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 of us are starting over as we emerge from the crippling Covid pandemic. Despite the widespread job loses, rise in mental illness and isolation, we’re finding our power, embracing change and reimagining our lives. I’m keeping you even closer to my heart when I pick up a pencil.
Nice! I like the image of sharpening the pencil, erasing and correcting or changing it all together 😊
Hey Mo, my lucky day. Am up in Bar Harbor and I think you know I wake up really early. So a while ago, grabbed my Kindle, and reread Gorman’s inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb and it speaks of second chances for individuals and our nation. Then I got to read your very special Pencil/Chances message and it made me happy to have these two positive and optimistic messages jump start my day. Hugs
Mimi, thank you for your thoughtful message. Amanda Gorman is amazing. Hope you and Tom are enjoying Bar Harbor. Xxoo
This is a terrific and heartfelt piece. Brings back nice memories too.
Wow I love this thought provoking article on pencils! Brings me back to my school days in elementary
days! I loved my pencils also!
Hi Judith, I bet you were a wonderful teacher. I’ve appreciated the tips I’ve received from you. Xx
Beautiful! I love these essays.
Thank you so much, Jennifer!
Thank you, Kacy!
Hi Ann! Wow! I am in awe when I read about your pencil story. I too am passionate about pencils. I’ve been a substitute teacher for almost 15 years, and I’d like to share with you about my pencil story. I’ll make it short though. So when I started working at a middle school, I noticed lots of pencils thrown about on the floor hallways, classrooms, gyms, cafeterias, etc. I think you get the picture. The most times I found pencils were actually outside after all the kids headed towards their buses, cars, bikes, or just waking home, etc. So then I started picking up pencils everyday, usually picking up between 15 to 20 some pencils each day for the past 15 years. Wow! Can you believe that. Crazy but true. I love pencils, they do exactly what you say they do. I too get excited when I see pencils. I can’t wait to sharpen them, or to even use them for my next assignments on clean crispy paper. I also can’t wait for a student to ask me if I have a pencil he or she could borrow. It’s almost like waiting for it, like you know exactly the wonderful magical moment of what a pencil can do. A pencil is magical! It had its purpose in life. We are it’s purpose in life. The pencil can’t wait for us to pick it up, to start using it, to chew on it, to tap on it on our heads, to erase away, etc. The pencil is exactly what it’s made to be. Just the PENCIL.
Mary, I love, love your story! Thanks for sharing it. xoxo, Maureen