At the pottery studio there is a lot of talk about nothing and everything. Things just get blurted out over the wedging board amid the drama of a room filled with 10 strangers. Some sit at the wheel, some are at the sink, rinsing tools or refilling water. I always seem to be traversing the studio in order to wash my hands, as clay dries chalky and takes away all my sensations. In breaking the stillness, there is all the more likelihood for peril.
There was a girl there, a woman, really. I barely knew her, and would remember her work better than her face. Once we had a conversation about God by the glazing table. I was hot from writing my newest essay, “God and Shoes”. My mind was held hostage by a mad pursuit of a magazine that would publish it.
Parenthetically, it is my duty to interrupt this essay and inform all who are reading (my fellow potters as well): My husband watches Fox news.
Our TV is a harlot. She shows favoritism to this man who remains my beloved partner in life by allowing her channel to lay here by default – that is, when I am too lazy or too distracted to make a stink. One morning, however, as part of the background chatter, I heard something intriguing. Fox and Friends mentioned a book that’s causing a stir, about atheism on the rise, not just ‘I’m minding my own business and fail to believe in anything” agnosticism, but atheism as a movement. I might have been mistaken, but I left for the day with the impression that the atheists had formed an army whose sole mission was to convince others to wipe out one’s freedom to believe!
Now it just so happens that this is one of my button pushers. I am pretty simple when it comes to giving my opinion. In short, I don’t. I don’t just withhold it. I actually don’t have one. It was part of growing up in a household around people who always had to be right. I ended up making myself invisible.
But somehow, one free radical in my psyche got away and the only strong beliefs I actually came to possess anchored deep down in absolute truth. I believed that nobody could prove the obvious to be wrong. I managed to make it all the way through middle age without testing this supposition. During my childhood, I spaced out through family dinner conversations about Nixon, Ford and Reagan. In college, I snuck by Amnesty International tables without looking up (occasionally I copied a letter to a dictator onto a postcard and signed my name) and like a student afraid to be called on in class, I passed the prime of my life without ever engaging in one political exchange.
To explain this tacit indifference, I recently authored a limited edition book entitled I Am Simply Not Interested in the World. In it I touch on a pervasive feeling of sadness - not self-involved sadness - but a sadness that mourns what it sees as broken in the world, a sadness that is so sad it is just too immobilized to move into action.
All these years, I have hidden in the thicket of deference to others, assuming it served as an effective camouflage. I was so concealed, I didn’t even see myself. Little was I to know that opinions exist as part of human instinct. Just because they are hushed doesn’t mean they are not there. Eventually somebody’s radar picks them up.
On this day, armed with Fox News making God the topic of the day, I headed toward the Pottery Studio, loose lipped, with a false sense of ease that my views were in good company.
I was feeling rather abstracted as I stared at my naked pots aligned on the table and pondered how I would dress them in color. I chatted with the woman beside me, about who knows what, and somehow excitedly landed at a recap of my “God and Shoes” essay which had just received the best rejection letter of all time. It was a personal letter from an editor of a renowned magazine, complementing the piece and requesting additional writing for her consideration. I was basically showing off about how the magazine liked my article. I wanted to believe the letter represented that I was an intellectual in my real life. As I rambled on about my theories on God in the essay, something made me look at myself from above. “Not that I am a fanatic!” a voice boomed in the cement space. It was mine.
Because really now: who mentions God in a social situation without sounding evangelical?
I have always wanted to be a writer. This has been my ‘thirsted for’ identity - more than an artist, that is. This was what I was really trying to communicate to my pottery acquaintance as we later reconvened by our cubbies, moving our heads and hands in and out of the negative space, draping the day’s damp clay creations with dry cleaner plastic. It’s a funny thing being adult classmates, not really knowing each other’s names. The camaraderie of fellow potters working simultaneously is like a grown up sandbox in which we parallel play. Although we do not collaborate, we function better for each other’s company. Unbeknownst to this woman, our conversation was deep seated, and more about ‘Me’ than God. As our sentences trickled off, my telling and her listening dangled like a live wire.
Newly electrified, a political newbie in a sophistic world, I moved on to a more heightened subject matter, my emotionally fraught views on Israel and the Middle East. Later that week, when I discussed the possible merits of the Iraq War with fellow studio potter, middle aged Frieda, my heart started pounding as things went awry. As we began, her black hair was teased in a pouf that framed her friendly face. Yet as we debated, her expression became painfully serious and mine equally uncomfortable. We had ventured into a Bermuda Triangle of acquaintanceship, weathering a storm of discordant political views. After that conversation, the awkwardness between us remained, even when I ran into her in the supermarket.
As if I hadn’t learned my lesson, a few days later, I continued on to an even more menacing sojourn - this time with fellow studio potter, Margie the nurse, whose sarcasm always manages to turn funny-at-your-expense. Although her quick wit is alluring, I might venture to say that I find her to be one of the most dangerous-to-disagree-with individuals I have ever met. This made her treacherous for me to debate, as I have limited experience voicing my opinion nonetheless defending it. Yet I plummeted forward, in the name of feeling right. And so in this regard, I was a danger to myself.
Which brings me to the question, is it better to keep your opinions to yourself? Is it better for everyone to share the seeming nature of peace, the plastic-coating? Be true to the purpose, I always remind myself. Socialization is a mere by-product of the Studio. As a space designated for creating and learning, politics have no place here. They can only get in the way.
Yet I can’t take it back, nor can I let it go.
The dynamics are all too tempting. In the Studio, we are relaxed and primed for talk, sensing that in this culture of goodwill we will all agree. Yet when the differences between us get fleshed out, we become raw meat on the bone, our charged issues in plain view too tempting to not be fodder for the other.
When I return home from my conversation with Margie, I placate myself with self-talk. It is natural that I find it so objectionable to be disagreed with, for life or death is at stake. I have particular passion for the plight of Israel. Terrorists blow themselves up in marketplaces, city buses. They even shoot at school buses. They killed my friend’s husband, a father of 6, who was escorting children to school one morning. Death and Fear in a country I believe in, a country I covet, a country I believe in protecting. I want to pounce all over those on the left who believe there is little culpability on the Arab side. Margie looked up at me and asked, “Why is it that I should care about Israel?” I was dumbfounded. She was merely reflecting how millions, even perhaps trillions of people in the world felt. But she wasn’t right. It was my internal truth rising up from my depths. She didn’t get it, yet I couldn’t explain it. And here I was a forty seven year old kindergartner in grown up shoes incapable of a good debate.
In this vein, there was one man left in the Pottery Studio whom I remained in danger of confronting. He sat at the last wheel, at the end by the sinks. As I arrived to one session, he glanced up at me and flashed two rows of piano key teeth in the form of a friendly but non-committal smile. I had filed away a push pull feeling about him from one group conversation. Across humming potter’s wheels, I overheard that he was a Middle East expert. “At Yale?” I had interjected, looking up, “No,” he answered. Perhaps he added that he was a columnist or working on a book while his wife is in graduate school. I didn’t hear.
I must note that what offended me that day was said as part of friendly conversation. I had relayed to him that my ancestry was made up partly of Jews from the city of Aleppo, Syria. He said that he had in fact visited Aleppo, a place where my ancestors had lived since the 15th century. When I questioned him about the beauty of the city and expressed idealized interest in traveling there, he recommended, “You should go!” I politely quipped, that as a Jew in Syria, I would simply be shot or imprisoned. Then his words hit hard. Here I was having a loud dialogue across a row of potters, heads hunched over spread legs and hands soaking in the meditative spinning of the clay. Had he just responded that I should simply not say that I was Jewish or from Israel? Simple as that? Not, oh how unjust it is that Jewish people are not allowed to return to a place where they had lived for millenniums amid a massive community that now lies vacant but for squatters. My insides curdled up towards my chest, like a man before he rises up in defense of slighted honor. My foot hit the pedal too fast. I tried to hide my feelings and I stopped the wheel short. The pot I had been trimming flew onto the floor, cracking in pieces. Our public conversation of not so public feelings had been a disaster, at least for me. I glanced over at him. He hadn’t even noticed at first, but then he looked up, vacantly offering his toothy grin and quickly shifting his attention back to his ‘throwing’.
I went home feeling mortified. I do not realize that all the years spent devoid of opinion belie decades of fearfulness and perhaps most of all, rage. But deep down I wonder if I should just go back to sleep and be sad for the planet as it is and all that it isn’t?
The ‘Me’ who is ‘Too Me’ is a problem. Rears its ugly head. Has no place among others. I’ve been hiding out as a grotesquely opinion-less no one in a culture where everyone seems to take a stand. My venture out of the closet was freeing but dangerous. I felt the impulse to be right so desperately. I felt unbridled passion for what I was only first discovering I believed.
Without opinions, I realize, I remain like my TV harlot, a vessel for other people’s venue. Yet holding firm to my views, I am as hard as fired clay. I say whatever I think after years without practice to hone my skill. It doesn’t seem to go over well…to say the least. And this is why I’m a danger – to myself, to the public – to small communities like The Pottery Studio, or even more amorphous communities like Open Salon. Like an inexperienced driver who careens the wrong way down a one way street, the crash is unavoidable. The alienation inevitable.