Rock, Paper, Scissors: Tools for Life

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This isn’t about the game often played by kids. But it is telling that these are important enough materials from which to create a game. Value, even power, can be found in the simplest of objects. It can be easy to overlook them, yet when desired they need to be close at hand. Several events the past couple weeks have made me reaffirm their good and various uses.

My eyes are resting on split “thunder eggs” my son brought back from rock hunting in eastern Oregon. Broken open, they reveal lovely mineral crystals. Josh is an outdoors pilgrim, someone always alert to and in search of earth’s gifts, attuned to the power and complexity found therein. His interest in rocks and minerals has gained momentum the last couple of years. He talks of them fondly as he spreads them out on a cabinet, arranges a few on his mantel. In his hands they become more themselves as he explains what he sees and what he’s learned. His children camp, hike and nature hunt with him. My grandchildren can identify and hold forth on quartz, slate, granite, mica and jade as if they were common household goods. The grandson safeguards them in little cloth bags. But mostly they just love to touch, look. Prismatic minerals wink in the light and reveal an aged beauty.

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My husband gathers river stones; he carries one in his pocket. I have a revolving group of agates from Oregon’s beaches that have a place on my bookcase. I admire them each time I get a book or dust. Rocks fortify me. They make indoors and outdoors landscapes more inviting with their sculptural applications, multiple textures and geological history. People build with them–houses and fireplaces and fences. Or towering cairns within tide pools we frequent. You can smash things with them. A smaller rock, a venomous insect that looks like it wants to keep house with you, a nut or seed that has interesting innards.

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Stones and rocks belong to us as much as to the earth. The dark forms beckon from watery homes. Rest beneath us on a forest floor, line paths and roads, roll from hillsides and mountains to our feet. As children we find them endlessly entertaining–to throw at trees, skip across water, to build small designs and mark hopscotch numbers on asphalt (more rock). They can calm us, snug in our palms when nervous. We contemplate one found in the path as if meant for our eyes alone. There is nothing quite like a stone in hand if cool and smooth, shaped to fit right there. Our earth can be carried with us and that is no small thing.

Paper. I almost am afraid to speak of it! People recycle it which is fine, but don’t want to give you receipts or bags at the store. There is talk about how it is disappearing as if trees weren’t replanted, clearcut areas not being reforested. I live in the Pacific Northwest–we have trees galore. We sometimes hug them here. So I try to be thrifty with paper but I like to have it around to use.

Physical books are taking up less room at the big chain bookstores. Our home is dominated by books, mostly used ones as I do want to participate in the recycling bit. And there is paper everywhere in the form of prints, paintings and drawings. There are gifts from family and friends made of paper products. I print things from the computer that are useful, often filed away. Paper in my hand is still important–to see it, handle it, smell it.

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What do my grandchildren want to do when they arrive? We draw with pen and pencil. Cut and construct things from paper. Paint with my watercolors on paper. Erect small buildings from geometric shapes and fly planes made of it. We use cards made of paper, keep score on scorecards during Yahtzee. We play checkers and Scrabble on cardboard game boards. Decorations are created from colorful sheets as well as chains, crowns, birthday cards. Paper defines many activities. I always have plenty of it around. I scibble lines of poems dreams, or ideas in notebooks when awakening in the dead of night. I shudder to think of the art that would not created if not for everyday yet extraordinary paper. Last week I sketched an old building I saw when visiting my daughter in New York and it was restful, quite happiness-making. Ah! paper!

Though not noted in the title, I must mention tape. I was at the post office yesterday and needed tape to secure the envelope carrying a gift to a daughter. A last eight of an inch was ripped from a roll left for customers and when I stepped up to the window, the employee didn’t have any, either. I had a moment of concern.

“No tape? I need this envelope better secured; there’s a good book in there!”

The woman smiled patiently. “Yes, that tape disappears before you know it. Even if it isn’t crucial, people have to use it. But I’ll find some before it’s mailed. No worries.”

Easy for her to say. My little parcel was likely the least of the office’s concerns. And I am certain sturdy tape helps packages make their way intact. As it should; that is its design and function.

I have packed up households many times over decades and thank goodness for cardboard boxes and tape, otherwise my things would end up in shabby piles, leaving a path from room to moving truck or van. Dispossessed. But that isn’t the only function. Try making papery things without it–a sailboat, a hat, a baking soda and vinegar volcano, decorations. Think of all the pictures on the frig that fell down due to cheap magnets: tape to the rescue. I used to roll out butcher block paper by the yards for our kids to draw on, tape it on the wall and let them have at it. Voila, a mural.

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Anything that doesn’t want to be stapled or paper-clipped requires tape. Wrapping gifts, repairing torn book covers, fixing a loose hem in a rush, securing a spare pink shower curtain to a bedroom window before you have found the right curtain or rod. Nothing is safe in the home without tape at the ready. On the other hand, I have seen my kids and grandchildren tape each other’s mouths shut or fingers together; tape can be used for surprising things. I once affixed my car’s sagging bumper up with heavy-duty electrical tape until it could be repaired. I would never have made it this far without tape. I like to peruse it in the hardware, all the colors and variations feeling like creative stimuli. I won’t run out of tape.

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Before we had scissors we had knives or very sharp rocks (see: rocks, again). Although box cutters and utility knives are handy for some jobs, scissors can be required. Very sharp ones are preferred when something needs to be divided into various lengths. I used to love watching my mother cut fabric with her worn Wiss scissors or the nice Fiskars. She had eye-hand coordination that I deeply admired. She looked a second, then slid those scissors across wafer-thin, even fragile material with nary a catch. Velvets, corduroys, taffeta and woolens required more careful cutting but edges always were clean and exact. She knew how to wield that cutting tool.

I use various scissors to open food packages, trim nails, slice open heavier-gauge envelopes, refresh flower stems, cut up meat, tame thorny bushes, size wrapping paper and curl ribbon, even up wayward bangs, remove pictures from magazines for collages I keep planning on creating. But mostly, I wouldn’t consider raising a family without scissors anymore than I could feature that without tape and rocks. How would we make paper dolls or tiny boxes? Exquisite snowflakes? Mobiles or booklets? Cheery Christmas trees and floating planes?

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Sometimes I think we have become too sophisticated and trendy in our wanting and acquiring. There are more gadgets than I will ever use out there. I was recently at a store that was full of customers laden with things I hadn’t known about. Or didn’t need. A garlic smasher? How about the flat side of a knife? Boxes of bright, many-sized metallic clips for chip bags? How about using big paper clips–how about tape? I’m not against progress, investing in a tool that works far better at a reasonable cost. But it is the simple things I find myself going back to and appreciating.

It is what those basic tools can do for us–for less hassle and cash–that I enjoy. They create avenues of exploration. Solve problems. Take care of an emergency. Make something beautiful or silly. Create a way to say “I love you” and “thank you”. Take us into a world enlivened by constructive activity, help us use time in a leisurely fashion. Make it curiously satisfying.

My parents were educated folks yet I can recall my father re-hairing a violin or cello bow, scissors and glue at the ready. Above his workbench was an array of tools that helped make damaged things new. And I can see my mother with several straight pins held between her lips as she folded a hem, and hear her instructing me to cut the thread so many inches, then try my hand at it finishing her work. 

I well remember how I cut out and taped pictures on a large poster board of Grecian islands or Alaskan wilderness I wanted to visit, of admirable people or fashions. There were poems I was compelled to write with colorful letters snipped from magazines. The posters were hung above my desk. I frequently changed the exuberant or moody creations. My youth, my thoughts and dreams, were plastered there thanks to all the basic tools.

Living has always seemed very hands-on to me even though I often camp out in my brain, too. Doing, making and fixing things brings knowledge and satisfaction, and that is worth every effort. I hope others still often well celebrate the humble rock, paper, scissors. Pick one up. Discover something surprising. Develop something fresh for the heck of it. Fix an error. Make something whole again. Let something unexpected and fun happen before you forget the simplest things.

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Signifying: Strokes Across a Page

DSCN0821I came across a plastic bag full of handwritten notes from my middle teen years recently. They had been stored at my childhood home but when my mother sold the house following my father’s death, she gave them to me along with other mementos. I was surprised to see them but took them to my home where I squashed them deep into a desk drawer. When I found them last week I read each one, wondering over the scribbled thoughts, desires and dreams that had lasted decades in an attic. Not that they revealed mind boggling information. We were kids trying to grow up and each note displayed the awkward but maturing mind and heart of the writer. Our favorite topics? Love or lack thereof, and friendship or loss of. Same thing, I guess.

I have thought about handwritten communications more the last few months. I’ve recently written about letters in short story posts. But it arose spectacularly when I was very ill with severe muscle toxicity after taking a statin for many years. I shared some of that here. I had increasing trouble with many common muscle actions and reactions but one of the hardest to deal with was the way it impacted my hands. My grip became so weakened that even signing my name became a challenge. Far from being automatic, certainly not elegant, the letters formed clumsily and erroneously. It was tiring to command and make strokes as I meant. It was frightening. I stopped the statin, got progressively better and five months later I finally write more like myself.

I have enjoyed writing longhand. I found practicing penmanship as a child pleasant; it’s a bit alarming that schools don’t stress cursive writing, anymore, as if it is archaic. By my teens I became fascinated by how individual cursive writing was. During note-swapping years I saw that each person’s writing could dramatically change along with emotions. A few years later our writing matured with our characters. Furthermore, it seemed altered by health issues. I decided to study graphology, commonly known as handwriting analysis. The mind, after all, originates a thought; the brain initiates a cascading string of connections and reactions. The neurological interplay between nerve and muscle and intent intrigued me. It became a lifelong interest and I developed some skill. It has aided insight into myself and others. Physicality and attendant health, personality, even subtle psychological strength and weakness are rendered apparent in the study of peoples’ writing. When I was just beginning my hobby, graphology was still considered “occult” or a pseudo-science if worth consideration at all. Today, employers, psychologists and police departments utilize professional graphologists to supplement their understanding of human nature. I would like that work.

But I have other ruminations today. What is the importance of writing things down? What do we share with language set upon paper besides words? And what may be lost with less use of pencil and pen? How many times a day do I write things down?

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It begins at nighttime before going to bed: the list. I use a mechanical pencil–it writes easily, is erasable–upon the smooth paper in a black-bound Moleskine journal created for people like me. Each page is undated. I prepare myself, define what I want to accomplish. There, in a book at my place on the dining room table, is where I clarify goals and projects, set deadlines and remind myself of appointments. It reinforces motivation but I doodle a little, play with my printing and writing. I’m relieved to be able to write again. I anticipate the coming days. And then let go of tomorrow until it arrives.

I write on my PC every day but I record odds and ends of what I think about: unusual words, characters’ names for stories, lines of poems or stories. Observations that range widely. I jot down names of songs I hear and composers, books I want, a photography idea. For all this there are very small notebooks to tuck into pockets, purses and cars. The bigger ones are stashed all over the house.

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There are paper cards of myriad designs and I buy them for no special reason other than they please my eye. Stir me. And then they are sent after I put words inside. A right card for an occasion is lovely but when one randomly snags my attention it is better. I feel happy when I think how a surprised family member or friend will discover it in the mail. Study the front, then open it. I prefer them blank so I can write something good for the person, tell them I care. I take my time.

Paper does that: helps you get inside time, then put time aside, and work or play more slowly.

I wrote daily in diaries as a child. Then for decades I scribbled about my feelings and events in three-ring notebooks. At times I used a formal, bound journal. I haven’t kept one for years; I am busy writing other things. But they served their purpose in every way. Today diaries seem to remain popular despite our vast electronica. When working as a counselor, journaling was a profoundly useful tool for my clients. It was a time and place just for themselves, a luxury for many. Time is allotted in a private spot at home or elsewhere and you have at it, setting free your most curious thoughts, and verbalizing crises, goals, prayers, rants, longings, hurts. And usually, one feels relief afterwards. The mind was engaged then emptied; the heart unburdened, clarified. The soul became calmer, softer. Opened. We can give ourselves to the paper with thoughtfulness. We can trust it, let the pen make visible grave fears and truest needs. No one gets to edit or critique; no one gets to read without permission. It is a depository for treasures and a dumping ground for junk. Some people don’t even know they have such a powerful voice until committing themselves to paper, hand moving at the necessary speed, paper invitingly empty until transformed with all that matters that moment. And it spells freedom.

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The brain works with us even when we don’t know it, transferring data to memory. Sorting, organizing, circulating as we create and own our peculiarly unique thoughts. We can either let them lodge in the caverns of mind or dissipate into celestial ethers. Or put them into the world. And writing things down helps nail a thought in place so we can retrieve it later to appreciate or use again. If I forget something I will recall the writing of it; the words or numbers flash across my mental screen just as they were written.

So, what shall we tell one another on paper that we cannot or will not speak aloud? What meaning can we impart by offering our written thoughts, one human hand to another? Once the pen speaks, the words have a life. They stay put. They may do good and also harm. But they help define the creatures we are. They allow us the exquisite opportunity to tell our side, ask our questions, impart our understanding. Do I think words are everything? No. But when I have them to give, I want them to travel well across that page to a receiver on the other end. Even if God, alone.

I kept my mother’s witty and perceptive travelogues. And many letters and cards. She is gone but I have something of her because she wrote about things. To me. Her hand pressed against cool sheets of stationary, her pen flowed across emptiness until it came alive with tales and advice. And at the end, her own handwriting gave me this: “Your loving Mother.”

My name signed on the bottom of a document, a tiny scrap or a missive means something, as does yours. It is staking our particularity in the vastness of humanity. My hand and your hand make it so. Signify yourself; leave your lively mark upon the paper. Reveal yourself, then try not to delete.

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