Saturday, July 2, 2011

Soul Weather: April

A swift and early spring had been promised, and in the coffee shop where she worked early mornings, Lee diligently watched it open like a reluctant door on people's moods, revealing their better, more cheerful and sociable selves. Suddenly there were questions and observations where before there had been sleepy, sullen walls. They admired the cherry red streak in her spiky black hair. They asked about her artwork, though most didn't know she was a potter. Two years ago, when she was taking her undergrad print-making class, her boss had let her hang some of her etchings on the walls of the shop in between the sleek reproductions that fetishized lattes and cappucinos that promised sophistication, modernity, and clarity. The etchings stayed up for a long time; people liked them because they were neither offensive nor jarring like “a lot of the stuff you kids make,” but they were unwilling to pay for them or live with them. They looked antique from a distance, as etchings do, but they showed gameboys and cell phones and blackberries, morphed slightly so they looked like a continent where one might write “Here be monsters” or “The doldrums of connected boredom.” These were ringed round by ornamental earbuds and tangled cords like the scrolled decorations on old maps. So she'd finally taken them home, though “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?” was a pick-up line she hadn't yet had occasion to use.

      In turn, she told the friendlier regulars a little about her thesis project and show. “Teapots? A Japanese teapots with an atomic bomb exploding out of the lid?” There wasn't time between the noisy steaming of milk, making of espresso, and pouring of coffee to explain her ideas about teapots. She would have liked to; she'd have liked trying to explain it to one person who wasn't an artist or a student in fine arts, to see whether her ideas were clear, to see whether they had a strong spine—never mind the subtle detours only for her supervisor.

     The other vantage for watching spring unfold had been the pottery studio in the Riddell Centre at U of R. The enormous space with its wall of windows onto the Academic Green was probably the accomplishment of Jack Sures and the long tradition of fine clay work in the university that grew up in the sixties when everyone wanted to be anti-establishment: a peacenik, a vegetarian and a potter. As she made teapots, she watched each trace and tincture of green spread daily like watercolour on damp paper. Some trees, she realized that spring, seem to put out spurts of seeds before they grew leaves. She jealously thought of them as the optimists of the tree world.

     Pacing is crucial for a potter, particularly for a potter with a deadline. The pot should grow out of the clay and one's hands with enough “vigour and certainty,” thought British potter Bernard Leach (one of Lee's gods), “to give vitality to the rhythms of a pot.” But speed stopped there. You had to wait for the work to be leather hard before you could trim it and shape the foot; this took several days in the damp room. Then it had to be slipped, bisque fired in the kiln, glazed, and fired again. The success of each phase depended on the craftsmanship of the previous one; a little clumsiness or carelessness early on made bigger problems later. So Lee had made her work schedule carefully, added ten days to it, counted backwards, and watched the early spring unfurl with reservations. It was a crap shoot, predicting an early spring. She didn't ever trust the odds

     One evening, she’d taken Tara’s late shift; Lee needed the money, as always, and Tara needed—there was a bit of euphemism here—a date. Tara had warned her to take a book or some homework; the last half hour, at least, was dead. Roca Jack’s did most of its business in the morning, with people walking to work, or in the afternoon when the guys from CMHA camped out front, sometimes even in the winter, to feel the sun on their faces, contemplate the southern sky, and try to create a little space of sanity with their careful conversation.

     Tara was right; Lee had brought her laptop since she was still struggling with her artist’s statement. Maybe a different time and space would help her make a leap she was struggling to express. She sat facing the doorway so she could see anyone coming in and snap back into her role as barista. She read what she’d written, a sorry first paragraph, and then stared out onto Thirteenth Ave in the dark:

"The pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles, attempting to explain the creation of the world around him, theorized that it consisted of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. According to his theory, the form these elements take is determined by whether the world at that moment was dominated by the forces of Strife or Love. Earth, water, air, and fire are also the elements necessary for the making of pottery, a practice that, because it goes back nearly 30,000 years, might be said to represent the nexus of the basic human need to carry water and cook food and the perhaps equally basic need to create beauty. Given the similar sources in Empedocles’ cosmogony and the creation of pottery, it seemed intriguing to...."

This last sentence won’t do; it’s not enough to be intrigued, but that’s what she was and is. Empedocles. How does she even say his name? How does she explain that she’s only read fragments of Empedocles, because that’s all we’ve got, plus some commentary on his ideas in Aristotle and Plato. She was just curious about what Empedocles, with his theories about the very elements that are crucial to what she loves to do might say about what she makes out of clay, about a bowl one wants rest in the curve of one’s hands or a plate one wants to throw through a window. It turns out that he says quite a lot. You can explain a lot of human nature by thinking about the poles of strife and love. Sex? Yeah, even sex sometimes. She still can’t justify the connection she wants to make between her teapots and Empedocles, except to say she was curious. Her supervisor won’t be happy.
     She stood up and went to look out the doorway just as a young man riding a bicycle with a potted orchid in the curve of his arm turned left off Albert and pedaled by Roca Jack’s. She smiled. Strife or love, she wondered, as she turned back to her computer

Soul Weather is, in some ways, my love song to Regina, so I've left place names and the names of people intact for now.  Does anyone know how I do this when I come to publish the novel?  Do I have to go to the owner to Roca Jack's and ask permission, or should I change the name and simply let the details point the reader's way?  Any other advice?  Do readers need more information on things like bisque firing?


  1. I really enjoyed reading this! I'm loving all the details of Regina. I think readers familiar with the city would know which places you're referring to even if you had to change the names.

    The narrator is really interesting.. 3rd person with some distance but inside Lee's head at the same time.

    Re: Bisque firing. I'm not sure it needs more details. I'm not familiar with its technique, but the term "kiln" helps to secure it in more colloquial footing, perhaps.

  2. Thanks for reading, Cassidy. And thanks for responding. You can help me, I'm sure, to get the younger voice right. I'm writing dialogue this morning and struggling. Would you like to be on my list of people who get whole chapters by email? The help of a young writer would be amazing. You'd make it into my acknowledgements!

    I'm hoping that the world of pottery seems full enough that people will be patient while they get the lingo down.