Small Wonders: Life and the Crayon box

With so much wrong in the world today — the Dodgers' disintegration and Arnold's improprieties, Weiner's lewd tweets and Sarah's revisionist history — I've been looking for something uplifting to read to take my mind off the dark and destructive forces swirling about us like tornados in Massachusetts.

What better than the final words of a young father dying a slow death to pancreatic cancer?

A few years late, but I am reading “The Last Lecture,” by Randy Pausch. As you may recall, Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who was asked to partake in the school's “last lecture” series, wherein an instructor gives the hypothetical final lecture of their career. In Pausch's case, having just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, the opportunity was timely, to say the least.

He used the lecture to talk not about death, but about life. And he did it so eloquently, so simply and profoundly, that the great hand of all worldly power, fame and wealth reached down and anointed him.

That's right. Oprah called.

The book that followed is a collection of Pausch's anecdotal insights and techniques for getting through life with some measure of success not counted in dollars. And one of his offerings, entitled “Get in Touch with Your Crayon Box,” struck me.

As Pausch tells it, he was a man whose view of the world was largely black and white for much of his life; believing that the things we encounter on our journeys are one or the other, true or false, with no gray areas, let alone any other shade. As he got older, though, he “learned to appreciate that a good crayon box might have more than two colors.”

He planned to hand out a crayon to every person attending his last lecture. He wanted everyone to take some time to feel and smell that crayon; to let that take them back to their childhood, before things got complicated, when dreams were still alive. But in the confusion of the event, that didn't happen.

It sure would be convenient if things were black and white, if every decision and circumstance we come upon could be boiled down to a simple choice between A and B, with the obvious answer being made clear.

We do get those decisions on occasion — Slurpee over Icee, red zinfandel over white, Patron tequila over Jose Cuervo. But I'd say the majority of our choices and relationships are not black and white. Fate, chance and experience throw red, blue and burnt sienna at us too.

The world is a mosaic of struggles. Our relationships and personal situations are unique and convoluted. It's made that much more so because each one of us brings our own crayon box to the play date. You have the 64-color box with the built-in sharpener, and I only have the eight-count jumbo collection filled with dulled stubs. But I may have some colors you don't, some flavors and experiences that you already went through, or different colors that you've never seen before. And you, assuredly, have a few that I've never used on my canvas.

We can control only so much of what comes our way in the shrinking time we have; can only draw with the colors in our box. But if we're lucky, some other kids let us see inside their boxes, maybe even let us borrow a little part of them to take with us to use on our big picture. That's when we get to see just how brilliant a world can be when we stop seeing things in black and white alone.

Politics are magenta. Religion is desert sand. Justice is fuzzy wuzzy.

The environment is forest green. Love is pink flamingo. Society is jazzberry jam.

And friendships are raw umber.

We can live a life with only two crayons, surround ourselves only with those who agree with us, refuse to accept anything outside the lines we've drawn for ourselves, and toss from our lives those who don't. We can.

But something tells me that the world, and our brief passing through it, is made so much richer and worthwhile by drawing with other crayons once in a while, accepting each other for who we are and loving each other no less.

I've got a crayon on my desk, Randy. It's red-orange, a heartwarming combination of colors that are neither black nor white, but resembling earth, fire and time. And the smell of it takes me back to a place that I will never forget; a childhood and life filled with dreams and fond memories. I hope you like it. It's yours if you ever want to borrow it.

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PATRICK CANEDAY can be reached at

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