Writing with Pencil
On trust, transience, and letting curiosity lead
During my final semester of law school, I enrolled in a legal clinic serving low-income senior citizens. Our professor was old school in the most fascinating ways, not least of which was his insistence on each of us creating a “case timeline” to track our plan and progress in each of our cases…using, instead of any number of technological tools at our disposal, pencil and paper. The idea was that we could erase and re-write our timelines when events in our cases inevitably shifted, but it was a massive PIA and we complained about how long it took to write, erase, and re-write every time something changed (which, in district court litigation, is a lot).
I think I complained the loudest because I really don’t like pencil. I don’t like the sound the lead makes when it scratches against the paper, especially when the wood starts to splinter. I don’t like the smell or the way the letters smear at the slightest touch. I prefer the smooth glide of a ballpoint pen, the way the sharp blue ink seeps into the paper, so satisfying and so permanent.
I crave permanence in every area of my life. When we were house hunting, I felt pressure to pick a home that promised to accommodate us for five decades because I didn’t want to move again. I’ve had the same hairstyle for fifteen years (switching my part is my idea of radical change), and in my career, I want to map out a plan, then obediently follow that trajectory.
Last week, I told Jacob about my goals for this year, including the writing and creative projects I want to tackle. I told him how I wanted to do all of these things and how they were equally important and because of that, I couldn’t figure out how to hold them all at once. It felt like trying to carry three dozen wet baseballs in my arms.
You need to triage, he said. These things can’t be equally important.
I protested. I’d already planned out what I wanted to accomplish in 2023. I’d made neat little categories for work, personal life, and writing. I’d even included a chart for my five-year plan for each category, and my ten-year plan, too, because I really do need to know exactly what I’ll be doing with my life when I’m 43.
I don’t even need to tell you that I wrote this all in pen, do I?
Though I didn’t say this out loud to Jacob, I know that he knew, because of what he said next:
You need to learn how to write with pencil.
Oh, but if I could. If I could let myself pencil-in my plan. If I could be content to know my next step, not the next 5,280 ones. If I could trust that pivots can be made in gentle curves instead of sharp right angles, that we don’t need the assurance of permanence, that saying not right now doesn’t mean saying never. If I could trust that these ideas and dreams won’t fly out of my head like wild birds but will swirl around in my heart and only grow sharper and clearer with years. If I could accept that relinquishing control to a years-older version of me will result in a richer, fuller, more wholehearted piece of art.
Can white space on the page inspire instead of deplete, invigorate instead of paralyze? Can we trust ourselves to decipher smudgy pencil lines on yellowed crinkled pages when, years later, we feel that same gentle tug that led us to scratch them down in the first place?
Last week, I went to Starbucks after preschool drop-off. I ordered my tall black pike and slid into my favorite chair in the corner. I took out my journal and wrote, the whine of the espresso machine a comfortable, familiar soundtrack.
I wrote fast, before I could start thinking. I wrote down my time-sensitive tasks first (Client project. Pay taxes. Edit article.). Then, I wrote down a few other creative projects I want to tackle. I looked at the page, brimming with ideas and tasks, but notably absent was the familiar constriction in my chest: the tightness of, how am I supposed to carry three dozen wet baseballs?
I grabbed my pen and scratched through about half of the items. Then, right underneath, I wrote four words:
Let curiosity lead you.
It wasn’t nearly as terrifying as I thought it would be. Actually, I thought, as I picked up my cup, it’s really exciting.
I closed my notebook, drained my coffee, and stepped into the parking lot. The sun had come out and was breaking up the fog that had hung over our city for three days. As I drove the short distance to the preschool, I noticed that for the first time in a while, I didn’t need my headlights. The natural light from the sun was more than sufficient.
Do you struggle with the transitory nature of parenting, life, and work? Do you crave permanence? In what ways?
Are there any projects, tasks, or goals that you find yourself constantly moving from one to-do list, one goals planner, one journal to another? Is there a reason for this delay? Perhaps you’ve lost interest, or maybe other priorities are simply demanding your time and attention right now. How do you think it would feel if you gave yourself permission to let some of these priorities slide for a while?
An Invitation to You:
This week, choose one focus. Maybe it’s a work task or a creative project. Maybe it’s a renewed focus on your physical health. Whatever it may be, let that be your focus for the immediate future, and trust yourself to circle back to your other priorities later.
The Fun List
Food to Try
These old-school iced brownies from Half Baked Harvest were a hit at a game night this past weekend.
Put a twist on traditional lasagna by adding homemade pesto to the sauce. (Homemade pesto = a fancy way of saying: blend walnuts, basil, parmesan, olive oil, and lemon juice in a food processor. Seriously. It’s that easy.)
Food for Thought
This essay on Coffee + Crumbs, “Practicing Hope in a High-Risk Life,” by Stephanie Smith:
In a precarious world, to love is to risk. To love is perhaps even a kind of recklessness, rendering us vulnerable to all the swarming variables of a world we cannot control. This isn’t, of course, a word exclusively for parents—to love anyone is to put our all on the line, saying yes to joy, but also yes to fear.
On this side of all-things-new, there are many hopes and much good will, but there is no safe zone. The enduring promise is love, but it has never been safety.
Karen Swallow Prior’s essay in Public Discourse called “Surprised by Christ:”
While the rhythms of the church calendar and the demands of our own personal planners offer needed reminders to every heart to prepare Him room, we must also allow for—even expect—surprise.
The small surprises and sacrifices of Christmas—the time, resources, and care our loved ones expend in order to place under glowing trees those bright bundles on which our own names are written—recall the marvel of Christ’s entry into the world in order to sacrifice himself for those he calls by name.
The emphasis on self-care often can be tone deaf: failing to recognize the lack of control people have over their schedules. Some self-care narratives blame people who are busy. If you would just manage yourself better, the mantra goes, you wouldn’t be so stressed.
But life ebbs and flows. During some periods, you may have plenty of time for a lovely stroll through the park; yet, during other times, you just may need to buckle down and get things done in order to feel more in charge of your day. By realizing this, and by giving yourself permission to be busy during demanding times, you can actually address and reduce the pressures in your life.
This episode of the RETHINKING Podcast featuring Reese Witherspoon and her inspiring take on how “creativity is infinite”
This encouraging episode on the Lazy Genius about using the New Year to make small tweaks instead of sweeping, unattainable changes
Liam (20 months old) wearing his Elmo slippers all day, every day
2.5-mile evening walks with my dad
Making curry from scratch
A 90-minute Facetime chat with one of my childhood friends
My weekly creative accountability meetings with Jacob and my father-in-law
What I’m Writing
I publicly announced an exciting project I will be launching later this year.
As always, I hope my words encourage you. May you feel empowered to write with pencil and be led by curiosity today, tomorrow, and every day.