The Pleasure and Pathos of Paper Dolls

I was dismal at crafts, never liked them much, beyond decorating a shoe box with doilies for Valentine’s Day.  That was easy, as crafting goes, and it was my limit.  The little Sunday school lambs made with glued-on cotton balls, the bean and macaroni art in Vacation Bible School — I am  pretty sure Joseph didn’t wear a beard made of pinto beans—I completed them, but was never proud of them. 

And Girl Scouts, oh, how I hated crafts at troop meetings.  Those pleated  Reader’s Digests folded into fat Christmas trees, the green paint all over my hands, ending up smeared on my cheek.  Popsicle sticks stuck to my fingers, or dropped and glued to my shoe. Glitter everywhere but in the spot I aimed it.

No, I was built for other things.  But now, it seems, I have the rare opportunity to teach one of my craftiest friends a thing or two, and it has gone straight to my head. 

You can barely move in Alice’s work space for all the scissors, colored pencils, pads of watercolor paper, and stacks of Flow Magazines, magazines that seem to be filled with nothing on earth but wallpaper samples, although I am told it is art paper.  That’s it.  Just a magazine full of brightly printed paper.  And here, there, and everywhere, shoe boxes and fruit boxes full of ephemera, ribbons and feathers and buttons and I don’t know what all. 

Yet, for all this, Alice does not know how to cut out a continuous strand of paper dolls. 

And I do. 

Because my grandmother, a child of the prairie, taught me.  With her off-limits fabric shears she sat on the floor and folded newspaper and grocery bags, and with fingers flying, cut in one intricate but smooth motion, ten, fifteen little girls, all holding hands, dress hems touching, hair turned up on the end, their tiny feet pointing in opposite directions.  She and her sisters entertained themselves for hours doing this.  She entertained us for hours likewise. On winter days she folded typing paper and with her sharp little embroidery scissors fashioned beautiful snowflakes as big as our heads.  Well, our faces. 

Alice doesn’t know how to make these, either. 

I have promised to teach her, and was practicing over the weekend to see if I still remembered and I cut a string of paper dolls.  They looked so cute I posted a picture on social media.  You can’t believe how many people responded, many wanting to know how to do it so they might make them with their own grandchildren.  A smaller number remembered making them themselves when they were children.

My niece, Hannah, commented on my Facebook page, saying they were “cool,” and I couldn’t believe in all the times she and her sister, Katie, were at my house, we never made paper dolls.  I felt like quite the wretched and neglectful aunt.  It seems now it should have been an essential part of our time together, that sweet particular bonding activity which was sadly forfeited for other, lesser things. 

When I was little, maybe six, I loved Betsy McCall paper dolls, a page of creamy paper with Betsy standing demurely in her underwear and shoes, dresses and coats and sometimes hats, framing her delicately drawn figure.  Each little dress, little sweater, pair of snow pants had white tabs protruding, tabs to fasten the clothes at critical junctures — shoulders, waist, ankles.

My mother had to cut out Betsy, all those frills around her petticoat or panties, but I attacked the dresses with the peter pan collars, the pedal pushers, the sweater sets.  And always, always I got in a hurry, or got distracted for just a second, and snipped off a tab, sometimes more than one.  And I am pretty sure I cried.  Not so much for having botched it for Betsy, but in frustration for the perfect thing, now not.

Mother tried to repair the damage but the make-do-ness of it just killed me.  I wore my  brother’s hand-me-down corduroys, wore sweaters with turned up cuffs, bought at the end of a season to “grow into,” had socks that bunched at the toe or chewed down into my shoe, always too big or too small.  But Betsy McCall was perfect, holding a little doll in front of her while standing in her undies.  A summer dress and she is holding a bunch of flowers.  A winter coat, and she holds a muff.  And I was Betsy, wearing those pretty clothes, perfect on the page, until the cutting began.

Finding a Forest, Pondering a Pond

We were told a couple of years ago that sitting was the new smoking, but I haven’t seen that referenced much lately. Perhaps COVID and binge-watching make it too cruel to contemplate just now. There is news, though, for us to consider, something to get us out of those fitness counters and back into watches as is right and proper.

A recent “Wall Street Journal” article suggests that spending two hours in nature, on a regular basis, is the new 10,000 steps.

And they mean nature, not just outside, but surrounded by trees, and green—or brown as the season dictates— and water and twigs, and birdsong and breezes, and rocks, maybe, anywhere away from concrete and cars.

According to the report in WSJ’s Health and Wellness section, doctors and researchers are scrambling to address the physical and mental issues caused by COVID, and all the isolation, especially from the natural world. It seems there is abundant research supporting our need to be in nature, the health benefits of it, and COVID has cranked up the urgency to interpret the research and put it to use.

This large and growing body of research tells us we must return to nature, and sitting in our little yards won’t cut it. We must get away from the urban landscape, even pretty ones, to improve our mental health, our well-being, our blood pressure, our cognitive functioning, our creativity.

The Japanese call spending time in the woods “forest bathing.” I know how that sounds, but no, it isn’t that. They go to the woods, wander around, sit on a stump, saunter—saunter, you all—and come home with lower blood pressure, better heart rates and less fatigue and depression. Spending 300 minutes a week is about what it takes to get for yourself all sorts of healthy benefits. Just five hours a week.

I have a new friend from western New York, one who posts photos on Instagram of the natural places she walks and hikes on a regular basis. She posts images from the water’s edge of Quaker Pond, images taken in fall or the first days of winter already glazing the pond’s edge. I don’t know, just the name Quaker Pond makes me feel better, breathe more deeply.

Sometimes the pond is rimmed by golden reeds, sometimes the reeds are held captive in the glassy grip of ice, all of it lovely. She posts short videos of pines swaying in the high autumn wind, images of other trails covered in a carpet of fallen leaves. A photo, just as night falls, taken from the lip of Lake Ontario, with shadowy figures shrouded in mist gazing across the wide expanse searching for the Northern Lights. A life outside.

Here’s the deal. Since COVID, no—even before it—and since seeing and admiring these photos, I have had a longing, a primitive, true longing for woods, and walks in the green of summer or the russet of fall, the white—right this very day—of a walk in a winter snowfall.

But I don’t do it. I lament our lack of a Quaker Pond, but my pal, Alice, reminds me, and kind of huffy, too, we have equally beautiful woods here. We have trails in county parks, we have access to natural spaces. We just have to get off our duffs and go.

And she is right, of course. I have googled Quaker Pond, and my pal doesn’t just fall out her back door and into the woods. She makes for the wilds with intention. But neither must she drive for hours. And neither would we.

If Lake Ontario is right there, on the edge of town for my friend to explore and enjoy, the Ohio River is right here, on the edge of ours. We are ringed with little parks with hiking trails. We are half an hour, barely more, from two state parks, Audubon being a hidden jewel, ask anyone who has been there.

My writerly pals, with few exceptions, spend as much time outside and in the woods as possible. They grew up playing in creeks and running through woods, and they make a point of doing it still. One would tell you his time among the trees, on the lake, in a park is as critical to his work as the computer, the printer.

Will I move, and move in woods? Will I take myself to the wilds? Will I do it, just get up and do it? I really think I must.

Good Books for Long Winter Nights

January seemed especially grey and depressing this year. Maybe not depressing, that may be too strong a word, but I experienced more of a post-holiday let-down than usual. Most years I sort of revel in January, enjoy the dramatic image of myself slumped on the sofa, bored, bored, bored like some minor relation of the Downton Crawleys come to visit.

This year, I don’t know. It’s hard to enjoy a good pout and wallow when you’ve spent almost the entire past year having done just that, so I had no where to go with my ennui and discontent. I reverted to childhood—age eight—and spent the month under the covers reading with my Girl Scout flashlight. And way past my bedtime, too.

The modern equivalent of the flashlight under a blanket is the Kindle, and if you read with one, you might want to check out Bookbub. Every day an email arrives with seven or eight books for you to consider, curated from your reading list. They are deeply discounted, most can be downloaded to your Kindle for $1.99, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.

Here are a couple of books I have enjoyed when I should have been reading the ones assigned in my book group.

The first is “A Woman of No Importance,” written by Sonia Purnell. With impressive research, Purnell brings us the unknown story of an American woman, Virginia Hall, who worked early on to help establish units of espionage during World War II that would become, eventually, the more wide-spread French Resistance. She was remarkable, an adventurer before the war, and though she lost a leg in Turkey in a hunting accident, she was bothered by this only a little, when she was escaping the Gestapo by crossing the Pyrenees on foot and in winter, say, or when her slight limp threatened to give her away to the Nazis in occupied Lyon. I am only half-way through Virginia’s exploits, and I can’t imagine what happens next, but I am inspired by her story.

Bookbub sent me a ninety-nine cent offer to purchase Pearl S. Buck’s novel, “A Pavilion of Women: A Novel of Life in the Women’s Quarters.”

I have long admired Buck’s award-winning novel, “The Good Earth,” but I admire this book more. Set in 1930s China, the novel centers on the wealthy and influential Wu family. More accurately, it centers on Mrs. Wu, the matriarch of this old and traditional family, and the ways in which she assures her family’s happiness and continuity.

She has great responsibility for her family but little actual power. She sets about sorting things by engaging in a great game of chess playing with her family’s relationships. Reading this book now, in the overly woke age we find ourselves, I wondered how Mrs. Wu might be taken by a younger reading audience. Would this book offend their precious, more delicate sensibilities? I don’t care.

Read this book in context of the culture and the time, it is beautifully written and wise, and I came to admire Mrs. Wu and her good heart and the hard truths she never looked away from.

The writing is so gorgeous, in fact, I underlined this book as much as any I have read. I would send sentences and whole passages to friends in the middle of the night so they might admire them with me, right then.

My pal, Alice, has a new boyfriend, but being a generous type, she has shared him with me, at least a little. How she does it I don’t know, but she finds the most interesting writers, long before the rest of us do, and her new fella is one.

She is, if not in love with, at least crushing on the Irish writer, Billy O’Callaghan. Not long ago she read his novel, “My Coney Island Baby,” and went on and on and on about it. I feared for her other boyfriends, sensed a long season of neglect coming up for them. And I was right. She is currently reading everything of his she can get her hands on.

Lucky for Alice, and us, there are several collections of short stories to choose from, and at least two novels. His story about how he came to writing is compelling, too, or at least Alice says it is. She won’t share much about that. Those early days of infatuation, you remember how it is. Secretive. Exclusive.