Ben pulled up the brim of his hat to wipe his forehead, tugged the center of his faded tan Holiday World t-shirt away from his chest, and walked out of the glass hot room just as I stepped up to the furnace. Eric, under Ben’s watchful eye and verbal encouragement, had just taken his turn gathering a blob of molten clear glass (“the gather”) onto his rod and moved to the reheating furnace. My arms felt sunburnt standing a foot away from the gather furnace. Even with four industrial fans blowing in the room and the garage door open, the hot room must have been over 90 degrees.
I stood there empty-handed for a beat. Ben probably just grabbed a drink, I thought. I took a couple steps over to the student behind me, who I later learned was named Leah, and told her I was terrified. She’s probably in her 30s. “I am, too,” she said. Another awkward beat. Maybe Ben had to use the restroom, too. Eric, a hobbit-figured retiree with glasses, moved over to the marver table and rolled his glass blob into a cylinder shape. Maybe Ben wasn’t coming right back. When I gestured to invite the other four classmates to go ahead of me, they all shake their heads with a polite smile like I’ve offered them a second helping of tuna casserole, mouth the words “no no, you go,” and wave me toward the gather furnace.
Two more awkward beats. No sign of Ben. Maybe I’m supposed to just go gather my own glass. Maybe I can gather my own glass. On my own. Without Ben the Teacher overseeing.
Like the Julia Child of glass, he had shown us every step himself. He had talked it through again as he coached Eric through the first steps. I had paid attention. The climate wasn’t getting any cooler standing next to the furnace waiting for Ben to come back.
I stepped up to the rack of metal rods and grabbed the cool end of one. I slid open the heavy furnace door about a third of the way. I felt an extraordinary blast of heat, light, and sound. The walls of the furnace glowed bright orange-yellow. The white flames roared and furiously jetted across the horizontal plane inside the furnace. I could have been standing at the burner end of a Super Hornet fighter jet on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. Everything was loud. The flames were loud, the light was loud, the heat was loud. Strangely, with all that sensory input, there was no differentiation to give me information about changes in my environment. I couldn’t hear anything else but those jets. I couldn’t see the surface of the glass. I couldn’t feel anything but searing heat on my skin.
I had to draw upon internalized imaginings of the movements I had seen Ben make. I had to “feel” my way through it. Angle the rod downward and against the lip of the furnace. Watch for the reflection of the tip of the rod just before it hits the surface. See how the molten glass resists as you pierce the surface. Twirl the rod a couple times to gather up glass on the end. Notice that the weight on the rod shifts as the liquid gather moves with gravity. Slowly twirls the end of the rod with your right hand while the other cradles the middle so it’s level. Watch the glass change color from yellow to red to brown as it cools. Feel how at first the glass rolls easily across the marver table surface, but it gets tough and resistant and requires more pressure to form as it cools. Every action was mindful practice of the present, deliberate decision, and a conscious awareness of my inexperience.
Ben returned to the hot room with one end of a lime-colored FreezePop in his mouth. He saw that the glass on the end of my rod wasn’t responding to my will to form it on the marver table. Standing close on the other side of my glass rod with a gentle smile, he says, “Let’s heat that back up for a minute and then we’ll come back to the marver to form it.” He warmly gestured with his entire arm for me to go to the reheating furnace.
I did it. I had encountered the part that was overwhelming to the senses. The trepidation, hesitation, and fear were my visceral, pre-linguistic terror of that heat. Yet the danger was manageable and I was safe enough. It was only for the last student that Ben stayed very close and hands-on as they did their gather.
Ben taught me how to explore with hot glass my own experiences of fear, embodiment, and detachment. Ben was attuned to each person’s balance of fear of the danger with the desire to learn. He could judge when to remind someone of the steps, when to coax a step along himself, and when to let a student try independently even when they don’t want to. I needed to learn that I could manage the sensations of fear and that I was capable of safely handling hot glass.
Ben showed me how to be present and mindful with the molten glass. I needed to get out of my head, where the lists of steps and self-doubting scripts resided. Being embodied with the glass meant being attuned to the slow, rhythmic roll of the rod. It was a waltz, with the occasional turn as I moved from the reheating furnace to the bench, bringing my body to the other side of the rod. I learned how to feel through the rod the glass’ change in viscosity as it heated and cooled. I learned how glass felt as I used different tools- shears to cut through it, tweezers to pull it into threads, molds and blocks for shaping and smoothing, a jack blade for scoring.
Detachment was an important and deliberate lesson in Ben’s class. The first object we made, a solid glass bunny with floppy ears, we each cut off its head with diamond scissors and dropped the body in the clear glass waste bucket. It didn’t feel as cruel and sociopathic as it sounds as I write it. It was a Zen Buddhist lesson in material impermanence. Glass is fragile. Glass will explode if it cools too quickly. We will accidentally drop things. We will bump against the bench. We will have to start over.
What will remain, though, is the skill I learned, the experience I had, the memories I gained, the relationships I’m nurturing with others in the class, and the stories and wisdom I share here with readers.
Postscript: Besides the bunnies, which are now probably back in the furnace’s lava pool, we also made glass globe paperweights with swirl centers. I should have that back at next week’s class when we’re starting to blow glass.