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The Sharpest Knife In The Drawer

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

I didn’t want it to be pretty, and I didn’t want to have to be pretty myself. The whole thing was a big hassle.”

The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.

I was sitting on an island enjoying the quiet wilderness when my eldest interrupted my thoughts, asking me to read the words carved into the campsite’s picnic table. They weren’t words exactly, but names of those that came before us, along with the year of their visit. To her dismay, I myself refused to do the same, explaining it meant a repainting by the park ranger in order to preserve the table from early deterioration. Nor would we carve into the trees.

I was being unfun mum.

Until I told her that instead campers in the backcountry sometime whittle a stick into a tiny canoe paddle, inscribe their names, and hang that from a tree before leaving camp. That seemed more fun than defacing the table. I reminded her of how we’d done that on another trip just the year before. Satisfied with the alternative, she asked me if I’d make one, and without waiting for an answer, she left me to my thoughts.

I wandered to the water’s edge, and chose a suitably dry, sun-bleached stick, one who’s bark had long fallen off in the lake. I dug out my husband’s Swiss Army Knife from the bottom of the dry bag, and got to work.

You’d think that using a sharp knife to intentionally carve pieces off a small piece of wood would demand my full attention, but honestly, it’s was a little meditative and inevitably my mind wandered.

I thought about when I was 12 years old. I somehow came into possession of a small Swiss Army knife. It had a small knife blade, a nail file, tweezers, and a toothpick. In other words, it was the most basic Swiss Army available. I considered it mine at the time, having found it in the back of a junk drawer somewhere. I recall the strange satisfaction of transforming a stick into something else, the pleasing sensation of carving through the wood.

Image by Markus Spiske on Upsplash

I wondered why I didn’t spend more time improving my carving abilities when it clearly brought me joy. Why was it that I didn’t find much occasion for the pastime, especially in summer when I make every effort to be camping most weekends?

My mind wandered a little further to Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and something clicked.

For some of us, there is more inertia to overcome.

You see, like Bechdel’s childhood self, I too looked on with envy at all the things I was denied because I was not a boy. By default, I’d be given Barbies when what I really wanted was a Transformer. Instead of gaining useful wilderness training in Boy Scouts, I was stuck in Girl Guides, wearing a dress, and failing group badge activities because my dried flower craft wasn’t pretty enough. I didn’t want it to be pretty, and I didn’t want to have to be pretty myself. The whole thing was a big hassle.

One day, my younger brother received a gift that boys of a certain age are given. A Swiss Army knife.

Boys, not girls.

I looked on with envy, and used it in secret after his interest waned.

Maybe that’s the most relatable part of the Bechdel’s memoir. For those of us that don’t neatly fit in the roles that culture expects of our sex, life is complicated by the duality of acting the part and being true to one’s self. The world is less than ideal, and we’ve learned to walk the line where safety and social inclusion are at stake.

I still have never owned a Swiss Army knife. I merely use the unused ones that were gifted to the men in my life when they were boys of a certain age.

Sure, now that I’m a financially independent adult, I could buy myself a knife.

It just seems a shame to see those other ones go to waste.

I carved myself a fine little canoe, about the size of my hand. I’m looking forward to doing it again on my next wilderness trip.

Was there something your childhood-self envied of the opposite sex? Do you fulfil that longing now in your adult life? Do you think everyone walks a line between acting a part and being true to themselves?

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