Don’t Forget to Dance

Last night I attended a dance performance by the Guild of Oriental Dance at the Cassandra School of Middle Eastern Dance, where I’ve just started taking classes. What struck me was the joy in movement that was wonderful to see in all the dancers, no matter what their age, size, or shape. I was impressed by the boldness and confidence of the women (and one man!), who moved beautifully wearing a variety of costumes, from fully covered to more revealing. A few, like Cassandra, were polished and professional dancers, but many were amateurs.

The great Cassandra Shore, earlier in her career

When I asked myself whether I might one day have enough courage to dance in front of an audience, even in a modest costume, my immediate response was, “Oh, hell no!”

To be honest, my response had a lot more to do with how I feel about my appearance than faith in my ability to learn how to dance.

When I was in my class yesterday morning, trying to learn the moves our teacher was demonstrating, I watched myself in the huge wall mirrors to see if I was doing it right. When I looked at myself, I did not like what I saw. Immediately, I flashed back to my teen self, looking in mirrors of a dance studio while taking ballet.

Never a serious dancer, I only took beginning lessons because my “open school” allowed us to use dance for gym requirements. I’d always hated gym class. I couldn’t run fast, throw or catch balls. So there I was in ballet class at 15, looking in the mirror as we followed the teacher’s instructions. I recall very vividly not liking what I saw. Was I tall and willowy like the girl to my right? No. Did I have the perfect hourglass shape like the girl to my left? No. Looking back, I know that I was fairly average. But that’s not the way I saw it. I was also unaware that it was very likely the girls next to me were similarly judging their own bodies.

If I could use a time machine to go talk to my teenaged self, what would I tell her? “Hey, enjoy how you look now, because it’s mostly downhill from here?” Not a great message, and not entirely accurate either. Maybe I would say, “Hey, look – you’ve got strong legs that allow you to bend and kick and leap. You can move your arms with confidence and some grace. You can move around the floor and exert your muscles, and feel how good that feels. You are young and healthy. Enjoy it!”

Since then I gave birth to two children, which of course changed my body. Overall, as an adult, I was average looking (size 12-14). Was I happy with that, or even content? Unfortunately not. I’ve never liked being photographed, and I’ve tried many times to change my body shape and overall appearance using various diets, exercise routines, hairdos, etc. But I never spent enough time on that, because there was always so much else to do and worry about.

Then my husband died when I was 42. Grief and depression followed for years, and I spent most of my energy raising my children and coping as best I could. My energy level was very low and I didn’t move much. I indulged in a lot of emotional eating. Within three years I gained 40 pounds. I had to wear size 18 (or larger). This was very upsetting to me and I hated myself for it. Again, I occasionally tried to lose weight through various methods, most of which were too drastic to be sustainable. Other concerns always ended up taking precedence and I just couldn’t keep up the regimen.

In recent years, by changing small things about my lifestyle, I’ve gradually begun to lose a little weight. I’m down 10 pounds from the heaviest I was (now size 16-18). To me, I’m still not in a good place. It took a lot to convince myself to take this belly dance class. Initially, I told myself that I’d wait until I lost another 10-20 pounds. Which could of course take years, or maybe never happen at all.

But that’s the difficulty with weight. If you put your life on hold until you are XX pounds lighter, you waste your life waiting for it to begin.

That’s why I loved watching these women dance. They didn’t have to look “perfect” to be good dancers. They all showed varying levels of skill in the dance moves I’m just starting to learn to appreciate, and they all performed with conviction and with joy.

The students and teachers of belly dance that I’ve talked to described the sensuousness of the movements, and how enthralled they were when they first watched belly dancers. I also heard that what they loved was the sense of confidence these women exude. I would add to that: what I loved was the sense that these women had complete and utter control of their own bodies, down to the muscles of their abdomens, tiny movements of the hips, shoulders, neck, and even – in the case of the fabulous Cassandra Shore – her eyebrows!

Given that the performance last night was a benefit for Women’s Advocates, an organization that helps women whose lives are impacted by violence, the message of women controlling their own bodies is even more powerful.

And empowering! I would like to learn to love and accept myself fully just as I am, and not wait for “someday” to do anything, because someday may never come. Taking these dance classes is not easy for me. Some of the movements do not feel natural. I feel clumsy and ungraceful as I try to make my feet and hips and arms do what the teacher is doing.

So why am I taking dance classes? I want to feel better about myself. I want to move more and learn how to enjoy movement and music in new ways. I’m not ready to be old quite yet.

So I ask myself again, would I ever have the courage to dance in front of an audience? Maybe, I think, just maybe. It would take a lot more classes first, though!

— Miriam


WAY Out of My Comfort Zone

If you had told me ten years ago that I would be drumming in rock bands, singing in public, or blogging about cooking, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Such is the magic of stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new things. You never know where it will lead you.

This week my impulse to try something new has led me WAY out of my comfort zone, into this dance studio.

The Cassandra School Dance Studio

My friend and fellow rock drummer Cassandra Shore is the Artistic Director of Jawaahir Dance Company and runs its accompanying school of Middle Eastern dance.

Dancer extraordinaire Cassandra Shore — Photo by Donna Kelly

You got it: Belly dancing. Not something I would have EVER dared to try to do before. And weirdly, not even when I was much younger, trimmer and fitter. But maybe there’s something about being over 50 that is liberating, to some degree. You care less about looking ridiculous because, no matter how silly or bad you may look, you’ve lived through worse. It just doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

It helped that it was a beginner class, with only women, and that almost everyone in the class was new to it. We were all ages and shapes and sizes. I’m pretty sure we were all abilities as far as being able to catch on to what we were doing, though frankly I was too busy watching the teacher and myself in the mirror, trying to figure out what the heck I was supposed to be doing, to notice what anybody else was up to.

Before deciding to try dancing I worried a bit about my hips, though, which have not been the same since many years ago when I constantly carried a toddler on one side, recklessly, and one day felt something go wrong in there. I’ve tried a number of things to alleviate the chronic — though not constant — discomfort in both hips over the years, though not much has helped. My discomfort is doubtless made worse by the pounds I’ve added on in the last 13 years and the many hours of sitting both for work and for my sedentary hobbies (reading, writing, crafts). In addition to that, arthritis runs in my family, which may be part of the issue. So I wasn’t entirely sure how it would go, but I was willing to give it a try.

In general I feel better when I’m more active, but when joints are aching, we all tend to slow down and move less, which can paradoxically make things worse. A large part of my desire to take this class, as much as it terrified me, was the knowledge that I’d better start moving more, while I still can.

It turns out that the movements and motions required for this kind of dancing may be exactly what I need. You isolate various parts of the body (neck, shoulders, rib cage, hips, feet – but mostly hips), moving and stretching in ways not usually experienced in daily activities. It actually felt good to warm up my hip joints and stretch them in new ways. A few of the movements were not 100% comfortable for me, to be honest, but the awesome teacher, Kathy McCurdy, showed us ways to stretch if we needed to, and encouraged us to do so at any time we felt the need.

Dance instructor Kathy McCurdy

To my surprise, my hips were not at all sore the next day, but actually felt somewhat better than they have been lately. This encourages me to keep going. The class is 1½ hours each Saturday for the next 10 weeks. I also want to look for other opportunities to do more low impact dancing/movement that is not too difficult and not too expensive, to keep moving to music. Loving music is what helps me move, and makes it more fun than other types of exercise. But I’ll talk more about that next time.

In the meanwhile, I hope I’ll remember some of what Kathy taught us today and try to practice a bit, because I know I’ll need it. This does not come easily to me, but I like the way it forces me to stand straighter and move with more conscious purpose!

If you live in the Twin Cities and know of opportunities to dance and move, low-pressure and not performance-oriented, let me know! I have a few ideas in mind already, but I’m open to hearing about more!


It’s all about that squash

September has mostly turned into a squash fest, with a few exceptions.

Every time I go to the grocery store now, I see new squash that I’ve never seen before, like these two interesting specimens. Do you know what they are?

The smaller squash is one I had never heard of, and apparently is used a lot with sweeter recipes, so I decided to use it more as a dessert. I also felt compelled to buy it because it shared the name of my cat. On the left: Sweet Dumpling Squash. On the right: sweet Dumpling the cat.

This may have been the recipe I used, though I don’t remember poking holes in the squash or putting water in the bottom of the pan. It’s possible that I just didn’t read the recipe that carefully.  I did cut the squash in half and scooped out the seeds, which I left outside for the squirrels.

It used lots of pure maple syrup, butter, cinnamon and nutmeg to turn the squash into a really yummy as well as hearty dessert. And it was easy to bake in the oven.

Jacques and I decided that it tasted like a combination of French toast and pumpkin pie.

Do you know this squash?

The delicata squash I had heard of, I think on one of the cooking shows I’ve watched, but I was pretty sure I’d never tasted it. Again, the first step is to halve and scoop out the seeds.

I found a fun recipe from, which specializes in allergy-friendly recipes, using ground turkey. Instead of cherry tomatoes I just chopped up some on-vine tomatoes I already had, and instead of chopped onions I used pearl onions, which I’d eaten many times but had never cooked with. It was not hard to make this recipe, and it turned out to be really tasty. I would definitely make it again. I served it with a simple romaine salad and crusty garlic toast.

The lesson I’m learning about squash is that overall it’s really easy to use, you can simply bake it if you want less fuss, and most of the squash varieties do not have that strong of a flavor, so they absorb a lot of what you’re cooking with them.

This was really true of the last one I tried this week, spaghetti squash.

I’d seen it on cooking shows, often used as a substitute for pasta. If you’ve never cooked with it, I recommend giving it a try! This squash has a harder shell, so it can be difficult to cut in half. The recipe I used recommended poking holes in it and scoring where you want to cut it first, then putting in the microwave for a few minutes to soften up the rind before cutting.

This recipe from called for cutting the squash in half, removing seeds, then baking the halves with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Then you shred the spaghetti-like cooked insides of the squash with a fork, so it looks like this:

Hence the name

Then you use as you might a pasta, mixing it with cut-up cooked chicken thighs, cheese, fresh lemon juice  (I also mixed in some lime, as I didn’t have enough lemon), and pepper. It really absorbed the citrus flavors and cheese wonderfully, which was a surprisingly delicious combination!

It looked like a hot mess after I added the cheese. I didn’t have enough Parmesan, so I added cut-up mozzarella too, which turned it into a gooey but very addictive mess. I served it with a simple salad of romaine and cut-up tomatoes to add those extra colors (see last week’s blog).

I did make one new dish this week that did not include squash. This recipe featured pearl onions.

They were difficult to peel, though if you boil them for a few minutes they peel easier. Based on the general idea of a recipe I found on with pearl onions and mushrooms (I didn’t have fresh thyme, so used dried thyme), I started what was supposed to be a side dish. Then I added some cut-up ham and some tomatoes too, because I had them in the fridge waiting to be used, plus I really like tomatoes. That turned it into a meal.

Here’s what I’m learning about myself as a cook: I get creative when I don’t have the right ingredients. This happens a lot, either because I don’t plan ahead, I’m too lazy to run out to the store for just one thing, OR I just feel like using up something I’ve got in the fridge that might go bad if it’s not eaten. The results have been amazingly good! I sometimes google substitutes for the missing ingredient, which can be more or less helpful, but lately I’ve just been winging it. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to try that even a year ago, so I can tell that my confidence is increasing. And the more positive results I achieve, the more confident I become. I guess that could be true with anything.

Keep on cooking!


Color my world

One thing I’ve read about good, healthy eating involves color. Not only does a colorful plate look pretty, but it also means that you’ve chosen ingredients with a variety of vitamins and nutrients. In my continuing quest to cook with unfamiliar — and plant-based — ingredients, I’m looking to color to inspire me.

Most types of squash have nice color to them, both inside and out. I picked up this acorn squash at the grocery store last week to try.

While I’m sure I’ve eaten acorn squash, which is a pretty familiar ingredient in the autumn around here, I’ve never cooked it before. I think I’ve had acorn squash ravioli somewhere. When I cut it open and scooped out the seeds, it felt like preparing a jack o’lantern, and smelled a bit like pumpkin, too.


A lot of acorn squash recipes include butter and brown sugar, sounding more like dessert. I wanted to go a little more savory with this one, so I found a recipe on involving parmesan cheese which sounded good.  I didn’t have sprigs of thyme that the recipe called for, so I used dried ground thyme. It turned out to be pretty tasty. Jacques ate the skin too, but I didn’t care for that texture.

I probably could have sliced them thinner.

Then I bought a bag of little sweet peppers at the grocery store last week just because they were cute and colorful: the peppers were various hues of yellow, red and orange.

Without using any particular recipe, I ended up cutting them up quite thin to sauté with the one shishito pepper I had from my sister-in-law’s CSA pepper stash.

The second pepper here looked like it had gone bad when I cut it open, so I only used the good one, along with half an onion and a garlic clove. Because I was going Asian flavor profile with this meal (I’d already marinated chicken drumsticks in soy sauce, ginger, black pepper, honey and garlic, with a sprinkle of fish sauce and lemon juice; and I had rice going in my rice cooker), I then added a dash of soy, ginger and lime to the sautéed peppers.

Then I cheated and microwaved a bag of frozen sugar snap peas I had in the freezer, to end up with a nice colorful plate. It tasted pretty good, too. The shishito pepper was not spicy at all but added a nice zing to the overall flavor.

There were two chayotes left over from the previous week,

Remember this?

so I decided to cook them up using a recipe I found on It called for slicing the chayote lengthwise and cooking with vinegar, garlic and red pepper flakes.

The red pepper flakes made the dish quite spicy (for me) in a good way, but I didn’t care for the taste of the vinegar very much (though maybe it was not good vinegar). After tasting it in the pan, I decided to add some tomatoes to absorb some of the heat and vinegar, which helped. I threw in a dash of lime juice also; not sure why. The recipe said that the chayote would still be crunchy after cooking, but I didn’t care for it being that hard, so I cooked it a great deal longer than the recipe said. It was still quite crunchy despite the extra time in the pan. I think I prefer chayote to be cooked until softer.

I served it with some leftover sweet potatoes and carrots I had roasted with cumin and cinnamon a couple of days earlier for a colorful, meatless meal.

I’m going to keep looking for more colorful, unfamiliar ingredients to add to my cooking. I’ll let you know what I find at the grocery store next time …


Adventures in eating

What better way to broaden your horizons, if you don’t have the means to travel, than through your palate? Do you know what this is?

I’ll tell you a little later on.

This month I plan to explore new horizons via the kitchen. I’ll be cooking with ingredients I’ve never used before (which is a lot, actually), or that I’ve never even heard of, as in the above picture.

As you may have read in my previous blogs about baking, starting with Alice’s Loaf Pan, I don’t have a great history as a cook. My mother did not welcome company in the kitchen while she cooked, so I didn’t learn at her side. It wasn’t until I had children that I even thought much about cooking, and the exhaustion and busyness of motherhood did not inspire me to play catch-up for all the years I’d neglected learning this important skill.

So the upshot is, I have a very limited range of experience in the kitchen. In recent months I’ve been trying to rectify that. It’s easier now that I have fewer obligations and a little more time to experiment. I’m enjoying lots of the cooking shows on Food Network. Plus, I have a willing recipient of my efforts who has been very encouraging (my boyfriend Jacques)!

My main goal is to increase the amount of unprocessed, plant-based foods in my cooking, mostly for reasons of health as well as for the environment.

First I decided to use a Poblano pepper, since we received some peppers from my sister-in-law Kathy, who belongs to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).

I hope to join the CSA next year, as you get a wonderful, fresh, organic supply of vegetables (and occasional fruit, like melons) for a reasonable price. You receive whatever items they’ve harvested each week, and it’s like a fun surprise — your share might contain various lettuces, herbs, squash, root vegetables, peppers — you name it! Plus you support local agriculture, which is great.

Being Minnesota born and raised, I’m not crazy about spicy food, and I’m pretty wimpy in general about things like peppers. I hunted around on the internet till I found a recipe that seemed pretty straightforward and did not use too many peppers, on the Food Network website.

Because I didn’t have any pears, I used a peach instead. I didn’t really char the onions, as they weren’t that close to the broiler in my oven (I’m a little afraid of the broiler). But overall it turned out pretty good, though it was spicier than I normally like.

Jacques liked it just fine; here he just chomped into a pepper at our local Teresa’s Mexican restaurant.

Jacques enjoys spicy food!

The dish was hot enough for me that if I made it again, I might only use half a pepper, or add more fruit to balance it out.

My friend James assures me that Poblanos are not at all spicy (only 1,000-3,500 on the Scoville scale of spiciness), but Jacques and I both agreed that the dish had some heat. It may be that I didn’t clear the veins out of the pepper as well as I should have, though I was careful to remove all the seeds.

The Poblano pepper was sliced thin and sauteed with onions, thin-sliced garlic and fruit before putting in a pan under the broiler.

One of my favorite cooking aids is my rice cooker. If you don’t have one and you like rice, I can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s pretty impossible to ruin rice if you follow the directions using a rice cooker. I’ve even made saffron rice and garlic-infused rice in it.

My next adventure started when I was walking through the grocery store and saw an item I’d never noticed before, and had no idea what it was — that picture I began with.

Give up?

It’s called a Chayote (pronounced chay-OH-tay), also called a mirliton, alligator pear or pear squash, and it’s common to Latin America.

The chayote can be cooked or eaten raw, and is sometimes used in salsas or salads. It has a high vitamin C content, which makes sense — the flavor is very mildly citrusy, though it really doesn’t smell or taste like anything I’ve had before. Cut up, it seemed similar to a zucchini, though much more firm even when cooked.

I found a recipe online using ingredients I already had in the kitchen. First I peeled the chayote, cut it in half and removed the center seed (seeds?) before cutting up. The color reminds me of honeydew.

The recipe called for sauteed diced onion, minced garlic and tomatoes. I served it over rice with chicken thighs that I pan seared in olive oil with salt and pepper before finishing in the oven.

I did end up cooking the squash longer than the recipe said, as it stayed almost crunchy for some time. Again, it’s much firmer to cook with and holds its shape better than zucchini or eggplant. It doesn’t have much flavor of its own, but absorbs a lot of whatever you’re cooking it with.

Often when I’m grocery shopping, I remember a news story from 1989 when former Russian president Boris Yeltsin visited a U.S. grocery store and was astonished by the sheer quantity as well as quality of goods available to shoppers. We are very fortunate, those of us who can access such a variety of food, especially items from around the world. We often take it for granted. We should also recall that many people in our own communities do not have the access or ability to buy from this cornucopia of food, and be sure to donate to local food shelves when we can.

Join me in trying some unfamiliar ingredients this month, as well as a few unfamiliar recipes (at least to me) using more well-known ingredients. Feel free to make suggestions!




Time to Move on

The one thing I am learning rapidly as a result of this “try something new each month” experiment is that one month is not nearly enough time to explore anything sufficiently, much less get very good at it.

The month is way too short, and I find that I want to keep baking, or collaging, at the end of it . . . though not so much with calligraphy.

Calligraphy has been a real challenge for me. I just barely started trying some of the more fancy-looking scripts (Spencerian, Copperplate) as the month was coming to a close.

Here’s what they should look like:

Here’s some of my practicing:

I had a pretty hard time doing well in my first attempts, and I did not feel encouraged to practice much. After viewing the flourished versions of each of these in my book, I didn’t even give those a try. Perhaps when I’m older and have more patience (or not).

However, with repetition, I became a little more comfortable with the initial script types that I tried (Foundational, Italic, Uncials). Let’s not mention Gothic. Notice I’m not saying that I got very good at it, I just became a little more comfortable working on them (read: less swearing).

For a final project, I set myself the task of writing something out for another person.

You may recall from back during my collage month (which seems so far away now), I mentioned that a friend of mine was doing a project that I was lucky to be a part of.  First Collage post: A Bird by Any Other Name. That project is still ongoing. A group of her creative-minded friends (myself included) signed up to decorate pages in an artfully handmade book for each one of us, which we are passing around via snail mail after adding our pages.

Participants are drawing, painting, writing poems, inserting quotes and songs, and yes, making collages. And, for the first time, I added a couple of pages of calligraphy. Each of us has a theme word for our book, which will be mailed to us when all of the pages have been decorated.

The book that came to me this week had the theme word “music,” so I made a couple of collages for it, but then reserved two pages for an attempt at a quote in Italic calligraphy (though I snuck in a couple of Foundational characteristics — oops), spelling out part of the Shakespeare quote from Twelfth Night that is used in a Purcell song, “If Music Be the Food of Love.”

It was a good thing that I practiced first, then wrote the calligraphy on separate papers to glue into the book afterwards, as I was not fully satisfied with many of my attempts. Some words looked better with capital letters (majuscules) and some with lower case letters (miniscules).

I practiced a bunch. Sometimes the spacing wasn’t right, or just one letter looked wonky.

Finally, I decided that a colored ink would be better, and I worked hard at the balance and spacing of the letters. While I was not 100% satisfied with the results, I came to realize that I probably would never be. Unfortunately the glued-in page on the left formed a bit of a wrinkle where it was glued, but I was otherwise pleased with the overall effect, and I hope that the recipient will like it also.

Not perfect, but overall satisfying to look at.

But the truth is, while I may dabble in calligraphy from time to time or use it to write an occasional birthday card, it is not something I aspire to master or think about doing with an excited eagerness. However, collaging and baking are definitely things I think about doing (and have already done a little more of since the assigned months). I also continue to sing a bit while I’m drumming with bands, when backup vocals are needed.

What’s next for my adventures? The truth is, I haven’t made up my mind yet, and it’s already September 2nd. I have a number of ideas, but I’m still trying to work out details about the scheduling and cost of some of them. I also want to do something I’m excited about, and which involves perhaps a little more physical activity or socializing, and doesn’t leave me hunched over a table with a headache and sore neck, swearing and feeling frustrated.

I am open to suggestions . . .



… which it’s possible I don’t have enough of. I’m more than halfway through this month of trying to learn calligraphy, and I am not sure I’m improving. I think I’m getting a little better at a couple of the styles (like the Uncials, or the Hobbit one, as I call it), but when I approach a new style in my book, like the dreaded Flourished Italics, it’s like I’m back at square one.

The book’s version

My first attempts

This clearly does not come easily to me! It might help to have a teacher, to watch me and point out what I’m doing wrong (which I’m sure is a lot). I do run out of patience quickly when I practice. If it’s not going well, I can feel the tension creeping up the back of my neck and shoulders, and before long I have a headache and want to stop. Sometimes I can practice for nearly a half hour. Other times it’s about ten minutes before I feel those telltale signs of frustration building up in my muscles. The swearing is always a good tipoff. I tell myself I’ll try again for a short period later in the day, but somehow I never get around to doing more than one session.

I’ve filled several pages of this notebook as well as numerous loose pages. Lotsa practice!

So how do I get through this frustration and continue to make progress? Not entirely sure there’s an easy answer. I know that when I’ve tried to learn difficult things on the drums and on piano, I take a number of approaches – sometimes I consult a teacher, or someone who knows more than I do; I watch YouTube videos; I slow down; I break the hard things into smaller bits to isolate the trouble spots and master one little piece at a time.

Aha! That’s what I have not been doing much with the calligraphy. I write each letter in its entirety (stroke by stroke, though), rather than just practicing each stroke several times first. In the book there are a few “homework” exercises like that, but not nearly enough of them. And the exercises offered do not necessarily focus on the ones troubling ME in particular; I need to figure that out for myself.

Warm-up exercises — some more useful than others. “U” is the easiest letter in every style.

The other thing that helps when I’m learning a piece of music is that I have a specific GOAL: I have X amount of time to learn X number of songs in time for rehearsal, and ultimately a performance. I know what I’m working towards.

A goal is what I haven’t sorted out for this particular effort. I’m just plowing through the book that I bought, occasionally going back and reviewing bits at random s well as in the booklet that came with my kit. Sometimes I try the different sized nibs and colored inks, again at random. Originally, I thought I’d get through the entire book, but I’m not sure I can succeed at that. It’s called “Calligraphy in 24 Hours,” so I thought that 24 days (or more) would do the trick, but I’m not completing a chapter a day – far from it. I do require more review than that. And I frankly HATE some of the styles, such as Gothic – which looks bad to my eyes, plus I’m terrible at it – and I’m not sure Flourished Italic is much better.

Gothic Cursive

So I will allow myself to skip a few styles and focus at improving on the ones I like better.

But I DO need a goal of some sort. My boyfriend suggested coming up with a poem or something to write out nicely and perhaps frame, which is a good idea. I DO need something to work towards, and maybe narrow down the few styles I will concentrate on for the final two weeks of my effort.



Why are the simplest things the hardest?

Calligraphy includes a number of different styles, I am learning. From Roman Capitals, Miniscules, Italics and Gothic to Chancery, Uncials and Spencerian lettering, I am just beginning to scratch the surface of the different types. And some are definitely more difficult than others. I am discovering quickly which types of writing and which letters are the hardest, and it is not what you would think.

In my quest to learn about calligraphic writing this month, I am using a book called Calligraphy in 24 Hours by Veiko Kespersaks to practice the different styles. It includes lots of examples of each type of writing, and exercises to work on each stroke, with good illustrations. 

I have filled many pages with practice letters and numbers from just a few of the different styles thus far. When I get tired of writing separate letters over and over again, it’s sometimes more fun to write the practice words provided in my book, or my name, or the names of people I know. That makes calligraphy seem more useful and interesting.

This is Gothic style

The Gothic style of writing is very difficult for me, and seems less attractive overall.

I was delighted to find the chapter on Uncials, which is the kind of writing you see in the Lord of the Rings.

That gave me the opportunity to pretend I was Bilbo Baggins (thought clearly I need to add more dots).

The rounded shape of the Uncial letters are very pleasing to my eye, thought it led me to realize what I was beginning to suspect: the simplest letters are the hardest to make.

When practicing calligraphy, I’ll often stop when I’ve made one or two letters that approximate the model I’m following. I’m least happy with most of my attempts at the letter O, and also C and E. I found pages and pages of similar letters (Q also) written repeatedly, when I reviewed my practice from the last couple of weeks.

Getting that simple curve just right the first time, and then again on the opposite side, is harder than you might think. I was rarely happy with my results, and I often did not stop because I was satisfied with my attempts, but because I just got tired of trying and not succeeding.

Why is it so hard to make the most simple, clear shape like the letter “o”?

I thought about this a lot. Reflecting on music, I recalled that it was sometimes hardest to play the slow, simple drum beats accompanying a slow rock ballad. When I used to play piano, making a straightforward Mozart melody in a sonata sound good was frequently more of a challenge than a complicated run or arpeggio. In my month of learning about baking, making a plain white baguette was actually one of the hardest things I attempted. Why?

Because there’s no place to hide.

Just like the clear, pure line of a melody that needs to be phrased just right to sound beautiful to the ears, a basic circle needs to curve around with an elegance that makes it look like a shape originating in nature — the moon, perhaps, or the inside of a flower.  We all know what a circle should look like.

We do not have as clear a preconceived notion of shapes like this:

So what is the secret to making something beautifully simple, or simply beautiful? I haven’t found it yet. I do know that my better attempts at these letters were made slowly, but not so slowly that I labored over them. There was a sense of movement to my hand, to the pen, that helped me to follow through the curve of the letter’s shape. I had to breathe, and not think too hard, but just DO.

What simple thing is hard for you to do? Is it something artful? Or something emotional, like telling someone that you love them?

I vow to do a simple thing each day.


Practice makes not quite as bad

People who get to know me eventually find out that I have terrible handwriting. My children have mocked me for it. My boyfriend can’t read my grocery lists unless I text them. This is not a recent problem that I can blame on middle age. My parents asked me to stop writing home from college because they couldn’t read my letters.

I could blame it on the hippie free school I attended for third grade; I was busy learning all of the words to the Yellow Submarine album while other kids my age were learning to write cursive. When I got to a somewhat more “normal” school for 4th grade, I had to play catch-up and learn handwriting in a big hurry.

I could blame all those college classes where I took super fast notes, my handwriting getting worse and worse each semester, so that now I can’t even read some of my own notes to myself.

What does this SAY??

Or maybe I’m just a bit sloppy and lazy.

Regardless of where the fault lies, it’s the truth. When I had to learn to write with my left hand after I broke my wrist a year ago last January, I was surprised to find that I could actually read my plodding, careful left-handed writing BETTER than my usual scribbles!

So now I will attempt something I have never tried before: calligraphy. (The Western kind.) I studied a little Japanese and Chinese language in school, but I was never terribly good at writing those characters clearly either.

Thanks to Michaels craft stores, I now have a set of calligraphy pens with ink cartridges and nibs, with a little instruction book.

My first attempts were painful. I kept getting the angle of the pen to the paper wrong, and the ink would stop flowing. There was a lot of cursing. It’s slow going, each letter. I began by tracing over the examples in the booklet the first few days. There was even more cursing the further I got into the curves and shapes for different letters. I developed a headache.

I could see that I was going to have to take this just a little bit at a time, for fear of getting overly frustrated. I began to figure out, after a few days of the cursing and tapping my nib (ok, hitting it) on the paper to get the ink going, how the angle should look. Some letters were definitely easier than others.

gs are hard

But on the whole, calligraphy requires more precision than I have asked of myself in my creativity blog adventures thus far. Yes, pastry baking did require a certain level of precision (measuring, kneading, folding, temperatures, times, etc.), or the results could be unsightly, or even inedible.

With collaging I allowed myself to be very imprecise, and I liberally used big globs of paint to cover a multitude of sins.

But this is different. You can see all your mistakes. (And I make a lot of them.) Technically, you’re supposed to get a certain kind of paper and razors so you can “scrape out” your errors, but that seems too hard for me at this point. For right now I’m just going to plug away at the different shapes and forms until it stops seeming so awfully foreign to me.

One thing that is actually helping is that fact that I learned something about stroke order writing Chinese/Japanese characters – you have to write them in a certain way, in the correct order. You can’t go from down, up when you’re supposed to go from up, down. So following the instructions in the book with those kinds of directions makes sense to my brain.

Once, just once each, I made a couple of letters that seemed really beautiful.

I especially liked the j because my daughter’s name is Julianne. And guess what! When I told her I was trying to learn calligraphy, she said that she is doing that too! She is using brush markers and learning more modern styles than I am working on, but it’s still cool that we are accidentally doing something so similar at the same time.

I will keep working away. Practice, as I have learned studying music, is everything.

Juxtaposition of Elements

Collage making is really fun.  I hate to see this month’s project come to an end. I hope to continue making paper collages on a regular basis, whether I’m blogging about it or not. I would like to learn more about drawing, painting, and using other materials. I would also like to improve my cutting skills and any other abilities that would help me make more interesting and artful collages, rather than just indulging my crazy, sloppy self-expression.

One result that really surprised me was the positive response from many people to some of my collages. After my friend Laurie so artfully used one of my creations to enhance her poster design for our band gig (see last week’s blog), my friend Colleen Koll remarked on Facebook, “I want a collage!” So I decided to take the commission.

The assignment was fun, and the process was somewhat less random than my previous attempts. I asked Colleen about things she liked, symbols, colors, shapes, etc., and she had lots of suggestions for me to work with! I sorted through my boxes and piles of collage materials for ideas and pulled out anything that reminded me of Colleen or that was on her list of things she liked.

Colleen Collage (say that 5 times fast)

The result was as colorful as Colleen herself, and she liked it! I really enjoyed making something with more of a purpose in mind, as well as a particular recipient. Instead of just making a picture to please myself, I was trying to make somebody else happy, and that felt really good.

My other collages this week were more self-indulgent, and mostly in direct response to the materials I pretty much randomly chose, as previous collages had been. Sometimes I painted first, before doing any gluing, sometimes I painted afterwards, and sometimes both.

Materials include watercolor and acrylic paint, pages including maps from an old atlas, pictures from coloring books, and cut up art reproductions, as well as some craft paper.

One of them, weirdly, ended up reminding me a lot of a book I just finished reading, The Patriots by Sana Krasikov, about a young Jewish woman from Brooklyn who ventures to Soviet Russia in 1934 to seek out what she idealistically views as a brave new world. The story explores her journey and personal fight against disillusionment despite tons of hardship.

The collage started with a picture from my oddball photo collection of a lady from the 1930s, and I added some paper that looks like old-fashioned handwriting (in French), and since it was looking like waves, I wanted to add a boat or ship. I looked through an old world atlas that’s been a treasure trove of maps and pictures to cut up. The ship picture I found has Russian writing on the side which reads “Lenin.”

It was a happy coincidence, or maybe my eye was deliberately looking for things that reminded me of the book that had just been on my mind.

The other collages I made had no relation to anything. I used pictures from an old set about children’s art and play that I found at Goodwill and mercilessly cut up. One of the collages is downright creepy, and another is more whimsical.

This creepy one has a Blair Witchy vibe

This one is just fun and silly

I’ve really had a great time making these creations and even the mess that seems to go along with it. I hope to have a “collaging party,” to invite friends over to make things with me. Truthfully, though, in most cases I like to work on my own, focusing with a strange, haphazard process that is as mystifying to me as it probably would be to anyone watching me.

The upshot is that I like the visual and tactile experience, the juxtaposition of elements that you would not necessarily think go together, and what that creates. Whether or not it’s beautiful or interesting or even art at all, I’m not sure if it matters to me. I like the process. Sometimes I like the result even more. Sometimes I don’t. Different colors and textures and shapes interest me. Sometimes I want the pictures to look like real things; other times I don’t care about that. Sifting through various materials and cutting and gluing engages me completely, and I lose track of time and logical thought. I just do it.

What’s up next month, and will I enjoy it as much as collage? Stay tuned . . .