“Calligraphy is discipline for the soul.”
—Islamic saying

(Listen to Anne read this essay here, in an excerpt from the forthcoming audio version of Finding Home

Soul Shaping

One Christmas Jim brought home a set of calligraphy pens, the least wanted item in his office holiday party swap gift exchange. A beheaded fountain pen and collection of odd-looking nibs, they were left behind by the disappointed recipient. I was delighted. It was like meeting an old friend after a long absence. I owned a set myself, now long lost, for an Oregon printing class many years before.

Natural attraction

The invention of writing, which Carlyle called “the most miraculous of all things man has devised,” made possible the beginning of the book. It was natural after I learned how books were made to venture on to what was inside them. The first true written language appeared about 3000 B.C. when ancient Sumerians developed cuneiform—a series of wedge shaped letters that, besides preserving records, also created a beautiful all-over decorative design. It was as much art as information storage. The history, the patterns, the techniques attracted me.

Some things don’t change

The modern world is hard to recognize. Although in the current age of Google and AmazonPrime nearly everything ever written can be accessed within seconds or delivered within days, we still feel unsure and overwhelmed. At least I do. Facts are cheap and easy; the cell phone is an infinite library. Instead of making us more confident, we are becoming more tentative, or worse, more susceptible to quick solutions. As psychologist Herbert Simon wrote, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

Stay-at-home mothers are distracted at every turn, in every age. Calligraphy lessons became a perfect antidote to my interrupted daytime life. I enrolled in “Beginning Forms” at Eugene’s Maude Kearns Art Center.

Luck and circumstance

I discovered calligraphy as the Northwest was emerging as the west coast center of the long dormant art. Governor Tom McCall named Lloyd Reynolds, founder of the Western Branch of the Society for Italic Handwriting and instructor at Reed College, Oregon’s first “Calligrapher Laureate” in 1978 as I began my class.

Reynolds’ influence was everywhere. His idea was calligraphy was always present in varying forms around us. Studying those forms would encourage a new awareness of the world.

I practiced in the pre-dawn morning hours before the children were awake. It became a time of focus and meditation as I twisted the broad-edged square cut pen to decorate note cards with sayings I found or had written. In the quiet at dawn I was not just lettering, but talking to myself. I sent collections on colored linen paper to my parents and in-laws. Most were questions. Among them:

“What if the rain never stopped? The earth would turn into one
big sponge for wiping the universe clean.”

“Who are teachers?” The world is full of teachers, each of us
for others and ourselves.”

“What is soul?” Perhaps it is a longing for an Infinite that is elusive
in a finite world.”

The careful writing helped me think. My answers might be different now but the process still works.

Another student

At about the same time I was learning calligraphy Steve Jobs, founder of Apple and arguably a man who changed the world, was at Reed—studying calligraphy. In his biography he said,

“I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying
the amount of space between different letter combinations,
about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful,
historical, artistically subtle in a way science can’t capture, and
I found it fascinating. None of it had any practical application.
But ten years later when we were designing the first Mac it
all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac.”

Today I have access to hundreds of fonts on my pull down menu. Thousands are available as phone apps. Even so I’ve begun practicing my letterforms again with the cast-off pen set. The discipline reminds me of the world cultures, myths, and even the architectural forms that make life layered and beautiful.

- from Finding Home: A Memoir of Arts and Crafts