Individuality is founded in feeling; and the recesses of feeling, the darker, blinder strata of character, are the only places in the world in which we catch real fact in the making, and directly perceive how events happen, and how work is actually done.Robert D. Richardson
The Bicentennial summer of 1976 was hot enough to make a flaming forge of my skull. And there were many of us scalded souls wandering the streets of my little home town looking for relief. Many of us didn’t have air conditioners or were too poor to buy a seat in a cinema or too shabby to be allowed in an upscale bar. We roamed about at all hours trying to cool off. Walking those muggy streets, I remember seeing the juice bubbling out of the hot dogs sold by the corner vendor. He was enveloped in the disorienting haze of steam rising from the tar pit of pavement where he stood. The heat coiled at our heels like a hot-blooded serpent. Birds didn’t have the energy to sing. The grass fried. No caterwauling from alley cats or crazy people preaching damnation and hell fire. Even broken glass seemed to melt rather than shatter.
That was the summer I met Emily, fresh up from Richmond, Virginia, and looking for a new life. She left a bag of woe behind along with the bum it belonged to. She was barely a child, only in her early twenties, narrowly missing the opportunity to go off the deep end. I was only slightly older.
She was sitting alone on a high stool at a table for two outside a cafe. A large arching rainbow of a brolly protected her from the sun. She was spooning a gelato.
“Want to join me?” she cooed.
She once accompanied me to Stephen’s shop where I took lessons in woodturning. She laughed when she saw the bowl I had been working on for some time. Unlike her, it was fat and dumpy. She had a natural grace like the lines of a sail boat and was uncomfortable around anything that was awkward or klutzy.
Stephen is the founder of the local woodturning club and had taken me on as a student. He is a heavy. lumbering man who dances around with a 2,000-lb lathe as though it were his ballroom partner. His fat fingers held the wooden handle of the gouge as precisely as a fine surgical knife. “A gouge is like a razor,” he said. “It should glide across the wood the way a sharp razor will slide across a cheek or chin. But let it tilt or twist ever the slightest and blood will gush.”
“Come on, man, it’s only a piece of wood. Are you married to it?” Stephen laughed as he grabbed the poorly formed bowl out of my hands and ran it through the bandsaw, cutting it in half. “Now, see how it’s not uniformly thick? Fat at the bottom and maybe just ok at the top.”
I gasped, as did she, since I had worked on the bowl for days only to see it cut in two and presented to me as though someone had just split an apple. “But, but, but … ” I stammered as he just laughed and told me to try again, this time by focusing on getting better control over the sharp steel tool moving inside the rapidly spinning bowl gripped tightly in the chuck. “You have to keep the gouge moving along the recesses of the bowl and not linger in one place. It’s like painting a wall. Long continuous strokes rather than short swipes,” he lectured. “Turning should be consistent the way meals should be. No one expects to return to a restaurant and find the meal they enjoyed a week ago now tastes like crap. When you find a good way of preparing a meal or making a bowl, do it the same way every time with only small tweaks and subtle innovations.”
She and I were both looking at the two split spheres when he continued, “When you’re birthing a bowl, don’t be afraid to kill it if it’s malformed. Just learn what went wrong and toss it onto the kindling pile.”
We were together for about six months before she told me she was returning to Richmond. Maybe she preferred pain to pleasure. Perhaps the continuing allure of the bad boy. Who knows?
The young woman I had started to know was a scene stealer. The limelight became her. I studied her closely and constantly. She held a pencil in her hands as though she were afraid of snapping it. She was tightly fitted into a trim frame with calm tiny hands and walked with a slow and easy gait. She was what Henry James said were the two most beautiful words in the English language … summer afternoons.
When she left I thought of her all the time. I wrote her long letters which she never answered. I had vivid images of what she was doing and who she was with. I would catch myself staring blindly at times before I shut my eyes for a moment and snapped back. I paced restlessly from room to room as if lost. Recollections and bits of memory, trifles of which I had barely been aware, now flashed before me. I had to press my hand on my chest to slow down the rapid beating of my heart.
My lack of any joy seems so silly and wasted now, but it was real at the time.
And then suddenly she was back without much of an apology or explanation. She said she just had to get him out of her system.
While she was absent from my life, I had to find something to help me not think of her all the time. Turning rough chunks of hard wood into bowls was the answer. The turning took on more meaning than just watching wood moving rapidly round and round. It became a way to ponder, to weigh in my mind, to appraise where my life was going. To my delight, I was learning about myself by exploring, tentatively at first, how to guide my thoughts, not just in handling the wood but in how to find meaning in my struggle to understand my ever perplexing relationship with Emily.
I was whirling thoughts as well as wood and becoming more open to revision. I was a proper assayer and slowly sensing what Montaigne was later to teach me: “If my soul could only find a footing I would not be assaying myself but resolving myself. But my soul is ever in its apprenticeship and being tested.”
I realized I was living again and making things as well as writing a formative essay on myself. Working at the lathe day after day became even more of a delight. My joy grew and grew. I couldn’t get it out of my system. I was a slow learner, but gradually gained more confidence in myself as well as skill in my all-round woodworking skills.
As with people, a block of wood can magically reveal promising new pathways and trails to explore. The “figure” in the grain can bring you back repeatedly to where you began to trace with your hand how the swirls paint abstract images that you never tire of looking at and touching. Who could not want to have a special companion so filled with richness. I found a new beginning as I filled my imagination with the sight and touch of beauty and form in both a physical and esthetic sense.
Call it poetry, art appreciation, philosophy, or just pure pleasure in seeing how beautiful wood can be. I likened the hold wood had on me to the way I should live my life and what I should look for in my bonding with others, especially the women who would ultimately help form me into a complete person. I luxuriated in my finished bowls crafted from the chocolate complexion of Bocote or Cocobolo that you can almost imagine stirring in your hot coffee, the golden to dark purple brown striped figure in Indian Rosewood, the Central American exotic Granadillo, with its bright red to reddish or purplish brown distinct streaks, or the broad rays from quarter-sawn Lacewood.
I began living in a new way, appreciating that turning is a fine craft demanding a light touch, the ballet of motion always engaging the wood gently in a dance in order to tame and transform it into the beauty hidden inside. And such parallels it brought to mind in other moments of my life. Sometimes the wood cooperates and lets you tease its beauty out. Blink your eyes and it rebels, like some people, and refuses your advances with great resistance and often damage or destruction, not just to itself but to you the turner. My broken heart had not proved lethal, but it had put me on notice.
Easy to teach the turner, as well as the suitor, to be aware of danger and to be cautious. Another for them to practice, as I discovered. You can lose a part of yourself whether from tools or a love that betrays you. And the pain can come at you unexpectedly.
I finally was able to make and present her with a lovely bowl made from spalted maple with all its swirling grain patterns that I thought was worthy of her. She was mesmerized. “It looks like the inside of my mother’s mixing bowl when she made dark chocolate swirl buns. I can see her stirring great goops of baker’s chocolate filling into the unbleached white flour,” she said as she traced the patterns with her fingers. “I can almost taste the bowl!”as she closed her eyes and pretended to lick the spatula.
I was thrilled that she prized it. “It will have a special place on my desk forever, on the right side, where I can reach out and feel it whenever I want,” she told me.
Time was to play tricks on both of us, though. We had plenty of good shakes and twinkles at first, but the words of endearment soon were just sounds recited less often. I think now of how intoxicated I was just to hear her voice which almost sang to me. But the melody grew fainter and she began to speak to me with an overlay of menace and danger of a new kind.
“You just don’t get it, do you?” she asked as she twirled around in her writing desk chair to face me. She cocked her head and said, “I just don’t feel about you the way you seem to feel about me.” She had stood up by then and placed her hands on her hips. “Please, just leave me alone for a bit.”
I kept hearing the lyrics of Neil Young’s song, “it doesn’t mean that much to me to mean that much to you,” in my head. We had enjoyed so much in such a short time, and now, not a note in her voice seemed the same as it once did when I thought she was always happy to see me. I wanted the past to continue, not to be over. I wanted her presence still to be a delight, now as it was then.
The cigarette stub that she had ground into the wooden bowl with all the grain pattern I had made for her was still smoking.
I turned and walked away.
Time was helpless for weeks after that. I woke with the image of her hand in mine, her shoulder, her head, her whole physical presence glowing in the dark. But it was only a dream. She had cleaned off her writing table and packed up her ragamuffin belongings and was gone, this time for good. But she left the marred bowl.
I was not inclined to restore it. I cut it in half.
Image Credit: The feature image is a composite image created by LikeTheDew.com from two images licensed at 123rf.com (cigarette butt © Hayati Kayhan; wooden bowl © Sucharut Chounyoo) using contributions from generous readers such as you – really, only a couple of us sustain the dew - whether in money or volunteer time, we could really use it.