Handprints in Clay

We came around a bend in the river. The box canyon was narrowing in and the river, now a mere trickle, had carved out the bottom edge of a seam of red clay so that the orange and gold rocks on top provided a brief slice of shade. “Let’s stop here,” Pema said. I glanced behind to Silke, the cottonwoods on the opposite shore. “Yeah,” I said, shaking my head, “this looks about right.”


I set down my pack, laden with four water bottles and two thermoses (afternoon tea), then watched as Silke took a leather rattle out of her cloth bag and made herself comfortable along the sloping edge of a crumbling rock. Everywhere the earth was dissolving, from boulder to rock, from sandstone to grit, volcanic ash to mud and clay. The colors – purple, orange, gold and green – were mixed upon the desert floor with coffee-colored muck from decayed plants. The rock upon which Silke sat was red and transitioned seamlessly into a pool of clay with which Pema, now naked, was fast at work.


“I process clay,” Pema said, echoing statements she’d heard from a potter friend of ours, “and this is my clay shop.” She had found a plate-sized stone and laid it in the water, upon which she now heaped bits of broken rock and pulverized them into mud and clay. I picked up a small piece of green-gray stone that lay beneath the water. Its soft edges smeared into the ridges of my fingertips. “Yeah,” I repeated silently, “this looks about right.”


“Weet. Weet. Weet.” A small unseen bird repeated its one-note soliloquy in the branches overhead. I whistled back, catching the tune, but not quite the flavor of its song. Birds. Beaks. Wet lips. Silke sang quietly on the shore. The three of us, the apes, were together yet magnificently alone.


Two years ago I began a project. I called it Off Grid Kids, but the name wasn’t really important. I just wanted to write. My daughter and I were growing up and there was a knack to our moments, whether in canyons like this one or just in the gravel driveway. We did cool things and we saw cool stuff. We touched them, and we heard sounds. Most of all we just loved each other, and we could feel that in the rhythm of the planet. I began trying to capture that in print, partly for family and friends who were distant, but mostly for myself. I made a little website so I felt official and important.


I remember thinking at the time, “You have to enjoy every moment of this – the writing, the sharing, the reading, because if no one reads it, if no one ever really cares, the effort still has to be worth it. Otherwise, you’re going to trap yourself. Write because you want to write, not because you want to be read.”


That worked for quite a while, but after a year and a half, including some modest attention, I decided to make a go of it. I hired an assistant and paid a writing coach $200/hr to help me find my audience. I revamped my website and started advertising on Facebook. Modern writers, I learned, are judged not so much for their skill, but their “platform”, an ambiguous term that means their ability to sell books. “Just experiment,” the coach said, and I did.


It was scary at first, but after a week or two I learned how to navigate Facebook’s advertising protocols (they make it easy to pay them), and I was met with modest success. I made a few videos. I shared cool photos. Within a few weeks my audience jumped from a handful of family and friends to several thousand people. I got positive feedback in the comments section. A handful of people subscribed to my blog, but the bulk of the activity remained on Facebook. After a month or so, I started asking myself why not focus more intently on Facebook, since that’s where the action is?


I got busier, trying to keep up with my writing while generating photos and videos on the side. After experimenting for a couple months, it became obvious that the core of what I thought I was doing – writing stories – was the thing people were the least interested in. Most people liked the photos and blurbs. I evolved. “What is Off Grid Kids?” I asked myself. I pulled in Silke more often, trying to shape the content into tips and ideas for educators and homeschoolers, rather than wandering stories about getting stuck with children in thunderstorms.


As I experimented further, I realized that some people were drawn in particular to the father/daughter element in my writing (or maybe just the photos). “What if I focus on that?” I thought. The result spawned a whole new website and Facebook page, launched just this last week, in an effort to promote fatherhood in a novel way. “That might get me more attention,” I thought.


Day to day, I checked my Facebook page, responded to comments and messages, counted the page likes, the post likes, the “engagements”, and rationalized it all with the expenses I was incurring. Facebook makes it easy, reporting the precise “reach” of a particular message or post, the “relevance” to one’s audience, and much more. Hundred and fifty post likes for five bucks? Not worth it. Wait, look at this one with the picture of a horny toad. My God, it’s more popular than anything else. Add ten bucks.


Some people grumbled, but most of the feedback was positive – high scores, good “relevance”, continued growth. I anticipated the next day’s release and my mood swung depending on whether people liked it or not. By February, I stopped writing altogether and began focusing solely on generating Facebook posts, even restyling the website and emails to focus on that type of content. I began using words like “content”, as if the entire project was about marketing, feedback loops, failure and success, and the “content” was just, you know, content.


“Dad, do you want red clay with green bits or red clay with green and brown pieces?” Pema had been processing her clay for sometime and she was ready to sell. I hesitated for a second, watching a stalk of grass move back and forth over the water. “Nah, I’m okay,” I almost said, but then I stopped being an idiot. I turned to her and screwed up my face. “I think I want red clay with green bits.”


“Yeah,” Pema said, not missing a beat, “that’s pretty much what everybody wants.” Her smile and demeanor were infectious. She was exactly right there. Mortar and pestle and mud. She needed nothing else, not even clothes. She had safety and warmth, a loving father, a trickle of water and a light breeze. Shuka-shuka-shuka-shuka went the fresh green leaves. “Weet. Weet. Weet,” went the bird. I held a weight in my heart.


“How much is it?” I asked.


“Five…no, ten dollars.”


“Okay,” I said, handing her a fist-sized stone. She passed me a soggy lump of clay, red with little flecks of the same green-gray stone I had filched from the stream moments ago. Then she turned to the shore and cleft another pile of wet rocks from the earth, the endless earth, at her doorstep. Water dripped down my palm like tears.


This is what I want more than anything – to be present. Whether I’m at school, the grocery store or several miles into a deeply forested canyon, I want to be there. I want to make pancakes out of mud. I want to feel the water grazing my ankles, and listen to the birds go “Weet. Weet. Weet.” I want my projects and careers to work for me, not me to work for my projects and careers. And perhaps most of all, I want to model that to my daughter and all the children in my care.


But there is something more. As I shifted away from my writing and into my “content”, I lost something else, something so subtle it took me a while to realize it. I used to spend six to eight hours a week writing, quietly reminiscing about a unique moment with my daughter or a handful of children at school. As I struggled to put it into words, to recall the colors and shapes and textures, I wrote the history of my daughter’s childhood into my skull. Not just on the page, mind you, but literally inside the organism that is my body.


The moments along shorelines and secluded forests were like raw and precious stones. As I polished and cut them into stories and words I took something away, I removed them from their original setting, but I also gave something to it. Meaning. I was in a constant state of renewed creation, cultivating lasting meaning for myself and vivid memories of a life I so deeply wish for all human beings. A quiet moment in the bend of a river. The sun through dappled leaves. Not every writer can capture the world’s attention. If we could only learn to capture our own.


When we had entered the canyon, a small sign had been posted which read, “No defacing or carving the stone. Violators will be prosecuted.” A few yards further an enormous orange boulder was covered from top to bottom in the tiny scrawl of humans desperate to make a name for themselves. Most of them were rushed, but many were artfully embedded into the soft sandstone, a memorial spanning a couple hundred years. “Enough,” the sign seemed to say, “those old people were great, but you modern fuckers best leave this shit alone.”


So much of what we encounter today is about what’s wrong. What’s wrong with fathers, with guns, the earth. We’re destroying rainforests, killing whales and each other, sucking the juice from a billion years of dinosaur and plant life. The message is loud and clear, even if a portion of the population still ignores it. A sea of plastic floats in the oceans. The hottest temperatures ever recorded are quickly being surpassed.


How do we reconcile the ancient human drive to make a difference, to leave a mark, with the fact that our world is ailing? Why are the cave paintings at Lascaux any more important than the name of a sixteen-year-old scrawled across a sandstone rock? Isn’t it all beautiful? Or is it just the old stuff? Isn’t it wonderful that bankers try to bank and protesters try to protest? Don’t lions hunt and deer get killed? And don’t the lions die too?


Perhaps it’s good to question these motives in ourselves, but it can’t be good to demonize them. Who doesn’t want to be noticed? Who doesn’t, in the deepest corners of their minds, want to be the best at something?


I was standing with my daughter’s soggy lump of clay in my hands, sensing all this vaguely, criticizing myself for not being more present, more joyful, more grateful, when I began to slop the clay back and forth in my hands. It’s a remarkable and soothing exercise, one I’ve taken to many times. Dirt and mud on the hands. Slide. Repeat. Listen.


While I was doing this I wandered somewhat aimlessly, listening to everything and nothing in particular, the sounds of the canyon, when suddenly I found myself in front of a smooth stone in the cliff. Instantly, I felt the impulse to press my hand to the stone, to leave a handprint, and I gave in. For a second or two I held my hand to that ancient rock wall, the same rock wall that was here ten thousand years ago, the same trickle of water, now coming over my ankles as my daughter played in the distance. Her imagination. My imagination. The forest.


The fact is, I walked away from that moment with little more than a shrug. The same heaviness sat in my chest. The wet clay didn’t stand out much against the darkness of the stone. Later, we walked further up the canyon and reached a secluded waterfall. We found lizards and tadpoles, and oily red cactus flowers. I held Pema’s wet skin against mine. We returned a few hours later, the hot afternoon sun falling towards evening, and passed the little bend in the river. The clay had dried on the wall, turning grayish-white, leaving a remarkable image of myself in the cliffs.

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