My mom used to make us kids homemade clay. It was salt dough clay. As a little kid, I would be thrilled to open the twist tie on the little sandwich bag of homemade clay, plopping it out onto the kitchen table and immediately squooshing it into my fingers. It could be red, or yellow, or just plain ‘ol dough-colored, depending on my mother’s ambition that day, and I had no wondering about how she made it. It just showed up sometimes on cold winter days to keep us occupied, and I thought she was magic because 1. SHE COULD JUST….. MAKE!… A TOY HAPPEN, POOF!! and 2. It was ACTUALLY EDIBLE. A FER REALSIES EDIBLE TOY!!!
Cheerios necklaces would have to bump up their game to compete.
OF COURSE, the first time she told us about the clay being edible we were skeptical. But that didn’t stop us from biting into a chunk of it as soon as her back was turned. She knew we would. She counted on us testing it. She told us casually that this was clay that we could even eat, IF WE CHOSE TO. (She said this last bit in a softer, quicker, glossed-over tone that I recognized later as the tone used at the end of a used car commercial.) We ignored the ominous and mysterious tone of those words as she walked away from us and over to the counter.
She turned back around with a Polaroid camera just in time to catch our puckered up faces. Which is exactly what I did when I put the foul stuff in my mouth. She pushed the button of the clunky camera just as I took a big bite of the clay and the picture shows a little kid in pig tails making a startling discovery in her mouth. That kid’s nose was wrinkled up, one eye squished shut, and her tongue shoved out of her mouth in an attempt to expel the mushy mess. It tasted bland and salty and boring. I felt totally ripped off. I assumed that magic would have been better tasting.
I guess Cheerios wasn’t out of a job just yet.
Taste aside, I used the clay and just knew it was there FOR ME. I owned it as soon as it plopped onto the table. It was my blob to use as I saw fit. Sure I would look around, eventually, to see what the other kids had created with their mass, but mostly I was into my own experience and that was enough for me. That clay was the tool I used for my own imagination, and there was no right or wrong way to mold it.
It wasn’t until I got older that I would start to compare my creations with the other blobs around the school tables. I mean, I noticed the clay snakes, and the more advanced snakes that got wound into clay snake-bowls, and, of course, the flat circles with fist prints all over the surface when snake bowls were as far as we could go, creatively. I could admire them a bit. But it wasn’t until elementary school that I would compare my snakes and bowls to the sculptures of elephants and human faces that Jay, the kid on the wobbly stool, would make.
I remember coming to his end of the table and just staring at the miniature elephant and thinking, “Um… Nobody told me THAT was an option or possibility with THIS clay…” It had never occurred for me to use the stuff for anything other than playtime nonsense. Or as a test for my mouth. This dude had taken a toy and transformed it into something that mattered. Something better than what it started out to be.
That was when my mom’s salt dough stopped being a toy, and started becoming a challenge.
My clay bowls stopped being tubes of rolled up clay all wound around on itself, and started emerging with a flattened circle molded up and around just so and… and… that was as far as it went. The sad little bowl would crack on the side as it fell back into a circle, and I would look left and right to see if anyone noticed my failure. They didn’t. They were too busy craning their necks as Jay would create pictures on paper as well. This kid was a genius, clearly.
And then it was time to go out for recess. That trumped all.
Jay had his life, and I had mine. We would pass each other in the halls, or at recess, or in classes, but we simply didn’t have the same strengths and talents. Art was merely something I took in school as a class. For him, it became a way of life. I chose the trumpet, instead. That was my dad’s influence as he shared that he had been in a band, once, and, in my imagination, he had traveled the world, practically, so it was my duty and joy to pass on his legacy. Making dad proud got me through some harsh practices and criticism from my band teacher as I started working on my craft. Music became my passion, and between the trumpet, the baritone, and the piano, it still permeates my life today.
So what does that have to do with my mom’s clay?
It’s all about the opportunity. And the work. That lump of salt dough, primitive and simple, opened up a doorway of possibilities. It showed me a way to put my imagination to work, and then see the results in real time. It let me see that, no matter how far down the road I chose to go with my talent and dedication in salt dough sculpture, it was doable to make one thing transform into another, better, thing. That a-ha moment transferred over to baking/cooking (not well, but still). And writing. And tennis. And turning kids, a husband, and a house into a home.
It transformed my teen years. I was melodramatic, idealistic, and a bit hormone-ee. I would get mad at my siblings a lot. And my mom, for being so mean. She wouldn’t be JUST my friend. She wouldn’t support me in running away to live in a tree-house with my friend. She wouldn’t change with the times. How DARE she be a mom first, not letting me get away with compromising the great for the now! Harrumph!
Middle kid syndrome, and all that.
I would pound out my frustrations on the piano. (Also mom’s fault for giving me the freedom and lessons to play around on those keys whenever I wanted, no matter how loud and repetitive I got.) I would pound and play, and at some point, I reasoned that if Beethoven’s ideas could be turned into song, then nothing was stopping me from using my own imagination to turn teenage angst and passion into writing music that other people could admire. So I started risking. It turned into a joyful outlet. (Also, being over-dramatic helped. Um…helps.)
Now I’m not a world-renowned… anything…, but that’s my choice, as I see it. A chunk of natural ability and affinity obviously helps, in Beethoven’s and Jay’s cases. But the hard work and determination…well…that’s up to them. And to me. I have no idea how far down the road my imagination will take me in different areas, but I’ll never know until I take that possibility of talent out of the plastic baggie. Maybe take that first bite of saltiness and roll it around in my mouth to decide if it is worth working with. Anything is possible, right?
Just ask the salt-dough snake.