Whenever I travel I bring along five or six pencils. Pencils are what I write with now, ever since my first book. I hate the mess of crossing thru things written in ink, some part of me urging neatness on the page. So it was completely natural for me to fill out my customs form, entering Australia, in pencil. The customs officer was very worked up about this, scolding me for this huge violation–maybe not criminal but certainly a violation of basic common sense. I finally moved through under her skeptical eye.

I just returned from a wonderful holiday in Australia with two good friends, Carole and Dee. This trip showed me that on any given day, we live in an enormous world, but unless we push outside our own neighborhoods, we only get to see a tiny part of it. I learned that Australia is a younger country than the US. It was settled in the 1830’s, so our country is looked upon as “historical” to them. While there, I befriended kangaroos, a wonky-looking animal that was quite lovable, and one night at dusk, we watched hundreds of penguins spill out from the ocean, a nightly ritual of coming back home.

At the Great Barrier Reef, we swam with sea turtles, and I learned that the little island where we were staying, right in the heart of the GBR, has granite foundations over 300 million years old. Ancient rocks, new country. We snorkeled and saw an ocean teaming with aquatic life, brilliant colors bouncing off the coral and giant clams opening and closing to one’s touch. Sadly, I observed how horribly we’re treating the ocean, how our disposable habits are sending toxic carbons into the water, and killing off the coral which preserves marine life. The GRB, the size of fifty million football fields, feeds a half a billion people annually. But not for long, not the way we’re polluting it.

Our oceans and seas comprise most of our earth, and they give and they take, as we tragically witnessed first-hand one afternoon. Not far from where we snorkeled there was a fatal accident: A young resort worker drowned while snorkeling on his day off. The calamity stopped us all in our tracks—those working at this place, and the guests who were there (the three of us, and a small handful of others) as the first responders brought him to shore and tried to revive him. The staff labored for over an hour, while his larger work community bound a tight circle around him, as if the sheer force of their collective kinship could bring him back. Later, we all grieved. It rained nonstop that night.

This enormous, world, a Grand Teacher, reminds me that in a split second, everything can change. Just when we’re having the time of our lives, something can pull us back with the force of whiplash, a teacher of how fragile all of life is.

So I write in pencil, a way for me to stay humble when moments like that afternoon occur, to often erase and re-learn what I’m taking in, and how I respond to it. I have newfound respect for things not made with hands—the ancient granite, our oceans, the marine life that sustains and nourishes. When I pay attention, I can see how our whole chain of life is linked together.