Life in Pencil

Life in PencilA few weeks ago while scanning Facebook I saw a meme posted by a friend who’s an actor. It was something silly about starting a new play and always being the person in the cast who forgets to bring a sharpened pencil. You see, the rule for theatre is you always bring a pencil to rehearsal so you can change things along the way. The director comes in with an understanding of the piece, the cast, the stage but throughout the process new ideas, opportunities, and challenges are revealed making it necessary for the actors to take notes in pencil. The meme was silly and resonated with me because I always feel like the guy who showed up on the first day filled with enthusiasm and lacking a pencil.

However, it got me thinking about how fortunate I am to have been involved with theatre since I was a kid. It was one of those light bulb moments when I suddenly thought to myself, “Wow – that whole pencil thing is a pretty incredible mantra for living a life!” At which point I heard in my head the voices of my children laughing at me, rolling their eyes and saying “Mommy, you can make anything into a learning opportunity” which they don’t mean in a nice way, or my husband saying I’m the most analytical person he’s ever met and sometimes the walls are red because they’re just red – not everything needs to have a deeper meaning. I totally agree that not everything should be broken down into the wisdom nugget of the day…except when it should.  So I pushed aside the contradictory voices in my head and choose instead to listen to the voices saying the deep and meaningful things that I wanted to listen to.

I digress. Ahem.

I promise not to go too far down the rabbit hole of the theatre metaphor – but believe me all of the really important lessons of life can be learned in the process of putting on a play.  As a director and cast come to a play with a script in hand and, hopefully, a general idea of their roles based on the words on the page and their own preparation – so do people come to life, with a framework and a general idea based on their experiences and interactions. There are some things that, no matter what, cannot be changed. The source material is what it is. You may tweak a word here or a stage direction there but ultimately what is on the page has been predetermined and the participants in the production must do their best to work with what is in front of them. You can only do as my mother always says and “make do with whatcha got!” So as a result you have to be open to adjusting as you go.

Being alive on the planet is hardly a clear cut, easy pursuit. There are certainly those folks who seem to know how to do life particularly well and might be able to go through their entire lives in pen and be just hunky dory. If you are one of those people then maybe you should be writing this instead of me. However, I’ve never encountered a single, solitary human who didn’t need (or want) a do-over at least once in their lives. If you bring a pencil and you’re ok using it then you have the power to take risks. You have the power to open your mind to possibilities. You get to not be tied to “the way it’s always been done” because you’ve got a pencil.  With that comes the gift of getting to say “yes.” There’s so much freedom in that.

Sure, there will be times when you’ll commit to a choice and it won’t turn out the way you’d expected but in most cases everyone is still alive and you can try again tomorrow.  When I had my first child, a little perfect baby girl who immediately slept through the night, loved everyone and was basically born into adulthood, I was stoked to have another baby as soon as possible feeling very certain that I was gifted in the ways of mothering and would no doubt continue producing equally magnificent and easy going off-spring. Well, as you can only imagine that was a hilarious and incorrect assessment. It took me over a year, after the birth of my second child, to remember all of my limbs and clothing before leaving the house. Shortly into life as a mother of two I had erased everything of which I had been so certain just months before. Then I had a third child and threw out the script entirely. Now I rewrite it daily, in pencil from the start…on paper made of Xanax and held together with my own tears.

When I was very young I just knew that one day I would be on Broadway. I moved to New York City to live the dream of life as a bartender who occasionally worked as an actress and singer (badump bump). For the couple of years leading up to that move, as I worked and trained there had been this nagging thought in the back of my mind – that though I had spent my entire young life preparing for this, and I was born with the ability to sing and do characters, and the people in my life had always told me that’s what I would do, should do, was meant to do – I didn’t want to be on Broadway. That’s not to say I would have ended up on Broadway even if I had wanted it more than anyone – but the realization after all those years that I didn’t want it was the hardest to accept. This was the make-up of my entire identity. There was nothing else. How could I start over being a person if this wasn’t my goal? So I took out my pencil and started from page one.

Believe me there were missteps along the way – I spent two years as a terrible real estate agent – not that there’s anything wrong with that profession except that I shouldn’t be doing it. But I figured some things out. I got married, had my first child and realized that I couldn’t be the mother I wanted her to have without finishing my education. I had always wanted to help people and make a difference in the world. So I went back to school and got degrees in social and behavioral sciences and started down a very long path which has led me here. I have lived my life in fits and starts, at times following my instincts rather than a plan. In some areas this has been disastrous, but most of the time it has led to the most beautiful realizations. I know not everyone is as comfortable with the unknown as I tend to be (another reason everyone should be doing theatre) but having a pencil at the ready means that when you are met with disappointment – which is inevitable – instead of a dead end, it’s just an opportunity to try another approach.

All we can do is try things. Of course have a plan, have a belief system, have goals and be committed to them – that’s important and honorable. But my goodness, if in the play that is your life, you keep tripping over a piece of the set, you never have enough time to get from one spot to another, or you’re so caught up in the tripping, bumping and rushing that you can’t give your emotional all to the role – then talk to the director, take out your pencil and find another way.  The thing about it that I’ve realized is that using the pencil doesn’t mean I’ve failed. It means I’ve taken a chance, discovered a new truth for myself, and most importantly acknowledged that something isn’t working, and I’ve asked for support in addressing it. The difference between life and a play is obvious – in life everyday is a performance with little to no time for rehearsal. But we can never expect more from ourselves or the people around us than the willingness to learn from our mistakes and to keep trying until we get it right.

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Erin Mahone
Erin Mahone is the Director of Cultural Arts and Jewish Education at the Weinstein JCC. She has worked for nearly a decade, throughout RVA, providing access to the arts and creative expression for people of all ages and abilities. Erin is also the creator and Chief Oversharer at It Runs in the Family, a one-woman show website containing collective story series with the mission of reducing the stigma of mental illness and highlighting the power of saying the truth out loud. Erin lives in Midlothian with her amazing husband, 3 delicious kiddos, and a fur baby named Kismet.