I see God for the first time when I’m a toddler, sitting on the cement floor of an unfinished basement in an old farmhouse poorly converted into a family home. I am scribbling with markers on a stained white board.
I look up, and God is seated at an enormous potting wheel: She wears an electric blue tank top with the face of an Aztec mask on the front. The sleeves have been cut roughly off so that She can plunge up to her elbows in the red clay She is turning into bowls, plates, animals, on her spinning wheel. When She works the pedals, the wheel emits a grinding roar so immense that I jump in fear and feel the vibrations in my bones, in my baby teeth. But She’s unafraid, because She sits astride a fissure in the earth, pulling up the shapeless muck with which She will form life.
Obviously the act of creation isn’t always framed in golden light of nostalgia. I remember my mom moving frantically around our cramped family room on the night before a workshop sale, writing price tags, nestling mugs in layers of bubble-wrap, and loading collapsible crates to go in the car while I watched TV.
Sales were full of mixed emotions for me. They meant she would be away for several days at a time and the house would be quiet, cold and lonely. But then sometimes my Dad would take my sister and I to visit my her table, and I remember the sale room as a sea of gleaming, earth-toned glazes pervaded by the tell-tale smell of a potter’s life: the smell of combined fire, water, dust, and acrylic. In the back room exhausted artists fixed tea and coffee to keep themselves awake after a night where they, too, hastily priced their work (too cheaply) and loaded their cars. Some of them I had known since childhood, when my mother would bring me to the workshop–also, coincidentally, an old converted farmhouse–and I would bask in that same smell of fire and earth, standing as close as I dared to the blazing kiln mouths.
My mother was, and still is, unafraid of the heat. She must have had forearms of iron in those days, as much from lifting my baby sister onto her hip as from lifting bricks of clay.
I am now twenty-eight and my mother has cancer for the second time. I am trying to write about it, and returning to many of these old images: the tumours are like leavings of clay, trimmed away from pots and huddling beneath her skin. The veins in her arms are lines of blue glaze. Doctors apply heat to her cells, making her skin peel. When she goes to the countryside to fire work with her friends I wish I could be there as I would have been as a kid, drawing or writing in a notebook, learning to ‘make’. I demand photos, and they oblige with selfies of women in coveralls, gas-masks, and welding goggles, their dogs rambling about a safe distance from the fires.
She’s talked a few times about giving up pottery. Clay is heavy, kiln-firing is time-consuming, and in general the whole process is hard on the body. When I was younger I was appalled at the idea of my mother no longer being a potter, as in my mind that was a cornerstone of who my mother was. Of course, in those days I had yet to learn invaluable lessons about people being made of more substantial stuff than simply their career, and our parents being more than simply our parents. She hasn’t yet stopped mixing the elemens. She has made likenesses of my sister and I as queens of the sea and air: my sister is crowned with the tendrils of a squid, while I wear a wreath of crows. Also she makes stars of paper, and precious folded boxes, and gives them away to her hospital nurses who now recognize and regard her as a friend.
as a child my mother played in train yards
scooping red mud to form.
some clay got beneath her fingernails
and waited all these years.
It bewilders the doctor
and no trowel can dislodge.
But I heard the ground roar umbrage
as she pulled red clay,
and well I know it is the mud
of which she is made
and the clay
with which she made me.