“I want to feel all there is to feel, he thought. Let me feel tired, now, let me feel tired. I mustn’t forget, I’m alive, I know I’m alive, I mustn’t forget it tonight or tomorrow or the day after that.”
~ Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
Every year, if possible, I like to re-read Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, a simple book that so adeptly captures childhood it suspends those glittering moments in time for the duration of its pages. That’s where I met Douglass Spalding, forever a 12 year old, who discovers the magic of that 1928 summer and experiences all its wonders.
His epiphany? He’s alive. And once awakened, he realizes he’ll never be the same, that he must treasure that knowledge and keep the magic alive even amidst the very throes of life itself. So he pulls out a nickel tablet and– what else? – a Ticonderoga No. 2 yellow pencil – to keep track of things he and his brother do every year and things that are brand new. And while being alive is old, he says, thinking about it and noticing it is new.
Ah. That’s the stuff of childhood. And that’s why I love pencils. I love them for what they are – a reminder of childhood, the de rigueur accessory of every child, complete with red eraser atop … hopefully, an eraser that has never been licked, which as every child knows, seriously degrades its usefulness. I love the feel of pencils, the look of them. I see illustrations of pencils and they make me smile because they’re simple, they’re innocent, they’re so full of potential, and they rouse long-dormant memories of our own summers of awakening.
Yes, I love pencils. But I don’t like to write with them. Instead, I prefer ink. I use pens for puzzles, for note taking, for list making, even for sketching. What brought about this change?
I’m not sure, but I’m wondering if it’s the notion of permanence. That is, the mistaken notion of permanence. See, when I was Douglass Spalding’s age, no other moments mattered – just the one in which I existed at that very point: the then and there of childhood. There, pencils work in a magical sort of way. They’re the official recorders of mindfulness and knowing and the “being” moments, mainly because of their impermanence. They erase and replace. And, wow, if you catch a pencil with an unlicked eraser, you have the real chance to so fully erase any oops, errors, accidents and less-than-stellar actions that they’re simply forgotten altogether, discarded, converted into leftover eraser grit and casually brushed aside. We cast them with one sweep into the wind. There’s no threat of permanence there, of grudges held, memories to haunt, or slights to nurse. What’s done is done and this very real moment is what we have.
I’m convinced it’s a form of pixie dust and, just as Peter Pan in Never Never Land discovered, it only works when you let go. It’s when you hold on – to possessions, to people, to a certain style of living, to things, to misconceptions, to the notions placed in your head by society about what you need to be fulfilled – that you find yourself using pens, not pencils. You’re looking for permanence, for something that’s guaranteed to last, for something that means you will always be around. You’re looking for meaning outside the moments, and there is no meaning outside of them.
I don’t know if Douglass Spalding ever set aside his No. 2 pencil and picked up an ink pen or if he managed to hold on to the magic he discovered in 1928. If he was lucky, he might’ve become a draftsman and made his living with pencils all around him. What I do know is that I traded in my perfectly impermanent pencil for the illusions of a permanent pen. They were so much cooler, so much more adult and sophisticated, so much more, well, permanent. Or so I thought.
Now that I’m older, I’m starting to rethink my preference. There’s something about reaching a certain age that’s freeing, just like there’s something about childhood that was freeing. I seem to remember knowing that nothing’s permanent. I’m feeling it in my bones, more now than I ever did as a young, don’t-try-to-sway-me, see-me-keep-up-with-the-joneses, having-and-doing-is-the-answer adult. And can it be as simple as reaching for a yellow, Ticonderoga No. 2 pencil instead of a sleek ballpoint pen the next time I sit down to write? How perfectly impermanent and how symbolic.
Just as Douglass Spalding discovered back in 1928, there’s an epiphany brewing in the air about me these days, and it has the scent of summer and the feel of dandelions and the sense of all that’s fleeting. That’s impermanent, that’s imperfection, and that’s real life. Like Douglass, I know I’m alive and I mustn’t forget it again.
“… you’ve always trying to be the things you were, instead of the person you are tonight. Why do you save those ticket stubs and theater programs … it won’t work,” Mr. Bentley continued, sipping his tea. “No matter how hard you try to be what you once were, you can only be what you are here and now. Time hypnotizes. When you’re nine, you think you’ve always been nine years old and will always be. When you’re thirty, it seems you’ve always been balanced there on that bright rim of middle life. And then when you turn seventy, you are always and forever seventy. You’re in the present, you’re trapped in a young now or an old now, but there is no other now to be seen. …
“Be what you are, bury what you are not,” he had said. “Ticket stubs are trickery. Saving things is a magic trick, with mirrors.… You’re saving cocoons … corsets, in a way, you can never fit again. So why save them? You can’t really prove you were ever young. Pictures? No, they lie. You’re not the picture. … you are not the dates, or the ink, or the paper. You’re not these trunks of junk and dust. You’re only you, here, now – the present you.”
Mrs. Bentley nodded at the memory, breathing easier. “Yes, I see. I see.”
~ Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine