Table of Contents
Featuring Katarina Zulak of “Skillfully Well”
Katarina strikes me as an artistic and intelligent soul, and I picked up a few hobby tips while interviewing her! She’s into calligraphy, writing and reading. She also started a creative bullet journal to organise her todo list, which can be tricky with brain fog. With meditation as part of her lifestyle, it’s no wonder her demeanour is cool and collected. She enjoys learning in general, but history is of particular interest to her. Let’s go sneak a peek into her mind!
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Katarina out with her husband, looking at the gardens of a local historic house, while scoping out potential wedding venues
- Calligraphy! That’s an interesting one. How did it all begin?
One winter, a few years after my initial fibromyalgia diagnosis, I had a significant relapse. The main symptom was much worse fatigue than I usually dealt with. I had to withdraw from a part-time school program I was in. But I knew that I needed something to enjoy doing everyday, so I started thinking about what kind of hobby I could do that was within my limitations.
I remembered learning italics as a kid, and how much fun I had doing it. So I did some research online and decided that I would give calligraphy a try. Gradually learning how to do it, even for half an hour a day, really helped me get through that difficult winter.
- What kind of calligraphy do you do?
I do dip pen calligraphy in a modern, copperplate script. I also enjoy experimenting with watercolour paint instead of ink. I am still a novice but enjoying the learning process!
- What about it do you enjoy?
There is something meditative about only focusing on forming the letters which I find relaxing. I often write out positive or meaningful quotes and find lettering them by hand gets me to really think about the meaning of the words. Using watercolour paint instead of ink lets me experiment with colours and I enjoy the creative part of that.
- What materials do you use for it?
I use a Nikko G pen nib, which is actually for anime, but works really well for beginner calligraphers. My favourite ink is a black Sumi ink. For paper I often use a Rhodia practice pad and Strathmore drawing paper or hot press watercolour paper for finished projects. When I’m using watercolour paint I often use cold press watercolour paper.
- What’s the most basic equipment one would need to do some decent calligraphy?
Really all you need is a dip pen holder, a few nibs, ink and practice paper to get started.
- Any tips for budding calligraphists?
Just be patient with yourself and remember that it’s okay to be a beginner. When I started I often felt like it should be easier to do something as basic as write, but this is a whole new technique!
- What are your goto resources?
A few great starter resources are The Postman’s Knock (a great website full of tutorials, practice kits and articles on everything calligraphy) and the book Modern Calligraphy by Molly Suber Thorpe, which is a fun introduction to calligraphy and has lots of projects to try. I really was able to learn calligraphy by taking an online course by Melissa Esplin called The Modern Calligraphy Class.
- Biggest struggle with calligraphy?
My neck, shoulders and wrists can be quite sore due to my chronic pain condition. It’s important not to do too much if you have the same symptoms I do. Sometimes I’m not able to get to it for a few days or even weeks but once you learn it’s like riding a bicycle and you can come back to it anytime.
- What do you enjoy about writing?
First, I like the research part before I write an article. I’ve always been kind of a nerd and I enjoy learning! I like trying to put ideas into words in a way that both engages the reader and makes it easy to read and understand. Finally I find it cathartic to think through my own experiences and write them down on paper.
- Biggest struggle with writing?
My fibromyalgia symptoms definitely get in the way. Brain fog can make it hard for me to coherently express my thoughts or to put together an outline for an article that combines facts from different sources with my own experiences. I also don’t like to edit. Once I am done, I don’t feel interested in going over and over the same thing! Learning to come back to something with fresh eyes later has been part of my process of getting better at writing.
- Biggest joy from writing?
Connecting with other people! I love hearing back from people who have read an article and have had a shared experience or found something helpful in what I’ve written.
- What’s your style like?
I spent way too many years in grad school so I think sometimes my style can sound too academic. I try to make it more personal and engaging when I write now. I’ve actually learned to enjoy writing more when I am expressing my own opinions or sharing my own experiences because then it becomes more cathartic for me.
- How do you keep track of new ideas that pop into your head?
I have just started keeping a bullet journal to keep track of my different blog tasks, topic brainstorming notes and interesting articles I’ve come across. I am hoping it will help me stay organized despite brain fog!
- How has a bullet journal helped you so far?
I’m only on the second week of my bullet journal, but so far i’m finding it the easiest way to keep track of multiple to-do’s that I’ve ever tried. With brain fog I often lose track of different projects that I’m working on, health goals, habit changes, and that kind of thing. I’ve tried a regular agenda, a wall calendar, app reminders, and so far this is fitting me the best.
Each day I log health information (hours slept, fatigue and pain levels), appointments or plans and tasks I’m hoping to get to. Whatever I’m not able to accomplish, I just move to the next day (‘migrate’ in bullet journal speak). I also have a goal tracking log, where I check off self-care goals for each day (like meditating, steps walked, etc). I can also brainstorm writing ideas, questions for doctors, and anything else that pops to mind. My log is a bit messy as I’m still trying to figure out how I want to keep track of things!
- Favourite and least favourite authors? Why?
I am definitely a Jane Austen fan because of the wonderful characters she created and her timeless insights into relationships. I don’t like really dark or scary books like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larrson. That kept me awake for too many nights after I read it.
- You mentioned a love for mystery books. What sort of mysteries?
I like historical mysteries that really take you into another time and place, especially authors like Charles Finch or Anne Perry. Often I find cozy mysteries are enjoyable, light-hearted reads. Recently I’ve enjoyed the Bibliophile series by Kate Carlisle or The Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen. I also like some police procedurals as long as they aren’t too dark – authors like Louise Penny. No serial killers for me!
- Why are mysteries your favourite to read?
For me, reading is an escape from life. I want to enjoy my escape and I prefer books with mixed or positive endings rather than negative outcomes. I’ve read that one of the reasons mysteries are so popular is because they are based on a belief that there is justice and goodness in an uncertain world. The fact that the mystery is always solved in the end is probably one of the reasons I like this genre. Basically, I’m a sucker for happy endings!
- How do you prefer reading? Good old paper, iPad, laptop, Kindle, etc?
Because of my neck and shoulder pain, I mostly only listen to audiobooks these days. I’ve actually come to really enjoy a good narrator because it helps you imagine the story that much more clearly.
- What’s your reading routine like?
Usually on tired days I lie down and listen to my most recent audiobook or play one while I am en route to an appointment. They go perfectly with a cup of tea and a cozy blanket too.
Practicing with watercolour. The spoonies will get this one 😉
ON WRITING & READING
A beautiful quote by G.K. Chesterton, which made Katarina smile
A day trip on a vacation to Vancouver Island in British Columbia
- What does meditation mean to you?
For me, meditation is a brain training exercise. Meditating means practicing being present, instead of dwelling on past or future events. It also helps me practice being nonjudgmental, self-aware and accepting. I find the concept of learning to rest in awareness, without trying to change how things are right now, really calming.
- What does meditation do for/to you?
Meditation helps me live more skillfully with a chronic illness. It doesn’t take away my symptoms but it makes living with my condition easier – I feel more hopeful, accepting and resilient when I stick to my meditation practice.
- How did you start learning to like it?
My pain specialist referred me to a program they run at the hospital called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. It teaches meditation for pain management.
- How long do you meditate for, and how frequently?
I took the MBSR program about four years ago. I have meditated on and off since then. In the last six months I have meditated 3 to 4 days a week pretty regularly. I usually meditate for about 15 minutes.
- How is it part of your lifestyle?
Meditation helps you practice being mindful, which means being aware in the present moment, nonjudgmentally. When I’m not meditating, I try to practice mindfulness throughout my day. It helps me to really enjoy the small moments, like a great cup of coffee or enjoying sunshine on a walk. That counterbalances the negative experiences of having difficult symptoms to cope with.
Mindfulness also helps me when I am stressed to come back to my breath – it gives me a pause from racing thoughts or strong emotions so I can ease the tension and think clearly. It’s always a work in progress though because it’s really easy to get distracted and caught up in daily life! I am definitely not anything close to a Zen Master!
- Biggest misconception about meditation, in your opinion?
When I first started meditating I thought the goal of it was to become calm and blissful. But it’s really about seeing what is happening in the present moment more clearly. For example, if I am stressed about an upcoming appointment, meditating helps me to be more in touch with those feelings, become aware of any negative self talk, and stay more present instead of anxiously imagining future possibilities.
Then I can choose to respond in a way that lowers my stress, like stopping negative self talk, reminding myself to take it one breath at a time and making a calming cup of tea. So meditating doesn’t magically take away difficult thoughts and feelings but helps me to respond in a more helpful way.
- Biggest benefit, in your opinion?
The biggest benefit has been learning to savour the small moments in life that we usually miss because we are on automatic pilot.
- Tips for those who want to try it out?
There are lots of great resources for learning meditation at home. I liked a guided audio program called Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief by Jon Kabat-Zinn. A great book is called You are Not Your Pain by Danny Penman and Vidyamala Burch.
Taking advantage of some sun after a grey winter, to go to a nearby beach on Lake Ontario
- You mentioned a love for learning, especially history. Why history?
I’ve always been fascinated by people and history is just the story of people in different places and different times. It’s interesting to me to understand why people made the choices they made in history that got us to where we are now. Understanding history helps to understand the present.
- Which eras fascinate you the most? Why?
I can’t say that there is one era that interests me more than others but recently I have been listening to a podcast on the history of Rome and the similarities between partisan politics and the breakdown of social norms then and today has been kind of creepy to learn about! Sometimes it does feel like history repeats itself. (I warned you I was a nerd!)
- Which historical figures fascinate you the most? What about them?
I’m always interested in women who overcame the social expectations of their time. For example I recently learned about a woman named Josephine Baker who was an iconic African-American jazz singer in Paris during the Jazz age. Not only was she the first black entertainer to become world famous, but she was also a spy during World War II for the French resistance and a civil rights activist. That’s the kind of role model we should teach our kids about!
- Do you aspire to be like them in certain regards?
When I think about suffragettes or other people that fought for principles like democracy or equality, it reminds me to not take the rights that I have for granted.
- What else do you enjoy learning?
I’m also interested in learning about cultures, languages, art etc. I also like learning about health, nutrition and biology.
- Anything you dislike learning?
I’m not interested in math, technology and those kinds of areas. Too dry! Or that’s what I like to tell myself when I don’t understand the business section of the newspaper…
- Your thoughts on the importance of education?
I think it’s important that our kids learn about history and society so that they are active citizens who understand that democracy, justice and equality can’t be taken for granted and so we don’t repeat mistakes of the past.
*All images here used with permission from Katarina Zulak. Want to be featured in this series? Sign up here.
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Katarina Lives with the Following Illnesses:
Learn more about her experiences living with them on her blog.