how frustrated we would get when the imperfections in the surface of the old, wooden tables we worked at would take control of our pens and ruin our painstaking work. I found the work both challenging and soothing at the same time - I was hooked.
As beginners, we used felt-tipped calligraphy pens - for me, it was the first and last time. Even at a young age, I became a bit of an ink snob, and insisted on at least having an ink cartridge pen when my parents wouldn't let me have a dip pen and open inkwell (I still managed to make plenty of messes with the small amount of ink in a cartridge). I was delighted to discover the subtle differences that a change in nib size could make to my work.
An avid reader and writer, I've always loved words. Calligraphy, to me, is a way to make the words physically represent the depth of their meaning. Like setting poetry to music to create a song, calligraphy adds another aesthetic layer, elevating the words beyond their meaning. A manuscript is one art form. An illuminated manuscript - with borders, fancy initials at the start of a paragraph and pictures in the margins - is an entirely different one.
Over the years, I have developed my own style, based on Italic script, with some Gothic influence. My everyday handwriting remains woefully messy, and gives absolutely no hint of the care I take in calligraphy with my ascenders, descenders and spacing. The doodles I make in the margins of meeting notes bear no relation whatsoever to the illumination I've started adding to my latest works with coloured inks and tiny brushes.
I handwrote my own wedding invitations, all 40 of them, and addressed the envelopes that accompanied them. I have addressed invitations for friends and family, and written and illuminated favourite quotations, song lyrics, and birth announcements. As a thank-you to the midwife who delivered my first son, I copied out the Midwife's Philosophy that had been included in the information package from the clinic. I was immensely flattered to see it framed on her wall when I returned to see her, pregnant with my second son.
Calligraphy is my one claim to what were once known as the feminine arts. In spite of years of lessons, I would be hard pressed to play anything on the piano, and while I love to sing, I would never be called upon to provide the after-dinner entertainment. I have some skill with a needle, but my one cross-stitch project, started years ago for my first apartment, languishes unfinished in a packing box in my basement. I can knit, and have another badge on my sash to prove it, but it never captured my attention in the same way that calligraphy did.
The very act of sitting down at the table, pulling the creamy sheet of paper toward me, and filling my fountain pen with ink is like meditation. I can lose myself in the careful creation of each letter, and the unconscious rhythm of the multiple strokes it takes to form one. I take pride in a finished piece of work that is as polished as something that came out of a laser printer, and yet uniquely personal. For me, the enjoyment is in putting pen to ink, and then to paper. Friends have expressed their reluctance to toss the envelopes I've carefully worked on - I tell them there will always be more envelopes coming in the mail. I am pleased when my work is kept, but the joy is in the creation.
In a world where the merits of learning any kind of handwriting are debated, and kids are more comfortable texting and typing than writing longhand, calligraphy with a dip-pen seems positively archaic. Yet the endless supply of fonts available at the click of a computer mouse will never thrill me in quite the same way.
I have two small boys, a full-time job, and a home and yard to care for. I don't have a lot of extra time on my hands, but when I do find some, I like to spend it putting a little additional magic into some of my favourite words. My name is Cari, and my weird, old hobby is calligraphy.
Cari Howard lives in Kitchener, Ont.
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