For the Love of Pencils

No doubt I am one of the many adults who forgot how wonderful it is to write with a pencil. How could I have  forgotten this?  Writing with a pencil connects the writer to the earth. The freshly sharpened wood releases the scent of Cedar which rises chanting to the nose.  The ability to erase and rebuild, then erase and rebuild again, the words and sentences so alive I swear they have a pulse; they breathe!

Like many writers I am quite particular about what I write with, especially when it comes to my journal and my work. My friend Michael has used the same Lamy Safari fountain pen for more than 20 years now. Some years back a Parker fountain pen wedded itself to my writing hand until the nib was damaged, no replacement nib was quite right. Since then I have been on an on-gain off-gain search for a replacement. I’ve skipped from pen to pen hoping to find the magic one that seamlessly connects my body and soul to the words and page.

And then, just recently, I read that John Updike wrote in pencil and this reminded me that John Steinbeck, the writer closest to my soul, wrote in pencil. Eager to learn more about the pencils Steinbeck used I did a bit of research and learned he wrote with  the Mongol 480 Blackwing pencil. There is no doubt the Blackwing was a remarkable pencil and the story of its demise, it was no longer manufactured after 1998, is, at least for this writer, rather heartbreaking. What Blackwings are left in the world are expensive.  I recently saw a set of 11 Blackwing pencils selling on eBay for $195!

Further research revealed some remarkable facts about pencils.  The pencil owes its very existence to an ancient writing instrument used by the Romans called a stylus. The stylus was a thin metal rod that left a legible mark on parchment.  Some styluses were later made with lead and despite the fact common parlance today refers to pencils as lead pencils, pencils use graphite, not lead. In fact, lead has rarely seen the light of day in a pencil since 1564 when a large graphite deposit was discovered in England. In 1662, pencils were mass produced for the first time  in Nuremburg, Germany.

In 1812, a Concord Massachusetts cabinet maker named William Monroe is largely credited with making the first wood pencils in America. Not incidentally, author Henry David Thoreau, another Concord native, was reputed to be a fine pencil maker in his own right.  Early American pencils were made from Eastern Red Cedar, a durable wood found in the Southeastern United States, Tennessee in particular. Later, the American pencil industry was launched in full by The Joseph Dixon Crucible Company,  now known as Dixon Ticonderoga.

With my interest in pencils heightened I subsequently learned that the Japanese make the best pencils today and of those, the Palomino Graphite HB pencil sold by a delightful company called California Republic is the pencil given credit for taking the helm from the prestigious Blackwing. The first draft of this essay and all attending notes were written with a Palomino Graphite HB.

You may recall that for a long time, since the 1890s in fact, pencils were painted yellow. There is an intriguing and rather delightful reason for this. Years ago the best graphite came from China and in China yellow is linked to royalty and respect, thus the yellow pencil.

Anyway, I have to go. Time to sharpen some pencils, my writing tools, I assure you, from here on out.


Getting Out of Your Own Way

Henry David Thoreau was right when he wrote, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you imagined.”  As cast in truth as his words are, many find themselves shackled by messages  they’ve been given that lead them to believe being who they are can be dangerous. And for some of us, it was exactly that – dangerous. Parents, teachers, family members, clergy, so-called friends, along with romantic partners in life can  destroy one’s sense of value and worth by giving us the message that who we are is hideously flawed and if we’d only just live life the way they wanted us to, everything would be alright. Bullshit.

My message to you is a simple one. Disengage from anyone who does not and will not accept you for who you are. Do it. Lovingly if you can, but do it. Here’s the thing. If you have to give up who you are to be connected to someone in life, the results will be nothing but tragic.

One of the hardest things for many of us to do is give ourselves permission to be who we are and our opponent in this quest is our respective histories. Many have been told they are stupid, ugly, too fat, too thin, to weak, too intense, not intense enough, too dramatic, not dramatic enough, and so on. Another impediment to our giving ourselves permission to be who we are comes from those who have ignored us. Parents who simply ignore their children. What message does that send? The ignored child is being given the terribly inaccurate message that they have no value, else why would they be ignored?  The problem here rests with whoever is doing the ignoring. The problem does not rest with the one who is being ignored. But for a child who does not have the life experience with which they can gauge they way they are being treated, the results are brutal. No child deserves to be ignored.

Too often people in our life ask us to march to the beat of their drummer or some drummer they’ve decided is the be all and end all. This notion  is, in a word, bullshit. If there is purpose to our lives, and I believe there is, it is to be who we really are. What else could it be?  If you are one of the many who believes in God, and believes that God created you, why on earth would God create you if God didn’t want you to be you? I very much doubt God has a problem articulating on the creation front.

So, listen to Thoreau, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams.  Live the life you imagined.”  It’s your life after all, and you deserve to live it as you.


Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” Not only do I agree that the preservation of the world can be found in the unfettered embrace and reality of nature, but the preservation of the soul, of our very being can be found there as well. After all, that is where we all come from and return to.

And so it is that in these days of reflection I have decided to again immerse myself in nature. Nature’s intentions are pure; they know no bigotry. The sun’s warmth and the bite of winter cold is there for all of us. There are also extraordinary moments to be experienced. Thoreau told of one when he wrote, “I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.” I too had one recently when I turned and saw a doe standing eight feet from me, looking right at me. There the two of us were, side by side, and for some reason that I will never understand but always treasure, she did not run. She simply gave me the once over, rightfully determined that I was not a threat to her, and proceed ed to feed on the nearby foliage. I named her Gretchen. She even let me take pictures of her.

There is something else that comes with time in nature: spiritual freedom. When I walk in the woods a moment comes when the woods and I are one and the same. My being is as related to the trunk of a tree or the stem of a flower as they are to the branches, leaves and flower petals. We are all joined in the web of sunlight and shadow, or the mystical embrace of a morning mist. A luscious tranquility fills the lungs, the heart, the soul. The healing nectar of peace runs through the veins and the trials of daily life take their rightful place in the storeroom for the trivial. There are many things to be seen in nature and – if you pay attention – they will make your heart smile.

Buddha was right when he said much of human suffering comes from our attachment to material things: possessions, money and so forth. When you allow the all of you to walk full length in nature, the nexus of life, it’s spiritual center, nature itself, will take you in her arms: a wondrous, healing embrace deserved by all.