Pen and Ink: Losing Pens, Lending Pens, and a Miracle

John Skoyles writes the column “Pen and Ink” and is a professor, a poet, and author of the memoir, Secret Frequencies: A New York Education.

I’m the guy sitting next to you on the bus, or beside you at the counter of a luncheonette, the one who suddenly, for no reason, gets a panicked look on his face, and whose hand suddenly darts into his sports jacket pocket to feel for what? A wallet? Plane tickets? No: a treasured fountain pen, and maybe two. He grasps something there, peeks inside his coat, and then returns to normal. For at least the next hour…

It doesn’t matter whether I’m carrying my expensive Pelikan Souveran M1000 or a Lamy Safari—I rely on each for different things. Notes, marginalia, editing manuscripts. I usually carry two pens, one is usually a Pilot Vanishing Point because, in crowded quarters, I can raise the nib with just one hand. I also have a Pilot Decimo, which is harder to open this way, but with practice, it isn’t a problem.

I haven’t lost a pen, probably due to my neurotic checking and sneak-peeking. I should heed the words of the mystic poet, Kabir, who wrote:

If I know the diamond is wrapped in this cloth,

Why should I open it again and again?

But I can’t, because I also recall Mark Strand’s poem, “Letter,” that says:

Men are running across a field,

pens fall from their pockets.

People out walking will pick them up.

It is one of the ways letters are written.

How things fall to others!

I once found a writing instrument. I have it on my desk in front of me. I was living in the country and, with a friend, made a trip to Cambridge, MA, with a list of things to bring back. At the end of the day, I had gotten books from the Grolier, a bottle of bay rum, a journal from Bob Slate’s. I was standing outside the Harvard Coop, leaning against a tree, looking over my list before heading back. Mechanical Pencil. I had forgotten it, so I started into the Coop, when I almost stepped on a Pentel 0.7! I picked it up, yes, it was a bit scuffed, the eraser worn down, but still, a miracle.

On the drive home, I told my friend who said coincidences like that one, which some might call miracles, are nothing of the sort according to Littlewood’s Law of Miracles. Littlewood defines a miracle a strange or wonderful thing that happens maybe one time in a million. He says we experience things at the rate of one per second when we are fully attuned to what goes on around us, which he calculates as about eight hours a day. Over a month, we will be exposed to a million moments like this and if a miracle is one in a million, we should see one miracle a month. My friend agreed with Littlewood that a number like that makes the event far from miraculous.

Still, the theory did not spoil my minor thrill at the coincidence/miracle.

That night I was showing him my newest pen, a beautiful Omas Paragon Wild. It’s made of black and white celluloid and designed to look like a lightning storm. I held it out to him. He immediately yanked the cap off. I quietly told him that the cap unscrews, took it back and returned it to the box. When he left, I ran to my study. As I feared, he had stripped the threads. The cap would not tighten, but went round and round. Luckily, a nibmeister was able to undo the damage.

A miracle did take place, and that miracle is that I am still friends with him…

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