Monday, February 15, 2010

By Way of Saying Thank You

We had been living in San Francisco for some time by then. We'd already grown accustomed to hustling out of bed in the middle of the night to go stand in the doorway. When "the event" was over, sometimes before we'd even made it to the doorway, we simply went back to bed. Sometimes, one or the other of us slept right through an earthquake. I was managing the little branch-bookstore on Sacramento Street in 1989, and was at work when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. In that moment, all I could think of was to gather everyone, staff and customers, on the entrance ramp, which I knew was solid, unlike the raised floor. As we huddled there, about a dozen of us, above the general roar, we heard glass falling from the skyscraper windows above and shattering in the street. We watched one of our display windows crack like ice, and the bookcases dance, and then it was over. Hardly a book fell in the store. Afterwards, someone pointed out to me that I'd moved everyone nearer the windows and the glass doors. The power was out, but otherwise, things looked to be pretty much alright. Only when we ventured out into the street did we begin to appreciate the extent of the damage. I watched a woman who had hidden under her desk being rescued, as the wall behind her had fallen into the street. Coworkers lifted her from her hiding place and across the desk. I watched her shoe fall two stories into the street. I heard a cop with a bullhorn tell the idiots from the bar around the corner from the store not to stand under the damaged building with their beers. I sent everyone home and stayed with the store until my boss walked over from the main store and we locked everything up. He told me he might be spending the night at the store on Market Street with a shotgun, in case of looters. I don't think he did, but he would have done if he'd had to.

Dear A. eventually came and fetched me home. Normally, he'd have been driving home from his job, across the Bay Bridge, at that hour, but had been to a doctor's appointment that day. Driving home from that, when the quake hit, he'd thought he'd blown a tire and lost control of the car, until he saw the pavement moving, and all the other cars sliding off the street. He went home unharmed and, when the phones worked, called to tell me he was coming to get me. I'd figured I might have to walk the miles to our apartment. We drove home together, through the streets without traffic-lights.

At our apartment, other than the power being out for hours, the only evidence of the earthquake was in a few pictures that had fallen off the walls, and my bookcases upstairs, all of which had mysteriously danced to the center of the room. We were lucky.

There was one irreplaceable loss. A small thing, even without remembering the loss of life that day and the damage across the city and the region. Hardly worth mentioning to anyone at the time, but the one piece of any value in our apartment that had fallen from the bookcase by my desk and smashed was a pottery tea bowl. It was an extremely delicate thing, impossibly thin, in dark buff colors and dark green patterns. Dark as it was, when held up to the light, it glowed.

It was a gift from the potter, Jayne Craig. It was something she's made fairly late in her short life and career. She had been a student, and then an instructor at Slippery Rock University. I had the tea bowl from her after I'd admired it on my one visit to her studio. When Jayne died of cancer, at a ridiculously young age, not but a year or two after the last time I'd seen her, that bowl had become all the more important to me. I treasured it, not only as an object of considerable beauty and craft, but as the only thing I had of the remarkable work my friend had done as an artist.

I kept the pieces of that broken bowl for years after, finally losing them or throwing them away, I suppose, when we moved to Southern California.

When dear A. and I went home to Pennsylvania this past summer, I was startled one day in the grocery store with my mother when I heard someone say my name. I turned and found a familiar face, a woman just a few years younger than my mother. We talked for a few minutes before I recognized her. It was Jayne's mother, Vera, who still lives in our hometown, presumably in the house where I'd been so often, when Jayne and I were in high school together. This happens when one goes "home:" people familiar, and yet not, appear, as if conjured by the force of private nostalgia, and with them come memories of all those now absent, some gone forever, and one realizes how many faces there are not to be met with ever again. Vera, my mother and I chatted together for a few minutes, mostly about me and my life since I'd last seen Mrs. Craig, years before. Before we parted, for some reason, I mentioned the tea bowl that had been broken in the earthquake. I told her how much I still mourned the loss, and hers. I should have left it at that, but instead I asked Mrs. Craig if she still had any of her daughter's work, and if I might have some piece to replace the one I'd lost. Crassly, I even offered to pay for a piece of her daughter's work, or at least the shipping. She took my address.

I don't know what made me do that, what made me beg a gift from this nice woman. It's embarrassing, looking back on it. In fact, I was embarrassed at the time, but did it anyway. I am not usually so ill-mannered. Then I came home to Seattle and did not think about what I'd done. Mrs. Craig had no reason to acknowledge my request, I had no reason to think, after I'd so rudely asked, that she should.

When Jayne grew ill, she and I had already fallen largely out of touch. From the time she'd gone away to school, got married, got her degree and made a life for herself, our lives had taken us to very different places. We saw each other very rarely after I left college. I was in California by then. I heard of Jayne mostly through my parents, who heard about her from her mother. Jayne wasn't one for letters, though we'd exchanged a few over the years. When Jayne grew ill, I heard about it just the way I've described, through our families. I intended to get in touch, but didn't. Then it was too late. I wasn't much of a friend to my friend, Jayne.

In all the intervening years since I lost the tea bowl, I have thought of Jayne often. She was a remarkable woman. When I met her in high school she was round as a peach and as sweet. She was one of those shy girls who are drawn into high school drama departments, attracted by the company, but never much inclined to perform. These are the girls that make everything possible; making the costumes, doing the make-up, making themselves useful and eventually indispensable. Jayne did all that, and performed in the some of the plays as well. But Jayne was more than a supporting player or a hanger-on. Jayne was, in her quiet, giggling way, a force of nature. She was a talented artist, even then, and Jayne was, however shy, fearless in her way. There was nothing actually she wouldn't or couldn't do in that little theater, if asked. She designed, she sewed, she painted, she ran, and ran, and ran. She sang Barry Manilow songs to herself as she worked, and worked harder than anyone else. She threw parties, she baked, she laughed and laughed and laughed. She was, in an otherwise fairly gloomy, self-important group of over-dramatic adolescents, relentlessly cheerful. She was a friend. She was a delight.

When we put on "Flowers for Algernon," she played my mother. In that rather pretentious production, she was forced to wear a mask made of some sheer material, glued to her face, I don't remember just why now, and her hair, done up in a bun, was lacquered and powdered to make her look old. In our big scene together, I had to hover behind her as she cleaned the floors, never acknowledging my monologue, addressed to the back of her head. In rehearsals, I would ruthlessly whisper to her, hoping to make her giggle, which she did all too easily. Got us both in trouble. In performance though, even in a mask and with me emoting wildly behind her, she gave an excellent performance. She stayed in character even when I ruined the scene one night, improvising an unscripted gesture, and stroked her gray hair. A cloud of powder drifted off her and hung in the air about her head no matter where she went the rest of the scene. It got a laugh, at exactly a moment that should not have had any such thing. I remember being horrified, but Jayne soldiered on and completed the scene.

Afterwards, she only laughed.

The day I went to see her, years later, in her studio, she sat at her potter's wheel and showed me how to throw a pot. It was fascinating, really quite a beautiful process, at least as Jayne did it. Her hands were enormously strong and yet her movement at the wheel was so graceful, her touch light, and all the while as she worked, we talked and laughed and smoked as if what she was doing was a simple thing, just work to her, though obviously it wasn't. She had me try it, and laughed at my fastidiousness when great gobs of wet clay came loose and spattered my glasses.

"You have to like the dirtiness of it," she told me.

She explained how the glazes worked, how delicate the colors were once the piece was fired, but that one simply had to know, from study and experience, how these would come out as, in their inert state, they all looked dull and other than they eventually would on the finished piece. I was amazed at how complicated it all was.

And she showed me how success was always a matter of chance, that even the most careful and experienced potters lost as many pieces as they made: to the failure of temperature or time in the kiln, to accidents lifting the racks in and out, to stray bits of ash, or chemical miscalculations in the glazing. The reasons something did not work were as many or more than the reasons it might. Jayne embraced this uncertainty. She found the process thrilling and loved the not knowing 'til the last if something had worked. She loved constantly learning, honing her skills, experimentation, teaching.

Few experiences in my life taught me more about what it is to be entirely engaged in life, with work, and art, than the afternoon I spent with Jayne, making her ceramics.

A few days ago, a little box was waiting for me when I came home from work. In it, nestled in careful packing, I found the beautiful cup and bowl you see here, and a lovely card, from Mrs. Craig, apologizing (!) that it had taken her so long to send these.

"No more earthquakes," she wrote lightly, adding "It was a terrible one in Haiti," and then she wished me well.

Lovely woman. Lovely. Like her daughter. I thank them both, as best I can, here.


  1. I came across this post when "Slippery Rock University" showed up in a google alert email. I am an alum and current faculty member at SRU. This is a wonderful tribute to your friend. I enjoyed reading it.

  2. I don't mean to clutter up your blog with comments--me posting two in a single day. But I stumbled upon this just before leaving work. I remember Jayne well. I knew her from school, but also through my brother's then-girlfriend Kim, who was also an art student at SRU. Jayne was a great person. Now with my interest in art, I wish I had paid more attention to her pottery. But her death at such a young age--it does really jolt one. I knew she had died, but reading about it again renews the shock of it.

  3. Wow, what a lovely (gratitude) piece ... your writing has stirred up emotions in me, as if I knew your Jayne. For you hold all of that in your heart shows me that you were a far better friend to her than you acknowledge. Namaste.

  4. We have a ceramic piece by someone listed as Dr. Jayne Craig in our collection at Indiana State University and are possibly folding another here officially into the collection. Do you know if there is any connection with the artist you knew to this artist? One of our pieces was done 1986 or earlier. I would just like to know more about Jayne Craig's studies and training. The pieces we have are different in style, figurative (faces) jug shapes.