There’s been a tub of milkweed stems soaking in front of his studio for several weeks now. They reek; that’s why they’re outside. But he has a vision: Milkweed makes lovely handmade paper.
Soon, with expertise born of experience, Tom Bennick will don gloves and brave the smell; he’ll slide off the important part — the slimy cellulose — and the process of making paper will begin.
He doesn’t always use milkweed; sometimes he’ll cut old jeans into 1-inch squares and run them through a special beater that reduces the cloth to mere fibers — that makes blue paper; or he’ll use old cotton t-shirts shredded like mouse bedding, or silky smooth abaca — those make pure white paper. Or — well, the possibilities are endless.
He says: “This was the epiphany for starting making paper; I didn’t realize it at the time: (A teacher) pointed out the window and he said, ‘You know, you can make paper even out of that lawn grass over there.’”
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Tom was taking a class in book arts at the time, and the project was to make a book for each member of the class.
“I didn’t have any idea how I was going to do my artist’s book and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do it in handmade paper.’ Twenty-five years later, I’m still doing it.”
Truth be told, paper from grass is challenging. But the whole idea still bewitches him.
“I guess it’s the discovery of something new, something that I can try. I’m always learning.
“I think that’s what fascinates me — you don’t know how the paper is going to turn out until nature dries it and pulls it together. … Some really fascinating things come about because of that.”
• • •
Sixteen years ago, Tom was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His doctor sent him to an urologist because of his elevated PSA score.
“I guess I wasn’t that surprised because my dad and my granddad both had prostate cancer, and so I think it’s a hereditary type of thing in a way. I wasn’t really surprised — but you always hope, no, it’s going to bypass me.”
For him, the hardest part was deciding what to do — there are many options, from watchful waiting to chemotherapy and radiation. Tom chose surgery.
“It’s not like an appendix (where) you take it out and generally you go about your business and that’s it. With prostate cancer, I think there’s a disadvantage with any kind (of treatment) that you go with.
“It’s a change of life. … ”
Tom also found himself in a deep depression, angry at having to face the after-effects of incontinence and impotence, both.
“Back then, (doctors) do what they have to do and then you’re on your own. They don’t say, ‘Maybe you’d like to do counseling,’ or, ‘We have this group.’ It’s like, ‘I do what I do, I don’t know anything about (afterward), so forget it and go on.’ ”
The men’s support group he found wasn’t very well-attended, and the general cancer groups tended to have mostly women.
“I think that’s part of a man’s way: I’ll handle it, I’ll tough it out. They don’t realize that — you can’t. You shouldn’t.”
He found a counselor and worked through his anger and grieving. He made friends and they talked frankly. He had several painful and difficult surgeries to correct incontinence; he lives with his other side-effects, and the word “coping” is part of his life.
“I’m reminded of it daily, but I guess I’ve gotten over it. Like you get over an illness, you quit talking about it. … You move on. …
“I guess that the thing I have to look at is: If I didn’t do (the surgery), I might not be here now.
“So I guess I try to stay healthy so I can continue to do my paper. … ”
• • •
So one of the first questions that pops into mind is: What’s the deal with paper? That ubiquitous, perpetually handy, humble — and insignificant? — piece of paper?
Don’t get him started.
“We would not be here today if it weren’t for paper. … Paper is one of the greatest inventions we’ve ever had. Everything — history, music, math — goes down on paper. …
“So many people don’t understand. They think, well, it was Gutenburg.” (Gutenberg invented moveable type in 1440.) “I keep reminding them, if he didn’t have paper, he wouldn’t have had anything, you know. …
“This is the thing. I have a saying: Paper, life like, is taken for granted. …
“I have this art book, they were going on about different kinds of drawing. But they never mentioned the paper. Of course, I’m kind of prejudiced about paper, but what kind of paper were they using?”
Tom cites Joseph Turner, one of the great masters of British watercolor landscape, who lived during the turn of the 19th century.
“One of his sayings was, ‘Respect your paper.’ I think that’s the thing that some artists forget.”
Tom is a retired teacher — 34 years teaching English, poetry, debate and drama, most of it in Mountain Home, where he lives — and it’s hard to get the teacher to stop teaching. So Tom offers classes, gives workshops at schools about paper-making, demonstrates at places like Museum Comes to Life, the annual living history event at the Idaho State Historical Museum — and anywhere else that will have him.
“Because they take (paper) for granted.”
Tom takes his fibers — the denim, the milkweed, the cotton — and beats the fibers until they’re a slurry. He adds just the right amount to a big tub of water and dips in a screen. The pulp settles as the water drains, and he turns the screen upside down on a mat for couching (pronounced “cooching”), transferring it to a mat to dry.
“It’s magical. That’s what I like to point out when I’m demonstrating. The slurry there, when I pull it out and couch it off, press it and then I’m able to pick it up, (people say), ‘Wow! Just a few seconds ago that was just water and now you’re picking it up. Whoa! How do you do it?’”
And he likes it to be interactive.
“If (kids) want to touch the pulp, then they make a connection with it. Touch is memory.”
Tom’s wife of 53 years, Lynne, says viewers have wondered out loud why Tom bothers to make paper when you can buy it so cheap pretty much anywhere.
Lynne: “I say, but you can’t buy THIS paper at Walmart.”
Tom: “I say … in our electronic age, we’re losing hands-on. … This is what I enjoy. I make the paper, I print it on my (letterpress) press and it’s all hand-made, from beginning to end.”
• • •
In addition to the side-effects of prostate cancer, Tom also deals with significant hearing loss. He had a cochlear implant about eight years ago that, he says, welcomed him back to the hearing world. Still, Lynne accompanies him to workshops and demonstrations to help bridge the gap between hearing and answering.
“You cope, you accept that it’s inevitable. ... It’s not going to change, so you have to learn to cope with that.”
But making paper — and the experimentation that comes with it — has been the real lifeline. When he was recovering from the difficult surgeries, paper was calling to him.
“It gave me something to look forward to, my paper and making paper. And it got me away from focusing on myself, maybe. I feel sorry for people who retire and they don’t have anything to fall back on (except) watching TV or something. …
“(Paper is) something that’s so insignificant — and how could that help you go on? (It might be better if you) have this great spiritual awakening. Well, I guess maybe it is in a way. …”
The simplicity of paper and paper-making is something that feeds his soul. Not being attached to an outcome is another part of it — and it applies to life as well. Loving the process is yet another.
“And I can share (my paper) with other people. I think that’s one of the big things. … What is important is I’m sharing something with you that’s important to me.”
Tom uses the word “autotelic,” a word that requires a dictionary but is quite to the point: “A creative work having an end or purpose in itself.”
“Sometimes I do something and I think, well why do you do it? I don’t know. Sometimes I don’t think we need to have an answer for everything. …”
• • •
As regularly as the seasons change, Tom has a self-imposed project. For each solstice and each equinox, he’ll make 200 pieces of paper — more than he needs to account for “goofs” — and writes a little seasonal haiku-like poem, although he credits Jack Kerouac’s “Desolation Pops.”
“Simplicity … How many words? Can I get by with less and get across the idea I’m trying to get across?”
He’ll print up the poem on his letterpress, which presses the letters into his handmade paper — textures is everything — and cuts or tears the paper into a little shape with a string. He hopes people will hang it outside and let nature take its course. It’s another part of his philosophy.
“Nothing is permanent; everything is impertinent.”
He sends these poems to 70 or 80 people. His friends.
“Everything that goes into it is my hands. I guess that’s part of my giving, giving things that I make. … I think that goes back to one of the chapters in the Tao Te Ching (a fourth-century Taoist text): You are rich when you give things away. The more you give away, the richer you become. …
“What I give is very little, it’s very simple. But it is of myself.”
Resources for prostate, other cancers
• Both Mountain States Tumor Institute (St. Luke’s) and Saint Alphonsus have clinical social workers who work in their oncology departments. Clinical social workers are able to attend to all psychosocial stressors that individuals diagnosed with cancer face. They can help with financial resources, applying for Social Security Disability services, connecting patients with community or national resources and provide individual/family psychotherapy for the patient, caregivers and family.
• Coping Connections, a support group for people with cancer and caregivers, meets 6-8 p.m. monthly on the third Thursday, Saint Alphonsus Cancer Care Center. For more information, Ashley Jorgensen, 367-7785.
• Idaho 2 Fly is a wonderful organization where men with all types of cancer can go on a fly fishing retreat, at no cost to them, and connect with other men who are currently battling cancer. idaho2fly.org
• Specifically related to prostate cancer, the Blue Ribbon Ride is a local motorcycle ride that raises funds to help men who are battling prostate cancer.
• There are also many national organizations and resources available to individuals with prostate cancer, including ustoo.org, prostatecancersupport.org and www.pcf.org. There are also many organizations and resources available that are not limited to prostate cancer, including American Cancer Society (cancer.org) and CancerCare.org.
Caroline Collins, Saint Alphonsus Cancer Care Center
• As part of its Live Your Whole Life Women’s Health Series, Saint Al’s is hosting “Fighting Cancer: Separating Fact & Fiction,” presented by Dr. Stephanie Hodson, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 4, at McCleary Auditorium, 1055 N. Curtis Road in Boise. Free, but registration is required at saintalphonsus.org/healthy. Learn about top tips for preventing cancer and more.