Centrifugal Force

aspiring potter.

Centrifugal force: an object traveling in a circle behaves as if it is experiencing an outward force.

Clay and turpentine. Smells of my childhood. A stuttering girl with long braids and a red skateboard. I’d sail up and down the polished concrete floors of Studio West as if its cavernous classrooms and halls were my personal playground. They were. While my father taught his students to make prints, the other art professors became my babysitters, the classrooms my playrooms. My favorite, the pottery studio.  If I was lucky I’d be handed my own hunk of fresh clay, its coolness and weight a reliable comfort in my small hands. The clay smelled like ancient earth, drudged up from beneath spongy forests and black rivers, where brainless creatures tunnel in darkness, tiny miners of air.

As the clay spun under the dewy nest of my palms, it warmed and softened, as if a large stone could melt under human pressure. I’d dip my thumbs into the center and a mysterious force would widen and transform the mound, again and again.  The rise and fall of a thousand worlds. The clay was a living thing. It breathed through my fingertips, morphing through a lifecycle – beyond larva into…what? Who knew? I sat happily at the wheel until thick grey liquid dripped down my arms and coated my saddle shoes.

Soon my family, like poorly thrown clay on a wheel, would form an abnormality, wobble and tear apart. “A broken home,” people used to say, and I’d imagine little clay people and a little clay house shattered on the floor.

Years later, a Master Potter would lean over the soggy disaster on my pottery wheel and advise, “sometimes you just have to give up, the clay becomes too overworked and the more you try the worse it gets.” My parents divorced and slid down into what seemed to be some great chasm, an invisible hole where I could still hear their voices and feel their presence, but they were out of reach. We were broken.

I shifted silently back and forth between new families like a ghost. I suddenly had brothers and a sister, a new step-mother, a new step-father. It was as if these strangers had been hiding in our attic all along, waiting for us to break so they could finally come down and put their things inside our dresser drawers and closets. At dinners with the new step-strangers I was always asked how my day was. “Ffffine,” I’d say. Always fine. Nothing more. I never touched clay again.

Not until last month.

I have tried to keep my own family, my husband and son, cocooned from the betrayals of my youth. I’ve carefully worked the clay of my adult life, methodically spinning it into something beautiful, laws of gravity holding us down, but also together. My own universe, perfectly and inexplicably orbiting a single star. No abnormalities. No wobbles or tears. But sometimes a meteor can come out of nowhere and just like that, you’re extinct.

Not a deathly meteor, but a streaking star crossed time and landed into my hands, cool and dense.  Still so familiar. The smell alone instantly tugging my memory like my once toddler son tugging at my jeans, “Over here Mamma, remember this? Come on, this way! Remember how much we used to love this?”

I held the clay in my hands, a lost grey bird had navigated its way back. As it began to spin, a gush of images surged from my fingertips to my mind. My hands are once again a little girl’s, the clay full of wonder. Possibilities boundless as behind a child’s closed eyes. My foot barely reaches the petal of the wheel. Black and white saddle shoes and tights smudged grey. Flying on my red skateboard. Hanging from my father’s pants leg, laughing, I climb him like a mountain, I pull at his beard, he kisses my hand, tickles me until I fall still laughing onto his paint splattered studio floor. Drying prints hang everywhere. All around me wet ink, tubes of oil paints ooze every shade of meadows, wild orange skies, chrysanthemums and lilys. I look back down at my hands, now adult. All they have created and touched and held since then. Half a lifetime of sensations, hands held, hands let go.

I glanced up at my new pottery classmates and wondered what their stories were, some had that same hypnotic look above the spinning wheel, maybe they had come home too.

The Master Potter quietly stood behind me, then he bent over my wheel, placed his purposeful hands over mine. “Do not hesitate” he said, and pressed his palms down over my hands, then expertly guided me to push the clay up into an obelisk, which formed a little cloud on top, “force the abnormalities up to the top, pinch them off, then guide the clay back down and it will be centered.” He pinched off the little cloud which held the abnormalities within it like rain, and then his thumbs confidently pressed the clay down into a perfectly symmetrical form, a dome with its top removed, ready, centered. I never had a formal lesson as a child and now I realized  that this act of centering the clay, forcing the abnormalities out so it can become a thing of beauty, no wobbles, no tears, is what I had been trying to do my whole life.

A week later I got a stomach ache as I was heading to bed. An hour later I began violently throwing up.  By midnight I told my husband that I may need to go to the ER. “Food poisoning,” he announced after googling vomitting and stomach cramps, not hiding the knowledge in his face that I am prone to hyperbole, “you’ll feel better in ten hours.” Ten hours, I thought, I’ll be dead by then. But maybe I was being dramatic, no one dies from throwing up, maybe food poisoning feels this bad. By 3:00 AM I was laying on the cool white tile of our bathroom floor muttering helplessly to myself. “Just make it stop,” I whispered to the air, to no one. The Universe had gone silent. My husband had gone back to bed, my son slept peacefully in the next room. I breathed in, breathed out. That was all I had left in my lonely nightmare on the cold floor, “breathe,” I think I said out loud, “you’re alive.” My abdomen heaved outward like a yeasty loaf of bread in a hellish oven. I waited to feel better, waited for ten hours to pass.

But morning brought no comfort. The pale light shone spectral and horrid. Had I really been vomitting the entire night? I shut my eyes and tried to remember the day before. Reading in the velvet blue chair by the wood stove, roasting a chicken with onions and purple carrots, parallelograms of light gliding across the walls as leaves crackled outside, Fall air crisp and sweet as apples. Had I realized how extraordinary that day had been? All days seemed to now lead to this moment. Had I appreciated all that beauty? I remembered my pottery class. The nostalgic and dizzying spin of the wet clay beneath my fingers, diving my thumb into the center and watching a bowl open up, fold in, grow into a goblet, “I made something!” I had boasted excitedly before it wobbled and collapsed back into a mushy heap. I hadn’t mastered centering yet, and now, would I ever?

Twelve hours later my inflamed and infected appendix was removed. “You were lucky,” the doctors all said. I lay in a hospital bed as an imaginary hand gently shut my eyes, an imaginary voice told me I was more than fine. I had always been more than fine. I was alive. The murderous nausea was gone and I slept as if sleep was all there was.

When I awoke I thought of the clay the potter had centered beneath my hands. Then, although it almost hurt to do it, I smiled. What if all my internal abnormalities had been pushed to my appendix, and then snipped off just like that tiny cloud above the obelisk of clay? What if I could now live life without hesitation, without wobbling, without breaking. What if I was centered, poised to transform, to become, to create. What if I was fixed? I felt the great spin of a potter’s wheel within my pulsing heart.

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