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Pencil Day: For the Love of Lead

March 30th celebrates the original word processor: the humble pencil. It has all the features of today’s software programs – write, edit, copy, cut and paste, delete – with the additional benefits of being inexpensive, lightweight, extremely portable, waterproof, and able to function without electricity. I wrote my first book and all my early poems using a pencil.

Frankly, there’s nothing more tactile and sensuous than the feel of soft lead flowing over paper. And I love the fact that the pencil allows me to record a spur-of-the-moment thought in the margins of a notebook, on the back of a business card, at the bottom of a store receipt, or on a paper napkin at a restaurant.

It also captures and reflects – and in some instances, even alleviates – the boredom, anger or frustration I am feeling at the time with scribbles of tick-tack-toe games, smiley faces, geometric shapes, or swirling tornadic circles. (If you happen to be a psychiatrist I’d love to know what these symbols mean – without charge, of course. After all, if I’m frugal enough to use pencils, then I’m certainly not paying for a mental health session!)

A peek inside the top right-hand drawer of my desk reveals a queer collection of pencils I have amassed over the decades. Each pencil design bears silent testimony to a specific period in my life during which time I used it. Blue and carmine red pencils for magazine editing. Soft graphite pencils for field notes and sketches. Slim mechanical pencils for the techno 80s and 90s. And rounded, fat “twist” pencils for the successful corporate look. If you plunge a hand into the drawer you’ll pull out a kaleidoscope of Berol, Eagle, Pentel, Pilot, Cross, Col-Erase, Faber-Castell and Waterman pencils. But unlike ballpoint pens, you won’t have to worry about finding black or blue ink smears in the palm of your hand. Pencils are clean.

I have also unwittingly collected dozens of tiny and very cute containers that hold different types of lead for mechanical pencils. It took me years to notice the letters and numbers stamped on the stem of a pencil, and even longer to decode them. Now it’s second nature to me. Anything with the letter H is hard graphite. The higher the number, the harder the lead. Hence 6H produces a very fine, light line. At the other end of the spectrum are the B pencils. They’re soft. The higher the number, the darker and more fuzzy a line the pencil creates. Sitting haughty between the H and B pencils is HB. It’s the standard pencil most of us use, neither soft nor hard. And F is its fantastic partner, creating just a tad bit more of a fine line.

For a brief moment – albeit very brief indeed – I considered throwing away all the pencils I haven’t used in years. They are of varying lengths – some no more than an inch long – and their rubber erasers are shiny and cracked with age. They couldn’t erase chalk if they had to.

But then I realized something quite profound: What would I thoughtfully chew on when trying to grasp and rein-in the faintest whisper of an idea? What would I tap on the top of the table in frustration? And what would I jiggle up-and-down in the air when anxiety strikes? I certainly cannot do any of those things with a computer keyboard!

Had it not been for the pencil my literary journey would never have begun. Likewise thousands and thousands of books throughout history would not have been written. Society is where it is today because of the pencil.

And so without further thought, I swept all my pencils back into the drawer – short, chewed and unused alike – and tightly shut it. The pencil, in spite of its plain appearance, is my muse. It witnesses my life. And it enables me to capture and convey thoughts.

I encourage you on Pencil Day to celebrate the pencil’s contribution to our world. Pick one up. Scribble. Erase. Feel the freedom. And let your creativity flow. §

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