When I was ten years old, after my mother died, I often went into the school library to be alone during lunch recess. The most private nook was the science section. The bottom shelve had the biggest books. One of them was a mineralogy book filled with photos of crystals and diagrams of chemical changes brought on by heat and annealing. There were explanations about oxidation and reduction. There were instructions of how to make a flame blow-pipe to use with a candle to do tests on minerals. There were photos of aiming the tip of the hot flame at mineral streaks made on the back of a ceramic tile. The photos showed how colors would be different depending on which part of the flame – the blue oxidizing center or the orange glow of reduction – touched the trace of minerals.
Solitude with no goal is no comfort, but aimed at the discovery of the mysterious, with observations of matters great and small, solitude is the cure for even the deepest sorrow. You can go out then come back and say, “Look. See what I have found.” The right sort of solitude leads to the best sort of company.
I made a mineral test kit: A hand lens; A tile as a streak plate for scraping rocks; A candle; A pack of matches; A thin copper tube pinched at one end to just a pin hole; A vial and eyedropper of weak hydrochloric acid; A quartz crystal and a few other minerals for the hardness test. A small notebook. A pencil. A Swiss army knife. Then I began looking for rocks, especially ones with colors and crystals. And I found them. And I brought them back.
Rocks rapidly led to geology — which is the study of time– which led to chemistry – which is the study of mystery . Chemistry led to math, which could have been perfect except that I needed to work and make money, so math then pulled me into writing software for computers which led to starting businesses. Business is a deep sorrow which has nothing to do with the way minute streaks of minerals look when heated to 2,300 degrees in the absence, or presence of oxygen. Copper will become black or green. Iron is a rainbow if combined with just a hint of manganese and a smudge of silicate. These are things you can bring back. These are things that can be shared.
When I met the woman who would become my first wife, one of her classes was a pottery class. I went with her one evening to the big studio on campus. Students were working on their final projects and dipping bisqued cups into buckets of grey goop. In the corner of the room was a cabinet filled with bottles. A 50’ish man was sitting near the cabinet reading a newspaper and smoking a cigarette, and when I walked over to read the labels on the bottles, he said hello and asked if I was one of his students. I told him no, but told him I was the boyfriend of a student of his. He nodded, almost went back to reading his paper, but instead asked that universal small talk question of universities, “what are you studying?”
“Chemistry,” I said.
He lowered his paper, looked at me. At that time, out of the 6,000 students on campus, there were only a few handfuls of chemistry majors. He asked, “Really?” and we began to talk. We talked about clays and their extra layers of bonded hydrates. We talked about bonding energy and valance. We talked about the physics of heat, of enthalpy, of photons and how all things glow, even when cold. Then he said, “Hey, let me show you how to throw a pot.”
My second wife also liked pottery. She and I bought a used kick wheel and set up in our backyard of the small house we shared for a few years on Missoula avenue. But I was so busy with trying to make money that I don’t think I ever touched the clay. And we had no kiln, so I never touched the chemistry either. And then that marriage ran out and the wheel rusted in the rain.
But I always wanted to get back to pottery. It is the perfect solitude. When I sat at a wheel and thought too hard, nothing worked. But when I became alone without thoughts, my hands calmed me. I’ve never needed to make any cups or plates or bowls – there is always something to drink or eat from – and I’ve never needed art credits or a social purpose to define myself — but I have, ever since I was ten, needed discovery and surprise. Pottery can be that, and it is also has discoveries that can be shared. The “Hey, look at what I found,” like the rocks I carried back from mountain tops, rocks with fossils or metal crystals, rocks with mystery. Perfect solitude brings people together because we can share what we have learned alone.
After a 30 year absence, I have been re-learning how to throw porcelain. I spend hours just centering, and most of what I have done ends up in the slip bucket.
But some of what shows up, coming out from the 2,345 temperature of the kilns, helps me say, “Look what I found.”
© Steve S. Saroff