Talking to Dirt | Odelia Kaly | The Hypocrite Reader

Odelia Kaly

Talking to Dirt


ISSUE 29 | FACES AND MASKS | JUN 2013

I spent forty-five minutes every day last semester trying to mold dirt.

It was a mandatory semester-long course, and took place during my last period of the day. By the time I got to the ceramics studio on the seventh floor of my high school at 3:25 pm, I was disgruntled and dragging both my literal and metaphoric feet. I tried to enter the class on the first day with at least a minimal level of enthusiasm and verve. After I arrived, it took me a long time to locate the teacher because he blended in with the crowd of students mulling around the room. The only thing that gave him away was the white lab coat he was wearing that had the name “Junior” half-embroidered, half-Sharpie’d on the breast.

This boy-man looked like—as a friend perceptively described him—a cross between a cockroach and a baby. The resemblance was simply uncanny. His voice even sounded like what would happen if a cockroach and a baby banded together to take over a man’s body and control his being. As soon as the late bell rang out its sonorous tone, he stopped fiddling with the various buckets of tools that were placed on the large table at the front of the room, and his somewhat squeaky yet still resounding voice quieted us.

“Hello, hello, hello. Welcome to ceramics. We are about to embark on a journey through time and space to explore the mysteries of the earth. Yes, the earth.” He picked up a wad of clay that had been sitting next to him on the table and held it up for us to see. “Ceramics is not merely an art form—it is life. Clay is more than an inanimate object; it will become your friend. You will speak to the clay, and it will speak back. You must converse with the clay, and it will love you.”

He spoke unhurriedly and enunciated every syllable. At first, I was entranced. He had a way of talking that was melodic and theatrical. The words he said were bizarre and new. This slightly insane man was a refreshing breath of strangeness and unfamiliarity. He seemed to be exhibiting his true eccentricity without caring whether or not his students thought he was a madman. I was fascinated by him. Mr. Zaffy. Even his name was ridiculous. Arnold Zaffy.

Mr. Zaffy had a reputation at our school for being all of the art students’ favorite teacher. I totally understood why. Up until the last month of the first semester, I was a little bit in love with him. Rather, I was in love with the idea of a person similar to him, and he just happened to fit some of the criteria. He was funny, friendly, and interesting, and once you got past the infant-bug resemblance, he was actually quite adorable. He was an artist, well-read, had an excellent vocabulary, and had impeccable articulation. I came to that class on time every day for several weeks in the hope that he would notice me and praise me for my punctuality.

 

I was quiet in ceramics. I had spent my summer in social isolation, speaking exclusively and briefly to family members and sometimes outsiders, but only on occasion. When I returned to school for my sophomore year, I thought I was ready to tackle it. I thought I had figured It all out, whatever It was. I had meditated and ruminated and calculated for three straight months—I knew myself by now. That’s what I told myself. I maintained that view, even as I was selecting my outfit for the first day of school and so blatantly tailoring my choices to what I thought would impress the boy I was utterly obsessed with and whose initials I had written on my wrist while in dry-eyed tears. I, who had garnered the status of the sartorially fearless fashion blogger in ninth grade, spent hours trying on different combinations of clothing, waiting for the a-ha moment to strike. The outfit I went to school in the next day was not me. The girl that hugged the aforementioned boy in the cafeteria, heart beating as though there were a bongo-themed rave going on in my chest cavity, was not me. It was the girl that I wanted him to fall in love with. Him, and Mr. Zaffy, and everyone else. I wanted everyone to love me.

 

I was listening to my iPod while trying to manipulate a block of clay into a perfect sphere. I had the volume up high and was focusing intently on the ball of clay in my hands. I wanted so desperately to create a perfect sphere, for Mr. Zaffy to laud my patience and craftsmanship. I heard voices around me, but paid them no heed. I didn’t expect anyone to want to talk to me. Then I heard my name being said loudly and being mispronounced, so I pulled out one earbud and looked up. It was the girl that sat directly to my right, Zara. Her full name was Yamazara, but she went strictly by Zara.

“Sorry, were you talking to me?” I spoke both softly and aggressively.

“Yeah. We were just talking about The Perks of Being a Wallflower and I asked if you’d seen it.” When she said ‘we’ she gestured towards the other people sitting at our table.

I pulled out the other earbud and pressed pause. “I did see it. I actually read the book twice, once in eighth grade and then again in ninth grade because I realized that the book took place exactly twenty years prior to my freshman year of high school. I read each letter as the days corresponded,” I replied.

“Wow, that’s so cool!”

“Yeah, it was fun. I liked the movie as a whole but I didn’t think Emma Watson was right for the part of Sam.”

“Oh, I totally agree.” No hesitation at all.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am completely in love with Emma Watson, I’ve seen almost every movie she’s ever been in and spend hours looking her up on the Internet, I just think they should’ve chosen someone more classically American because of who Sam is. Her accent wasn’t believable enough, for one thing.”

“Yeah, you’re so right.”

“I really liked Patrick, though. Ezra Miller is incredible. He should be in every movie ever.”

“Oh my God, yes! He’s so hot.”

“It’s more than that though, like, he’s just super talented.”

“Yeah, definitely.”

I felt like I was talking to myself at this point. Actually, my conversations with myself were more contradictory than that. I put my headphones back in and pressed play. Thom Yorke struck up again, wailing in my ears.

My hands were coated in a thin layer of dried-up clay. It felt the way scratching a fork across a blackboard sounds, and the way eating plain flour tastes. I rolled the clay around and around and around between the palms of my hands, then stopped and held it up to examine it. It wasn’t spherical. It was a wee bit oblong and cracked and not nearly perfect enough. I kept rolling it, moistening the clay with the spray water bottle, one of which was located on each worktable. The liquid made it feel slimy. I looked around and tried to take note of how other people were approaching the task. Everyone seemed to be doing some variation on what I was doing, rolling the ball in between their hands.

It took ten days for me to be pleased with my orb. I brought it up to Mr. Zaffy for the final test, and he inspected it very closely.

“Yes, yes...a few cracks here...very evenly smoothed, though...quite impressive...” he muttered. Suddenly his searching, puppy-dog eyes encased behind his classically dorky glasses locked into mine. “Congratulations. You may begin... thuh cyube.“ He used a voice that was reminiscent of a mix between a 1930s radio announcer and an alien. He raised my sphere in the air and let it drop with a disgusting smack on the table. It became distorted and flattened on the side that had made contact with the counter. Mr. Zaffy plucked it off the table, handed it to me, and walked away without another word.

 

The cube was infinitely more difficult than the sphere. The corners had to be crisp and sharp, and the faces had to be proportionally even. I banged it on the table in a pattern: one tap on each of the four sides and then one on the top and bottom. Every time I assessed the block of clay, it looked horribly deformed and ugly. At first glance it looked like a decent cube, but upon falling under my scrutinizing gaze it became overwhelmingly clear that it was just an impostor. It possessed a hexahedral shape nonetheless, but no matter how much I pressed my thumbs along the edges, or pinched the corners to make them pointier, my cube still made me sick with how imperfect it was.

“You could try this.” The girl sitting directly to my left rubbed each face of her cube back and forth on the table. Her voice was mouselike and infantile, as though she were a toddler in a fifteen-year-old’s body. I couldn’t help but wonder why she put on that fake voice, because there was no way that was natural. It sounded forced and sickly, sort of like that of a child prostitute.

I tried imitating this girl’s movements. “Thanks, Jenna,” I said, rubbing my clay vigorously, almost violently, across the black surface that was smeared with a muddy residue.

“No problem,” she said sweetly and wearily, and went back to work.

 

More time passed. I began to have panic attacks in my bed at night. I waited until I was in bed so that no one would hear me. I desperately hoped that my sister would walk into the room one night and ask me what was wrong. I cried even harder because I knew that would never happen, and if it did, I would just tell her I was fine.

I began to enjoy ceramics class, viewing it as a cathartic release at the end of my eight-hour school day. Pounding and manipulating the clay with my hands felt primitive and spartan. I didn’t have to talk to anyone if I didn’t want to, and I never wanted to. The only person I wanted to listen to was Mr. Zaffy, but he was too busy listening to Camilla. She only showed up a few times a week, but when she was present she flirted shamelessly with him. In passing she always talked about how “fucking annoying” she found him. She courted him for fun, because she didn’t have the patience to work with the clay the way I did. She was just bored. I became red in the face whenever Zaffy walked near me, the threat of the impending silence on my end creating a bubble of hot air around my body.

When we began working on our coil pots, I couldn’t manage to roll my coils out properly without them breaking or becoming deformed. Zaffy gave us a twenty-minute tutorial on the task the day he introduced the project.

“You must take your clay and sausage-ify it,” he began, squeezing his chunk of processed mud into a somewhat phallic shape. “Then, you must rrrrrroll it out into a coil using the ball of your hand.” He held up his right hand, palm facing outward, and began stroking it with his left hand. “You see,” he continued, “they are like little pads, similar to those on a dog’s paw.” A few cherubic giggles from Jenna, a stone face from Camilla, a dramatic pause from Zaffy. “Hypothetically, you could teach your dog to make a coil pot.” More widespread chuckling. A contented, far-away smile appeared on Zaffy’s face. We waited for him to say something else. “Alright!” he squeaked. “Get to work!”

I sausage-ified my clay. I rolled it out on the table, applying a small amount of pressure on the coil from the ball of my hand, the way he’d told us to, but it just flopped around. The middle became grossly skinny and fissured while the ends flailed pathetically an inch off the surface in uneven semicircular motions. I balled it up and tried again. Sausage, snake, all was going well thus far, until I started using both hands to elongate the coil, applying more pressure in my excitement, and ended up with more of a serpentine rectangular prism than a coil. I was able to create a single successful one by the end of my first week of coil-potting. As I began winding it around itself to form the base of my cup, each turn yielded new cracks until the whole piece crumbled into itself. I took my fist and smashed it. It felt like dry winter skin. It felt like my own dry winter skin. I smashed my failed coil pot because I was afraid everyone else would see the look on my face that gave it all away. Failure failure failure failure, the clay seemed to chant at me mockingly. Smash, and destroy the evidence.

 

“Dirty slut.”

“‘Bye, Dylen, see you tomorrow.”

I was intimidated by Dylen. She looked and acted like Kim Kelly from Freaks and Geeks. She wore a black choker everyday and always called me a dumb bitch, a dirty slut, or anything that came to her mind that was both insulting and degrading. I knew she was kidding, though. There was no reason for her to say these things to me except to take the elementary school I-like-you route of pretending to hate me. I found it amusing and called her a rotten whore right back. I noticed her fragility when she began painstakingly carving paisley prints into her coil pots. She spent weeks using a needle tool to etch the pattern into her leather-hard (this is a verified ceramics term) cups. I could see in her eyes how much she cared about the little details.

By mid-winter I had constructed two nearly-identical cups with ridges along the outsides to serve as resting spots for one’s fingers while cradling the vessel. I had scored and slipped the coils together, using an old crusty Metrocard to smooth the sides and push away the excess slimy mud.

I was wearing my purple scarf, I was hungry, and I was concentrating so hard on maintaining the symmetry of my clay pot that I drooled a bit. I wiped it away and pretended that nothing had happened. It was our little secret, just me, my scarf, and my cup. The three of us had a lot of little secrets. Everyone in that room had a lot of little secrets.

 

For several months I thought I was going to become homeless. I couldn’t pay attention in any of my classes and couldn’t breathe properly without simultaneously crying. That was obviously a sign that I had no business attempting to be a functioning member of society. I ignored the fact that I had a 97.5 average. I had no idea why anything I was doing in high school mattered if I was just going to end up a muttering bawling basket case on a sidewalk in Seattle. Why was I adding irrational numbers? Why did I need to know about the rotation patterns of electrons? Why the hell was I plunging my hands into blocks of processed mud in an attempt to make something? What was I even trying to make? All I could manage to do in ceramics class was dry out my hands and get gray dirt under my fingernails and white dust on my shoes. Everything was a bit fat joke in that room. Even the lotion was a joke. It wasn’t labeled as “lotion,” it was labeled as “lotion mixture.” Real fucking hilarious.

I walked around the studio, pausing by the window to look at the Manhattan skyline. All those people in all those buildings doing everything they possibly could and ending up with nothing at all, and doing nothing so they could have everything. People in suits thinking their expensive attire was enough to get the job done; people fretting over numbers, sitting in front of computer screens thinking their ability to get a raise was indicative of anything more than possessing a specific skill set; people rushing down the street to avoid being late, when Time didn’t even exist and being “late” didn’t make any sense. I was aware of my body moving around on this planet full of fabrications, but I watched from a safe distance, hovering above everything material and solid. I wasn’t sure what part of me had left my corporeal self, but I knew that it was Me, observing and questioning and causing internal riots because I didn’t understand why the piece of flesh that I lived inside of had anything to do with who I was.

I left in the middle of classes to go sit in the bathroom and read “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg from my pocket edition, hoping to extract some semblance of an answer. I stared at the walls of the stall and wondered how long I could stay there before someone noticed I was gone.

 

A boy named James sat a bit further down the worktable from me, next to a quiet Asian girl with perpetually greasy hair named Yang. I sometimes heard James talking quietly to her.

“Do you like parties?” he asked her.

“No.”

“Do you like movies?”

“Depends.”

“Do you wanna hang out?”

“I don’t know.”

Nothing more was said between them. I went up to James after class. I had known him from a few of my classes the previous year. He was an attractive, well-known kid. “James, why are you hitting on Yang?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Okay, I totally heard you asking her to hang out. Is that, like, a joke or something?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I genuinely enjoy Yang’s company,” he said with a suppressed smile playing on his lips, displaying endearingly gappy teeth.

He could have any girl he wanted, I thought to myself. Why was he going after near-mute Yang? He could have anxiety-plagued me instead. He waved at me every so often in the hallways and only spoke to Yang every other week or so. I didn’t understand why he was playing with both of us, and how he had no idea that he was doing it, and why any of us cared.

 

I had waited all semester to learn how to throw on the pottery wheel. I got on my denim smock and prepared my materials. I needed a bucket of moderately muddy water, a large dirty sponge, a needle tool for fine details, a fettling knife for cutting away chunks, a few ribbon tools for trimming, and a whiffle-ball sized lump of clay. I learned from watching Zaffy’s demonstration that the first thing I needed to do was get in the proper throwing position: feet on floor with knees bent ninety degrees (sitting on a stool in front of the wheel), elbows on knees for support, and hands at the ready. I dipped my hand in my sludge water and placed it around where I thought the center of the bat, or plate, might be, then pressed the pedal to start the bat spinning and dragged my hand outward, creating gray spirals, allowing me to locate the center point. I took my ball of clay and slammed it onto that point as accurately as possible (hence the term “throwing”), shimmied it around a bit to center it, dunked both my hands in the water, and cupped them around the clay. I started up the pedal again and pressed gently with the heels of my hands to shape it. My lump grew taller and danced upward, forming itself into an inverted cone. Hands dipped again because I liked the slippery feel of the clay running in circles between my fingers. I took my right thumb and pushed it into the middle of the head, watching excitedly as the bowl seemed to open itself to me. More water, both thumbs go inside the hole with the eight remaining fingers holding the outside to stretch it. It’s all a game of pulling and pushing and playing with gravity and velocity.

The mesmerizing circular motions of the spinning wheel let my mind wander. I began to drift back to my unhopeful daydream of rucksack bums meandering along various countrysides and highways. I saw people with dark wrinkly skin from working in the sun for too many years shuffling around a kitchen bathed in a wash of solar light and dust suspended lazily in the air. The table was set with glazed ceramic bowls filled with hot soup. The cups were squat brown mugs containing black coffee. Everyone sat in contented silence, smiling at one another and not saying anything. I saw a heftily built man wearing muddy jeans and a sweaty tee shirt in a city in New Mexico sitting down in front of a pottery wheel and throwing himself a bowl that he could eventually put things in. I saw small children squatting in vast expanse of gunmetal gray mud as it rained, grabbing handfuls of the stuff and dropping it with resounding plops into buckets.

What was I doing, imitating someone’s necessary activity of creating dish ware as a pastime? I was training to be an artist, not someone who needed to make their own bowls. I was in a high school for artists and I was learning nothing about how to be an artist. The bulk of my time was spent trying to hammer equations and dates into my brain that was overcrowded with anxiety, which I masked entirely from everyone but myself and my notebook. Even at my worst, no one could read it on my face. But the clay felt it. It felt the lies radiating from my skin. It felt the verbose falsity of Zaffy’s speech. It felt the longing for acceptance oozing from Zara’s impatient fingers. It felt the fear of real life in the sound of Jenna’s pseudo baby voice. It felt the attention-seeking flirtations in Camilla’s violent touch. It felt Dylen’s secret nervous snail self seeping through her meaningless insults. It felt the painful lack of seriousness in James’s words. None of us believed Mr. Zaffy when he told us that we would converse with the clay. We didn’t have to utter a sound for it to know what we wanted to say, what we would say if we weren’t afraid of the Whole Wide World that those words would inevitably float into, a place where anything is fair game for needless judgement.

The potter can look at a ceramic vessel and recognize the true core of its being: dirt. The clay can feel the potter’s anger, frustration, confusion, lethargy, fear. The two can see beyond the other’s fortresses of falsehoods. Humans layer mask upon mask over everything we are and everything we do until the reality is lost, and all that’s left is a vague memory of how things ‘used to be.’ There is nothing as real as the earth itself, and nothing as fake as the people inhabiting her. We must strip down the curtains, break down the walls, tear apart the clothing, peel off the paint, and rip off the masks, and eventually we will see what the earth is trying to tell us.