“I draw a jackal-headed woman in the sand; sing of a lover’s fate, sealed by jealous hate, and wash my hand in the sea.” – 1o,ooo Maniacs
So here’s the thing: I thought I’d hatch a dream, to escape the dreadful void of not knowing What I Was Going To Do With My Life, and then I’d instantiate it — make it real — and then everything else would just sort of sort itself out.
I’ve loved that song above, Verdi Cries, for thirty years now. When I first heard it, in my teenaged bedroom, sitting on the floor in front of the stereo, as almost every kid worth her or his salt used to do, before Walkmen and iPhones and portable Bluetooth speakers… sitting on the floor of my California bedroom, in front of the stereo, in the nineteen-eighties, I thought I’d be one of those lucky dreamers who didn’t have to conform to the mold that held everyone else, everyone above and beyond me in the aging olympics, so tightly bound.
“I was a dreamer before you and I let me down.” That’s Taylor again. It’s astounding, the reservoir of tremendous lyrics just from that one human’s brain. Enough to live on for years.
And somehow, in my solidly upper-middle-class, mostly trauma-free, loving two-parent household in the still-new suburbs of one of the nicest cities in America, I imagined I could both be an iconoclastic dreamer [my junior year journalism teacher, Peggy O., taught me that word. She was fantastic; a former Berkeley hippie who brought it every day. How teachers do that is still beyond my understanding.] [I thought I could be that, too, for a little while — it was a momentary answer to the question above, which really means, “How are you going to pay your way through this life, dummy? English Lit. major. Seriously?” But I failed miserably at that too; all those young faces looking up to the front of the room, desperately needing guidance and structure and, equally, doubting my ability to give them either. Too much.] I imagined I could both be an iconoclastic dreamer and have the same kind of stability (or so it seemed) and security (or so it seemed, and luckily, ended up) as my parents, my extended family, the neighbors, my friends’ families.
I saw my dad bust his ass to change his own brakes and get it done before the sun went down on a Sunday, and somehow didn’t believe that calculus would apply to me. What was I thinking? That if I just listened to Verdi Cries enough times in a row, the parts of the future cars that I’d certainly have to own — let alone find ways to pay for — would just heal themselves, like magic?
I seem to have overlooked that a house is not just a thing — a permanent place you come home to and a vessel for watching television within. I saw — and even occasionally helped with — the constant painting and tweaking and minor repairs and battery changes and perpetual trips to Home Depot for some damn inscrutable little part or tool or other. And sure, some of that sunk in, past the oblivious filters of teenage lust and angst, to where when I signed a deed myself, all those years later, many of those activities felt strangely instinctual. I’d been culturally patterned to know that having some screwdrivers in a drawer in the kitchen was a good idea; and taught, almost by osmosis, which one to use for a particular problem. I knew not to fuck around with electricity until the breaker’s off, and even then, not too much. I knew about paint, sort of — because California paint is ridiculously different than Midwestern paint — and calling plumbers and why you fix a leak the second you spot it. Sure.
But somehow, for all that, I still dreamed about owning a “cool”, “interesting” old house someday — one with the ever-popular CHARACTER — and thought it wouldn’t be a source of constant need; an epic time-suck; an incalculable sinkhole for money that really should be spent on guitars and vacations.
“So it goes.”
And, duh, same with pottery. I didn’t see the long hours, the sore back, the fact that every lump of clay on the wheel still brings its challenge.
And if I was still in my abyss, spiraling down the long ramp to oblivion, I’d have ended this scrap of writing just there. On a note that says, fuck, wow, am I fucked, and I bet you are too. But I’m not. So I didn’t.
Yeah, the house is a monster, but it is my sense of place. My anchor in the physical world. I walk off the side porch into the incredible cold — the tear ducts momentarily crystallizing kind of cold — and look up and there’s Orion’s Belt, tilted at just the angle that belongs to us here, slowly plowing across the dark; passage marked like hands on a cosmic clock by the bare branches of the trees I nurture and then, as time and the weathers do their thing, prune and cut and burn for their saved heat. I struggle to force myself back to the wheel, every time — I know now that I always will — but like that dog circling it’s bed before a nap, that routine of stalling and approaching gradually and checking for hazards before letting my guard down exists for a reason. No, for a thousand good reasons. The dogs that didn’t scout before sleeping ended up not being dogs faster than those that did. The potters that just rush in are probably missing something important.
So throwing is still hard, but once I commit, and acclimate, it’s mostly a good hard. You know what’s not hard? Tying my shoes. You know what I never even think about as I’m doing it, and haven’t felt any reward from accomplishing since I was, like five years old? Yep. Gods forbid that making things out of clay should ever fall to the level of tying shoes.
Like learning new chords on the guitar, and then wondering how they somehow remained hidden from me all these many years, I go back to my wheel — so simple, it just goes ’round in a circle — and all the clay I can possibly use — so complex, it can do almost anything, if you learn what it wants and are patient — and the possibilities, hiding just out of sight, or around the next corner, are bafflingly wondrous. This can be anything you want, said the sign I wrote to myself when I quit being a full-time potter and went back to being a part-time potter. You’re paying your way, mostly, elsewhere, so don’t be a dumb drone here. Don’t make an endless run of the same Teadust mug and wake up twenty years from now not liking any of them. Don’t surrender to the modest expectations of your likely customers. Don’t hurt yourself trying for a quantity that wouldn’t really make you feel that much better if you achieved it.
“The souls of men and women, impassioned all. Their voices rise and fall. Battle trumpets call. I fill the bath and climb inside… Singing…”