Let's Get Dirty

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little out of place, surrounded by experienced casters who stood around me clad in leather aprons and shin guards, lighting their cigarettes with propane torches. I’d given up on planning elaborate pieces, though, once the process of casting was explained. I decided to relax and give in to the muses, make whatever came to mind once my hands got dirty. My entire life these days seems to revolve around strict planning processes, so I was determined to free myself—even if just for a weekend.

I told the instructor I wanted to make a heart. He stared at me over the blue flame of the torch, his lip curling in that way that acknowledges the sentimental and unoriginal without being outright disgusted. Then I realized he was picturing some goofy cookie-cutter heart shape that might hang over a mantle or light switch. “An anatomical heart,” I said, miming the shape of valves and ventricles with my hands. Then he smiled, his tough exterior intact, spared from the torment of cheesy cliche.

As it turns out, it’s not so easy building a heart out of wax. It helps to have a mold of something roundish, like say, a sweet potato. Luckily there was one such mold lying around, for reasons that were never revealed to me. The instructor poured the wax into the mold and winced when it came out with blemishes. "Sorry," he said. "It looks a little banged up."

"Perfect," I told him, because what heart doesn’t have scars?

The next step was to create gates for the iron to enter the mold. Molten iron needs to be shown the way, apparently, so I had to attach wax channels to the heart, and orient it just right to pack it in sand. This is the balancing act—the part where you hold your breath as the heart teeters on the red wax stilts, hoping they’re strong enough to hold it up. Part surgery, part magic. The instructor knocked it over not once, but twice, and I froze, watching it tumble in his hands and along the table top. But this heart was robust, sturdier than the one that beat in my chest. It survived the gating process, the pour, the tumbles, and when I cracked it out of the mold with a hammer, it came out in one piece, still hot to the touch.

One of the other students, a man in his forties, asked me why I was building a heart. “Are you in the medical field?” he asked. I suppose I could have told him any number of things, like mine was broken and I needed a replacement. One that was more durable than the one made of tissue and blood, one that could better withstand the inevitable breaks and tears. “I might need a spare one day,” I said, and he laughed, as if that were a joke.

So I’m left with a sweet potato heart, one that has enough scratches and bruises to be anatomically correct. It’s forged from one piece of metal, and strong enough to withstand those things that my other one is not. It’s also a reminder to play once in a while—to push plans aside and let the right brain take a break. You never know what might happen, and I for one, never tire of surprises.

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