Yesterday, I ran twenty miles. It seemed like a lot of miles, particularly at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. But when I got home, I was able to check off on my training schedule that I had completed another long run. And then, I had a doughnut.
The checkmark plus the doughnut more than made up for the aubergine toenail that was revealed when I removed my right shoe. Especially since it didn’t hurt. If the toenail had hurt, or if it had fallen off, or somehow been more disgusting, then the equation would have been different.
My running partner, Anne, and I get a lot of positive, reinforcing attention for our running. As we set off on our run yesterday, we came across a group of acquaintances, wrapped wimpily in scarves and coats, who asked us how many miles we were doing that day.
“Oh, like twenty,” we said nonchalantly.
“Twenty??” they said. “In this cold?”
“I can barely make it to the gym!” one said.
“Are you guys training for the marathon?” said another.
“Well, yeah,” said Anne. “Do you think we would run twenty miles if we didn’t have to?”
“But, wait,” I said. “Actually, we don’t have to.”
And then I felt confused.
People have asked me how I feel, physically. Do you feel really strong or do you feel really worn out? The answer is yes. At any given moment, I feel either really strong or really worn out, and sometimes I feel both things simultaneously. Strong and worn out are not opposites.
People seem to think that running a marathon is difficult. In fact, at least at my level, it is merely time-consuming. What is involved, in terms of skill, is minimal. One foot goes in front of the other, and then the other in front of that, and so on. Once, out of curiosity, I took a running class that was being offered by the Road Runners Club. I thought that I knew how to run since I’ve been doing it since I was a child, but since they offered the class I assumed that meant there existed some special knowledge about running that I’d been lacking all these years. But—one foot in front of the other, they said. They did provide one useful tip, though: that one should try to spend the majority of one’s energy moving forward instead of up and down, or side to side.
Last night, I dreamed that at the very start of the marathon, as we were waiting for the starting blast, a race official came pushing through the crowd, leading a horse. “Here,” he said, pointing at me and then handing me the reins. “You get to go on horseback.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just got on the horse. Clearly I had been singled out for this privilege and it was obviously going to make this race a lot easier and I would almost definitely do a personal best. But as I was sitting on the horse I realized that now all those twenty-mile runs had been complete wastes of time. There had been a point to them, or so I had thought, and now it eluded me.
I made it through the marathon without any real injuries. The only ill effect was a large purple sore on my thigh which had been caused by four hours and twenty minutes of being rubbed against by the Ziploc bag of jelly beans I carried in my pocket. I had not foreseen a jelly bean injury. This reminded me of how, after my son was born, I examined my body in the mirror. Giving birth had been the most exhausting and painful experience that I had ever been through and it seemed to me it should have left some physical evidence, but the only visible marks on my body were my husband’s thumbprints from when the doctors told him to hold my shoulders while I had my epidural.
You never know what’s going to leave marks.
CAROL PAIK lives in New York City with her husband and two kids. Her writing has appeared in the journals Brain, Child, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and Literal Latte, among others; and the anthologies The Best Plays from the Strawberry One-Act Festival, vol. 6, and Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, fifth ed. More of her writing is at www.carolpaik.com.
I’m holding in my hand an inexplicable jewel. It’s about an inch and a half long, just the right size to nestle inside my closed fist, and smooth; it feels slightly warm, not cold as a stone would be. When I was a child, I thought it looked like an eggplant—a miniature, precious eggplant. Not only because of its fat teardrop shape, but also because of its color—in my hand, it looks dark, almost black, but when I hold it up to the light it glows deep purple-red. On its blossom end is a bright gold cap that comes down in points just like the green stem part of an eggplant, which makes me think its maker intended it to look like an eggplant, and it wasn’t just my childish imagination. At the top of the cap is a gold loop, so that it can be worn on a chain.
This object used to belong to my Korean grandmother, my father’s mother. She gave it to her daughter-in-law, my mother, who kept it in her jewelry box, unworn, for years, where I used to love to find it. Not long ago, my mother passed it along to me.
The eggplant is not the only jewelry my grandmother gave my mother. My grandparents made the trip from Korea to Boston to see us perhaps once every two or three years, and when they came my grandmother brought gifts. Matching sweaters she had knit for my two older brothers. Tiny rings for me: turquoise and amethyst. Cash, hidden in the hem of a coat. Once, my mother parted the wrapping paper in a large box; inside it was gleaming, dark fur. My mother reached for it, exclaiming, “A mink stole!” When she unfolded it, though, it turned out to be a tiny fur jacket that tied at the neck with big mink pom-poms. For a five-year old: me. I can picture my grandmother hiding a smile.
My mother and her mother-in-law were never close. It did not help that my father himself did not have a good relationship with his mother—“she’s a bullshitter,” he would always say of her. But my father was the first of his brothers to marry and so my mother was the recipient of a number of gifts from my grandmother, all of which are embedded now in my earliest memories.
When my mother gave me the eggplant, I was caught off-guard. My mother has a long, rich history of giving me presents I don’t like, although I have never believed she has done this intentionally. Gift-giving is simply not something she cares about, and thus she approaches it like the chore she finds it to be, to be accomplished with the least inconvenience to herself.
She frequently gives me old things that have been lying around her house, or that she has picked up at the swap table at the town dump. Now that I’m an adult, I’m glad that she just gives me old stuff because then I don’t have any qualms about throwing it away. But sometimes this tendency of hers annoys me, as when she wraps up things that are already mine. I’m not sure what she is thinking when she does this. It could be that she has forgotten that they belong to me, as when she presented me with a set of twelve wooden place-card holders, carved to look like miniature Korean villagers, that I somehow acquired on our one family visit to Korea when I was eight. When I unwrapped them, I said, “Mom, these are mine.” She seemed genuinely surprised. Since I had never bothered to remove them from her house, I suppose she was justified in thinking that they were hers. That still does not explain why she thought I would like to receive them as a gift, however.
For my fortieth birthday she gave me a set of gold-plated miniature spoons bearing the crest of my grandmother’s alma mater (Ewha Women’s College, in Seoul, Korea).
“Mom,” I said, letting the gift wrap fall to the floor. “If you want to get rid of old, ugly, useless crap, why don’t you just sell it on eBay?”
“What?” she said, incredulous at the suggestion. “Who would buy it?”
The point is, when opening a gift from my mother—when smoothing out the previously used gift wrap bearing the ghostly marks of old scotch tape and lifting the lid of a cardboard box bearing the logo of a long-extinct department store (Jordan Marsh recurs with some frequency)—expectations are low. It could even be said that the sight of a wrapped box can fill me with dread and anticipation of disappointment and bewilderment.
But when she began, within the past few years, to give me her old jewelry, I was moved. For the first time, I felt that she was giving me things that had some meaning for her, things she specifically wanted me to have.
The first time I opened a small box and found one of the bracelets she had been given by my grandmother, I believe my mouth actually fell open and I uttered a word I rarely say when I open her presents: “Thanks!!” This bracelet is made of oval domes of a material with the hue and translucency of apricot jelly. No, not apricot. Something redder, darker, something that must be plucked from a tree with blossoms and is juicy and tastes like honey—maybe quince? I can picture this bracelet as it used to nestle against white cotton in my mother’s cream-colored, red-silk-lined jewelry box. I used to love to look through this box and carefully handle the colored gems. My mother is a pianist, and I remember watching her get dressed for a recital, how exciting and disconcerting it was to see her put on little screw-back earrings that dangled and swung and caught the light and transformed her from mere mom to someone perfumed and lipsticked, floral and fine, an artist and a performer in a pretty dress and high heels. My mother was giving me part of my childhood, and part of her youth.
In addition to the bracelet, she gave me the earrings that match it. The earrings are more of a teardrop shape, but of the same deep clear orange. Another time she passed along to me a necklace and earrings of dime-sized slightly curved disks the color of the ocean at its greenest, set inside circles of silver. I also have heavy earrings of a green-gray stone carved into flower baskets that hang from enameled flower backs.
But my favorite piece of all was always the eggplant. My mother gave it to me in the condition in which it had sat in her jewelry box throughout my childhood—without a chain or any way to wear it, just its gold cap, and a rough patch on one side as if someone had dropped it in something sticky that then hardened forever.
When I’ve asked my mother what these objects are made of, she has always been vague. There are so many opportunities for misinformation. It was never clear to me exactly why my mother was uncertain, but it could have been because she thought it was impolite to ask directly, and so my grandmother just hadn’t told her exactly what the pieces were; or perhaps she doubted what my grandmother had said; or maybe my mother just didn’t understand her because of the language barrier. My grandmother could be the source of uncertainty, or it could be my mother herself. At various times my mother told me she thought my grandmother had said the quince jelly jewelry was made of red jade. She told me maybe the ocean necklace was green jade. The flower basket earrings were white jade, perhaps. And the eggplant—she didn’t know, but she guessed amber.
All the references to “jade” made me suspicious. My mother doesn’t like to say that she doesn’t know something. And I know the “jade” answer solves a lot of problems for her. When she says something is made of jade, it is her way of saying: it’s from long ago and far away and however little I know about jade, you know even less, so just be quiet.
So I tried asking my father. My father is a scientist, a person who believes that facts matter.
“Dad, do you think this is red jade?”
“How would I know?”
“Grandma said it was red jade.”
“Then it’s bullshit.”
I wonder if my mother actually liked any of these pieces. The fact that she wore them doesn’t necessarily prove that she liked them. But she herself might not even have been able to answer that question. I don’t recall ever hearing her say, about a piece of clothing or jewelry, or item for the house, “I love this!” or even, “This is nice!” I heard her say, “It was on sale and it just fits the bill!” or, “It was right there in the back of the closet!” Liking or not liking something was not particularly relevant to her. Which also explains why, when giving gifts to others, she doesn’t tend to take their personal preferences into account. It’s not because she doesn’t care about them or intends to displease them—personal preference simply is not something she thinks very much about.
I considered taking the pieces to an appraiser, but most of them were in need of repair and I didn’t want to take them anywhere in the condition they were in. In addition, I had been to an appraiser once, in New York. Their policy was to charge ten percent of the value of each piece, which, it seemed to me, provided an odd and transparent incentive to appraise on the high side. It was a transaction loaded with more than the usual distrust and positioning, and I didn’t want to go through that with my few family heirlooms.
Last winter, however, while skiing in Vermont over Christmas vacation, my husband and I came across a small, family-owned jewelry store in the base village, and we went in so I could choose my Christmas gift. The young woman standing behind the case of blinding diamond rings was wearing a great deal of jewelry. I thought that if I wore that much jewelry I would look like a crazed kleptomaniac, or a hoarder heiress. But Roxanne looked like a radiant goddess. She guided us through our options patiently, enumerating each piece’s characteristics with the deep, husky voice of a fortune teller, and by the time I finally settled on a pair of gold dangly earrings, I trusted and loved her like a sister. As she wrapped the earrings, I told her that I had some old, broken jewelry that I wanted to have fixed.
“I can help you with that!” she said. “Bring them in the next time you come.”
So when we returned home to New York I packed my pieces carefully in pouches, and when we went skiing over Martin Luther King Day weekend, I brought them to Roxanne.
She and I sat opposite each other under a bright light, with a small table between us. I suddenly felt afraid for my little jewels. Here’s the thing about them: they are all I have from a grandmother I barely knew and whose life was essentially unimaginable to me. We are not a family that has much in terms of handed-down possessions. My mother’s family left Korea when she was a child of six, and no family possessions came with them across the Pacific on that boat, the last to leave Yokohama for the United States in 1940.
My father’s family, still in Korea, fled their home in Seoul for the south as the Communists advanced at the beginning of the Korean War ten years later. On our one visit to Korea when I was a child, I explored my grandparents’ home and found doors hidden in walls, rooms behind panels, places where they could hide if the Communists came. My father calls his mother a bullshitter, but I prefer to think that she simply was a keeper of secrets, a role that often necessitates obscuring the truth. There are reasons why the provenance of things is unknown—in all that fleeing and hiding, all manner of things were lost and forgotten.
But now it feels important to know about these few things that remain, these things that comprise my inheritance: what is their value? Perhaps it is because my grandmother is gone, and my parents are aging, and soon this information will be irretrievable, unless someone makes an effort. Perhaps it is because I want to give these things to my own children, and I want to know what it is that I am giving them.
Roxanne placed a little pad on the table and carefully laid out each piece. She examined each with interest. I sat silent. I didn’t tell her about how I always thought the bracelet looked like jelly or the necklace like seawater.
She started with the bracelet.
“My mother always said that was red jade,” I ventured.
She shook her head. “It’s carnelian,” she said, eying it through a loupe. “Pretty, and it’s set in a high karat gold. The bracelet is lovely just as it is. And the simplest thing to do with the earrings is just to put them on gold wires so you can easily wear them. I can do that for you right now.” And she disappeared into a back room, re-emerged with two gold wires, and, with a twist of a pair of pliers, replaced the screw-backs.
She next picked up the green necklace and weighed it in her hand. I could tell from the quickness with which her hand lifted and fell that the weight was underwhelming. She showed me how the green color was pulling away from the edges of each little disk, leaving them clear. I was very disappointed in them. They plainly had no value at all. Roxanne, seeing my expression, held them up against her neck.
“They’re a pretty color, “ she said. “A fun piece, for your daughter, maybe.”
“Hum,” I said. I didn’t want to give my daughter anything crappy, not even for fun.
The jade flower baskets interested her. “Look,” she said. “The baskets and the rings they dangle from are cut from one piece of jade—see how there’s no break in the ring? “
“So they are really are jade?” I said, brightening a bit.
“A great piece of workmanship,” she said. “A real conversation piece. The enamel backs are going to be too difficult to clean, though, especially since I can’t tell what the metal is. So if you want to wear them we’ll find you just a simple pair of gold hoops, and you can hang the baskets from them. “
“Should I be careful with these, then?” I asked. “Are they fragile?”
“Well, they’ve obviously been through a lot—you can see how the rings are wearing thin in places. They can’t be as fragile as all that. And it’s not so much that they’re worth a ton of money—they’re just interesting. Nice pieces.”
And then we came to my little eggplant.
“Oh,” Roxanne said. She held it, and thumbed the rough patch. She weighed it in her hand. I told her to hold it up to the light, and she did.
“Oh, look at that,” she said. She weighed it some more. Finally, she spoke.
“I have no idea what this is,” she said.
“Neither do I, “ I said.
“It’s very light. I’m going to guess some kind of resin,” she said. “Amber.”
“Amber sounds right,” I said.
“But this gold cap is very high-karat,” she said. “And the workmanship on it is very fine. It indicates to me that it’s something of value. No one would put a fancy cap like that on something worthless.”
“You didn’t know my grandmother,” I said.
“Let me hold onto this one,” she said. “I’ll ask the people at our studio what they think it is, and what they think can be done with it. I’ll let you know.”
I wear my new carnelian earrings quite a bit. I like their length, their color, and the way they dangle. But I still do not know what they are worth. Roxanne would not put a dollar value on any of the things I brought her. She said she didn’t know what they were worth, and determining exactly what they were made of would involve subjecting them to tests of various kinds to determine things like hardness and melting points that would probably damage them irreparably. Her view was, if you like them, then wear them—what difference does it make what they are worth?
This wasn’t a satisfying conclusion for me, though, so I went on eBay and plugged in “Carnelian earrings” to see what I could find. “Carnelian earrings,” it turns out, are a dime a dozen. Almost literally. I found a pair that approximated the size and shape of my teardrops, and the bidding started at: thirty-nine cents.
I heard from Roxanne a few weeks later.
“The artists at the studio could not determine what the material is,” she said. “Our best guess is still amber. But I have to tell you that there is a possibility that it is plastic. We can’t rule it out.
“We can repair the loose cap by putting in a new pin, and we can take off whatever is stuck to it,” she said. “And I’ve found a perfect gold chain for it. The chain runs …”
I can’t even tell you how much. More than I would ordinarily pay for a piece of jewelry, especially one that could not be ruled out as being plastic.
I wrote back. “I would like to be able to wear this piece. But is there any way to guarantee that it is not plastic?”
“No,” she wrote back. “But it is a lovely piece, and I think if you love it, you should wear it.”
If I love it. It was as simple, and as impossible, as that. Being my mother’s daughter, I don’t ask myself that question very often. Do I love it? Is there an answer to that question that is separate from the questions of its utility, its dollar value? Of course I don’t love it. I don’t tend to feel love for inanimate objects. Although, you know, if I ever were to love an object, the eggplant might be the one.
“I wanted her to tell me what it’s worth,” I complained to my husband. “She didn’t answer my question at all.”
“Go ahead and get it fixed,” he said. “Otherwise, it will certainly be worth nothing.”
Ultimately, I gave Roxanne the go-ahead. In a few weeks she let me know that it was ready. She said it was gorgeous.
And it was. And it is. The chain is Italian gold, richly colored but not overly brassy or bright, substantial but not heavy. Roxanne had two loops put in so I can wear the pendant at different lengths. As it turns out, I wear it all the time. It suddenly seems that every outfit is enhanced by a possibly plastic eggplant on a lovely gold chain. I will never know what my eggplant is really made of, but at this point I’d almost rather not know, for its unknowability may be its most precious feature. When I give it to my daughter, she will know at least this part of its story: I took my mysterious inheritance of indeterminate value, and I put it on a gold chain, and I gave it to her, with all my love.
CAROL PAIK lives in New York City with her husband in a half-empty nest. Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and Literal Latte, among other places, and has been anthologized in The Best Plays from the Strawberry One-Act Festival, vol. 6, and Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, fifth ed. More of her writing at: www.carolpaik.com. More about her short film, Pear, at www.facebook.com/pearthemovie.
I had been thinking a lot about paper—specifically, about how much of it I throw away and how wasteful that seems—so I decided to try making some of my own. This happens to me from time to time: I become overwhelmed with guilt about the garbage I generate and I then think, well, it’s kind of pathetic to just feel bad, surely, there’s something constructive that Can Be Done. At other times when I have felt like this, I have taken up yogurt-making and bread-making, not for health reasons or because I’m preservative-phobic—quite the contrary, I’m all in favor of preservatives, at least in moderation—but because it seems that yogurt containers, bread bags, and paper are the three things I throw away in unconscionable quantities and I have this vision in my head of the Pacific garbage patch that won’t dissipate. The vision won’t dissipate, and apparently neither will the garbage patch.
Making paper is actually fairly easy. (As it turns out, so is yogurt-making, if you have a yogurt-maker, whose sole function is to control temperature; and so is bread-making, if you own a bread machine. I probably don’t need to point out that purchasing these appliances, compact as they are, negates the whole purpose of yogurt/bread/paper–making, which was to reduce my carbon footprint. Also, they’re only easy if you’re content, as I am, with relatively pedestrian yogurt/bread/paper.) When I first read about papermaking, it sounded really hard. It sounded like it involved roaming around in the woods pulling up fibrous grasses and roots with gloved hands, pounding them with a wooden mallet or something equally unwieldy and full of splinters, or maybe stomping on them in a vat. It sounded laborious, in a tedious way but at the same time, in addition, as if it involved some mysterious technical dexterity, some sleight-of-hand. But really it’s easy. And it does help if you buy Arnold Grummer’s basic paper making kit, available online for about $30.95, which consists of a “pour deckle” (a rectangular wooden frame), “papermaking screen” (a piece of mesh), a sturdy plastic grid, a wooden bar, and a sponge.
And while you can certainly go out into the fields and gather plants and boil them and pound them and boil them again until the fibers lose their backbone and will, all you really need, and what the kit recommends, and the whole reason I wanted to make paper in the first place, is garbage. You take your paper garbage. You take your old copies of Fitness and More (for Women Over 40) magazines that you got free for running the More half-marathon last year and whose exhortations and promises now weary you; you take bank statements and credit card bills (from before you went paperless); letters from your kids’ high school administrators about what they’re doing to prevent sexual assault; requests for money from so very many worthy charitable ventures, so many that you couldn’t possibly give to them all. In particular you take your drafts of the young adult novel you’re no longer even remotely interested in finishing.
You take it all and you energetically tear it all up, first lengthwise and then crosswise, into jaggedy half-inch squares.
You put a few handfuls, or about as many scraps as could be puzzled into a letter-size sheet of paper, into a blender, add two cups of tap water and push “blend.” The instructions say quite specifically that you should have a designated blender for this task. You shouldn’t blend paper and then expect to use the same blender to blend your smoothies. Making paper is a toxic endeavor, as scrap paper is laden with chemicals. One papermaking book I read suggested going to the local Goodwill or the garbage dump and finding a used blender, but I would be afraid of something electrical that someone abandoned at the dump so I went to the hardware store instead and bought the cheapest blender I could find, although it was kind of hard to find one that didn’t have fifteen different speeds. And of course that was frustrating, because the whole idea, remember, was not to buy another appliance! The whole idea was that I was going to be making something out of nothing, and making something out of nothing and reducing the Pacific garbage patch shouldn’t involve purchasing a brand new blender. So already, before I even started, I felt a little defeated and sheepish.
But anyway, you take your non-fancy, non-European blender and blend the paper scraps and water, and when you have a blurry mess (takes about thirty seconds) you pour it into the wooden frame, which you have submerged in a small tub of water. There’s a lot of sloshing of water involved in the papermaking process, so you have to put the tub of water in the kitchen sink. Many papermakers advocate making paper outdoors, but it was wintertime when I felt the need to make paper, so outdoors was not an option. It made me wonder, reading this advice, whether most people who make paper live in California, or Arizona, or some place idyllic and temperate, some place that isn’t where I live, some place that doesn’t have long, drawn-out miserable winters during which you sit indoors thinking about how your kids will be leaving for college soon and won’t need you any more and how you’d better come up with a new sense of purpose or at least some hobbies.
So you need to occupy the kitchen sink. If other people need to use the kitchen sink or the surrounding countertop area, this could pose a problem, especially given the toxic nature of what you are doing. But you don’t care what anyone else needs right now, because you are determined to create something today, today you are going to make something, you are going to make something out of nothing, and that is a worthy goal, and one that is worth occupying the kitchen for, and if other people want to, say, cook, or get a glass of water, or something, they’re just going to have to wait because you deliberately and considerately waited to do this until right after lunch after you’d cleaned up the dirty dishes, so that no one should really need this area for at least a few hours and it’s not really asking that much for them to go away.
And furthermore those people don’t need to hang around and silently and concernedly watch you blend scraps of garbage with water in a blender, either. They must have better things to do.
So, you can decide how uniform you want your pulp to be. You can blend it longer and have a very smooth pulp, or you can blend it less and have some identifiable bits of paper floating in it. This is one of the parts of papermaking that is up to you; this is one of the steps where you can express yourself. Making paper in a blender is not rote or mechanical. It is an art, and this is why: you can decide how long you want to push “blend.”
Once you’ve poured the pulp into the frame, it floats around in the water and you dabble your fingers in it to distribute it around. Once the pulp seems fairly evenly distributed, you slowly lift the frame out of the water. There is a piece of wire screening across the bottom of the frame, and the pulp settles on top of this screen and as you lift it from the water a layer of pulp forms there. You hold it for a moment above the tub so the water can drain out, and then you are left with a layer of pulp that, once dry, will be your new sheet of paper.
The very first time I did this, it worked perfectly, and the second and third times, too. The pulp lay even and flat across the screen and I thought, there is nothing to this papermaking business. Not only have I tried something new, I have mastered it! In one afternoon! The fourth time I did it, however, with all the confidence of the seasoned, the pulp clumped up. I had to re-submerge the frame and stir the pulp around with my fingers several times until the screen was satisfactorily covered, but even then the layer of pulp was lumpy. I thought, good thing this didn’t happen the first time, I would have given up right then. My initial taste of success was sufficient, however, to make me keep trying despite this setback—but when I kept stirring and lifting and the pulp still would not lie flat, I almost gave up anyway. Who wants to make paper. What a stupid thing to want to do. You can easily buy paper. It cost more to buy the kit and the blender than it does to buy like a ream of brand-new paper. What do I think I’m doing, saving the environment or something? Go through all this trouble, and for what? Take up this space, make this mess, spend this time and effort … for what? For whom?
After this little paroxysm of self-doubt, I reminded myself that I am far too mature to have tantrums, that I am capable of handling a little frustration. I got a grip and went online. And the internet paper-making community rose to my aid.
I learned, through my research, that the problem could be that the little openings in the screen were getting blocked by paper pulp, making it so that the water did not drain out evenly. The screen needed to be cleaned with a brush. After I cleaned the screen, the pulp did in fact lie more smoothly.
Once you’ve lifted the sheet of proto-paper out of the water, you have to remove it from the frame. The screen is held in place by a plastic grid, which is strapped tightly to the frame with Velcro bands. You put the frame on an old cookie sheet (which you will never again use for cookies), unstick the Velcro, and lift the frame off the screen. And there is the paper, perfectly rectangular, with softly ragged edges that give it that unfakeable artisanal look. You then place a sheet of plastic over it and turn the whole thing over. You try to squeeze as much water out of it as you can with the wooden block, and when it’s pretty well squeezed you sandwich it between two “couching sheets” (other pieces of paper).
Then the paper needs to dry. You press the new pieces of paper under a stack of books so that they dry flat. The drying is the only time-consuming part of the process. You have to wait overnight at least. After that you—or I, anyway—get impatient and leave the pieces out in the open to dry, and they end up drying curly even after all that time being pressed under books.
Once I get started making paper, it’s hard to stop. You tear up paper, you pour in water, you push a button, you pour the pulp, you lift the frame, you remove the new sheet of paper. You do it again, if you want to. If you want to, you do it again. It can take on a rhythm. The grating noise of the blender no longer bothers you. You can become a little crazed. Soon there are damp couching sheets all over the kitchen. But tomorrow, you know, you’ll have a satisfying stack of curly, bumpy paper to show for it.
The paper is not necessarily beautiful. Some of it looks a lot like dryer lint. Some of it looks a lot like garbage that’s been ground up and flattened—surprising! But some sheets of paper are delicately colored from the inks in the recycled papers, and some have little remnants of words in them from the bits that you decided not to grind too fine. Some have truncated Chinese character limbs from the chopstick wrappers I used. Some have shiny bits from the linings of tea bags. One piece has colorful threads running through it that I harvested from the bottom of my sewing basket. Once you get the hang of it, you can start throwing pretty much anything in that blender. Even before you get the hang of it. You can throw almost anything in there, and you never know exactly how it will come out.
I’ve heard that all the molecules in our bodies have been used before. It’s the same with the paper.
But papermaking isn’t really transformative. You don’t really make a beautiful thing out of ugly things. I was hoping that at least I was making a useful thing out of useless things, but that’s not exactly true, either. I don’t think I can use this paper to write on. I don’t think I can run it through my printer. But still, I have a stack of paper where before I only had garbage. That feels like some cosmic gain.
When I decide I’m done for the day, mostly because other people do need to use the kitchen, I wonder what would happen if I had my own papermaking studio. With endless space and time to make as much paper as I wanted. To make whole, huge, luminous, empty sheets, using frames that require the entire stretch of both arms and all my upper-body strength to lift. Maybe I would make paper all day. I read about a man who does that, a professional paper artist. The Library of Congress insists upon using his papers to repair their most delicate treasures. But I wouldn’t want to do that. I would get tired of it if I did it all day. I would hate the pressure I would feel from the Library of Congress to maintain my paper’s quality. And what would I do with all that paper? The Library of Congress couldn’t possibly want it all. It would accumulate in stacks, in various stages of dry and damp, it would rise in dense towers, my house would fall down, I would never be heard from again.
I learned in this process that paper is a relatively recent invention. It was only introduced to the Western world in the Middle Ages. I am trying to imagine a world without paper. What did people use to write on? There was vellum, which is not technically paper, as it is made from skins, not from the particular water-based process used for authentic paper. Mass-produced paper did not exist until fairly recent times. Before that time, how did people write? More importantly, how did they re-write? They couldn’t, I bet. They probably couldn’t have conceived of wasting precious writing materials on a shitty first draft. They would have had to know what they wanted to say, and they would have had to have been convinced that it was worth saying before they would even have thought of writing anything down.
I have a growing stack of my own paper now. Each sheet is crisp and substantial, like a very healthy kind of grayish cracker. I like to look at the sheets. Some of them are little collages in and of themselves, with random bits of color and texture that are visually and tactilely pleasing. But whatever beauty the paper possesses feels so accidental that I can’t take any creative pride in it.
I shuffle my stack. I deem paper-making, overall, a qualified success, worth repeating when the issues of More start piling up. But in subsequent paper-making sessions I have been unable to recapture the thrill—no, I’m not overstating it!—the thrill, the magic, of seeing a perfectly flat, unique sheet of proto-paper emerge from the bath. Every sheet I make now feels like a product of a process, with some luck thrown in, rather than of magic. But maybe that’s okay.
CAROL PAIK lives in New York with her husband in a half-empty nest. She expects to turn fifty next week. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and Literal Latte, among other places. She recently wrote the screenplay for a short film, Pear, that won the Audience Choice Award for Best Short Film at the Sedona Film Festival, and will next be screened at FilmColumbia 2013 in Chatham, NY (www.filmcolumbia.com) and the Brattleboro Film Festival in Brattleboro, VT (www.brattleborofilmfestival.org). More of her writing at: www.carolpaik.com.