Heavy Metal and Porcelain: First Days at Work
Alright, so this post is going to be long, and somewhat more reflective than descriptive, but I hope that you will still enjoy it.
It was tedious work and was kind of smelly. The process was straightforward and the result satisfying. After you were done, something broken had become whole, a fond memory had been reconstructed, the memory of someone restored.
On my second day working at the Museum, I spent most of my time repairing a porcelain candelabra that my boss had broken on her first day there. The candelabra is an ornate, pink, flowery thing from the 1800’s and it has a base that features a woman sitting and holding some sort of golden cup. The candle-holding part of the candelabra attaches to a hole in the base and holds four candles total, three on the outside that encircle a central candle.
The process for repairing it was actually something that I enjoyed a lot. I didn’t know how to re-glue porcelain, but after a quick Google search I found a set of directions, and the process essentially goes like this; mix apoxy glue, apply apoxy glue to two broken pieces of porcelain, reconnect the pieces, hold the pieces together for 5-10 minutes as the apoxy glue cures, and repeat. So I went to the hardware store, got the glue, and set to work. After a few mess-ups, I got the hang of it, and from then on, it was mere tedium. I sat at my desk holding pieces of porcelain together for a few hours. Waiting, waiting, waiting for the glue to harden and praying that I didn’t do anymore damage to the delicate porcelain. Thankfully, Lady Gaga had just released her new album “Born This Way” the day before, so I had some wonderful music to make the waiting much easier, but it still tried my patience. Bit by bit though, the lamp came together.
After a few days to reflect on it, I’m realizing how many lessons I can learn from the simple act of regluing a candelabra. I’m coming into a community that is broken, a community that is in fragments, and it is my hope to help piece it together over the summer. I’ve spent time doing my research this past year, trying to find an instruction manual for how to best put it together, and I have found a method in storytelling, which in my experience is the strongest glue around. I’ve seen how storytelling can bring people together, that is if you can keep them together long enough for them to stick; and perhaps that will be my biggest challenge. Having all of the stories collected from this community will be wonderful, but I need people to take the time to listen to each other in order for what I’m trying to do to work. So I’ve gone to the hardware store and gotten my apoxy glue: my microphone, my recorder, my cables, my camera. And what comes next is merely patience. The patience to listen, the patience to transcribe interviews, the patience to write paperwork for the Duke institutional review board, the patience to reflect critically on what I hear from the people here, the patience to let the glue cure. But I’m scared, and quite frankly I’m not confident in my ability to piece it back together. I don’t know if my glue is strong enough, I don’t know which pieces I’m missing, and I’m terrified that I will end up further breaking something that is already so fragile and so broken.
It was kind of smelly work, and it really made my wrists hurt, but the process was simple and the product rewarding. After you were done, it just sparkled; that is, unless you had the misfortune of finding a permanent blemish.
I spent the better part of my third day at the museum polishing antique silver, and the virtue of the work was once again patience. It seems that is something that is coming up more often as a theme of my summer. But the virtue of the work also manifested in a slightly different way. The virtue of the work was also pragmatism. As I was polishing the base of the silver, I started to find that there were some splotches, some imperfections, that simply wouldn’t go away no matter how vigorously I scrubbed or how much polish I used. They were permanent, or at least they took some tool, some chemical, or some skill that I simply didn’t have. In the frenzied state that I was in while polishing silver, that was something that was hard to accept. I wanted to make the silver perfect, to make it glisten flawlessly, but there was a point where I had to accept that it wasn’t within my power to do so.
I must take that lesson with me into this summer. Regardless of how much I care or how much I want to make my project, my summer, or this community into something glistening, there are simply going to be times when I will be powerless to do so, and I must accept that, no matter how hard it is. I cannot fix everything, and if I try to, I will neglect what work I can do. If I focus obsessively on one spot that won’t get clean, I may miss the opportunity to polish so many others. And in the long run, that blemish will hardly seem significant given the overall work that I was able to do. Regardless of the fact that there was a permanent stain on the base, the silver that I polished still looked so much nicer and so much more beautiful than it did before.
It was hot work, and it sort of made my palm hurt, but the process was not difficult to understand and the result was gratifying. After you were done, the edges would be shiny, and some of the rust would be gone. It would lie flat, which in turn would make it easy to weld.
On my first day at the Wise family farm, I spent part of my day learning how to drive a forklift, part of my day playing with the dogs, part of my day talking with Ted, a friend of Mr. Wise’s who helps on the farm, and part of the day sanding down metal blocks for welding. Ted and I were working on repairing a grain trailer that had some pretty significant holes in its metal frame that we were going to repair by welding new pieces of metal onto the trailer. So, after you cut pieces of metal with the torch, they have bumpy edges that protrude from where you cut and Ted explained to me that you have to grind off these bumps so that the piece of metal will lay flat against what you are trying to repair. That way, it welds more effectively to another piece of metal. Later, Ted taught me how to use the grinder and I began to grind the pieces of metal flat.
As I did so, I began to think a bit about what I was doing and I realized that, in many ways, that’s what I’ve been doing to myself for the past few weeks. I’m a gender-queer, gay, vegetarian, radically-liberal, progressive. To a low-county South Carolinian, I’m a bumpy person. I don’t fit neatly to the other pieces of metal; I don’t adhere well, but in order to work effectively in this community and to help create change, I have to fit in somehow. And so I’ve shaved off some of my bumps: for the summer, I’ve reverted my gender performance to one that is much more traditionally masculine, I’ve become much more tentative and cautious about being public about my sexual orientation, I’m not calling people out for doing things or saying things that I consider disrespectful or ignorant, and I’m off of vegetarianism. I’ve ground myself down, reshaped myself somewhat, and it’s taken some effort, but now I feel that I’m the shape that I need to be in order to really be of use to this community. After having sacrificed some part of myself temporarily, I will join easily with others here, and maybe that’s the kind of selflessness that true voluntarism takes.