Fountain Pens and The Art of Paying Attention

DSC06997Legible handwriting has always eluded me.  The lowest grade I ever made in school was a “D” in 6th grade.  The subject?  Handwriting.  When I was a young associate, a secretary once threw my handwritten revisions into the air.  She then let them flutter to the floor before she stormed out of my office, muttering that she had no idea how I graduated from college (much less law school) with such pathetic handwriting.

Of course, that would never happen in today’s world.  We don’t write things in long hand anymore.  We compose and revise on a computer.  Then we push “Print” and the hard work is done for us.  I understand that most schools no longer even teach cursive.  And the Common Core standards only call for handwriting instruction through the first grade.

Legible handwriting, it seems, is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Given the psychological trauma I have suffered at the hands of dour schoolteachers and surly secretaries, you would think I would applaud that development.  Isn’t it ridiculous for schools to care about (much less grade someone on) their handwriting?  After all, it’s not your penmanship, but what you know that matters. One would think I would feel a little vindicated by this shift in education cirrucula.

But I’m not.  Actually, it makes me a little sad.

My attitudes about handwriting began to change around a year ago, when I purchased my first fountain pen.  A fountain pen allows writing to become a kind of “experience”, as opposed to something you just do.  And the experience of actually putting a nice pen to nice paper, has me shopping for shiny new writing pads with thick paper.

Pick up any fountain pen and try it for yourself.  There’s something about the weight of the pen in your hand.  The way the instrument glides so smoothly across the page.  The limitless choices of ink color. Writing with a fountain pen is a complete sensorial, kinesthetic experience.  Once you try it, you will never go back to those skinny, plasticky ballpoint pens that occupy our supply closets.  (I’m not alone.  Just Google “Fountain Pens” and you’ll find a whole subculture of pen people and this seemingly anachronistic practice).

So, what does this have to do with attorney wellness?

It occurs to me that when I began to use a fountain pen, writing was transformed from the mindless effort of simply putting letters and words on a page, into the physical experience of creating something–a creation done with consciousness and a lot more awareness.  And we know that whenever you do anything more consciously, life seems to get a little better.

Virtually all spiritual traditions emphasize the importance of paying attention–doing things consciously, with a real awareness of (and real experience of) the moment.  But it’s not just our spiritual traditions that emphasize the importance of paying attention.  Neuroscience also shows us that increased awareness and  being truly present in a particular moment results in increased health, competence and happiness.

And our lived experience tells us the same thing.  Peach ice cream tastes better when we take the time to observe how the it has been served in the small blue bowl, and when we take the time to experience its creaminess and explosion of flavor as it begins to melt in our mouth and glide down the back of our throat.  What makes a vacation a vacation isn’t so much a change of scenery as it is the experience of walking down the street with a certain awareness–noticing sights, sounds and smells in a way we don’t notice them at home.  A simple afternoon at the ball park becomes a different experience altogether when, catching the sunlight in your son’s hair, you become aware of how quickly the days and months will pass.

To bring awareness to every moment, however mundane, wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments.  When we are not fully present to those moments, we miss what is most valuable to our lives.  And when we are fully present to those moments, we touch life at its richest and most transformational place.

So, is buying a fountain pen my path to enlightenment?

I’m not sure I’d go that far.  It does help me to be present to that mundane task of writing in a way that I wasn’t before.  And since lawyers probably spend more time writing than doing anything else, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

At the very least, I have one more way to practice paying attention.

(If you’re interested in learning more about how mindfulness practices can be helpful for attorneys, check out some of Jenna Cho’s work.  For those wanting an excellent introduction to  fountain pens, check out these two posts by The Lawyerist–(Fountain Pens for the Absolute Beginner, and Fountain Pens for the Obsessed).


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