The Deep Groove and Change

My handwriting used to suck. It still does.

When I was approaching fifty, I had a new job that I really enjoyed. The company was relatively young and absolutely going places, and my boss was a real visionary. I’d built up some pretty good work habits over my lifetime, and this job gave me enough freedom to start putting some of those habits to work. I was meticulous about recording everything I did, and planning out my day.

Unlike other jobs, this one didn’t involve a computer. I was given a notebook on day one, and a pen. So I resigned myself to be once again known as the guy with the bad handwriting. I also had to hand-label sometimes thousands of parts in a day. More opportunity to have my handwriting be noticed. So I did what I always did, shortcut the upcoming issue by making light of my weakness, trying to get a way of owning it so I could have some control over the future difficult conversations.

But then it struck me. I was fifty. I was at a new job. No one knew me. I was already establishing myself as the guy with messy handwriting. I was making it a personality trait, a way for people to define me. I was making myself the guy with bad handwriting.

And if I could make myself that person, than nothing was stopping me from not being that person. I had the freedom to be a different person.

First step was to acknowledge that I had to make a dramatic change in habits. I had to break my pattern of handwriting, so I could build new patterns. I had to bring awareness and intentionality back into a subconscious skill.

I’ve always been a pencil user. I hate pens. They are clunky and messy, and even though I don’t really erase things, the permanence of ink always made me feel stifled in my creativity. I loved the organic nature of lead on paper, and how it expressed in different kinds of pencils. However, work required pens.

I started to buy fancy pens. I bought all kinds of different pen shapes and weights to see what I might like. It didn’t take long at my output level to realize a big weakness of pens…ink. In a few months I had a nice collection of empty disposable pens, and was looking at bulk ordering refills…and suddenly I was reminded of shaving. Of disposable razors. And how my frustration with the marketing-based changes and obsolescence of products meant I eventually switched to straight razor shaving. I hate being dependent on someone else’s idea of what I want.

So I overcame my “calligraphy” bias against fountain pens, and started to look into them as an alternative. I found a robust ecosystem, and came to utterly adore the process of putting ink on a page. My wife started to look into the process of making inks as an offshoot of her skills with natural dyeing. With my existing jewelry tools, I knew I was even able to make my own pens in future. Viola. Independence achieved.

Here on the other side of fifty, I have nice collection of fountain pens, inks and papers. I dedicate a little time for myself every day to write just for the pleasure of it, and my handwriting still sucks, but it gets better every day, and I immensely enjoy every opportunity to build skill.

Today I sat down with one of my few expensive pens, a rare and unusual design. It’s been an absolute favourite. Since I have so many pens, and am constantly moving between them with different ink combinations, I hadn’t written with this one in a while. I was looking forward to moving back to it after using lesser pens for a bit, as it was my reference pen for what a good pen was. It had shaped what I looked for in a pen…the aesthetics, the fine nib, the smooth flow of ink, the balanced weight of the pen and it’s feel in my hand. It was my ideal. I’d been saving up to use it.

Something felt off when I started to write. I reasoned I was just used to the cheaper, shoddier pens, and in a few lines I would be back into the groove. But as I kept writing, the smoothness I remembered did not come back. The pen was no longer a joy to write with.

Nothing had changed in the pen, but much had changed in me.

When I first started to learn about fountain pens, I had to trust in community opinion and reviews as to what was good or bad. I had to discover the consensus of standard first, before I could start to look for what was more inline with my personal tastes. In the fountain pen community, there was much received wisdom as to which pens where best for which budget, for which style of writing, for which experience level. From those standard lists, I chose my starter pens, and then used that to branch out and discover what was best for me uniquely.

But now that I have experience, my hand knows what is best for it. My most informed decisions at the start were mostly wasted. Most of the pens I bought will likely not be used again. But each wasted decision was intensely valuable.

Value comes from experience. There is no shortcut to this, and most especially not in the collected and standardized wisdom of the masses. Instead of a being a shortcut, this instead becomes a way of stifling exceptions. And that leads to standardization and homogeneity, and the inevitable rejection of the outliers. And further, to the sense that we must strive to belong, to not be an exception.

In martial arts, we look to the signs of respect from others to tell us who is a good teacher, to which is a good system. We want an answer that gives us a clear solution, so that we can proceed with confidence in learning. We want a system that is proven, that is acknowledged as such.

There is no answer, there is only process. You don’t have to look far to find a teacher to teach you a technique or a system…but you will have to look much harder to find a teacher who can teach you how to learn from your experiences.

A good experienced teacher could have worked with me as I was first using a fountain pen, and asked me how it felt, what was working for me and what what wasn’t. They could have given me exercises to learn to identify the nuances of what I was experiencing, to learn how to break down the experience of writing and how it related to the features of a given pen. They could have given me a process to evaluate myself and my tools, so that I would know going forward how to chose a new pen, and how to modify myself to any given pen.

There is no best sword, but there is a best sword for you.

Until we learn to stop looking for answers, and instead learn how to ask questions, even how to motivate ourselves to ask the right questions, we will never find that sword. We will only be constantly trying to adapt ourselves to what someone else tells us in the best sword.

My handwriting still sucks, but I’ve learned a new standard to compare myself to. I’ve worked to develop a script that appeals to me, that is coherent to me, and reflects my ideal handwriting. So now I compare to that, and sucking is no longer a condemnation of my skill, but a sign of my aspiration to constantly improve.

Martial arts should be seen as this same process. It’s a method as much for learning how to life our lives, as it is to find safety in our lives. It must be, at its core, a way for us to learn how to understand everything that happens to us, and how we take that understanding and shape our lives for the better.

The art is in learning, every day, how not just to use every sword the best way, but also how to be ready for your best sword.

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