When I wasn’t at my “day job”, anyone who knew me knew they could find me in the “hot shop”, or glassblowing studio, at a publicly funded arts center in Seattle. It had quickly become my second home. I was a new glassblower and passionate about the work. I’d landed a work-study position there, answering the phone on the weekend when the main office was closed. Sitting at a centrally located desk gave me the opportunity to meet jewelers, printmakers, bronze casters and, glassblowers, from truthfully all over the world thanks to the close proximity of the Pilchuck Glass School. It was a fertile crossroads that I sat at each weekend and I loved it…every minute of it.
Eventually a second work-study job became available and I jumped at the opportunity to offset the enormous cost of renting blowing slots. The job was that of charging the glass furnace: each night a wheelbarrow filled with broken, chunked glass needed to be shoveled into the furnace assuring that plenty of molten glass would be available for the next day’s blowing slots.
At this point in my life, I was still under the false, and also heartbreaking belief that it was absolutely inexcusable for me to make a mistake or, not know how to do something. If I did make a mistake, it was best if I found a way to keep it QUIET. Just writing these words sounds insane, and it is insane. I had carried this belief around for a long time and had become skilled at appearing to know how to do all kinds of things. If you live with a rule that says no mistakes are allowed, it’s important to try and convince everyone…especially oneself, that you know how to do whatever is needed. This is such an irrational predicament, it’s hard to explain it…but I bet you know what I’m talking about.
This strategy served me at times in my life, but it definitely DID NOT serve me well when it came to learning how to charge the furnace. The one and only night of training was the proverbial “perfect storm”: there I was, feeling like I needed to already know how to charge a furnace, even though I didn’t have the slightest idea of what that consisted of, listening to a teacher who was completely exhausted after having already been at the “hot shop” for twelve hours. He wanted to get home and I wanted to appear knowledgeable.
This particular furnace was equipped with a fairly new and state-of-the-art computerized control panel that could be set up to run through an entire firing cycle automatically. My instructor, relieved that I seemed to pick up the process so quickly, asked hopefully, “Got it?” and when I nodded my head in agreement – because, really…what else would someone like me say? He left me alone to take care of the charging for that night. I set about the task of shoveling glass into the furnace – the seemingly straightforward job, turned out to be not that straightforward. Instead of being outside somewhere shoveling, say, gravel…I was standing in front of a glass furnace with the door wide open, doing my level best to throw shovelfuls of glass into the white-hot cave of a furnace which operated at over 2000° F; a kind of heat that puts all human systems on high-alert.
With the charging finally complete, I pressed a combination of buttons on the control panel that would set the furnace up for the “high fire” cycle, as I’d been directed. After a momentary pause something happened that seemed terribly wrong…dangerously wrong. All of a sudden, even though the furnace door was shut, flames began to seep out on all sides, and continued to lick up the sides of the furnace as the seconds ticked by. It seemed like I was standing at nothing less than the Gates of Hell, with appropriate sound effects to go along with the visuals.
WHAT HAD I DONE WRONG? A little too late, I realized it would have been a much more valuable training session, if my instructor had stood by while I went through this cycle. But he was long gone, and I was fairly certain that if I left things as they were, the whole building would be burned down by morning. So, I pressed another button, and just as quickly, the flames subsided. There. That seemed more like it. Tired and mostly confident that all was good in the world of furnace charging, I rode my bike home, and fell into a deep and flame-free sleep.
I arrived home late the next afternoon from my “day job”. I hadn’t given the fiery Gates of Hell that I’d witnessed briefly the night before any thought and was grateful that it was Friday, which meant I would have two, whole, glorious days to immerse myself in the world of glassblowing. But wait…my answering machine seemed to be having a nervous breakdown: the red light that signaled new messages was flashing like crazy. I had only recently moved to Seattle full-time so I didn’t really know very many people – certainly not as many people as the machine was indicating. At first I absentmindedly assumed it was broken, but then some tiny, gnawing voice told me to check the messages before I began my winding-down-from-work routine.
“Strange,” I thought, as I listened to the first message. It was from the program director at the arts center wondering how the charging went the night before. Why would he call about that? Then the next message was from him as well. This one was a little longer, and he asked if everything went okay with the charging that night. It turned out that ALL the messages were from him: over and over, he just kept asking how the charging went.
In hindsight, I realized that it must have taken him a great deal of self-control to keep his voice calm – because he was anything but calm. His last message wondered if maybe I could call him when I got home. I tried calling, but it was after-hours and the phone went to voice-mail. With a small but certain ache developing in the pit of my stomach, I decided that maybe I would just ride over to the “hot shop”. I had no idea what was going on – but some part of my body or mind knew something was.
Arriving at the arts center as Friday afternoon was just turning to evening, I was surprised to see so many cars, and indeed trucks, in the parking lot. Still mostly in my little world of oblivion, and again, looking back, maybe truthfully it was more that I was desperately clinging to whatever shreds of oblivion I could find, I rolled into the parking lot on my bicycle just as the program director that had left me all the messages entered the same parking lot through the back door of the building. We just about physically ran into each other as I dismounted my bicycle. He asked the same series of questions he’d left on my answering machine, one last time. I said that everything went fine. He asked if I’d had any problem with getting the program to shift into high fire. I said no, and then said, “Well, something strange happened at first, but then I got it to the right place and everything was fine.” His body shifted subtly, when he heard my words. “What kind of strange?” he asked as he still desperately attempted to remain calm.
After only a few words of my Gates of Hell description of the fiery furnace, his face scrunched up and turned the wrong color – then he drew himself up, way too close to me and went into a tirade of…I can’t tell you what he said, first, because I instantly blanked out all of it, as it was so terrifying for me to be yelled at in that way and at such close range, and secondly, because the director of the arts center, luckily, probably for all three of us, had just entered the parking lot, and she grabbed him and physically pulled him away. She walked him to another part of the lot and all I could hear was, “She didn’t KNOW that she was turning the furnace OFF…she didn’t do it on purpose.”
Remember, I’m the one who lived under the rule that no mistakes were allowed, and if I did make a mistake, somehow I was supposed to keep it QUIET.
OFF?????!!!!!! I turned it OFF?
When the glassblowers had arrived that morning to start their blowing slots, they discovered the furnace was almost completely cooled down. Luckily, not cooled enough for the glass to become solid: if that had been the case, it would have been the end of the furnace. All day long, scores of people had been frantically trying to figure out why the furnace had shut down – what circuit or gas jet or whatever, had malfunctioned to shut the thing off. There was a strange dichotomy: folks were relieved to hear that I’d turned it off because that meant there was nothing wrong with the furnace, but, I had turned it off, and that was still a major catastrophe. From that day on, I became THE ONE WHO TURNED THE FURNACE OFF.
As I said earlier, my other work-study position was answering the phones on the weekend, and this weekend was no different. There I sat, in the crossroads of this arts center, the center of my world, witnessing a whole team of people working literally around the clock for 48 hours, to remedy a situation that had occurred by my hand. I could not resort to any of my old ways; I could not help them, I could not fix the problem, I could not do anything to make them feel better or happy. I just……….had……..to………watch. Oh yes, and answer phone calls about when the furnace might be up and running. The furnace temperature had to be manually brought back up by increasing the temperature in very small increments, day and night and day and night. Nine blowing shifts had to be cancelled, which meant 27 different blowing teams lost out on their precious studio time. It was excruciating.
Most of the blowers instantly knew how heartbreaking this was for me when they heard what had happened. There were also glass blowers that NEVER spoke to me again. Eventually I worked there as a “full-time” glassblower, and there were some blowers who just looked right through me – would not, or could not, acknowledge me; my blunder. They could not forgive me; forgive my confession of the greatest of glass blowing sins.
I unknowingly confessed to a mistake – was completely unaware of any misdeed on my part. Once I discovered the enormous mistake I’d made, and as I lived through the agonizing confession, something began to shift in me. Because of the depth of my love and passion for glassblowing I did not do what I would have done in some other situation: I did not simply disappear, run away, or hide. In times past, I would have chosen that course, rather than be exposed for making such a grave mistake. But love and passion, and that river of life that roared through me were so great that I endured the terror of being exposed for what I was: a fallible human. Talk about sitting at the Gates of Hell: what a blessing, this biggest mistake of my life turned out to be, and set me on a path of knowing the beauty of my utterly human fallibility…welcome to the human race, Lauren.
PS It is still fairly common for me to make a public pronouncement when I make a mistake of any import. I am still testing out how it feels to make these public confessions…to be seen, as I live under the new rule where mistakes are allowed.