Maker’s Day 4

Each Wednesday on the blog, I’ll share a small prompt as food for reflection. Maybe you’ll also find it inspires you to make some art.

This week’s prompt is a musical one: Frederic Chopin’s “Ocean” Etude, performed by Lithuanian pianist Lukas Geniusas. What does it conjure up for you?

Musical Motivation

If you’re a writer, do you like to listen to music while you work? For me, that used to be a hard no. I love music, but I used to need all the quiet I could get when I was writing, to get myself into the right head space.

Things have changed a little over the last couple of years. When I started working on my big rewrite of Fourteen Stones, in the spring of 2020 right as Covid was turning things upside down, I needed some help to “stop thinking so hard” and get past some creative blocks. Last week I posted about how writing in general was pretty hard for me then. I wanted to do it, but my mental health was a big challenge. It didn’t work too well to sit in silence at my computer and try to will myself into the world of the story; that was overwhelming and scary, and I would give up pretty fast. Instead, I tried something new: making a playlist of songs I thought would help me get out of my head.

I’m a classical musician. Listening to and playing classical music has been a huge help to my mental health, especially when I’m having high anxiety. To help me get back into Fourteen Stones, though, I found myself thinking about other kinds of music, mostly favorite pop tunes going back to when I was in junior high. The playlist I eventually came up with was pretty eclectic, with everything from the Temptations and Genesis to Vance Joy and Maroon 5. (You can definitely laugh at some of my song choices; so do I. 😉 ) Since Fourteen Stones is set in a fictional world, in a time period that doesn’t parallel our 20th or 21st century, my playlist wasn’t meant as a real soundtrack for the story. (My husband, who’s a composer, has been working on a real soundtrack for it, which I hope to share as we get closer to launch!) Instead, the songs I picked each had some kind of emotional resonance or energy that got me headed in the right direction.

Today I thought I’d share three of the ones I listened to when I was working through that rewrite. They helped cut through my anxiety and resistance, and made it much easier to dive back into my created world and get to know my characters again.

Oldest first: “Follow You, Follow Me,” by Genesis. This was maybe my first-ever favorite song; I fell in love with it when I was in sixth grade. Revisiting it was a kind of personal anchor. Fourteen Stones also has a love-story angle that this song fit with well (at least in my head).

Another favorite was “Exes and Ohs,” by Elle King. Very different energy. 😉 This was on the radio a lot a few years ago, when I was writing the very first drafts of what would become Fourteen Stones. I usually listen to the radio when I drive, and when this song came on, I’d turn it up for an energy boost.

And finally for this sampler, “Sorrow and Joy,” by Indigo Girls. This was a tougher one. In the summer of 2019, a friend of mine passed away very suddenly. I first heard this song a few months later, and found it hard to listen to, but at the same time, it had a lot of resonance.

The revision-playlist trick was so helpful that, when I started writing a new book this past fall, I made up another playlist to help push me through the first draft. That book, Nicky True, is set in 1945, but my playlist mostly taps music from the ’60s and ’70s. I found that, again, it was less about the time period or making a “soundtrack” for the story than about finding songs that had the right kind of energy for me. I’m using the same playlist again as I dig into revisions of that draft.

If you’re a writer or another kind of creative artist, what supports your process? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

As always, thanks for visiting the blog. If you could use a little creative inspiration, please stop back tomorrow for our weekly Maker’s Day prompt!

Music for reflection

I had a different post planned for today, but in light of what happened in Texas two days ago, it feels more appropriate to share this music. We’ve seen far too many of these acts of terrible violence. I don’t know how change is brought about, how we break free of the stranglehold of business-as-usual in this country and start placing greater value on the safety and well-being of our children, the safety of our public spaces, and compassion and empathy for one another. It can’t be impossible.

These are rough recordings I made, that I’d like to share as a space for contemplation. Thank you for listening.

Etude-Tableau in G minor, by Sergei Rachmaninoff

The Maiden’s Song, by William Byrd

Piano Thoughts

I’m no expert at blogging (as folks who’ve been following this blog know!). Getting back into the swing of it, I’m following random thoughts that might turn into a post…

Tomorrow I have a performance with the piano trio I joined right before Covid started. In the winter of 2019 (feels like a very long time ago, doesn’t it?), I was dealing with some personal challenges and had decided the best way to keep moving forward was to stay busy. Two friends of mine, a violinist and a cellist, wanted to form a group and perform together. In “saying yes to all the things” mode, I jumped in.

Balancing writing and music can be tricky. When I’m working on a big writing project, like a novel, I often don’t want to do anything but stay at my computer for as long as the words keep coming. Then, when the project ends, I can go for stretches without writing anything. Music needs a much more consistent approach. If I don’t play for a while, my fingers don’t cooperate and I have to build up strength and precision all over again. (Middle age is also a factor there…)

Our trio was ready to start performing in the spring of 2020. We had concerts lined up, and then Covid hit, and it all went away. Suddenly there was no music anywhere.

Like so many of us, I did some professional pivoting. The piano lessons I’d taught pre-Covid had stopped too, but I started teaching writing online, and found out that as much as I love my classroom, Zoom was kind of cool. In the spring of 2020, I gave Fourteen Stones a big overhaul, a joyful process that helped me stay sane. Through the next two years, I swung pretty much 100% over to my writer side.

When things started to open up again last summer, and the trio wanted to get back together, I hesitated a LOT. I didn’t feel “like a pianist” anymore, and I wasn’t sure I could give enough, mentally or physically, to make the music what it deserved to be. But we started playing again, and pretty soon we’d booked a few concerts. Our first one was at the end of March. The concert tomorrow will be our third.

It’s been a challenge. Going into the first concert, I didn’t remember how to get my brain into “performance mode.” For me, a good performance has always involved getting into a specific zone, mentally and physically, where I can get past chronic anxiety and focus on what the music needs and how to bring it to life. That first performance, I fell way short. From the first note to the last, it was a fight just to keep going. I came out of it feeling like I wasn’t a pianist anymore and shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

The second concert was a week later (good thing – if it hadn’t been so soon afterward, I might have faked a sprained wrist to get out of it). Luckily, it went a little more smoothly. I started to think maybe, possibly, the old skills were still there, pretty dusty but waiting to swing into action with the right push.

Yesterday the trio met to rehearse, and a cool thing happened: playing was actually fun. The pieces we’re doing, Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio (Op. 70) and Mendelssohn’s Trio in D Minor (Op. 49), are tough. The Mendelssohn, especially, has far too many notes, in this struggling musician’s opinion. Yesterday, though, I remembered why it can be fun to have a big, juicy, demanding piano part you can sink into, where you make the instrument sing and roar, and you share the ride and energy with your musical partners. I don’t know if it’ll feel the same tomorrow, but as I told my husband this morning, it would be so great if one performance could also be really, really fun. It can happen. Fingers crossed.

After the past two years, I think we’re all still figuring out how to deal with everything we went through. It doesn’t help that Covid is still such a presence, and we get a taste of normalcy and then take a step or two backwards again. I’m not sure what my new professional balance looks like, how much of a focus music will be now, whether I’m “still a pianist” just for these concerts or for some kind of longer run. For right now, the music is pretty amazing, and I’d like to enjoy the ride of playing it.

To give you a taste of Mendelssohn’s Trio in D Minor, which my friends and I will be playing tomorrow, here’s a video of the brilliant Zukerman Trio performing the first movement of it. This pianist gets far more of the notes than I do, but sometime I might post a video of our trio playing it too, just because. It’s an amazing piece.

Hope you enjoyed the listen! If you can spare some good energy for me and my friends tomorrow, it would be much appreciated. 🙂 Thanks for visiting the blog!

The Templeton Trio: me on the left, with violinist Robert Sorel and cellist Terry Shirley-Quirk.

The Templeton Trio’s namesake. He’s a softie.

New in 2022!

Relaunching the blog after a very long time. Hope everyone is hanging in and staying safe and well!

My second novel, Fourteen Stones, is forthcoming this fall from The Patchwork Raven, a brilliant indie press in New Zealand. I’m thrilled that this book will be out in the world; it was a project of love that got started in the summer of 2015, when my husband and I went to Spain, and our adventures inspired me to write fantasy for the first time. Here on the blog, I’ll share a little about the story and my process writing it, my inspirations for it, and the characters and the world they live in. It’s still pretty surreal to me that this beloved project is going to be a real thing, alive in the world. I can’t wait to share it with you.

Also on the blog, I’ll share other writerly/readerly stuff, and some musical stuff, and – crucially – cat pictures. Some of you know I’m mom (staff?) to three cats, who pretty much run the house, and of whom I take far too many pictures:

This is Fergus. He sits…even if he doesn’t exactly fits.
Philosopher pose.

I’ll close today’s “preview of coming attractions” with a short musical selection for your Tuesday afternoon. This is a recording I made of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Bagatelle in G Major, Op. 126. Beethoven is one of my favorite composers, for many reasons I’m likely to write about in future posts, and this miniature piece (about two minutes long) is a delight to play.

If you’ve enjoyed today’s post and would like more cats, music, and writing, please consider subscribing. Thanks for your visit!

Shadow Music

In last week’s post, I shared a tune by jazz composer Charles Mingus, and the short story I wrote in response to it. As I’m thinking about what to do with the blog (again), I’m continuing to play around with combinations of music and words.

One of the things I love about my dual career as a writer and pianist is how those two sides often complement and inspire each other. While these days I’m more focused on writing, and writing-related stuff, I always go back to music to “fill the well” and help dig into my creativity.

Today I thought I’d just share some music, in hopes that maybe it’ll inspire some words, or other creativity, for you. This is one of my favorite pieces, an etude-tableau by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943(. I first learned this piece when I was about fifteen. A few months ago, I found myself thinking about it again, and decided to see if I could still play it. It’s a work in progress, but I think this recording will give you a feel for it.

I love this piece because it’s shadowy and evocative, sad but lovely. Like “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” last week, it strikes me as an appropriate feeling for these times.

Thanks for stopping by. Please visit again soon!

Next Morning Art

After the chaos of yesterday, it feels like a good time to restart the blog. I’m not sure what to do with it in the longer run, but today, it makes sense to share some art.

The music in the link below is a tune called “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” by American jazz bassist, pianist, and composer Charles Mingus. Mingus wrote it after the death of saxophonist Lester Young, a force of the jazz scene, who struggled with mental health and substance use challenges after his service in World War II.

The first time I heard this piece, something about it caught me. It called up images for me: a dark street, a thin misty rain, a single lonely streetlight.

It was so powerful that I wanted to capture my response to it in words. A sketch quickly turned into the short story I’ve included below the link.

The mood of this music felt appropriate today. Maybe it’ll inspire something for you too.

GOODBYE PORK PIE HAT (first published in The Monarch Review)

When the man died, he took it all with him. He took the throaty coffee-and-cream sound of his tenor horn and the blackstrap molasses flow of his clarinet. Those were from the great years. He took the breathy rasp of that same horn and the fragile squeak of that same clarinet. Those were from the last years. He took the breath he couldn’t catch anymore and the legs that wouldn’t hold him up and the last sour whiff of the liquor he drank. And he took the muscles in his hands and the slow steady beat of his heart, and he took every last one of the tunes that slipped through his head and wrapped together like the strands of hair in a girl’s braids.

You never knew the man. Not to talk to. You never unpacked your gear with him, wedged in with the rest of the band like sardines in the green room at some club. You didn’t bum smokes or lights or hits or swigs off him. You didn’t listen with him to the roar outside like a train in the distance, or smell the blend of a hundred or so different cigarettes and two hundred glasses of alcohol. You didn’t walk behind him up the stage steps and get smacked in the eyes by the glare of lights and rolled over by the train roar, two hundred pairs of hands clapping and two hundred voices yelling his name. You didn’t step into the light next to him and move your music stand over a fraction of an inch on the scuffed parquet floor and hook your horn onto the strap around your neck at the same time he hooked his. And when the music started and everything else disappeared, and the coffee-cream sound or the blackstrap molasses sound poured out and wound around, so clean and strong you could taste it in the back of your throat, you didn’t shut your eyes there on the stage and forget where you were while you rode those notes down like beads on the most perfect string.

You were too young to meet the man. He never saw you or knew your name. You unpack your gear in the backstage closet in some club and listen to the thin sound of a dozen voices in the dark. You smell the smoke from a handful of cigarettes and the fumes from a dozen or so glasses of alcohol. When you walk onstage, no train rolls over you.

The man took it all with him. This is what you have: a hole-in-the-wall club with a scuffed-up drinks counter and a few falling-apart chairs and a blue glow-worm light that barely makes a dot on the throat of your horn. You have a bare-walled apartment with a sagging mattress and a record player, and three LPs with the grooves wearing out from all the times you played them. You have the black-and-white photos from those LP covers. They are good photos. You can look at them and not see how, at the end, the man’s cheeks went slack and his eyes sank into his head.

In the blue glow-worm light, you set up your music and tune your horn. You don’t see the drinks counter or the falling-apart chairs. Instead you see what is only in your head: a long, sleek black car pulling up to a sidewalk in thin drizzly rain. On the car’s back door, the yellow bulb of a street lamp makes a splash like the moon on water. In your head, you stand on the sidewalk in the rain and watch that door open.

The man’s trench coat could have come straight off the rack. Drops of rain fall on his black porkpie hat. In the yellow light they glitter like diamonds. Strong square fingers grip the handle of his horn case. Behind him, the club door stands open. White light gushes out onto the sidewalk, along with the blend of smoke from a hundred or so different cigarettes.

His cheeks are smooth and his eyes are young. He looks at you and smiles.

You stand in the blue glow-worm light and the thin hum of a dozen voices. In the back of your throat, this is what you have: the smoothness of coffee and cream, the rich tang of blackstrap molasses.

Tunes wind together for you like the strands of hair in a girl’s braids. Your horn sounds like strong, sweet, black coffee. You close your eyes and ride those notes down like beads on the most perfect string.

Let Me Take Your Hands, part 7

Welcome! This blog features short piano pieces I’ve recorded at home. It began as a project for the quarantine, a mental break during these tough times.

This month, I’m switching things up a bit in honor of Short Story Month. Each post features an installment of my short story “Let Me Take Your Hands,” originally published in The Woven Tale Press as a prizewinner in WTP’s 2017 literary competition. Today’s installment is the ending (we made it! 🙂 ). Find the first installment here and follow the story forward up to the current post.

This is a favorite story of mine. Each installment is be paired with a piece of piano music I’ve recorded.

Make sure to subscribe to the blog if you’d like a regular dose of music, and visit back soon!

~~

“Let Me Take Your Hands” part 7

The lawyer had said it would be difficult, and indeed, it was far from easy. There were calls to law offices in Mexico in the frantic search for Consuelo’s birth certificate. There were arguments through the bulletproof glass at San Miguel, after Antonio explained to Consuelo their one desperate chance. “But Señor Antonio,” she said, still addressing him formally after so many years, “this is not right. You should not have to do this.” She assumed he could not want to, but he brushed that aside. Personal wants did not matter. There was the rapid filing of paperwork in a race against time and the legal system. Then, finally, there was Antonio’s signature, and then Consuelo’s own, on the marriage license, signed in the presence of San Miguel’s notary.

As the wife of an American citizen, with her newly issued green card, Consuelo could safely remain in the country she had chosen. Antonio promised himself that he would make sure she got full citizenship next. Once she did, the marriage, which was only a legal arrangement, could end. Consuelo could have her freedom.

The day after her release from prison, Antonio brought Consuelo and her daughter to his studio. He also brought a pair of folding chairs, so Tess could use the room’s only stool.

She sat at the wheel. After Antonio cut the clay for her, she shaped it into a ball with quick, practiced motions. Then she threw it, centering it squarely. It had taken her only a few tries to learn how.

Consuelo had never seen her daughter do this before. Antonio had found time every day, during Consuelo’s time in prison, in between arguing with a lawyer in Mexico, and carrying papers to and from San Miguel, to bring Tess here and teach her his work. He understood the kind of peace it gave her. Now Consuelo watched as Tess started the wheel spinning, wet her hands, and pressed them against the clay.

Antonio had already taught her the two basic shapes: cylinder and bowl. After her first frustration, she had quickly learned a kind of patience and meticulousness that even he, after all his years at the wheel, had never achieved. He still didn’t know how her mind worked, but he imagined her calculating how the clay should move, how to apply pressure to make the shapes she wanted. If she chose, Antonio felt sure that one day she could be an extraordinary potter. Now he watched as she pressed the clay gently out, beginning to shape a bowl.

He didn’t need to keep an eye on her. She knew what she was doing. Instead he watched Consuelo, who sat with her eyes fixed on her daughter’s confident and steady hands.

Tess made the bowl quickly. When she stopped the wheel, she looked around at Antonio. This was their signal. She didn’t yet cut the clay herself: the wire tended to twist between her fingers and he didn’t want her to hurt herself or damage the work in progress. He sliced the bowl free, set it on the drying board, and cut her another piece of fresh clay.

When he sat down again, Consuelo moved her chair closer to him. She brushed her face, as if smoothing hair away, but he saw she was crying.

She motioned at Tess. In Spanish, she whispered, “I never thought she could do something like this.”

Antonio saw the gold band gleaming on her finger. His wife. It wasn’t true, not really, only a legal convenience, but for some reason his throat hurt and he had to swallow before he answered. “She has a gift.”

Another tear ran down Consuelo’s cheek. This time, she didn’t wipe it away. No one would have told her such a thing about her daughter before. She said, “The Virgin heard my prayers. She gave you to us.”

Antonio’s face flushed. When had he and God last had anything to do with each other? If Consuelo had stayed in Mexico, if she could have had a life other than the hardscrabble one she had known, she would have gotten married in a Catholic church full of incense and flowers. Her family would have given her a feast, with drinking and dancing long into the night. Instead she was here, a barely-redeemed criminal, bound – at least for now – to an old man. What did God have to say about that? What did He ever do about the world’s injustice?

Consuelo reached out. Her fingers closed around his. “Thank you, Antonio.”

Not señor this time. Antonio found himself taking her hand in his.

She let her head rest against his shoulder. The two of them sat, listening to the hum of the wheel, watching Tess shape something new.

~end~

Musical pairing: Felix Mendelssohn, Song without Words in E Major

Tip Jar (no pressure!):

If you’re enjoying the blog and would like to help support it, please consider clicking on the link below to leave me a tip. You’ll choose your own payment amount and pay securely through PayPal’s platform. As always, thanks for visiting!

Let Me Take Your Hands, part 6

Welcome! This blog features short piano pieces I’ve recorded at home. It began as a project for the quarantine, a mental break during these tough times.

This month, I’m switching things up a bit in honor of Short Story Month. Each post, over the next week or so, features an installment of my short story “Let Me Take Your Hands,” originally published in The Woven Tale Press as a prizewinner in WTP’s 2017 literary competition. Find the first installment here and follow the story forward up to the current post.

This is a favorite story of mine. Each installment is be paired with a piece of piano music I’ve recorded.

Make sure to subscribe to the blog if you’d like a regular dose of music, and visit back soon!

~~

“Let Me Take Your Hands” part 6

Tess didn’t answer or nod, but Antonio felt sure he was right. She wanted to try using the potter’s wheel. Perhaps he was riding on the wave of exhaustion, caffeine, and confusion from the morning. Perhaps he and this girl could only reach each other after all thought and striving ran out. He said, “Te lo mostro,” I’ll show you, and then took the Saran-wrapped sandwich out of his pocket. “But first,” he told her in Spanish, “you have to eat some of this.”

Her face changed then. The look of disgust and annoyance, her clear disappointment that he had outsmarted her, was so obvious that Antonio had to swallow a laugh. He unwrapped the sandwich and held it out. “Eat. Then I’ll show you.”

When she took it from him, her fingertips brushed his. If the touch startled her, she didn’t show it. She ate the sandwich in a few bites. She must have been starving. After the gulped a couple of mouthfuls of water at the sink, she went back to the worktable and put her hand on the clay again, waiting.

Bueno,” Antonio said. He cut a fresh piece of clay, but when he started working it into a sphere, she shook her head and reached out to catch hold of it herself.

“You want to do it?” Antonio asked. “Fine. But it has to be a ball.” He mimed the shape with his hands. “Can you do that?”

Again the look of annoyance. She tossed the clay from hand to hand as he had done, shaping it quickly and capably into a sphere. Antonio found himself thinking again of her neatly tied shoelaces.

When she finished, she went to the wheel and sat down on his stool, waiting to be shown what to do next. Antonio half-wondered if she would be able to throw the clay herself, if she had learned that much by watching him. He threw the clay anyhow, to center it, and showed her how to press the wheel’s front pedal. You want it to go steady, not too fast,” he said.

Almost immediately, she kept the wheel turning at a good speed. When she put her hands on the clay, though, trying to shape it as he had, right away she pushed it off center. In frustration, she pressed the pedal down harder. The wet clay whipped around, throwing slurry in the air. Antonio saw some of it hit Tess’s shirt. Her foot snapped off the pedal and the wheel stopped. She shook her hands off and stared down at the gray drops on her clothes. Her eyes looked wild and lost.

Hija,” Antonio said. “Está bien.” It’s all right. He found himself thinking about what the doctors told Consuelo. Mind of a toddler. Can’t learn. He realized Tess would have heard those things too. People had said them in front of her as if she didn’t understand.

She was trying again with the wheel now, but it couldn’t work. The clay was far off center, her hands were too wet, the wheel spun out of control. Over its hum, Antonio heard a whine of frustration, a rising, gut-felt sound ready to explode in sobs.

Before he thought, Antonio reached out and caught Tess’s arm. “Déjalo, hija.Stop.

She jerked her hands off the clay, yanked her arm away, snapped her foot off the pedal again, and rounded on him, all in a single heartbeat. He saw anger, pain, and unbearable sorrow mingled in her face.

In that moment, he knew what he must do. For her and for her mother.

Te lo mostro,” he told Tess again. I’ll show you. He reached out and repositioned the clay, pushing it to center, smoothing its shape, using a sponge to sop extra water away. Then he said, “Déjame cogerte las manos.” Let me take your hands.

She glared at him. He saw the trapped mustang again, and at the same time, he saw Consuelo, sobbing behind the bulletproof glass at the jail. Yes. He must do this thing now, and then he must do another thing later.

“I’ll show you,” he repeated in Spanish. This time he was certain she understood. “Let me take your hands.”

She didn’t reach them out to him, but when he made to take them – something he never would have dared to try before – she didn’t resist. Her muscles were tense under his fingers as he gently placed her hands on the clay, where they needed to be.

When he told her to spin the wheel again, she did, carefully this time. Guiding her hands, he showed her how to press the clay down in the center, how to make first a thick-bottomed almost-doughnut and then, gradually, the wall of what would become a cylinder. A mug, perhaps, or a vase.

He felt her hands relax under his. Standing over her, he saw her shoulders relax too. He saw her drive her energy into the clay, pressing it now with more confident fingers, channeling thoughts and feelings and the words that she couldn’t speak into its smooth texture. As he watched her work, he spoke aloud, telling her the other thing he now knew he would manage.

“I will bring your mother home.”

~final section of the story appears in the next blogpost~

Musical pairing: J. S. Bach, Sinfonia no. 13 in A minor

Tip Jar (no pressure!):

If you’re enjoying the blog and would like to help support it, please consider clicking on the link below to leave me a tip. You’ll choose your own payment amount and pay securely through PayPal’s platform. As always, thanks for visiting!

Let Me Take Your Hands, part 5

Welcome! This blog features short piano pieces I’ve recorded at home. It began as a project for the quarantine, a mental break during these tough times.

This month, I’m switching things up a bit in honor of Short Story Month. Each post, over the next week or so, features an installment of my short story “Let Me Take Your Hands,” originally published in The Woven Tale Press as a prizewinner in WTP’s 2017 literary competition. Find the first installment here and follow the story forward up to the current post.

This is a favorite story of mine. Each installment is be paired with a piece of piano music I’ve recorded.

Make sure to subscribe to the blog if you’d like a regular dose of music, and visit back soon!

~~

“Let Me Take Your Hands” part 5

Antonio had never worked with clay until he came to Telluride. Back then, barely more than a boy, he had been running from his own memories. The riots in Mexico City. The police firing on the crowd. The screams he heard in his nightmares. And he had been running, too, from the constant ache within his own body, the piece that had been ripped away when he lost his home. He had been trying to forget his mountains, the great Pico de Orizaba with its craggy white summit, the giant in whose shadow he had grown up, always promising himself that one day he would make it to the top and breathe the crystal-fragile air up there. He had landed in Telluride when his money ran out. At least there were mountains here, though they were not the same. Nothing could be. He had known he would never see his home again.

He had gotten a job as an old viuda’s shop-cleaner and errand boy. The widow, part Mexican, part Navajo, had sold crafts to the tourists, mostly quilts and silver and turquoise jewelry, but she made some pottery of her own. Without much knowledge, Antonio had still been able to see she wasn’t very good at it. One day, as he was sweeping the floor in her shop, he had glanced up to find her examining his hands on the broom, moving her eyes up to his back and shoulders. “Ven aquí,” she had said, pointing to her workroom. Come here. That afternoon, he had first sat at a wheel.

He’d had no skill. Even so, that first time, he had felt thoughts and memories and nightmares running out of his fingers and into the wet clay. “Para la arcilla, se necesita fuerza,” the old woman had told him. Working the clay needed the right kind of strength. She didn’t have it, but she told Antonio he did. “Te lo muestro.I will teach you.

Now, in spite of himself, Antonio lost track of time. The bowl took shape under his hands, growing slowly and smoothly off the spinning wheel. In this work, you never knew what something was going to be until you finished it. Each piece had its own life.

A scraping noise against the floor made him look around. Tess had maneuvered one of the glaze buckets over beside his stool. She sat down on it, leaning forward to watch the spinning clay, so near Antonio that a strand of her hair brushed his shoulder.

Never, that he could remember, had she willingly gotten so close to anyone but her mother. He felt her nearness like the hot kiln, warning him to back away before someone got hurt. But when he glanced at her face, ready to look away in an instant if his eyes upset her, he saw she had attuned her whole self to the clay between his hands.

Without a word to her, he kept working. Her presence stayed there, as warm as a banked fire. The bowl rose off the wheel, the clay smooth between Antonio’s fingers. The slurry stained his hands gray. The bowl itself was slick and shining. Carefully, he applied light pressure at the right point, while the wheel spun, to make the bowl’s lip flare out. Then he re-compressed the lip between his thumb and forefinger, running the thumb of his other hand along its edge.

He was sorry to let the wheel stop spinning. The bowl sat there, as well-shaped as a flower. Tess was still watching him. In her face, Antonio saw her question as clearly as if she had said it aloud: Now what?

As he got his wire tool and slid it carefully along the wheel, cutting the bowl free, he found himself explaining his work to her, as if she had been the student he never had. He showed her the drying board and told her how the bowl would sit there for a few days, until it was as hard as leather. He pantomimed putting it back on the wheel, upside-down, and showed her the shaving tool that would trim the base, cutting away the extra clay and giving the foot its shape. Why he told her all this, he didn’t know. He had no idea whether she understood, but her eyes followed him as he moved around the room, pointing at tools, picking up a piece of once-fired greenware to show her how the bowl would look after one round in the kiln.

He had started to tell her about glazing when she stood up abruptly and went over to his block of fresh clay, on the worktable next to the wheel. She put her hand on the plastic that covered it and looked at him with another question in her face.

Certainty bloomed in Antonio’s mind. “Lo quieres probar?” he asked. Do you want to try it?

~story continues in the next blogpost~

Musical pairing: J. S. Bach, Prelude in C sharp Major, WTC II

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