A jar full of pencils

On my desk I have a jar full of pencils. The jar once held homemade jam, given to us by a friend. The jam was delicious so it went quickly. The jar’s shape and height are perfect for holding pencils — straight sides with just a little slope out, not too tall so it’ll get in the way, plus the glass has a pretty raised diamond design.

I keep a jar full of pencils on my desk because I like to be able to reach out and just grab one when I want to write something down. Maybe it’s a thought that I don’t want to let get away, maybe it’s a song title or a snatch of a Bible passage; maybe it’s another irritating little bit of office work that needs to be taken care of and that usually lands on me. It gives me a quiet little lift of joy whenever I put out my hand and hover it over the jar, then grab a pencil and start writing.

Sometimes when I’m too busy or focused on other things, I put the pencils back in the jar unsharpened – their points worn down to nubs, hardly any graphite showing at all. I try not to do that, but sometimes standards slip. It’s annoying to me, even though I do it at times. What I’ll do instead of putting them back in the jar unsharpened is I’ll set them off to the side on my desk, grab a new one, and keep writing. Or I’ll just take ten seconds and jam it in the sharpener. Electric pencil sharpeners are the best thing ever, although those are calories I’m not burning — exercise I’m not getting. I wonder how much stronger my hands would be if I sharpened every one of those pencils by hand. Or I’d have carpal tunnel, one of the two.

The pencils in the jar are all gradually getting shorter. Over the days and weeks and months, the eraser tops of the pencils are creeping downward, declining toward the rim of the jar. This is a sight that makes me both a little happy and a little sad. I’m happy because that means I’ve done a lot of writing, had a lot to say and a lot to think about. I’ve been interacting with my world the way I know how — through words, writing, moving a pencil across a page and then thinking about it. It makes me a little sad because the sight of that jar full of bright, pristine new pencils, standing tall and straight and proud, filled me with anticipation and glee. Now they’re shorter, creased, nicked, their erasers flattened and ground away. They don’t stand up quite so straight. They seem a little tired, like they’ve seen more than they bargained for and they’re not sure they liked all of it — everything they had to write at my behest. I guess that happens to all of us sooner or later.

I’m not entirely sure what the next act will be for my jar of pencils. Once they get too short to draw out of the jar, I suppose I’ll sharpen them one final time and take them to church. There some child will use them to fill in their catechism quiz, or a councilman will use one to jot a note to himself, or an elderly parishoner might use one to take notes during Bible class (although they usually bring their own pens; the elderly have learned to be prepared.) Short pencils have their uses, but for the jar that sits on my desk, I need long pencils — brand new pencils — pencils standing up straight and tall and ready to serve in the fight for free speech and cogent thought. Part of the fun is using them up, but new pencils remind me that somewhere in me lives the little kid that looked forward to school starting in the fall, because that meant I got new notebooks and pens and pencils, and with them, things to think about and learn and explore and connect in my mental map of the world. I’m always thankful that I have things to write about and think about, and things with which to write those thoughts down and work them out.

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