A Meditation on Violence,
Teaching, & Paper Making
By Nika CavatIn this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. Baby Sugg’s speech from Beloved by Toni Morrison Hitting mulberry pulp with a heavy rubber mallet initially produced a rather harsh, smacking sound.  I started in the center and worked my way out to the sides, remembering how Zeke, one of the senior apes I’d met in the Budongo Rain Forest of Uganda raised a branch above his head and bellowed in a wondrously male, primal way before shimmying up a giant ficus tree to join a growing family of very vocal primates.  The trip to Uganda with Earthwatch Expedition to help gather data on the Great Apes was one of the most daring things I’d ever done.  Two years had passed, and that desire for something out of the ordinary knocked at my door ever louder.  Transforming pulp to paper had always captivated me, so finding a Washi workshop (Wa for Japanese, and shi for paper) seemed almost a magical fit.  My school encouraged me through professional development to stretch the boundaries of what it means to teach literature, and I was up for the challenge.

The BookArtsLA teacher, a pretty woman with muscular arms and eternally perky demeanor, had already laid out dripping piles of fiber, about the size of a loaf of bread dough for us.   We picked out the knotty brown spots from the kozoinner white mulberry bark for almost an hour, and then positioned ourselves around the workroom, mallets in hand ready to do battle. Turning fibrous, stringy mulberry bark into a slurry of angel’s hair required to create paper took a whole lot more muscle than I had anticipated.   I shared the table with Anna, a young Chinese woman who introduced herself as a conceptual artist. She got the PVC pipe.  I got the mallet. 

Now, as I smashed the mallet down repeatedly, spreading the pulp across the surface like jam, something strangely disturbing began to happen. Each beat-down pushed me closer and closer to understanding how easily a person could do harm to another if the abuser doesn’t see his or her victim as human.   Issues around violence were at the heart of my teaching, and each year as I grew more familiar with the discomfort that arose as students explored the literature, I oddly found my own hard skin softening.  I wept in private last year after reading aloud a scene from Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a stunning novel set during the slave era. It is where Sethe, the central character, on the run from brutal beatings at the hands of her slave owner, just arrived with her newborn to a safe house. Her feet are numb, her body broken. As Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law, washes Sethe’s body in sections, Morrison describes the blood from her slave master’s beatings blooming through Sethe’s shirt ; it was more than I could bear – and I’d been teaching this novel for over twenty years.  Angling the mallet, I looked around me at the other women in this workshop.  Why had my brain slipped to this scene? Aside from cursory introductions, none of the women in the workshop knew one another, save for the fact that we were all past thirty. From the looks of our bodies, we didn’t spend endless hours muscle-flexing or pouting into the mirror.  Women who take Japanese paper pulp classes in July are not athletes, students, or businesswomen. We’re more likely to be artists, writers, drafts people, or those who simply love the texture of paper.  I planned to bring the experience back to the independent school where I’ve been nestled half my adult life, a school where students never have to worry about guns, gang fights, or metal detectors.  I also wanted to share what I could with my other students at the drop-in center for homeless youth where I run creative writing classes. I had to prepare myself for questions such as, “Why did you take all day to make something you could just buy?” Or “Did you get out your aggressions?”  Answers were easy enough, but the truth of where the process took me was far more challenging. 

As the six of us continued to break down the fibers, we created a collective rhythm, a jazzy kind of syncopation.  After almost an hour of pounding, I stopped thinking about the growing pain in my arm and back, about whatever prodded at the frayed edges of my consciousness, concentrating only on reducing the fiber in front of me to pulp. For almost two hours, I beat on.  Sweat trickled down my spine, my shirt clung to my skin, and muscles ached in radiating waves.  Occasionally, I offered to trade my mallet for Anna’s PVC pipe as the mallet clearly laid waste to the pulp more speedily. She was happy to trade, and I could see in her eyes a glistening of primordial contentment you only get through such a work out.

It may seem like a huge leap to go from pounding mulberry fiber to beating a human being, but the connections just kept coming, unbidden and demanding of attention. In preparation for a class I’m teaching in the fall about sexuality, race, and the challenges of “passing”, I’d spent the previous morning watching a Spanish documentary by Jose Manuel Colon called “Black Man, White Skin”, about the plight of albinos, of which there are 270,000 in Africa.  They become targets of violence from the moment of birth, living in constant fear of attacks and murder, as witch doctors believe that their body parts can help to heal sickness or cast spells on others. Albinos are also extremely susceptible to deadly skin cancers because they lack the melanin to protect themselves from UV rays.  The film focused on Tanzania, where the highest number of murders and attacks on albinos occur.  The abuse of those poor souls, although highly illegal, continues because their attackers only see them as ghosts, as body parts, not human beings.  They established a school just for albinos, perhaps the only school of its kind in the world where these ethereal young children with milky skin and African features, like other worldly angels, find refuge in one another and in teachers with the same condition. Given the racial implications, it’s impossible to consider African albinos as simply the result of a genetic hiccup.  The condition may momentarily seem like a rare gift of nature, an opportunity to imagine beyond flesh and color, but it really is more a cruel trick to play on such vulnerable people, born where the sun is most unforgiving, into families and communities where everyone else has black skin.  In a world where racism has become a multi-headed Hydra, as every head cut off produces another, being African albino poses a complex set of trials.  Closer to home, recent domestic news exploded with reports of a crazed gunman who ambushed and murdered four Dallas police officers during a Black Lives Matter rally.  I couldn’t help wondering what makes one life any more or less valuable than the other.  

As the pulp broke down further, so I imagined how a face or body would less and less resemble a human and more just a thing, an organism devoid of a soul or a spirit. Images of frightened people running in the streets of Dallas, of albino children blinking helplessly in the African sun filled my head.  How I wished my brain didn’t work this way, that I could simply beat down mulberry pulp and watch it transform into paper without attaching it to a much larger, more sinister matter. But as pulp has its inherent properties, so does the human brain. And so off I went.

How do people justify the abuse of another?  Without a face, without eyes that looked at mine, without a mouth that grimaced or implored me for help, I imagined that it becomes easier to do harm. In fact, it felt good to pound away at this pulp in a way that I could never have anticipated.  Though the association between pulp and violence wafted in and out of my mind, each time it arose, I had to literally smash it out and try replacing those images with a smoky nothingness. 
Nursery rhymes floated in front of me.  I remembered my daughter, Aurora, at two years old, sitting on the floor with her sneakers on the wrong feet, shoelaces untied, face red with frustration.

buckle my shoe.

I sang to her as we worked together to sort out this classic shoe dilemma every child the world over who owned shoes would face.

            Close the door.

Counting helped to soothe and distract her, but I think it was also the rhyming, the rhythm, and quite simply the attention and time I gave her to work through those small moments of upset and confusion. As I brought the mallet down, I could feel, hear, and see the change in the pulp’s consistency as the cellulose, what gives all plants their structure, broke down further. One website described how the pulp is “boiled, beaten, & shredded into tiny fibers”, relinquishing the walls to a more pliant form, then “spread into sheets, pressed, and dried” in a perpetual march towards flatness and thinness, away from the original green plant life and into the loving and gentle arms of literacy and art.  This was essentially the same process that Buddhist monks brought from China to Japan in 610 AD. It wasn’t until the 13th century that paper making finally reached Europe, so Japan essentially had hundreds of years to perfect their techniques and expertise.  But earlyKorea, Tibet, India, Arabia and then Italy all made valuable contributions to paper making. Countries that may, in the 20th and 21st century, either be barely cordial or outright hostile to one another, at earlier points in history worked in a fluid collaboration to develop the manufacture of paper.  And we know that with paper came the illuminated manuscripts of the late to Middle Ages, visions of the universe, God, and humanity through the Koran, the Christian Bible, and Jewish Scriptures.  In the creative writing classes I taught for three years in Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights, I made a point of bringing in a wide variety of beautiful paper, from Italian marbleized paper to Japanese origami, just to expose my students to what the larger world could offer them.  Once while in the mail and copy room, I came upon discarded copies of detailed reports, written on paper, of various restraint techniques –pepper spray, straight jackets, handcuffs – used to quell violent inmates. These were the same incarcerated students for whom I was making copies of their poetry, deep explorations into profound loss, absent mothers and fathers, into that eternal yearning for friendship, love, communion.

Funny, that. 

After the first hour, the instructor asked us to take a break. I was trembling with fatigue by then, my right thumb and wrist almost completely numb with radiating pain.  It was the first time I had beaten a thing with the sole intent of changing its molecular structure.  I waited with the anticipation of something like praise from the teacher as she went around feeling the consistency of our pulp. She gave my lump a squeeze and scowled. It was not to be.

“Why can’t we just take a pair of scissors to this?” Anna asked in a clearly exhausted tone of voice.
“Because making strong paper requires keeping long fibers. Let’s put it in water and see what happens.”

So we picked up our piles of pulp, smacked them into a large bucket and headed outside where the marina layer had burned off and the sudden glare made us all shield our eyes like pink-eyed albinos. BookArtsLA was sandwiched between an Italian pizzeria and a liquor store and both were doing a fast business – with garlic and pizza sauce wafting on one side and the clanking of beer bottles on the other. Such normalcy seemed suddenly alien.

“I’m pooped,” one woman announced.  She had the kind of creamy, translucent Irish skin most susceptible to skin cancer.  “I don’t have an iota of aggression left in me,” she added, that glistening in her eyes I recognized in Anna’s – and quite possibly my own. We watched as the instructor plopped our pulp into a large vat of water, then added a sticky fluid that helps the fibers adhere to one another. She swished her hand back and forth, her head cocked as though feeling for something intangible, and frowned.

“Here, put your hands in here and feel. There are knots and bumps still.”

The knots and bumps, like any resistance to change or submission, had to disappear if we were to make paper. We all swished our hands in the water, the trails of mulberry fiber swirling around like algae.  “We have to pound some more.”

For another forty-five minutes, we pounded and pounded. The last lines of The Great Gatsby appeared to me then: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past, as did that singular image of Zeke’s long, hairy arm holding his branch, pounding on the tree trunk. Beat on implies persistence, forward motion, progress even, although borne back ceaselessly into the past meant that our little boats are always subject to the ravages of history, personal or otherwise.  The fact that the same action that enabled Zeke to hold an object with a prehensile thumb, just as I was doing with the mallet didn’t escape me.  A Great Ape grasping a branch and using it to make a sound represented a massive evolutionary moment.  Zeke and I, we go way back.

I hit a level of fatigue beyond where I thought I’d quit. Anna tried to engage me in conversation about art and teaching, but I was past conversing with anyone about anything. I was so concentrated on breaking the fibers down, I had no room for chattiness of any kind. I had altogether forgotten that I was making paper, creating a path to literacy through this process, that my original motivation in taking this class was to bring the experience back to my students, to be able to hand a sheet of this wondrous paper to Mara, a young homeless mother I was helping to make a baby book for her infant son and say, Here, this is for you, this is for him. The constant beating and dampening of pulp, squeezing and flipping had completely taken over my awareness such that I had to let go of any higher purpose.

What kept repeating, however, was the central question regarding the origins of violence. I have never been in a physical fight in my life, unless you count wrestling my baby out of wet diapers and into clean ones.  Physical violence was simply not part of my upbringing or ethos in any way.  However, it seemed to factor into a lot of my teaching and often what drew students – both the privately schooled and the homeless & incarcerated – into long discussions.

As the instructor guided us to our worktables and slapped mounds of pulp back down in front of us, I recalled a conversation I’d once had in my juvenile hall class.  Many of my girls were commercially sexually trafficked, and as such, endured levels of betrayal and deprivation few on the Outs could possibly imagine.  Their crimes by and large sprung from poverty, and working with them humbled me deeply.  The girls started to talk about whom they would or would not steal from. Usually, either the guards or I would shut down this kind of conversation, but it was a hot, sticky July day and no one was really paying much attention.

“I wouldn’t mug an old lady ‘cuz, well, she’s old,” one girl with cute braids and big brown eyes offered.

“I wouldn’t mug an old lady unless I was high, then…” another girl high fived the girl beside her and they both laughed, “all bets are off, homey!”

“So, you don’t mug the old and defenseless? What about a pregnant woman?” I asked. The first girl in braids squirmed and scowled at me. Why was I putting her on the spot, anyway? I pressed on.
“What about a poor girl or boy? Where do you draw the line?”

This question made them uncomfortable, and I was glad for it at the time. The discussion continued another few minutes. It was both a disturbing and revealing moment between us, as this was how they showed their trust in me, by allowing me to learn about their moral compass, which was absolutely all over the place. 

What inspires violence, in part, is bringing a child into the world without any real instruction on how to treat others. Without some kind of guidance, without a rudder when their boat goes astray, it’s almost guaranteed he or she will find trouble.  Primates have a clear pack mentality, with the more dominant, the alphas, at the top of the hierarchy, and everyone else in descending order.  That order is not fixed, and the alpha can quickly become subordinate if he gets injured or just crosses paths with a bigger, more buff opponent.  In human terms, the alpha can mean those in uniform, those endowed with power and authority over their younger, weaker, or sicker subjects.  I’d heard enough stories about how juvenile hall guards played favorites amongst the inmates, tormenting the more fragile, passive girls by withholding kindnesses or slurping down treats in front of them.  I’d worked with enough homeless youth to see the damage done to their bodies and psyches as a result of what rung life had relegated them to on the hierarchical ladder.  What I have experienced of incarcerated and homeless youth is that they are really one and the same, in and out of detention centers, on and off the streets in a kind of free fall that would make most of us who live in houses come unglued. Their resilience, their sense of humor, the surprising tenderness with which they look after one another, or a kitten or mouse tucked into the folds of their clothes all nudged aside whatever lingering bias I’d hung onto.

One final feeling-up of our pulp and the instructor gave the go ahead to “Make paper!” She handed us a hinged frame called a mould, with a flexible bamboo screen similar to what’s used to make sushi, although more refined. We practiced a technique of dipping the frame halfway down into the slurry, and then bringing it quickly up and shaking it so that the pulp arranged itself more or less evenly across the screen.  Our teacher was patient and steadfast with us, explaining what seemed like an endless series of steps with the assurance of one who knows the power of paper. It felt wonderful to have my hands in water after clenching the rubber mallet for so long.  After half the day together, sweating and pounding, nibbling on crackers and downing bottles of water, the six of us had come to a pleasant easiness together. We praised one another as sheet after sheet of watery paper came away from the screen, as structure gave into that next stage of evolution.  Now I recognized in my instructor’s face genuine satisfaction in our progress.  All in all, I made fifteen sheets of paper, and while they dried on special racks, we learned how to use clover, persimmon and indigo dyes, and how to shape thick paper pulp over wood cuts to create embossed paper designs.

When I mentioned to a friend the connection between beating pulp and violence, he commented that it was a very “dark and strange” association. I was at first a bit defensive, reasoning that it was in the service of making paper, which, after all, is what assists in the birth of language. But I didn’t believe my own words then. There was something too pat and smug about my response, as though I was hiding in the academic portion of my brain and not allowing access to the emotional, more instinctual part. I may bring the paper into the drop-in center and simply share it with the young men and women who come for some relief from street life. Sometimes, they write, but more often we talk about their travels and their struggles. I watch over Mara’s infant son so she can eat her lunch and take a break from the startling demands of motherhood, worsened by being homeless. Recently, a boy put his little mutt dog up on the lunch table, sparking a near fistfight with another boy, who demanded he throw the dog off. I swooped in and knelt beside the dog owner.

“What a sweet dog you have! Let me give her some water and food, and you can tell me how she came into your life,” I said. 

He looked at me sharply, and replied:
“Why don’t you just tell me to get her the fuck off the table? Why be all syrupy sweet about it?”

“Because,” I replied, “I don’t talk to people like that, ever.”

He swept his hand up in a gesture of compliance, and that, in effect, cut the fight short.  Averting fights wasn’t my job, but at this drop-in center all the adults, whether volunteer or paid, felt obliged to keep the peace.  It was only some weeks later as I held the paper up to the light and saw tributaries and veins, swirling constellations, and undulating swells of beige and eggshell, similar to a desert landscape appear that it became clear what the process of making paper had to offer.  The analogy of beating pulp to beating a human being is meaningless unless you acknowledge the goal: to transform, to transcend. Greek mythologists intuitively grasped this concept in the transformation of Athena and Zeus, of Proteus and Circe as their stories circled around the power of transcendence from one state of being into another, presumably better or more enlightened self.  Mythological transformation isn’t always for the better, as it can also result in bloodbaths and chaos.  Such duality reflected in the potential for enlightenment or destruction in human relationships.  I may choose to write a poem, draw, or paint on this paper I created, or simply tape it to a window and observe how the texture and color change from moment to moment, as the sun rises and sets.  Transformation from violence to civility, from civility to violence can happen in a nuanced moment too subtle to detect. Or it can happen through hours of beating and pounding, through water and air, through the peace that blesses us as we bend over paper, and write.   Nika Cavat has been teaching English, film studies, and creative writing for 27 years. She founded the creative writing program at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences in Santa Monica, CA, where she has spent the bulk of her teaching career. Cavat was a volunteer teacher in juvenile hall in East Los Angeles, and runs a creative writing program for homeless youth in Venice, CA. Her essays, poems, short fiction, and art reviews have been published on line and in print in a wide variety of publications.  She is currently writing a book about her experiences working with diverse populations of students.