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MIT student blogger Shuli J. '22

glassblowing & me by Shuli J. '22

a series of memories

The other day, I had a little epiphany that came to me in the shape of a glassblowing metaphor. When I thought about it more, I realized that although I haven’t done a lot of glassblowing, it’s played a surprisingly large part in my conception of self over the past two years. I thought that was funny, and kind of cool, and I wanted to share it with you.

February 20, 2020: I write my name on a little piece of paper, sit in 10-250 for an hour with 250 other very hopeful people, and feel like the luckiest sophomore in the world when my piece of paper is pulled and I get into beginner glassblowing.

March 10, 2020: In between my morning lecture and my afternoon glassblowing practice session, we get The Text: MIT is going online and we have a week to leave. It feels like the world is ending.01 We thought we were being melodramatic but in retrospect, that world kind of was ending. In some ways, we've been in a very different one ever since. I go to glassblowing anyway.

March 12, 2020: After my afternoon classes, I walk into the glass lab for the last time in almost two years to pick up the paperweight I’d made two days before. The paperweight is white, maroon, and teal, designed to be the exact colors of my room in East Campus. At 11 pm we get another text. The timeline has been moved up: now we have only three days to leave. I have three more days to live in my room. I pack my paperweight up very, very carefully. I can’t stay in my room, but at least, just the tiniest bit, I can take it with me.

An egg-shaped glass paperweight. It is sitting on a maroon ladder in front of a green wall. The paperweight itself has rolling hills inside it made up of streaks of maroon, green, and white color.

My paperweight in its namesake (name-color?) location.

May 12, 2021: One full year into Zoom school. I am taking Poetry Workshop and it is the last week of class. Every other week, we’ve had a prompt for our weekly poem; this week, what we write is up to us. Purely on a whim, with no plan in mind, I find myself writing a poem called “who are you” about all the things that I am. I list out almost all the things that I am, and reach out into myself for any last thing I might have missed. I can’t explain it in words, but I feel my self echo back an image, a glow, a feeling of heat on the hand. I add the line I am the glass in the crucible, white fire, come touch me.

August 17, 2021: The glassblowing lab announces that they will be reopening in the fall, and have managed to successfully innovate a way to blow glass while wearing a mask. They offer everyone in the Spring 2020 class a spot in the fall 2021 class, no lottery needed.

September 27, 2021: Due to an email list mix-up, I accidentally lose my spot in the fall class. I tell myself it doesn’t matter — after all, only luck got me the opportunity in the first place — but I cry a little bit anyway when I mention it on the phone to my parents.

February 1, 2022: The glassblowing lab very generously lets me into the spring class.

March 2022: I find myself struggling with insecurity. I wrestle with trying to balance the idea that we are all “perfect the way we are” and the idea that we are all imperfect, always improving, trying to make ourselves better. How can both be true? Failing to believe both somehow leaves me believing neither, and I fight with a voice in my brain telling me I’m not good at anything. Several sad things happen at once in my personal life; already feeling low, I spend days trying to see more than just the negatives in myself and my actions.

April 11, 2022: I am trying to make a solid blue cup in glassblowing practice session. I gather a glowing ball of clear glass on the end of my pipe and roll the ball through blue-colored glass frit.02 Basically, glass sprinkles. Their small size lets you use them as a coating for solid glass. My mentor advises me that if I want the color to be solid throughout, I’d better melt this frit in and cover it in a second layer. As I heat the ball in the gloryhole,03 The furnace where you reheat your glass, as opposed to the crucible, the furnace where you gather new glass. Yes, it really is called that. the blue frit melts down and turns white, starting to glow like the rest of the ball. It goes from sprinkles sticking straight out on the ball to white dots pressed almost all the way into it, but not quite. I go back for another layer and look at the new blue frit, standing out on top of the old white dots.

The end of a glassblowing pipe, with bright yellow hot glass on it. It is being rolled through lots of small blue glass frit on a steel table.

Hot glass being rolled through blue frit. Source: https://robbinsranch.com/solid-colors/

As I work it, the cup starts to take shape, forming a beautiful blue — not quite solid, but almost, with a ghostlike pattern that reminds me of the way sunlight veins itself through water. At a key moment in the piece, I suddenly suspect something is wrong. To do the next step correctly, I would have needed to change a previous one. I go ahead anyway. The cup falls off my pipe and breaks all over the floor. I spend the rest of the practice session getting over it. By the end, my deep sadness has faded, out through gentle sadness and into acceptance. I leave the lab with an image of the cup still in my mind. It’s okay if it just lives here, with me, I tell myself, and I can feel that I actually believe it.

 

April 13, 2022: I go to a Lorde concert. The set is transcendent, and we’re all in the frame of mind to let loud music tell us what to feel. Between crying my eyes out over half the setlist, somewhere in the middle of Liability, I have a revelation on the question I’ve been wrestling with for my whole life (in one sense) and/or for the past month (in another). I scramble to get out my phone and write it down incoherently.

I get home from the concert and try to explain it out loud to my partner: “It’s like, the realization… that my first responsibility is to myself. Not myself, but the person that I am, the way that I am now. My second responsibility is to others and that’s important too — I need that too, but it’s pointless if I’m not responsible for myself first.” At the end of all my babble I don’t even know what I’ve said. They tell me: “That makes sense. I understand.” and I appreciate it, but I’m not sure if it’s possible to understand a thing I don’t think I actually said.

A stage seen from further back in the theater. The main part of the stage is a circular platform with a set of stairs on top leading to nowhere. Around the pedestal are wide stairs, like stadium seating.

The set. They changed the lights on each piece/shape of it individually to make the most beautiful geometric displays.

April 14, 2022: I wake up with the revelation re-formed in my mind. I don’t know if it makes sense to anyone else, but it suddenly makes sense to me. In my mind’s eye, I see myself, a glowing ball of clear glass. I am not perfect: I can be improved. I can pick up frits of other colors and incorporate them into myself, if I choose to, if the color will look good. And over time, as I make other changes, those colors may melt down and join the ball. But I can’t add new glass and pretend it was there all along.

My first responsibility, if I want it, is to protect the glass ball that I am: whole already, needing — and accepting — no alteration. My second responsibility is to try to add new colors, pick up what might be good, help it melt it and join the glass that I have. It is not my job to do the impossible by reaching into the ball and change what’s already at its heart; only to add new layers to the outside, and let time do its job and melt them into the inside. And because of this, I can simultaneously love the glass that I hold now, and the one I will hold in the future. Both of them are me. Both of them good enough.

A bright yellow ball of hot glass on the end of a pipe.

Source: https://www.threedimensionalvisions.com/the-gather-of-glass/

  1. We thought we were being melodramatic but in retrospect, that world kind of was ending. In some ways, we've been in a very different one ever since. back to text
  2. Basically, glass sprinkles. Their small size lets you use them as a coating for solid glass. back to text
  3. The furnace where you reheat your glass, as opposed to the crucible, the furnace where you gather new glass. Yes, it really is called that. back to text