I am sitting at my small kitchen table (the one my husband lovingly made. the one my daughter spends hours per day at–coloring, weaving, drawing. the one that boasts spills of hot cocoa, nail polish & blueberry juice. the one we gather around for each meal, giving thanks and feasting. the one that stands at the center of our small house like an ebenezer of how good the Lord is to us, of how much we have to be thankful for).
I am sitting here peeling a grapefruit. The pith is thick, pale yellow and stubborn. Painstakingly, I pick it off, making a pile of it beside my laptop. Something in the way it looks or feels reminds me of the paper I made in Italy over a decade ago (I am getting SO OLD!!) while studying at an art institute. I made sheets and sheets of it, each page speckled with found objects like string or seeds or petals or strands of a dear friend’s worn out sweater. It was hard work and took a lot of time. After hours pulverizing the pulp, it still took hours to flatten and then more hours to dry and for all that work, one piece of paper was produced. As a writer and lover of words growing up in a throw-away world of paper bought by the ream, the art of paper making made me pause: if all paper were as precious and hard-won as the paper I made in Italy, I do believe I’d choose my words a lot more carefully. I’d make sure they were worth it.
And then, years later, I stumbled on a fabulous poem about this very subject. It’s by a poet named Suji Kwock Kim. If you’d like to read the whole poem, it’s worth it. Her whole book is worth it. But for the sake of time, I will draw attention to only the last couple of lines.
After numerous stanzas detailing the arduous process of paper-making, written from the voice of a traditional Korean paper-maker, Kim ends the poem with these three lines:
Now you know how hard the labor is.
If your words aren’t worth
my work, keep your mouth shut.
–from Hanji: Notes for a Papermaker
Note: Hanji is a traditional Korean form of paper-making that may have begun around the fourth century.
Those lines slay me. I think about them all the time. Because I write a lot. And I’m not so sure all my words are worth it.
And because I can easily draw a parallel between a piece of paper and my life (can’t you??) the more important question is: am I living a life that is worth the Sacred breath that is granted to me each morning? Am I teaching my children, sweet bird Sparrow and brave Caleb River, to conduct themselves in a way that honors the sacredness of each fleeting day?
Most days, I admit, I am not.
Because day in and day out, the moments get kind of mundane, don’t they? I mean really, my days usually look like this: wake. breakfast (oatmeal, again?). change diaper. harp at daughter to pick up her legos. change diaper. lunch (soup, again?). change diaper. harp at daughter to pick up her crayons. change diaper. take a walk. dinner (venison, again?). change diaper. remind daughter to go to the bathroom. read books. brush teeth. kiss. kiss. sleep. Repeat ad nauseam.
If I’m not careful, if I fail to be mindful, the laundry list (literally!) of daily events I just rattled off becomes my reality.
And if I’m not careful, if I fail to be mindful, I grow lazy. I pass through each moment haphazardly and without thought. I scribble nonsensical jargon on the metaphoric page of hand-made paper so tediously created.
If my life is a small stack of priceless, hand-made paper, I best determine myself to write beautiful, True, worthwhile things on them, lest they be wasted. Lest they be no better than kindling for the fire.
How we spend our days is how we spend our lives. -Annie Dillard