Lately, instead of writing, I have been making glass beads. You start with what is called a mandrel, essentially a stainless steel spoke coated with a custardy substance that, once dried, prevents the melting glass from sticking to the spoke. You work with long thin rods of glass in a riot of colors, from deep pink to tropical orange to blood red to profound purple, a purple so deep, so dense, very little light leaks through what is, in fact, a transparent rod of glass. I have a torch, or a torch head, gold-colored and curved, threaded at its end so it screws into an ice-cold bottle of map gas. You turn the spigot on the gas bottle and hear the hiss of poison now pouring through the pores of the torch; quickly, quickly, you strike a match, the sound of flint, the smell of smoke, and the torch roars into life, spewing a single flame with a blue hue at its red-hot heart, the outer fringes of the fire all scarlet.
Just this is enough to mesmerize but the best is yet to come. Holding the mandrel (that steel spoke) in one hand and a glass rod of your chosen color in the other, you push the rod into the heart of the flame and watch as solid turns soft, then droopy, the rigid glass going liquid, forming a tear drop at its base, a tear drop that you catch on your mandrel and then you begin to wind. You wind the glass around and around the mandrel, in this fashion building up your bead, the mandrel essentially holding the hole you’ll later thread with wire or rope or what have you. I build my beads into molten spheres and then begin to layer them with other colors, the table I work at stocked with jam jars each one packed with rods in every assortment of pastels and deeps; I do cranberry dots or yellow swirls or sea- green lines, everything I add melting into the basic bead beneath, the bead formed in the flame as soft as melted taffy; you can’t see your design; the heat smears it into invisibility and it isn’t until the bead has cooled and the colors come back to what they originally were that you can appraise your creation. And this is part of the fun, or rather the lure, building these little glass planets and guessing at what might look good as you go about creating them — a lake of aqua here, a scribble of a green tree there, a dot, a dash, a swirl; you take your tungsten pick and plunge it into the bead’s flaming body, raking out your colors and making them merge in ways you will only later appraise. The torch is loud, too. It does not so much hiss as roar which makes conversation impossible so you are, when making these beads, lost in a world of fire and force and deep transformation as you take cold hard glass into a state so soft you could drink it, if it wouldn’t burn your body or coat or your insides so you crackled and cracked once the cooling came.
I can’t seem to stay away from these beads and the process of making them. I have jettisoned my daily responsibilities so that I can be in the basement with my torch and my spokes and my rods of fruit and candy colors. The actual beads I make are beginner beads; they are not that good, but because the glass is inherently beautiful, the colors pulsing and true, the beads cannot be anything but beautiful also, and this is strange to me. Words are not inherently beautiful; Writing is something one must work and work at in order to create a thing of beauty, but melted glass, otherwise known as lampworking, is a kinder kind of craft; it allows even the beginner to make transparents and opaques shaped on the cold shaft of a chisel, the final bead firm and layered, like looking into a pond, the flicker of an orange fish, the sway of something green, layer into layer into layer, glass layered over glass over still more glass so the beads have depth and dimension.
I cannot, at the age of fifty, toss my writing overboard and become a professional lampworker and even if I “could,” I lack the talent, of that I am so sure. And yet I cannot seem to pull myself away from the furnace and the force and the sweet surprise that each bead is as it comes into itself when cooling, the colors resolving as the heat flees the body of the bead and it presents itself to you, this sphere, this petite planet, its planes and curves beautiful, yes, but more, Each bead suggests to me a world that is not really mine, a world I can gaze at but not really enter, or master, here in my mid life, so many paths, so many possibilities not taken. I’d like to be this, or do that. I feel a thousand things come calling. There is melting glass and making beads; there are horses and their hypnotic canters; there are plants with their roots spilling soil and their broad fleshy leaves; there are stones you can form into walls or even houses; there are three thousand things to do or be, and yet, here, in my mid life, I have chosen one: words. Words. Words. I spent decades honing my skills with words and it’s too late now to turn from that and cast my passions elsewhere. Even if a part of me would like to. I assume I’ll return to words but my travels into glass serve as a reminder that I am bigger than my writing, that even as my body ages and turns stiff I still have swerves in me, sudden stops and deep departures; let me continue to keep these. Let me learn to balance better. I am such a terrible traveler; let me learn to pack a bag and head out for fields and highways but let me learn, as well, how to make my way here, home, where the words wait, whispering.