That ingenious little device, the Etch A Sketch, saved me on more than one occasion during childhood: trapped in the back seat of my parents’ sedan, weary of reading or coloring, riding shotgun with a bothersome younger brother all the way from Memphis across the states of Arkansas and then Texas, I could occupy myself for a long while trying to draw the elusive sphere on the rigid horizontal and vertical axes of the Etch A Sketch. It saved me again as a parent, when I could whip out a diminutive version of the toy and hand it to my fidgety kid in a long queue at the grocery store. By then it even came in a minuscule format you could attach to your keyring.
As irksome as it was to draw those dang curved lines, which demanded careful coordination between left and right hands (making microscopic adjustments sideways, up, sideways, up, sideways, up), the beauty of the thing of course, was you could hold it over your head and shake it, et voilà! The proverbial slate was wiped clean, a blank canvas at the ready for your next creation. And it wasn’t messy like paints or markers: there could be no mishaps to try to lift out of clothing or car upholstery, no materials to melt when they overheated (what happens to forgotten Crayolas in the back seat of a car in a Texas summer is a tragedy)—all it required was two hands and a bit of imagination. And even now the Etch A Sketch holds sway over kids and grownups of all ages. In short, it might be world’s most nearly perfect toy.
But this is not a commercial endorsement for a nostalgic plaything: it’s more a metaphor for second chances, really. Etch A Sketch creations may be ephemeral, but there’s beauty in that, after all. The idea of do-overs is appealing. Who among us (even those who boldly insist they have no regrets) has not wished on one occasion or other for the chance to rewind some unfortunate tape, or at least to close a bad chapter, and start fresh? When my kid was still a peanut, I even used this as a parenting strategy when he got up ‘on the wrong side of the bed.’ Let’s start all over again, I’d tell him. Go climb back into bed, pull up the covers, close your eyes, and then I’ll come in and say, Good Morning, Merry Sunshine! And that will be your cue to start the day in a better mood.
It actually worked sometimes, maybe because of the novelty of it, but I think mainly because it underscored the idea of taking charge of one’s own destiny, even if that is as inconsequential as being a little less grouchy at the breakfast table: you can choose to be irritable or cheerful, never mind that those sentiments might be expressed in shades of grey instead of black or white. Any good decision, however tiny, is a win.
For all the whitewashed promise of the do-over, though, it still bears the thumbprint of what went before it. You can tear the top sheet off the legal pad, the one where your grad school statistics professor just attempted—for the second or third time—to explain some concept you can’t quite grasp, and there on the pad’s clean top sheet are little valleys that betray the marks her pencil made as she drew up an equation on the page that’s now crumpled and pushed aside on her desk. Still, that blank page is reassuring, because it holds the promise that you might finally get it.
The brick patio you spent an afternoon pressure washing looks better to be sure, but is still dotted with shadows of the little mossy spots you labored over all day, leftovers from all the weeks you spent engaged in parenting a difficult kid, simply too worn out to be bothered with a chore like pressure washing. The sterling spoons you polished to a fare-thee-well show wear from the chapter in your life when you were surrounded by friends and family, and often. You polished them one last time just before your big reboot, and then packed them all away—and now seeing them again for the first time in years brings that chapter bubbling right up. So you’ll be sad for a while, and maybe even angry, but you can’t stay there for too long because life is short and thank the universe for that reassuring, clean sheet on the top of the tablet.
Of course the only authentic tabula rasa—clean slate—we can know is the one we started with. From that moment forward, we all have pencil marks, and little moldy shadows, maybe a bit of tarnish and a few scratches here or there, written all over us. Even the Etch A Sketch leaves a tiny trail that suggests the drawing you just made but ‘erased.’ It lingers for a while, but finally must relent when its aluminum powder yields to your new idea—the one your own hands are now realizing as you manipulate the stylus around inside the contraption. But your new idea will be better, because it will be fertilized with the wisdom, everything you learned, from all the old ideas.
What old thing needs erasing from your Etch A Sketch—and how will your do-over look?