This Body

By Gina Easley
By Gina Easley

By Zsofi McMullin

The first time the trainer tells me to put my hands on my side and feel my abdominal muscles work, I can’t help but laugh. The only thing I feel are rolls of fat and loose skin. This is not really a surprise—I haven’t exercised in a good decade or more and expecting any muscle activity in my middle region seems silly. For weeks on end, I don’t even feel the effects of doing sit-ups or crunches. It’s like there are no muscles there to feel sore.

Recently I’ve been pushing my body—I am not even sure why. I’ve always hated exercise. I never felt the rush of adrenaline, I never enjoyed the sweat, the effort, the hassle. But something clicks this time around—is it turning forty? Is it fear that the achy knee every morning will lead to more serious issues? Is it wanting to run and swim and climb with my six-year-old? I suppose it is a bit of everything.

I feel my body go into that zone—not entirely under my control, pushing beyond what my mind would encourage under normal circumstances. My mind is more likely to whisper “go, sit on that couch, and have a piece of chocolate and a glass of wine.” But this body pushes on, struggling, jiggling, losing balance, and unglamorously dripping in sweat.

I still hate the sweat and the hassle. But the trainer on the videos is not entirely hateful and her mantras soon take on meanings beyond exercise: “If you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.” “Don’t wish for it, work for it.”


The night before Sam is born, I feel like an animal. I spend the night curled up in an armchair, leaning forward to take the pressure off my aching back. I build a small fort, placing pillows around me and on the coffee table in front of me so I can rest my arms and head. I stay like this for hours, not asleep but not fully awake either, just conscious enough to record the start and end of each contraction.

My friends who are pregnant at the same time have elaborate birth plans that involve doulas and hot tubs and yoga balls and no drugs. My birth plan includes getting through the whole ordeal feeling as little of it as possible. I want every possible drug and intervention.

Sam is born fast—no time for an epidural or any other drug to take effect. It is the last day of the year—a snowstorm kicks up outside; the sky is eerily pink and it is a Blue Moon.

My body takes over and I feel terrified by the force and inevitability of muscles contracting, skin stretching, ribs being kicked and pushed from within. There is nothing I can do to stop this baby from violently forcing its way out of me. I can breathe and push—or not—the result will be the same. I am terrified of pushing, but I can’t help it. My body does it for me and all I can do is hold on and look at the snow and bare my teeth at the nurse who is yelling at me to push harder.

But weirdly, there is no pain. At least none that I can remember now. Or not pain like a pulled muscle or a headache or a sore throat. The pain is bigger than that, almost beyond feeling. And then so much relief when it’s finally, finally over. In a haze after my baby emerges, I ask the nurse to see the placenta—she reaches into the bucket on the floor between my legs and lifts up the entire sack that my baby lived in for nine months. I am almost more fascinated by it than by the baby lying so quietly in his warming cot—the baby who is no longer a part of my body.

This body grew the one thing to nurture the other.


In my exercise videos the trainer always tells you what exact muscles to engage during certain exercises. The core muscles to protect your back; the biceps to help out your shoulders, the calves and knees to support you as you lift heavier weights.

It takes time to learn to locate all of these muscles. This is news to me. How do you know when your “pelvis is tucked” or whether you are “squeezing your glutes” or “engaging your back” or “exploding through your arms” or “shooting energy through your calves,” when these are not things that you do on a regular basis?

But I do feel the difference—suddenly, I feel pain where I am supposed to, or “feel the burn,” as the trainer puts it. Muscles tighten, sweat drips, breath quickens—even though you are supposed to slow down and control your breathing. When you are in pain, you know you are doing it right.

I wonder if it works like that for the heart. Can I choose to engage it or not? Can I learn to flex or tighten just certain parts of it at certain times to protect it from injury? When it hurts, does it mean I am using it correctly, that all of its muscles are fully functional, aligned, doing what they are supposed to be doing?


I miss being unaware of my body. I can’t remember when that was—maybe in my twenties?—when my body just did what it was supposed to do and I never gave it a second thought. I didn’t think about my weight or about being healthy or eating healthy, or whether I should exercise or not. I didn’t think about whether my stomach was too big to wear that shirt or if those jeans will make my butt look big. My body was just there, doing its thing. It never protested, it didn’t put on ten pounds in one stressful year. It didn’t ache, it didn’t bloat, it didn’t feel heavy and stiff in the mornings. It just was.

I appreciate that blitheness now when I try to run up the stairs too fast or when I lift my arm and there is that extra bit of jiggle or when I run my fingers across the stretch-marks on my belly and that little extra pooch that’s there from having a baby—next to the other little pooches from too much Haagen-Dazs.

Why keep doing something that is painful? Why does the body want to stop so badly and why am I trying to convince it to not stop? Is it to build a stronger core, hoping that it will hold me up—longer, straighter, leaner? “It doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger,” says the peppy trainer and I want to believe that she is right.


By the time I cross the bridge over the Main river in Frankfurt, I have a good rhythm. I see the old church tower in the distance, my destination, and I focus on it step after step. My skin prickles against the cold, damp day. My cheeks feel flushed and my hair whips around my face. I pick up a chestnut at the foot of the bridge, under a tall chestnut tree, and I roll its smooth skin between my fingers in my pocket as I walk.

Maybe it’s the jetlag, or maybe it’s the cold, or maybe it’s the excitement of walking in a foreign city—suddenly I am aware of my body moving through these streets. I feel the cobblestone on my soles through my sneakers, my calves stretching, knees bending, thighs tightening. I feel the cold air rush into my lungs. I think of how odd it is that just twelve hours earlier I was in New York and now I am walking here, a half a world away, across this river.

Just twenty-four hours ago, I was snuggled in bed with my son—warm and sleepy. Just before that, I was in bed with my husband; just before that, at work, or exercising, or having coffee with a friend or walking down the aisles at the grocery store. And days and months before that, my body was walking on sandy beaches and shady hiking trails in Maine; along busy streets in London and Budapest and New York.

And years and years before that, my body was caressed by lovers, cut open by surgeons; it rested and moved; it developed breasts and curves; it grew tall with solid bones; it learned to walk, to crawl, to sit up. It emerged from my mother.

But on this day, this body is walking on gray, misty, medieval streets, carrying along all of its experiences. I feel it all rush past me and through me and I try to imagine where this body will be in a few hours, days, weeks, months, years.


One morning Sam sits on the floor and plays while I huff and puff away during my thirty-minute workout in the living room. He watches me, then the screen. When I’m done and I flop on the couch with my water bottle, he curls up to my side. He is still in his PJs—it’s a Saturday. His long, thin body has filled out over the summer, but he still somehow finds the right position to tuck himself as close to me as possible. His hand is on my belly, one leg across mine.

“Mama,” he starts, “are you going to be as straight as those people on the TV?”

It takes me a moment to realize that he means “skinny.” “Well, no, probably I will never be as straight,” I answer. “But I will be straighter, hopefully, if I keep up the work.”

Sam seems pacified for the moment. “Okay, because I want my mama to be soft and round and warm.”


Change is hard to detect—the definition of muscle against flab; the way inches melt off; the way things become tighter, lifted, lighter. It is discouraging, really, that so much work produces such little effect at first. “You have to take it one day at a time, one pound at a time,” the trainer announces cheerfully. And I do. I really don’t have a choice.

On Facebook I’m part of a workout challenge group and I look at sweaty pictures of other women and watch their transformation from before to after. I don’t take any photos of my body and I definitely don’t post them, but I’d like to think that the same is happening to me, even if it is imperceptible to my eyes.

And I wonder whether eventually the downfall of my body will happen like this as well—one freak, aging cell at a time, unnoticeable to the naked eye, but inevitable and out of my control, just like giving birth.


ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a writer with recent essays in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Butter, and several other online publications. She blogs at and she is on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Zsofi McMullin. (And, hey, this very one is nominated for a Pushcart Prize!)

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The Safety Net

By andrewmalone/ Flickr

By Anjali Enjeti

A seam near our garage door bisects the cement driveway—our family’s foundation for hula-hoop challenges and colorful chalk artwork. At the end of a slight downward slope, roughly fifty feet away, our portable basketball hoop projects a tall shadow.

We purchased it a little over a year ago, and although I have never formally played basketball, every evening after dinner, I abandon piles of dinner dishes that need loading and pots that need scrubbing, to shoot hoops in our driveway.

Lining my bare feet along the crevice, in between moss and stray bits of pine straw, I dribble two, three, four times in a thumping rhythm that shores up my concentration. With unwarranted bravado—I’m competent, but not good—I coax the preteen posse congregating on my porch to try to do what I’m about to do.

One of them carries on in his conversation without so much of a glance. One takes an approving bite of a banana chocolate chip muffin that I’d just pulled from the oven. Another picks at his cuticles. A fourth, my twelve year-old daughter, flashes hopeful eyes. She’s used to my routine basketball antics: Let’s see if I can make a basket with my eyes closed. Let’s see if I can make a basket while standing backwards. Let’s see if I can make a basket left-handed.

But this particular shot, where I position myself a full three car lengths from the hoop, is not usually a successful one for me. Despite this, I call it my lucky shot. And, when the ball whooshes through the net, I feel like a champion. Like David must have felt when he felled Goliath.

I dribble several more times while facing my orange-rimmed nemesis. Some more kids have gathered near my mailbox on bikes and scooters. They’re focusing on me. I haven’t made this shot in a long time, and now I regret calling so much attention to myself.

As I launch the flesh of rubber from my fingertips, I know, right away that it’s going in. The net swoosh of a clean shot makes the victory even sweeter. A chorus of hoots and hollers erupts and I high-five my way back into my house. But I know better. The kids aren’t so much as praising my athletic skills as they are hoping my inflated ego will generate a second round of muffins for their consumption.


Sometimes when I’m playing—hoisting my five-year-old into the air closer to the rim, or showing my nine-year-old how to cradle the ball in her hands—a neighbor passing by our home will slow down at the foot of my driveway to compliment my athleticism. “I wish I had your energy,” he or she might say. “I wish I could keep up physically with my own kids.”

I smile, shrug my shoulders, and offer a neutral, somewhat muted comment in return: “I’m getting older. It’s getting harder.” But truthfully, I’m not sure what to say. Because how I appear on the outside is so far removed for how I actually feel.

I spend much of my day in pain—significant, sometimes excruciating, pain. And I have lived with this pain for so long, I can barely remember what it feels like to function without aching, throbbing, or piercing sensations.

I suffer from coccydynia, a condition where my coccyx or tailbone becomes inflamed. Roughly fifty percent of all coccydynia cases are the result of an injury or pregnancy. The other half of all cases, including my own, have no known cause. Sitting and lying on my back causes my pain, but once it’s inflamed, I am in pain every single second of the day. On good days, my pain resembles a moderate rug burn. On bad days, it’s like I’m sitting on a dagger. And there are often more bad days than good.

I’ve seen countless doctors, tried a gazillion drugs, practiced yoga, and endured physical therapy, chiropractics, herbs, and acupuncture. Some treatments help, some of the time, but any relief is temporary. And there is no known cure.

I avoid movie theaters, car rides, restaurants, churches, amusement parks—any place where I would need to sit for extended periods of time. I don’t ride bikes, nor do I ever eat dinner at the large, wooden table in my kitchen—I stand at the counter for every meal. An hour kayaking, one of my new hobbies, will translate into days of agony. I collapse into bed every night with an ice pack wedged against my lower back. Patches of frostbite have permanently stained my skin. They look like angry, gray amoebas.

It’s taken me eighteen years of pain to stop pretending I am strong. To understand that for all of its virtues, the pretense of strength has a downside. It weaves a tale of happy endings and heroics, which trick its sufferer into believing they are more invincible than they really are.

Nearly half a lifetime of pain has forced me to answer this one question: What, for crying out loud, is wrong with being weak?

Weakness isn’t a pity party—it’s base in a game of tag. It’s crying on the phone to a loved one, because you don’t know if you can take the pain much longer. (Even though you know you will, and must.) It grants permission for the enthusiastic pronunciation of the f-word, desperate texts to friends in the middle of the night. It is the recognition that you are drowning, and that you need someone to throw you a fucking life preserve. Sometimes, that person has to be me.

I dread appointments with my array of highly qualified health care professionals. “How bad is the pain today?” they begin, flipping through my chart.

On a pain scale of zero to ten, zero meaning no pain, ten meaning extreme pain, my answer is rarely below five. And in the pause, between their question and my answer, I can’t help but link my entire existence to merciless, numerical increments.

If we’ve only recently started a treatment plan, I’m honest. “Seven,” I’ll announce, with a nod of the head. But if we’ve been working together for some time, with little to no progress, the shame of continued pain—the let down of failure—colors our encounter. I will throw my care provider a bone, graciously reducing the number, as if placing my aching body on some sort of reverse grading curve. I do this partly because I feel guilty about their sincere disappointment in the outcome of the treatment plan. As if I’m some kind of co-conspirator with my condition.

But I also do it because the way I characterize my pain is the only way left for me to control it. If a therapy fails to take even the edge off, the least I can do is choose its value. Because while my provider will spend only one hour a week considering its position on the pain scale, the number will continue to haunt me as I exit through the lobby, locate my car in the parking lot, and sit, motionless, in traffic. It will dominate my thoughts at three a.m., when I wake up to get a fresh frozen ice pack out of the freezer. It will share the same space in my psyche as my social security number.

If I am to achieve any kind of autonomy in agony, it’s in the when, why, and how I describe it. It’s my only option for a long-term coping mechanism. Because the pain consumes not just a singular moment in time, but years of milestones in the distant future. Will I be able to sit during my oldest daughter’s high school graduation? Will I be able to make that long plane trip to visit my favorite uncle in Australia? If I can barely endure this pain at age forty, how will I manage when I’m fifty, sixty, or seventy?

These are the questions that no acupuncturist, physical therapist, or rheumatologist will ever be able to answer. They don’t measure in precise integers on a scale, but hover in the spaces between them, in the infinite fractions and decimals that follow.

Which is okay, I think. Because ultimately, I have to believe, that my life and how I live it, is so much more than a numbers game.


One cool, late summer evening, I rummage through the garage, kicking aside squirt guns and bottles of bubbles in search of my favorite basketball. I have spent much of the day pacing the floor in pain, pressing rotating ice packs into my flesh, chewing through an entire packet of gum while watching crappy reality television—doing anything and everything to distract myself from my colicky spine. I consider going upstairs to lie down, to submit to the merciful unconsciousness of sleep. But the seductive pull of the hoop calls to me from the driveway.

When I finally find my ball, wedged behind the recycling bin, I decide that today, I will conquer a different kind of shot. This time, I will position myself even further away from the hoop and hurl the ball, overhand, like the pitch of a baseball, with the hopes of hitting anywhere on the backboard.

Somehow, on this driveway in front of my home, my pain and I inhabit a level playing field. When I gaze out at the net, with its empty, jigsaw spaces, I conjure a power, a temporary confidence in my body. With the rough surface of the pavement supporting my bare feet, the fragrant scent of gardenias wafting throughout the front yard, I assume the home court advantage. And on this court, no one is keeping score.

Dribbling, I lull myself into concentration. The porch-dwelling preteens eye each other. They are placing nonverbal bets about my chance of success.

Palming the basketball, I take aim at the white square target on the backboard. My thumb pulses against the bumpy rubber casing. My arm reels back like a catapult. When it releases, my sight traces the ball’s arch into the atmosphere. But at its peak, I realize my shot is way off mark, destined only for wind.

I rest my hands on my hips while the collective groan of the neighborhood sounds in unison. My daughter jumps off the front porch to chase the ball into the next yard.

As she runs it back over, dribbling a few times around the driveway, I consider going back inside the house to lie on my side with my ice pack. Perhaps a hot cup of chamomile tea will help distract me a little from the pain.

“Hey,” my daughter calls from underneath the basket. I assume she’s going to take a shot herself.

But she doesn’t. “You’re not too far off,” she says, tossing the ball back toward me. “Why don’t you just try again?”


ANJALI ENJETI, a recovering attorney, is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) at Queens University in Charlotte. She writes for ArtsATL, the only comprehensive arts news source in the Atlanta area. She lives with her family in suburban Atlanta.

Something From Nothing

By Beth Hannon Fuller

By Carol Paik

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 ( and the Brattleboro Film Festival in Brattleboro, VT ( More of her writing at: