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Making Paper with Charnel Rag

From Spring 2012 Inquiring Mind    

Burning-ground rag, street rag, rubbish-heap rag, childbirth rag, burnt rag, cattle-bitten rag, mouse-knawed rag, wind-blown rag, spirit rag, ocean rag. . . It is proper that a monk should pick up rotten rags from a charnel ground. . . and make and wear his robe.                                


--Buddhaghosa, The Visuddhimagga (The Path to Purity), 430 CE

I’ve fallen in love with hand papermaking. This fall, I have immersed myself in making paper with the Combat Paper Project, a collaboration among veterans, papermakers, artists and peace activists. I first encountered Combat Paper four years ago on a Veterans Day writing and meditation retreat. Reading aloud from a hand-crafted book of poems by Iraq veterans, writer Maxine Hong Kingston told us, “These poems are printed on paper made out of uniforms worn in combat by the poets.” The fine hair on my arms stood on end. 


I am neither papermaker nor war veteran but this practice catalyzes me. As far back as I can remember, my heart has been congested with war—war in the world, war in my family and in my own clashing emotions. Also, I love making things. Papermaking is sensual; it’s wet; it’s done outdoors. Like the Buddha who made his robe out of the rags of childbirth, rubbish heaps and graveyards, hand papermakers recycle essential elements of our world—not only flowers, bark and rice but cloth and letters saturated with heartbreak, longing, rage, with the salty fluids of birth and death. The practice of papermaking reminds me of meditation.


And I love paper—handwritten letters, paper journals and books. All endangered. I savor the scratch of an ink pen on a fresh sheet; the way unbidden images and lost words write through my hand into my journal; I delight in the feel, smell, flit flat of pages turning as I read a real book.


Lastly, I love the words of the combat papermakers—so onomatopoetic. Pulp, slurry, charge. Mould, deckle, jostle, kiss. Couch, bond. The very language conjures up metamorphosis.


Combat papermakers transform uniforms made mostly of cellulose fiber spun into thread and woven to make cloth. We (I’m beginning to think of myself as part of this tribe) cut up the cloth into little squares, rinse it in water, then liberate the fibers in a “beater” by cooking, slicing, bruising them into pulp. The freed separated fibers suspended in water form a slurry of pulp that is poured into a vat.


The paired tools, the mould and deckle, are essential to papermaking. The mould is a sieve-like screen and the deckle a removable wooden frame sitting on top of the screen to capture the liberated fiber. The deckle gives the wet fiber its shape, preventing it from flowing over the sides of the mould.           


 “Before you submerge your mould and deckle, charge the pulp,” instructs papermaker/peace activist Drew Matott, who, with another Drew, Drew Cameron, is leading a three-day papermaking workshop at UC Berkeley.


I am up to my elbows in slurry. I’m making my paper from copies of family letters from World War II. These are love letters to my mother from my father (now dead for 35 years) who was a naval officer in North Africa and the Pacific, and letters from my stepfather (dead just three years now) to his parents from Germany, where he was a foot soldier. The pulp from my dads’ letters is mixed with pulp made from combat uniforms of my workshop mates. Reaching into the vat, I shimmy both hands like beaters to mix the pulp with the water, charging the oatmeal-like slurry of released fiber. Charge. The verb is electric.

“In one continuous movement,” says Drew M., “lower the mould and deckle into the vat of charged pulp to capture the freeness.”  Struggling to keep the screen balanced, I dip it into the vat, then raise it to the surface. “Relax,” coaches Drew. I am anything but relaxed. The pulp forms an uneven layer, lumps revealing bare patches of screen. “Papermaking is forgiving,” laughs Drew.


“Kiss it back this time.” He shows me how to turn over the mould and release the lumpy pulp back into the slurry. 

After a few false tries, the sweep of my arms finds more ease; I reach far into the slurry, catching pulp on the screen. As I raise it from the vat, I jostle it, side to side, then back and forth with a quick light jolt, so the water drains out.

“Now start paying attention,” Drew adds, “Notice what you’re capturing.” The next time I jostle, I lean over the vat. As I dredge the fiber out of the slurry, I watch it settle into a thin layer.

Just as I watch the screen of mind when I sit in meditation, I observe what is revealing itself here. I see flecks of dark green from the Vietnam uniform, a scintilla of dappled Desert Camouflage from Iraq. My breath catches in my throat. There’s a loop of my dad’s script—a word fragment,  “life, ha,” like a message asking to be de-coded.  

After releasing the deckle, I gently couch my sheets, (pronounced cooch, from the French coucher, to bed down). I flip them onto a stack, sheet following sheet, trying to find the balance the Drews say is crucial for true papermaking.

Adding a layer of meaning, I use finely macerated pulp mixed with paint to stencil images of my two dads in their combat uniforms onto the moist tender sheets. As the paper is pressed and dried, the cellulose molecules re-bond on an elemental microscopic level. “Because everything is wet, the image is not sitting on the surface; it’s part of that paper,” Drew C. affirms.

From the garden patio, where I am couching sheets, I can see into the ceramics studio. Amidst sacks of pottery plaster and jars of slip are tables of pajamas, Army Combat Uniforms and desert cammies—along with scissors and special razors for slicing. I started the day “cutting rag” with a Vietnam medic, 173rd Airborne, and an Iraq vet who picked up her ukulele and sang us songs she wrote in the Army. As we cut up uniforms, letters, and photos, we told our stories.

Ehren Tool sat at the adjoining table, a huge man with powerful, upright posture. A marine from Desert Storm, on the staff of the UC Ceramics Department, his art is clay cups, decorated with images of war. He picked up one of his cups, “The cup can go hand to hand unbroken for 100,000 years. Or…” He smashed it on the floor. Everyone jumped, listened. “Glazed, fired now, shards, forever broken.” He started to cry. “You give birth to a kid. You send him to school. You love him. And he goes to war with all that potential. Now he’s 200 pounds of lean meat and all that potential gone. It’s the same with the cup.” Ehren said he gives his cups away (thousands to date) to presidents, the Marine Corps, you name it, to provoke conversations about war. Someone chimed in, “That must be healing.” Ehren boomed, “Fuck Healing!” I kept remembering that outburst. What did he mean?

I had a story too. Unlike the veterans, I didn’t cut up my own uniform. But I was set on pulping my stepdad’s. I went to war over it, and I lost. Just before the workshop, I flew to New York for the 91st birthday of my energetic mum, who actively paints cooks, gives dinner parties. She’s on her own now after fifty-five years of impassioned, often loving, mostly sparring, marriage to my stepdad, Dillard. My own relationship with her has been loving but fraught too, even into my thirties. Two spirited women. Overly spirited. A few times, I got so mad at her I pulled her hair. Now at last, at sixty-five, mostly, I tamp it down, give conflicts a gracious spin, with a laugh or smile…presenting the gentle daughter.


On this visit, I read my mum passages from Dillard’s letters to “Mom and Dad,” each signed, “all my love, Diddo, Please send candy and cookies!” My mum had neatly stored, but never read, these letters. Riveted, she listened to the “combination of suspense and intense excitement” when his unit was “going on attack.” Yes, that was the Dillard we knew, entranced by high drama, Romeo, provocateur. “It just seems to mount,” he said, “I hate combat but that first feeling I get I like.” 


Suddenly, my mum interrupted, “You know, I have Dillard’s war jacket.” Whoa. “I used to love to wear it. I had the sleeves shortened so it would fit me just so.” Rummaging in the closet, she found the dark green jacket, heavy wool, with bright red and blue insignia of the 69th Infantry on the shoulder and two stripes on each sleeve.         


That was it! I had to pulp that jacket. My heartbeat quickened. “Wow mum, don’t you see? I told you about Combat Paper. I’m signed up for the workshop next week. I can make Dillard’s war jacket into paper for you to paint on!” In my enthusiasm, I hardly noticed her noncommittal response.


A week later, in the midst of one of her dinner parties, my mum blurted out, “Barbara wants to cut up and boil, for God’s sake, Dillard’s war jacket!”


 “Mum! Stop!” I protested, trying to put on my composed face.


She continued, “I refuse to let her do it!”


I glared, fierce, like a jackal. I had a right to that jacket. She didn’t care about Dillard’s war years. It was me who’d read every damn war letter.


But she burst back, “He was willing to die for that war! He would find it denigrating, disrespectful to shred up that jacket. This was a war he believed in, took pride in fighting! I can see maybe the Vietnam war or the Iraq war, but not World War II!”

Deep down, I did know it was hers to decide. Gradually, my feelings tempered. I asked my mum to try on the war jacket for me and I took photos—elegant posture, flashing eyes. I brought copies of those photos of my mum in the jacket to the workshop and I cut them up along with copies of old photos of both dads in uniform and of favorite letters.


After the three days of papermaking, I pick up a stack of my combat paper. It’s beautiful, pulp printed with images of the two dads, containing fragments of the Vietnam green, of Iraq browns, and squiggles of my dad’s cursive and my stepdad’s childlike hand. 


But I’m out of balance. What with reading my dads’ letters, erupting at my mum, feeling the textures of the uniforms I helped slice, the intense timbre of the veterans’ voices, I’m carrying the wars of the world. My days churn with misadventures, like driving to the trailhead for a walk with my pup, only to find I’d left her at home. I don’t trust myself, afraid that at any time a new war may break out within me. I keep trying to muster a core strength, a steadiness, a breadth of heart, to embrace the roiling inside me. But I can’t.


One morning on my walk, I descend a rocky slope and slip on loose scree, trying to catch hold of my thoughts. An image slides across the screen of my mind. A wide Buddha face, the kindest face I have ever seen. The face is forgiving, a female Buddha, tender and at the same time unshakable. Suddenly, I know what to do. I will print this Buddha face on my combat paper, spanning the images of my dads…on every sheet. That unshakable kindness will hold all this war stuff. In the following weeks, I set myself to this task with art printers, silkscreen, linoleum cut. Finally, a Buddha face blesses every combat paper sheet. I’m done.


But late one night, restless thoughts surge again and I can’t sleep. I keep trying to conjure up the kind Buddha-smile, to superimpose that face on my own. But it won’t stick. It comes to me that to superimpose a kind face is a step, a step that may need to be taken again and again. But it is not enough. If I mask over surging thoughts, even with a Buddha, they will seep through. I think of my veteran pal who shouted, “Fuck healing.” Maybe I do know what he means. You can’t force yourself to feel healed.


A profound transformation from combat papermaking, like that from Buddhist practice, has to include everything. This takes time and care. It recognizes violence, pain, longing, shame. As in pulp printing, all images, even the most scary, are integrated into the fabric.      


Sliding between thoughts and dream, I slip into a reverie. I am making paper. Pulp, slurry, charge. Mould, deckle, jostle, kiss. This time I am in the true papermaking zone. I’ve attended births, and deaths; I know the charged space between worlds; it feels like that.

            Diving deep into a slurry of conflict and yearning, of history and family, I find the chi of papermaking. I catch freed fiber in the watery depths, couch the sheets, and release them from the mould onto the stack. In this graced rhythm there is no papermaker, no paper, just the flow of making paper, making paper, making paper. With meditative movement, the deckle itself becomes a frame of pure kindness, a Buddha deckle, through which I see with serene eyes, making peace out of war.           

The next morning, I feel settled; something has cleared. A memory surfaces of my stepdad’s death. At the very end of the end, after ten years of Alzheimer’s, six months since he could talk and walk, we in his family gathered by his bedside. He lay long on the rented hospital bed; my mum held his hand and he held hers back. I knew, because earlier, when I’d been holding his other one, I could feel the pressure of his fingers, still warm, clasping mine. For hours now, it was just my mum at his head, back straight, silent. I had never seen her so still. Like papermaking, her presence was all-forgiving. No adding up the nights waiting for him to come home from a bar, young girlfriends, a hurled plate. No totaling those items, like a list of war damages. At Dillard’s deathbed, the veil between worlds kept thinning. We all felt it. And my mum continued to sit. In her stillness, she became translucent, a Buddha deckle for Dillard as he died, so he could pass through.

Such a graced moment might happen at any time. I see it. With a true rhythm, a deep dive, a release, there’s no need to “superimpose” the Buddha on a tender face. Like handmade paper, everything is made of everything—charnel rag, childbirth rag, mouse-bitten rag, combat uniforms—and as it comes apart and re-bonds, the Buddha is already here.

For information on the Combat Paper Project, click here. 

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