I have a shard of pottery that is very old, an unevenly proportioned quadrilateral, about 3/8 of an inch thick, curved, with two stripes. I like to look at it now and again, to hold it in my hand. Life could not have been easy back in that potter’s day. so I wonder as I hold that shard what stirred the potter to go to the extra effort of putting those decorative stripes on it.
We all do this. We all occasionally have a yearning to do something beyond the call of duty. For some of us, that yearning results in extra chocolate chips in this week’s batch of cookies. For others, the result is an extra fearsome gargoyle face on a medieval cathedral, an imaginatively designed bridge, a symphony or even an especially clean bathroom at a highway rest stop.
It doesn’t really matter whether the stripes on this particular pot shard came from a moment of exuberance, I will certainly never know. But for a time, when the clay warms in my hand I think about that hand long ago that touched it too.
A letter in your mailbox. Thick textured envelope with a certain important heft. Hand addressed with the scrawl of someone you admire, perhaps love. The letter itself, line after line where the heel of a hand leaned firmly on the desk, the thumb and forefinger pressed either gently or tightly together to hold the pen. The middle finger has a callous bump from years of letter writing and that callous holds the indentation of the pen briefly when the writer lays down the pen to fold the sheets of paper. First the bottom folds up, then the top down, just so. The top intentionally does not meet the first fold. There is a gap of perhaps half an inch to allow you to open the letter without fumbling.
Then the letter is slipped into the envelope, perhaps smoothly or perhaps it catches on the corner fold of the envelope before the flap can close. The sender licks the strip of glue. It tastes vaguely sweet. The taste lingers. One must press down quickly and hold the flap in place so that the glue will not dry before sticking shut. Then the stamp – again that sweet taste. Although nowadays the stamps stick of themselves and do not require that final kiss.
Email can’t compare.
The essence of sewing is simple. The needle draws a thread up through both pieces of fabric, then down, then up so that if you should pull the pieces of fabric apart while the thread is loose there is a net of threads between them. But once the thread is pulled tight and knotted, if you do it right, there is no sign of stitches.
Instead the pieces of fabric merge and suddenly the shape of the whole has changed. What was two dimensional has now become three dimensional all through the work of needle and thread, eye and hand. Magic.
Those of us who were taught that asking personal questions is rude have to get over that scruple if they are to become writers. While I do believe that writers write best about what they know, the best writers are surely the ones who can reach outside themselves and learn to write the lives of people they will never meet.
So why not ask? What was the most important thing that ever happened to you? How did it make you feel? When in your life have you felt most loved? What were you doing at the loneliest time of your life? What human characteristic scares you the most? Why?
Truth is a slippery animal. I was reading a poster on an elementary classroom wall today which described how history is codified, through first hand observation and records, through newspaper accounts, through government records and statistics. But even a universally agreed upon truth is not necessarily true.
When I was a child, my sixth grade teacher explained that opinion is what you read in the editiorial page of a newspaper and fact is what you find in an encyclopedia. Simple and wrong.
Truth is a baby’s laugh.
Observing another person is so much easier than being that person. It is as though each of us has on a miner’s hat with a bright lamp on the front. We can see for some distance in any direction we turn our heads, but we cannot see ourselves. Only others can do that.
But as we look at others in the light of our lamps, we do not truly see them either. We see the outside only, clothing, hair, makeup, skin. A human’s heart shines in his eyes, but for the most part all we see when we look at another’s eyes is our own reflection.
My dog is old. Change bothers her more than it used to. Putting the clocks back an hour last week knocked her off kilter for several days. I would have thought that growing older and therefore increasing one’s list of new experiences would make one more able to shift balance and stay on top of the wave of life’s ocean. Instead, more often then not, we still fall off the surfboard.
The same wave never happens twice in an ocean. But if it did, would we still fall off? Or, would we take the knowledge we have, use it, and manage to stay upright? Perhaps that would be a disappointment in the long run. Falling is, after all, part of the experience.