Monday, August 27, 2012

Sharing Memories: Lessons from the Pencil Box

Morning: A journal, cup of tea, and a pencil box
JGH & Roots'n'Leaves Archives.

 I am writing along in my Morning Journal, sort of a bitching tirade and then I say to myself, “This pencil is for the trash – so short I can hardly hold it – time to go.” Now I take up the next shortest pencil. How strange that these sharpened pencils are almost a luxury item for me. I write along and think back to being in elementary school. How I hated to sharpen my pencils. Almost always, I broke the lead further up when I was sharpening the pencil. So I would sharpen even more and the lead would break. I was sure that the other kids didn't have this problem. In fact my friends seemed to enjoy going up and standing in line to use the pencil sharpener that was attached to the wall. Probably my technique torqued the pencil so that the lead broke deep within the pencil --- or maybe because I wasn't very careful with pencils and dropped or threw the wooden cylinders encasing slim rounds of compressed graphite. Part of the problem may have been the quality of pencils. Mom may have kept the better quality pencils for her bookwork for Zuckerman's --- but then Zuckerman's probably paid for the pencils – or maybe Zuckerman's were so tight with their money that she was afraid to waste good pencils on children. Hmm, doubtful, Daddy thought nothing of filling my aunts and uncles cars with Zuckerman gas, but then his largess may have been taken out of his gas allotment. Or perhaps this said something about the two of them. But for my role in the dreaded pencil sharpening saga, I always wanted to be perfect, hated learning anything in public. If Mom had a pencil sharpener in her office like the one at school, I certainly wasn't allowed to use it.If she had such treasure, I could have practiced my sharpening skills until there were waste baskets full of ground wood and graphite.  However, her office was off-limits. Anyhow, my need to be perfect, probably means there was an element of ridicule either in school, at home or both --- probably both --- or perhaps just deprived of enough practice.

My recent purchase of box of gaudily Halloween-decorated pencils was a surprise to me. I had not used a pencil since I was in grade school. Now why did I buy those pencils. I certainly didn't fall in love with the garish orange and green pencils, nor the purple and black decorated pencils. I had gotten a small box of “cheapy” pencils for my journal writing. Writing pages and pages in a journal with a ball point pen is not really a pleasing activity to me. Scratchy and blotchy. Also, I rarely could find the broad tip points that I preferred. Hmm, that harkens back to my scrawly writing with pencils that really needed sharpening. I like the feel of a soft broad point flowing across the page. Did not like the sharp scratchy –  pencils or pens. I bet that Mom bought the hard #4 lead pencils for her book work --- and as I remember the writing was lighter, sharper and scratchy – perhaps, I used her pencils more often than I remembered.

I walked out of the store that day with the box of pencils and a little plastic encased pencil sharpener that collected the shavings. At home I found a really good hand-held pencil sharpener – an Xacto pencil sharpener, probably a left over from a grandchild's art project. A good pencil sharpener, but messy to use. The plastic encased sharpener was not messy, but never left an even sharp point. So on my next excursion to the store I bought a battery-run sharpener, the runn of the mill, store-brand brand, which ate up batteries like a hungry lion, and the pencils looked as though a beaver had been at them. So of course, for my cheapy box pencils I now had to purchased an Xacto electric pencil sharpener. My pencil life was complete.

At first, I only sharpened enough pencils for a few days of writing because the pencils and journal were in my bedroom and the fancy pencil sharpener in my office. Then I started sharpening all the pencils in the box; it was a small square box, maybe 2 1/2 “side and came up mid way on the pencils. I liked having a full box of sharpened pencils. When I had to start replacing my Halloween-decorated pencils I purchased the better quality #2 store-brand pencils, and then progressed on to the quality Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils.

One day as I while sharpening a handful of pencils to replenish my pencil box I realized how enjoyment I got out of sharpening and using my seemingly endless supply of pencils. A luxury that would have delighted me as a kid. I started thinking about why I dinna like writing in journals with ball-point pens; expensive (when you write 3 to 5 pages daily); I liked the way pencil looked on the page. Even more I liked writing with charcoal pencils, but charcoal was too messy and the soft lead require much sharpening until there was nothing left. I like the feel of the felt tipped pens of the 1980s as they had the feel of paint flowing from the tip --- no scratchiness. Perhaps I was a calligrapher in an early life --- my artistic aunt Gail would hoot at that one, as she thought I was most un-artistic member of my family. Anyhow back to the pencils and pencil sharpener; I had been journal writing for quite a period of time when I actually bought the box of pencils. There were 48 pencils in that first box and it takes a significant amount of time to sharpen 48 pencils down to a nub of a pencil. So of course I had a goodly amount of time to ponder on my box of pencils and the lessons therein:

A box of sharp-pointed pencils is a luxury.
I like the feel of writing with a pencil.
Soft lead is more pleasing to me.
Broad strokes are more pleasing than narrow, wizened marks
I spent too many years afraid of sharpening pencils
Yellow Dixon Ticonderoga #2's are my favorite.
Broad strokes remind me of calligraphy and my aunt Gail.
I like the thought of doing calligraphy – maybe I should take a class or read a book.
I'd like a mentor – a calligraphy teacher that looks like the master in Kill Bill – and wields his calligraphy brush with sword-like insouciance.
A pencil is a luxury and a window to my inner world.
The Halloween-decorated pencils served their purpose to remind me of the lessons of the pencil box.

~ ~ ~
 © Joan Hill, Roots'n'Leaves Publications


  1. I have no words, let me go pencil that into my non-existent journal!

    I'll never look at a pencil the same way again.

  2. See, I knew you were a poetic soul!

    You should have seen that first box of pencils --- really a hoot -- half of the box held pencils with yellow, green and orange pumpkins and things, and then the other half had black, blue and purple ghosts and hobgoblins and such. Besides that they were slightly smaller in diameter, so I had to be careful sharpening them -- so as to get them even, you know.

  3. You know what phrase stuck out to me, Joan? You wrote, "I always wanted to be perfect, hated learning anything in public." That sounds so much like me I could have written it! Do you still feel that way?

    1. I still prefer knowing how to do a new activity before I do it/try it in public, but not so much as when I was younger. That may be because I have more skills (true) or I am more sure of inner self and don't view new activities as a "make or break" deal (true) or I don't care as much what people think (also true) --- probably just a factor of age and experience.

      BTW I had a giggle about your mom --- yours and mine could have come from the same mold. Some of the images were so familiar to me.

  4. I love the mental image of all those coloured pencils. I never liked the scratchiness of pencils so prefer what I call propelling pencils...not sure what you would call them. Sounds like you are a perfectionist too Joan..obsessing about sharpening the pencil the right way :-) I can relate!

    1. Pauleen, that first box of pencils were just a hoot! I miss them and just the other day I found one tucked in a drawer -- it was quite short, but I brought it back to my office and installed it in its original box. Looks a bit funny as it is surrounded by tall, upstanding yellow pencils. That's a hoot too. To see how I work, one would never believe I am a perfectionist, but t'is true --- always a perfectionist trying to be.

  5. What a great, fun post, Joan!

    Definitely, try the calligraphy.

    You should go to an art supply store and explore their felt pens (including calligraphy nibs) and experiment to see which ones have the feel you like. Or even try an office supply store, just to explore the many offerings of pens. Your comment about pens put me in mind of a pen my husband discovered: smooth feel like a gel pen, looks like fountain pen ink on the page, good feel in your hand. (He says its a Uni-Ball Impact RT Bold, and he uses blue ink.) Believe it or not, there are people out there who wholeheartedly share your sentiments about the feel of the writing!

    1. Jacqi, What a neat comment. As much fun to read as writing this bit. I was afraid it was sort of dorky and no one would "get" the the feel. Thanks, for such a great comment --- and I may even hike over to the art supply store for an indulgence.

  6. Not at all dorky Joan...we other "old timers" enjoyed it and the in-built memories. Glad you found a lone survivor! Once a perfectionist, always a perfectionist ;-)