Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, is a soulful gift. I’ve purchased at least a dozen copies over the years. Anne wrote it at the beach where she went for weeks to reflect on the pattern and meaning of her life. It’s one of those books that stays with you because it’s layered with gentle wisdom and insight. In my 20s, it was sort of my bible. At the beginning of the book, Anne writes about her affinity for freshly sharpened pencils.
I know exactly how she felt. I’m passionate about pencils for many good reasons. Sharpening them is instantly rewarding; in seconds you shape a fine point for writing crisp lines. They adapt too. You can write in dove grey or thunder, depending on the pressure you apply. And the erasers, I adore those bubble gum bits designed for second chances. You can start over and over with a few rubs on a sentence. And when you’re forced to hit the reset button, like so many of us were during the Covid pandemic, the symbol of renewal in a pencil is powerful.
Pencils are comforting chew toys for high strung people. How many have you come across with teeth marks up and down their spines? The soft wood accommodates anxious molars, sort of like teething for your brain. Chewing on your pencil gives you something substantial to do while you wait for an answer to erupt, flow through your pencil and onto a blank sheet.
Shopping for school supplies in elementary school, I loved scanning the aisles for packs of pencils hanging on thin metal rods. When I got home, I carefully sharpened each one and put the bundle in a see-through pencil-case at the front of my flower power binder. Those pencils were the keys to the kingdom, the perfect way to test my knowledge at school because you could erase your answer if you changed your mind. Pencils were precious when the stakes were high, and you had to fill in and erase bubbles on standardized tests.
There were pens in my pencil-case and a formidable protractor, but the pencils ruled. Protractors were weapons that drew blood. Pens were unreliable. If one was on the fritz, thick ink might leak onto your notebook page or tattoo your fingers. They died without warning.
You knew exactly where you stood with your pencil. When the lead tip flattened, you got up from your desk, walked to the back of the classroom, and fixed the problem with your hands. There were no sudden deaths. You saw the progression of your pencil’s life as it slowly got shorter. I kept my pencils alive until the bitter end when you could barely hold the stubs and write.
I’ll admit to a romance with pens in middle school. They were bold and fashionable. At one point, I had a fat one that wrote in six colors. So cool. Eventually, I returned to my roots.
Immersed in this pencil reflection, I’m thinking about getting a manual pencil sharpener, the kind we used in elementary school. Remember the metal crank and the stalled engine sound it made when you stood in the back of the classroom to sharpen your pencil?
I have a Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencil in a small ceramic jar on my desk. It’s my favorite brand of pencil because it has a long history and an iconic design. The Dixon Ticonderoga Company has been making pencils since 1815. The pencil’s name originated in the graphite ore mined and processed in Ticonderoga, New York. A school-bus-yellow hexagon, the design is distinguished by three bands of emerald-green metal, known as a ferrule, that hold the eraser in place.
Simple, iconic items like a Dixon Ticonderoga pencil are comforting. They bring you back to a time when worldly worries worries weren’t yours. Pencils also remind me of second chances in life. Living with a mental illness, I’ve had to start over many times. While we can’t exactly erase our mistakes, we can draw new plans with pencils on a clean sheet of paper. Then we can erase them and draw them over and over. We are all works in progress no matter how old we get or what we struggle with. I appreciate having a pencil nearby and the strength to begin again.
So many people are starting over as we emerge from the Covid pandemic. I’ll keep them even closer to my heart when I pick up a pencil.