Tale of a Vandal Pen User: What Matters

Our lives have changed a great deal since the last PW post. “Our” meaning, of course, you, me, and the world. Our lives, upended by something we can’t even see—the novel coronavirus.

Writers spend a lot of time alone. We’re equipped to plan our time and our projects. Many of us are delightfully self-managed and focused. Since our “stay at home” order in New Mexico, not a lot in my life has changed.

Except …

… there are no breakfast or dinner outings with friends. There are no pithy exchanges with coffee house workers, or writers at neighboring tables. No acknowledgments of good or eccentric tastes with the librarian. There are no leisurely, inquisitive walks through the farmers’ market, buying vegetables and meats, tasting the latest sauce or cheese.

Instead, we wave at neighbors and strangers from across the street. Almost everyone asks, “How are you doing?” “Do you have what you need?” We’re still watching out for each other. Perhaps even more.

You’d think a lot of writing’s getting done. Yet, the days pass in a mysterious way.  Everything happens in slow motion. It takes longer to do a single task. It’s difficult to concentrate. I know I’m not alone in feeling that way.

Still, I manage to follow certain rituals. One cup of coffee, dog walk, qigong, breakfast. After that, except for dog activities, the day can be a mish-mash of struggling to focus.

Sometimes all I can write is a few lines of something only resembling poetry. Meanwhile the novel has grown exceedingly patient, waiting for me to finish her/it/they. What pronouns are appropriate? The novel has a life of sorts, as an extension of me. I’ve breathed life into its characters, its story. Anyway, the novel could do a masterclass in patience.

Not complaining. Simply being honest about what’s happening in my writer’s room.

Things I’ve done instead of writing:

  1. Try to sew face masks. A herculean effort. Finally saved by kind neighbor who knows how to sew and gave us masks. Me, well, I flunked home economics in high school. Home Ec used to be a class where young girls were taught to cook and sew. Sewing is something I do once every ten years or so. Is Home Ec still a thing? Perhaps non-gendered? *Goes down rabbit hole for two hours or more.*
  2. Persisted with the mask making. The sewing machine is vintage Singer, made in September 1957 in Elizabethport, New Jersey. (Thank you, obsessive internet.) Singer must not have gotten the memo about planned obsolescence. The sewing machine works perfectly with over 60 years of being in service. After many mistakes, I made some wearable masks, having given up the pleated style in favor of the Olson Mask. Eventually, we’ll give masks away to those who need them. Not everyone has access to something that seems so simple to many others. I don’t know about where you live, but here in New Mexico we’re asked to wear masks when we leave home.

    Singer sewing machine at rest

  3. Obsessed about various things, from trivial to profound, that come to my attention.
  4. Read books.
  5. Rearranged my writing room. A week-long process, which resulted in re-positioning my desk at an angle instead of flush against the wall. Go figure.
  6. Figured out where to buy our groceries online. Usually involves ordering every couple of weeks, and picking up the groceries which are delivered to our car. So far it’s been a civil and efficient process. Queue up Rolling Stones:

    You can’t always get what you want
    But if you try sometimes you just might find
    You get what you need

  7. Re-arranged my pens in the pen box. This doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes, but can be done whenever you please. You can arrange by color, or by size, or by brand, or by filling system, or by nib point size, or by love.
  8. Put bears in the windows for neighborhood bear hunt. This took all of 20 minutes. Why didn’t this project take all day like some other projects? ‘Tis a mystery.

The hardest thing about the pandemic is not being able to volunteer in productive ways. When you’re “at risk” because of pre-existing health conditions you can’t run out to help out at the food bank, for example.

We’re forced to think outside the box, and ourselves, even more than before. There are ways to be of service online, both formally and informally. Mostly, be a good person and ask others how they’re doing, ay? Let folks know you see them, and they’re not really alone.

On Books

I decided to read Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mystery series. There are 15 books in the series, with one more on the way later this year.  Currently I’m on #6, “Bury You’re Dead.” Just finished #8, “A Trick of the Light,” my favorite in the series so far.

If the first book, “Still Life,” hadn’t hooked me, I wouldn’t be careening through the series. It’s good to get a Canadian perspective on murder, ay? Penny crafts great plots with superb writing. I’m not often compelled to highlight passages in a mystery book, but find myself doing so frequently.

Gamache again marveled at the people who chose to live in this area. Was Margaret Atwood a garbage collector perhaps? Or maybe Prime Minister Mulroney had picked up a second career delivering the mail. No one was who they seemed. Everyone was more. And one person in this room was very much more.—from Still Life

A mystery novel is a piece of candy, consumed quickly, enjoyed, and soon forgotten. But the Gamache books linger as the best books should.

Mysteries provide the only sense of order right now—a crime’s committed, said crime gets solved, and justice prevails. Imagine that.

Along side the Louise Penny series, I read a lot of poetry books. If mysteries satisfy a desire for order and justice, poetry satisfies a need for deeper contemplation of ourselves and the universe we live in.

The most profound book of poetry I’ve read has been Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky. It’s a stirring, harrowing account of humanity; what happens to a people when their Republic’s in peril. There’s ugliness and hardship, but there’s also beauty and joy in this strange volume, and Kaminsky left me enriched and full of hope.

Another poetry book I loved:  How Lovely the Ruins, an anthology edited by Annie Chagnot and Emi Ikkanda, containing “inspirational poems and words for difficult times.” We all need those, don’t we?

On Pens

Shortly before New Mexico went into quarantine, Santa Fe Pens revealed their 22nd annual limited edition, a custom Retro 51 roller ball and pencil set with a New Mexico theme. (No fountain pen this year! Argh!) Only 250 sets. The set also represents the first non-fountain pen writing instruments I’ve bought in many years.

Retro 51 box

The southwestern design includes many iconic symbols of New Mexico, such as Kokopelli, coyote, road runner, UFO, among others. The design is handsome and fun.

Pencil and pen

Close-up of some design elements

For over 30 years Retro 51 has made pens, all in the same shape. I’ve given these pens as gifts many times over, but Santa Fe Pens XXII is the first Retro 51 bought for my own use. The set sits on my desk. The box even forms a pen stand.

pen and pencil sitting in bottom section of box

I’d forgotten what a joy a well-made roller ball is to write with. The pencil too. I always think the Retro 51 looks “off balance.” Yet, the pen never-ever feels that way in my hand. The pen feels quite perfect.

The owner of Retro 51 wants to retire, and the future of the company sounds iffy. He wants to sell his pen company only to someone who will maintain the quality of the product. As it stands now, the company is slowing down.

From the Retro 51 blog:

With the new year and new decade it’s also time for something new for a handful of the Retro51 team …. retirement. Retro51 as you know it, will be making some changes and going on a sabbatical. What does this mean? We are still trying to figure it out, but there is a potential for new ownership or Retro could come back with a new business plan that we feel will thrive in the ever changing retail market. It is also possible that the Retro51 brand will be retired.

If there’s a Retro 51 you want, don’t hesitate too long. You might include Santa Fe Pens as part of your hunting ground. Call or email. Not everything is on the website.

On The Present Moment

I hope you are well, and not too squirrelly. But if you are squirrelly, you’re right on schedule. We’re living with more uncertainty than most of us are used to. We don’t know what the coming weeks, months, or 2021 are all going to look like. Who else among us might get sick? Who among us might go hungry? How do we help each other through? How do we get ourselves through?

Living with uncertainty is not simply the province of spiritual gurus. It’s a process available to all of us; not painless but navigable. Living with uncertainty involves being present, living in the now. It’s what dogs do every moment of their lives. *wicked grin*

I used to recommend a book by Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity. A screenwriter-teacher recommended it to me many years ago. It’s a great book, but perhaps a little dated in tone. Perhaps a little too intellectual for most folks.

What we have to discover is that there is no safety, that seeking is painful, and that when we imagine that we have found it, we don’t like it.—from The Wisdom of Insecurity

If you like to read, and you’re scared right now, try The Book of Joy, which is a conversation between the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Full of love, they offer insight on how to live in joy despite adversity; despite the worst of times. Joy’s not the same as being happy, so don’t feel any pressure to be happy. At the very least, the book will give your spirit a lift.

Most of all …

… learn to pause, and to breathe deeply. It helps.

So what matters? The great psychologist Carl Jung once suggested our human difficulties are caused because we’ve forgotten we’re connected to everything. To nature, to the stars, to each other.

Wave at each other across the street, the river, the oceans. Ask the questions, “How are you doing?” “Do you have what you need?” Listen to the answers; to the non-answers. Leave care packages where you can. Take very, very good care of your own self.

Stay safe, dear friends. Stay kind and curious, too.

See you anon.