7 Unexpected Ways My Paper Collection Is My New Favorite Hobby Getting Me Through the Pandemic

published Apr 7, 2021
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I have always been an archivist, accumulating and tucking away notebooks, pads of paper, and thick magazines for the future. Since having kids, I’ve been drawn to bound stacks of colorful papers like the Flow Book for Paper Lovers and For the Love of Paper. Their papers are already coordinated, with stickers to accessorize and whole projects to rip out and mess around with. I justified buying them for the kids, but they have really been my treat. Not having the time to use my paper collection didn’t dampen my desire to keep adding to it. Bound books of patterned paper, card stock craft projects, kitschy stickers, and a collection of untouched notebooks sat on shelves looking pretty until pandemic stress brought them fully into my life. 

When states first mandated stay-at-home orders over a year ago, I found myself sitting at the dining room table ALL day, micromanaging virtual school for one daughter, suddenly teaching preschool to my three-year-old, keeping up with my own freelance work, and figuring out how to manage our lives without leaving the house for who knew how long. Drowning in responsibility, I needed to do something creative that was not related to any of my jobs, to disconnect and slow down. I found the answer in the ephemera I had been collecting for years. 

My habit, which includes making a collage, writing to a pen pal, or brainstorming on a pretty piece of paper, looks different every day, but it’s sacred. I’m still using all my paper objects and pens when I write my daily to-do list on a pretty piece of paper, surround it with weird stickers, and make a little flourish with my fountain pen, but it feels like I’m manifesting something, and not just getting things done.

This spring, my paper meditations have moved into a new phase. The family is so used to our work-from-home and virtual school routine, I no longer need to operate from a command center at the dining room table. I am dismantling my stacks of books and paper to reorganize them in the home office which is slightly farther away from the locus of family activity. I’m organizing shelves by category: writing, paper crafts, planning, and design; and I’m arranging boxes for the accessories of my new(ish) hobby: pens, stickers, paper scraps, and notepads. Here’s how I turned paper goodies into a daily meditation.

Credit: Anna Lee Beyer

I’ve been shopping my shelves more often.

Sometimes (lots of times) I buy books and magazines just because they’re pretty or they feel nice or they inspire me to do something creative. For years, those books and magazines have been shelved for “someday” — that magical day when both my small kids were in school and all the laundry was done and I would make a cup of tea to lounge on the sofa with my inspiration. 

Weirdly, “someday” ended up being the exact opposite. For the last year, while neither of my children was able to physically attend school and the laundry piled up for an avalanche, pretty books and magazines became a small escape. If I couldn’t concentrate with all the activity around me, I could at least flip through a pretty book and engage my imagination. One day I sat with my daughter through her first grade art class on making collage via Zoom. I began ripping up my beloved collection and reconfiguring pieces into abstract nonsense. When art class was over for my kid, I didn’t stop collaging. The hobby had been waiting for me inside those pretty books all along.

I’ve been able to embrace a “kid” project as an “adult” one.

Adult coloring is not new, but it’s not the kind of hobby I would often make time for. I realized during intense long-term isolation with children that the most valuable activity is one that keeps them occupied while also serving some purpose for me. Coloring gave me a break from pandemic anxiety and an opportunity to engage with the kids.

It helps that coloring is meditative. In fact, a 2020 study of university students found that those who colored had lower test anxiety and were more mindful. According to another study, coloring reduced anxiety for older Taiwanese adults.

So, grab a handful of markers or pencils, and turn off all the noise until your page is filled with electric scribbles. Alternatively, you can give yourself parameters for an added challenge: Limit yourself to four shades of green and see what comes out. Draw a page full of hearts and imbue each one with an intention to survive this day, and the next, and the next. 

Can’t draw? That’s what stickers are for.

In the ‘80s, sticker books with a vast collection of scratch-n-sniff and puffy stickers were all the rage. The trend is coming back, too: I joined a monthly sticker club a few years ago and found that my regular shipments were so precious, I couldn’t bear to use them. They stacked up in a file folder where I couldn’t even appreciate them. 

Mid-pandemic, I bought The Antiquarian Sticker Book and started sticking those collectibles, willy-nilly, on every piece of paper that passed in front of me. Creepy skull sticker next to a Victorian woman on a fainting couch? Yep, that sums up today’s grocery list. 

Adding unrelated stickers to my notebook pages allowed me to create a story. A hot air balloon on one page, and a happy puppy on the next? I could marry the two images by drawing balloons to suspend the pup above my to-do list. It also felt so indulgent to layer as many stickers as I wanted. They were the currency of delight, and the time had come to spend freely.

Credit: Anna Spaller

I’ve re-discovered the power of writing letters.

Early in the pandemic, writer Rachel Syme started Penpalooza. It’s a penpal exchange, but to me, it was also a portal out of this house. I cracked open a gorgeous stationery set my husband had given me the Christmas before and started writing notes not just to my official penpals but to friends and family around the country, trying to create little paper memories and affirmations to spirit us through the confusion and depression of 2020. 

I love letters that express the mundane, things you can look back on and reimagine a mood from a particular season. As I wrote, I felt the urge to really express to people how much they mattered. We faced so much uncertainty, including not knowing who would be left when we resumed “regular” life. I thought a postcard here or a colorful letter there could contain the sentiment of caring without saying mushy things that made me feel scared and awkward. 

After I mail paper goodies out, I forget about them for the weeks they are in transit. Then my day is brightened by a surprise note or text from the recipient, telling me how much my note had cheered them. It’s a positive feedback loop that has kept me connected to people when I could have easily spent the last year isolating my heart inside this house along with my family.

I’ve tapped into the meditative power of folding paper.

One night during a guided meditation, I imagined myself writing thoughts onto pieces of paper, folding them into boats and birds, and watching them float away. In my meditation, I practiced origami, the Japanese art of paper folding which began in the sixth century as part of Shinto rituals. Before my hands learned the folds, my mind was eager to deposit thoughts in little paper shapes. I ordered some Japanese paper in shibori prints and folded while I monitored Zoom sessions. I put my anxiety about the apocalypse in an imperfect blue crane, and I put my appreciation for my resilient girls in another. I tucked cranes into pen pal letters and perched them around the house. 

This is when I realized that paper was becoming a real mediation practice for me. I added the word “FLOW” to my daily to-do list (for the Dutch magazine dedicated to mindful living, creativity, and a love for paper). My collection of ephemera was suddenly not wasted creativity, forgotten on a shelf, but a living practice of putting my time and thoughts into creations and then letting them float away.

I’ve been getting to know myself.

Therapy has become a weekly engagement over the last year, and it’s where I learned about Soul Collage. Basically, you create your own deck of collaged cards that speak to parts of your self, people in your life, and archetypes. It’s a meditation with paper that is literally therapeutic. I have slowly created cards to represent different “guides:” important people in my life like my husband and daughters, and facets of myself like the creative spirit and the obsessed housekeeper. The cards have helped me land on insights that I was previously unable to grasp. If I feel conflicted with a person or part of myself, creating a card allows me to see them from a different perspective, to diffuse the frustration, and ask, “How are you trying to help me? How can I help you?”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

And I’ve been able to plan all the things.

As 2021 approached, I went deep into planning mode. Every notebook and planner I saw held a new key to a new life. I compiled about 10 notebooks — some old, some new — and designated them each for a certain purpose: work, creativity, wellness, gratitude, goals, affirmations. Planning and journaling became a morning and evening ritual that bracketed my days and ensured I always had something to look forward to.

Maybe I could have found one colossal notebook to subdivide into all these different purposes, but that’s not what I felt was right for the moment. Instead, I was drawn to the feeling of abundance, the satisfaction of stacking my notebooks, some of them handmade with love. The freedom to say, “My week is too heavy, I can set these few tasks aside and focus on what’s fueling me right now.” Ultimately the ritual draws me back, flipping through pages and filling in lines, shifting color schemes, layering papers and ink. Reflecting on how much we’ve done this year, and looking forward to what’s next.