One of the things I now do to protect my sanity is spend time at a ceramics studio. I cannot really afford this, but it is essential to mental health and I think cheaper than some more traditional but less interesting alternatives.
This ceramics studio is run by a couple who are not really experts, although they try. We understand this. The teachers are experts but they are not empowered to do certain things, like make sure firing is done in a professional way. The students are excellent and it is because of them, and the facts that it is ceramics, and that it is in biking distance from my house, that I go.
I started last summer, after a hiatus in which I really could not afford it, because an old teacher of mine called me up to say she was giving a class in this studio. She was in conflict with the owners, though, over their lack of expertise. There were issues with waxing and glazing. She vented her frustrations at me and I felt angry at the owners for her sake and yet also manipulated into a conflict that was not mine. It was stressful. It got smoothed out.
Still I have some trouble working in there because of the owner. He is a well meaning person but under stress. He likes me and he needles me. He goes on about how I carry my things: if I balance a tray on my head and carry the rest in my arms, I can move clay, tools, and pieces in progress in only one load, but this is exotic and it must be commented upon constantly. I only did it once and I have been careful to avoid it since, but the comments do not end. He wants to talk and talk but I have paid for time.
I always feel strangely invaded and I appear to have accepted that this is what one must accept if one is to work at this studio. I resent it because I am already being tolerant of poor firing skills. I feel as though I must cajole the owner somehow, yet I am not sure how he elicits this reaction in me.
I have missed classes and make-up sessions because of work. Sometimes I miss class or makeup sessions just because at work I have already dealt with enough invasive personalities for one day, and I cannot face another. I am not getting my money’s worth, but I like the teachers and love the students, so I would like to make this work.
I found out from the university that I was going to have to miss two days of ceramics. I e-mailed ceramics ahead of time to ask whether I could make those up on two other days. The answer said yes, and that it was good of me to e-mail because this showed I was coming through on my intention to be more reliable. The tone was snotty and I e-mailed back, thank you for letting me make up classes but please do not speak to me in this snotty tone.
I arrived to the studio this morning to find that my divine Japanese tea set had been misfired. I know they will say this is my fault but the thing is that I have been doing ceramics intermittently, but rather steadily for 13 years and I have not had these problems before. I flashed back to the first conflict I had had with this couple, in the fall, when my original teacher had been involved. I knew I would be shamed again and it would be my fault again and I would be needled about this incident for weeks to come, again.
I also knew I would be tolerant of this behavior because it is all of our policy to be tolerant of the foibles of these owners, who are having a hard time starting up their studio rental business and are putting a great deal of time into it, as well as money they do not have. The first class I took, I took primarily to help my old ceramics teacher out financially, and the one I am in now, I took to help the studio out financially. This means that of four eight week blocs of studio time, I have only bought two for my own sake. There is something wrong with this – there is too much coercion and too much guilt in the air.
I never cry, and I always surprise myself if I do. But I started to cry. One image I had was, I wanted to take the extruder – a large metal object – off the wall and beat the owner’s head in. I imagined enjoying that and this worried me. A more realistic image I had was, I wanted to crush my Japanese tea set.
As I was crying and saying “I know it is all my fault, and I know they will make fun of my tea set and what happened to it, and I cannot face their doing this to me again,” another student came up to me. “I notice the same undercurrent,” she said, and gave a few examples from her experience. “He’s just arrived,” she said. “You have to talk to him. You are quite right, he had no reason to write you in the tone he did, you are not a third grader.”
I went to talk to him, through my teeth. He said he his thought his “banter” was fun and he had thought it was all right with me. I repeated that I had formerly accepted that it was what I would have to put up with if I wanted to work in this studio, but that I could accept it no longer. He said I would have to explain to him in detail exactly what was wrong with his tone and why. Teach him. I said I was not interested. I said I was not interested in training pushy, power-tripping Yankees like him to be human beings, and that I the reason I was not interested in his banter was that I had work to do and I was just not that interested in what white guys have to say, anyway.
These things were mean and destructive, for one thing, and naturally, he did not understand anyway. He repeated that we needed to talk, he needed to talk, and I said it was my class time and I was not in a state to talk, if I had to talk now I would be destructive. Then I went and did my work and tried to catch the positive vibes off the students. I made two Chinese jars with beautiful lids.
Then I went home for lunch, and then I went to my office hour. One student stood me up, but at least e-mailed, and the other came and we had a productive discussion. Then it was raining and I was tired and hungry again, so instead of going to do errands or going to the gym I came home and drank green tea and ate dense rye bread, balancing out my system. Now the sun is out again and the children are riding on skate boards and I am exhausted and disheartened.
If my tea set had not also been discovered to have been misfired on the same day as I got the snotty e-mail, events would not have accumulated and I would not have lost my cool. And part of this is my fault since I am under terrible stress of different kinds. But the ceramics studio is my favorite de-stressor and this is the reason I want it to work out. And it appears that it will not, and I feel it is my fault, and I can perhaps find another place to work, but I like the students who work in this place.
And now if I stay I will have to work it out with this guy but how do I get him to stop bothering me? Why is it that the men who work in the studio are left alone and treated with some respect but if you are a woman you have to cajole the owner to work there? And, is it real, or is the reason all of this bothers me to the degree it does that it reminds me as much as it does of what happens at work? And finally, is it all me?
In Reeducation it would be said that it was all me and what I needed to do was change my attitude, so that I will no longer perceive as bothersome what is bothersome. I disagree and I am also afraid even of entertaining such suggestions. I am afraid of what will happen in me, to me, if I say it is my fault or if I try to work it out in a heartfelt manner with this owner, which is what he wants. I am afraid that if I bend that far, stretch that far, accommodate that much, I will lose my grip on living.
All of today’s events are very symptomatic of much which happens in the local culture: everyone is pressing their limits, and at the same time trying to protect themselves against others who may be pressing their limits. It is exhausting. And I am afraid that I am coming down on this studio owner because I can, because I cannot, here, come down on someone like my chair or my dean the way a reasonable person would say I need to do.
And I know what people say about the entire situation: 1. You should leave, now! But I am too weak still, and I cannot afford it; or 2. You should accept things as they are and not try to travel so much, you cannot afford it! I am convinced, however, that there is a middle path. And yet I keep trying to take such a one, and it is always when I am succeeding, or have been succeeding for several days in a row, that something happens to smash me like that tea set. This is why for many years I simply remained in a broken state, because to mend only in order to be broken again seemed so impractical. Each broken piece had its own tranquillity and sang its own song.
And I am afraid that it is all true, what I was told when I was little and what Reeducation said when I was grown up, that there is something terribly wrong with me that I cannot see, and I need to accept more accusations and agree to be pressed upon more closely, because I am disappointing and immoral and to let vultures eat my flesh is the least I can do to start making up to the world the pain I have caused it.
And I do not like writing these ideas down because they are false poisons I would like to dislodge from myself, not allow to lodge yet more deeply. Yet I am writing them down so I can look at them and see clearly their poor logic.
One of the problems of coming from an abusive background is that one fears extreme violence will ensue not just in retribution for assertiveness or disagreement but for being a person. This causes very great tension since one must, of course, be a person in order to function even minimally. Another problem is that one can easily be convinced that one’s assertiveness is a form of abuse. A third problem is not knowing what behavior should or should not be tolerable to a “normal” person. A fourth problem is having had abuse modeled too often and assertiveness, not often enough. A fifth, related problem is how mean one can be, oneself.
Some of the things I do not say because I think they are mean, people tell me are not mean at all. Other things I do say because I think they need to be said, people tell me are mean. Still other ways I find of saying things, because it seems that only these ways get my point across, feel abusive even to say. I do not know at all how to assess any of the statements or situations alluded to in this paragraph.
I thought my life’s work was something else. In fact, I know it is also something else. I used to think that if I could continue to have the luck to avoid toxic atmospheres and abusive situations, I would slowly heal on my own and also be able to concentrate on my life’s work. But many days, especially now, I suspect that my life’s major project is recovery from abuse. I do not know if this is accurate. It seems all too small: many people do that and something else as well.
Perhaps it is that they integrate the two projects, incorporate the one with the other. But it seems to me still that some form of respite from the daily onslaughts would be in order. I try and try to find this in the current venue, but I am often failing at it – more seriously than I see until events such as those of today reveal the extent to which my good humor is put on with very great effort. Perhaps with too much effort.