On Clay and Conversation

By Catherine DiMercurio

So much of life depends on how you look at things.

I don’t mean seeing things from a different angle in order to guide yourself toward a more positive perspective. I mean new experiences sometimes hand you a metaphor and give you a way to contemplate something more deeply or fruitfully than you have before.

Recently, my daughter and I took a trial wheel-throwing pottery class. It was something we’d both wanted to try for a long time. I was nervous about investing time and money into a semester-long class without first having some idea about how I would feel about working with this medium, so the two-hour workshop format appealed to me.

On the drive over to the studio, I had a strange thought. I was feeling anxious and as I dug around in that feeling I realized part of it was because I did not want to disappoint the instructor, some person I’d never met before. Why on earth would I care about that? Maybe I didn’t want them to think that my inability to follow directions, or create “properly” meant that they were not doing their job well. I wanted to be a good student so they could feel like a good teacher. It was also part of my people-pleasing mentality. [The reasons people do this are varied and complex. Sometimes it is because we’ve lived with emotionally volatile people and we learn to not make waves. Sometimes it is because we need others to think well of ourselves since we have a hard time doing that on our own. This is often a result of us having internalized messages—religious, cultural, societal messages—in such a way that we feel it is necessary to prove that we are, in fact, good people.]

Still, I tried to shelve these ancient worries. I wanted to focus on having fun with my daughter and learning something new. I wanted to prove to myself that I could.

As it happened, my daughter and I were both feeling a little anxious, because it’s normal to feel that way when you’re trying out something you’ve never done before. But once we walked into the studio, met the owners and their dog, and toured the space, I began to feel more relaxed. Shelves of drying cups and bowls and vases, pale stoneware waiting to be glazed. Gorgeous curved and sumptuous shapes. Rows and rows of completed, glazed work, waiting for students to collect them. Oh, the glazes. I love glazes. I wish I had the vocabulary to describe them, understood their chemical composition. Reddish browns, honeyed golds, pale bronzy greens. It all washed over me. I felt both calm and exhilarated. I love that hard-to-come-by feeling.

I couldn’t wait to feel the clay beneath my fingers, to begin to see how it responded to the corresponding forces of my touch and the movement of the wheel. I’d watched enough of a British pottery competition program to imagine what it might be like but now I’d be getting my own hands dirty and trying it out.

One of the owners, Mike, sat down at the wheel and talked us through various processes and techniques. And then suddenly we were doing it. Mike helped when we weren’t sure if our clay was centered, or if a bowl was widening to the point of collapse. He was a good guide.

I wasn’t shockingly good at it for a beginner, though I really wanted to be! I may not have uncovered a hidden talent, but I also did not uncover the disaster I’d been fearing. This wasn’t gym class, and I wasn’t unbelievably horrible at it, as I was with most sports. Have you ever been so bad at something that people are embarrassed for you? Not fun. But here, in the studio, I did have fun, and so did my daughter.

There was some kind of perfect little relief in the newness of it all. A bliss in getting to believe in something else, a different kind of space, a different kind of making. I think my daughter and I both experienced that and it felt important to be able to share that with her.

In the days since the class, one of the things I’ve reflected on is the notion of conversation. Working with the clay, my hands had to be in conversation with one another. They didn’t simply work “together.” They worked in harmony and in response to one another. It is different than say, playing a musical instrument, where your hands are working together, but each is performing a separate task. In building a bowl on the wheel, my hands had to talk to each other, listen to each other, in order to create something together. It was impossible not to see this as a beautiful metaphor for what I hope to one day find in a relationship. If you are not working together, focused on the relationship you’re creating, it will not hold together, things will spin out of control. You must want the same thing. You might end up making something different than what you intended at the beginning, but you’re in on it together. And unless there is a cooperative, positive effort, it won’t be anything at all.

Because my brain works the way it does, I seized upon this metaphor and tried applying it retroactively to past relationships that did not turn into what I’d hoped they would. Maybe this was the way I could make sense of how things happened the way they did. The pottery metaphor provided an effective lens with which to view things and helped me to remind myself of why those things didn’t work out.  

I’ll be honest. Sometimes I need a new way to look at an old thing I’ve been turning around endlessly in my head. The ending of relationships is hard. Grief is real, full, and deep, no matter how much you believe that the ending was necessary. I often find myself reciting the stories and their endings back to myself, so I remember, so I don’t repeat past mistakes. So that, if I’m lucky enough to get a next time, I get to keep it. Grief takes up a lot of space in a heart. In a way, we remain in conversation with our grief, long after the loss that caused it.

Another thing about conversation is that in the past I’ve mistaken emotional or intellectual connection for emotional intimacy. It’s all about conversation, but they are not the same things. We have to look closely and see if what we are offering to our partner is what we are being offered in return. There were times that I was not actually having the conversation that I thought I was. Things take time to reveal themselves. People do. We all try to be the best versions of ourselves when we want something to work out. But we can’t keep that up indefinitely. And one person’s idea of something “working out” can be very different from another’s and in the absence of emotional intimacy it might take a while to figure that out. We may think we are building something with a partner, but unless we are in true conversation with one another, one hand might be trying to create a saucer while the other is trying to make a vase.

Another lesson here for me is about a new kind of open heartedness. It took a bit of pushing myself to decide to take this class. I must remember to do that sometimes, to nudge myself into action, into new ways of looking at things. I admire people who can jump into new things without the anxiety that sometimes holds me back. At the same time, I love that these experiences for me feel special, wonderous, even, given that it wasn’t easy for me to approach them.

We all come at the world and all it has to offer differently, but I don’t believe that there are methods that are superior to others. We go at our own pace and are rewarded in the ways that feel meaningful to us. And we learn the lessons we need to when we are ready for them.

After you make something at the wheel, it goes through many other steps. It air dries, then is trimmed, then dried in the kiln, and then glazed, and then fired once more. Or something like that. My daughter and I didn’t get to do those other steps—that is what the full class is for—but we did get to pick out glazes. I’m eagerly awaiting the call from the studio saying that our pieces are ready. Pottery, it seems, like everything else in my life, is trying to teach me patience.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to sign up for the full class, but the next session will begin in January, and meets for three hours on Monday nights. That’s a big commitment! But I think I’m intrigued enough to take it on.

Wishing you true conversation and a little bit of genuine bliss.

Love, Cath

Dog Days and Heart Breaks

By Catherine DiMercurio

When my dog Oslo was first diagnosed with cancer, I developed the notion that it was my fault. His diagnosis came about a year after my divorce was final: lingual malignant melanoma. The timing did not escape me. I knew somehow that Oslo had, on a cellular level, absorbed all the malignancies of my heart—all my grief, all my rage, all my fear. He had been at my side, as always, but especially during that really bad year when I cowered in a heap after the children left for school. I sobbed into his smooth brown fur and when I was exhausted and tried to rest, he curled up next to me, pressing the curve of his spine into the backs of my knees. That was the kind of support I needed during the divorce year, and Oslo knew just what to do.

Puppy Love

He was five at the time of the diagnosis. We got him when he was a smooth-bellied puppy, about five months old, according to the estimates of the shelter. They say he was a beagle-lab mix, but he did not look like his siblings, who were all beagle-sized but with the coats of black Labs and yellow Labs. Oslo was bigger. His brown fur was flecked with black, and the tip of his tail was black. His face had a sweet, beagle expression and he possessed the strong wide chest of a stout, muscular dog, most likely a pit bull, though no one wanted to write that on any official record of his.

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Just before the diagnosis, he had become excessively drooly and his mouth smelled foul. I presumed he had some sort of tooth decay, so I scheduled him for a cleaning. I assumed they’d have to remove a tooth. When Oslo’s long tongue hung from the side of his mouth as he panted anxiously during the examination, the vet discovered a walnut-sized tumor on the back of Oslo’s tongue. The results of the biopsy came back positive, and the vet recommended an oncologist so that we could discuss his prognosis and options. My vet tried to be optimistic, but he did tell me how aggressive this cancer was. I didn’t even know there were oncologists for dogs. At the appointment with the oncologist, they x-rayed his lungs, which were clear still, somehow. But that was pretty much the only good news. There was more—talk about the tumor that was removed, and margins, and lymph nodes. Basically I was told he had 30 to 60 days. DAYS.

Beating the Odds

But Oslo kept being fine. He was happy and eating and playing with the children and with our other dog, Phineas. For almost another two years, he was his sweet, normal, loving, devoted self. In that time, life around our house improved considerably. The initial trauma of the divorce and all of the life changes that came with it had evened out. Everyday life was different now for me, my daughter and son, and our two dogs. It was calm and predictable once again. Once your life isn’t being shaken up like a snow globe, the simplest things fill you with joy. Completing a task like getting your oil changed or going to your job and coming home, or being able to call the dentist to make an appointment and attend parent-teacher conferences on the same day was cause for celebration. I did two things! In addition to going to work! It sounds silly maybe, but after turmoil, there is such unbelievable delight in normalcy. And Oslo loved normalcy as much as I do. I think that kept him going. And maybe he needed to make sure we were going to be okay.

Meanwhile, the cancer was all still spreading within him, seeping from cell to cell and turning his body against him. An x-ray in this past fall confirmed it had spread to his lungs. His lymph nodes became enlarged. His eye began to swell with the pressure and became infected. He started to slow down. Once his breathing began to sound labored I knew we didn’t have much time, and the morning after a sleepless night for both of us was the morning I knew we didn’t have any time left at all.

My children are eighteen and almost sixteen. We’d talked very openly about all of this during the past two years, about everything that might happen and when it might happen, so they were as prepared as anyone could be, and none of us wanted him to struggle. In a way, then, we were ready. But, it really isn’t like that at all when you walk into the building with your family and realize that not all of you are walking out.

Goodbyes

There were lots of hugs and tears in that room that Sunday morning. A nice comfy, clean dog bed took up a considerable amount of floor space, but Oslo refused to get on it. So we all sat on the cold, tiled floor around him. He wouldn’t lie down, but finally at least he sat. The image that keeps returning to my brain is how he slid to the floor after he was administered the heavy sedation, known by anyone who has been through the process of witnessing a pet being euthanized as “the first shot.” The second shot is the one with the lethal medication that stops the heart. After the first shot, as Oslo slid to the floor in a deep, heavy sleep, I had the sense of time slowing. I keep seeing that long, slow slide and I remember trying to hold him and gently easy him down. In that prolonged moment Oslo was still with us, but not. We all had our hands on him, all three of us weeping with as much restraint as we could muster until the vet left the room. You can feel it happen, life leaving a body. You can feel your sweet, loving friend leave this world.

My missing of him is aggressive and sharp, like the taste of very burnt sugar in my mouth. It eases sometimes and I’ve stopped expecting to see him walking into the room. Mostly. Some days I still try to put his food in his bowl before I realize his bowl is no longer there.

Crying to a friend about losing Oslo, I extolled his virtues. I talked about how devoted to me he was, and how he followed me around the house, needing always to be wherever I was, and how he was always there for me. She reminded me of something else: I was always there for him. Even though I mourned the fact that I should have done more with him—more walks, more dog park, more treats, more attention—she said his life was better than it would have been because I adopted him and not someone else. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. I hope it’s true.

Doing Things That Break Your Heart

When I originally envisioned this blog, I thought of it as a series of “Twelve Things That Will Break Your Heart and Why You Should Do Them Anyway.” I didn’t know how to work that in but I knew it was in this context that I would be writing about Oslo. Loving a dog—adopting from a shelter, taking in a dog that someone needs to “rehome,” fostering, volunteering at a shelter—it doesn’t matter how you come at it. But it is one of those relationships that our language does not have the right words for. I didn’t mother Oslo in the way I mother my children, and I didn’t own him the way I own a pair of shoes, and I didn’t care for him in the way that I care for my friends. The way dogs and their people love each other doesn’t fall into any of the people-people or people-object categories. We don’t have useful, loving, warm words for interspecies companionship. For some of the most important relationships in our lives, language truly fails us.

Last week, I talked about being on the road, of recognizing and appreciating where you are and whom you are with. I hope your company includes someone like Oslo.

Enjoy the road. Love, Cath