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Lessons from Clay

So I’ve started taking pottery classes. You know, the kind with a wheel. The experience is a bit like walking into a formal cocktail party wearing your bra and underwear on the outside of your clothes. Not that I’ve ever done that, but I’m just sayin‘…

But nonetheless I remain committed to this self-imposed creative experiment and am starting to see the fruits of my labor – beyond just some pretty cool looking bowls.
I’ve come to vehemently believe one thing about pottery and working on the wheel: it’s not about the clay. I have been continually amazed at the richness of the metaphor of throwing pots, much to the chagrin of my classmates, I’m sure (it’s not easy have a coach in your midst…everything becomes a metaphor for living).
It’s ingenious really, clay. Because embedded in it, mixed up with all the sand, sediment and water is, well, me. Who would have thought going to pottery class would have the same impact as therapy, coaching, intuitive reading and body work combined? Ok, so I’m exaggerating, but it’s not far off base. Here are my latest lessons in clay to illustrate what I’m talking about:
Be committed, but don’t get too attached
Working at the wheel forces you to recognize that something you’ve labored on and sweat over is simply a thing. That’s all. No matter how much you love it and are proud of it, your creation can flop over, slop apart or shatter in a moments notice. Again and again. It kind of desensitizes you to material loss on a small scale. Until you realize that it is what it is. At which point, your focus shifts to the process of making the bowl instead of the destination of the finished product.
It takes time and patience to center, and you’re dead in the water without it
Ah, centering…we meet again. “Centering” is the act of getting your lump of clay exactly in the middle of the wheel while the wheel is moving around and around. Sounds easier that it is, but it takes time and a boatload of patience to master. It’s one of the hold-your-breath-wince-and-tense-up-your-shoulders kind of “simple” things. Like meditating, some would say. It makes you sweat even on the coldest of days and is the price of entry to any good pottery piece – if you don’t center your clay, your pot is doomed to a long, slow and ugly demise. Ah, but once you pass through those pearly gates, it’s all downhill sailing – life, I mean throwing a pot, is so much easier. Oh, and one bright spot on the centering front? I’m happy to report there is such a thing as “plenty centered”, so no need to hold out for the “perfectly” category. Plenty will do just fine.
Fear won’t serve you well at all, so just get over it
There is nothing more humbling than the realization that a half-pound lump of clay is holding you captive with fear. Seriously. And when that clay starts to take shape into something more functional, dare I say, beautiful, the stakes go higher and so goes the fear. Of failure. Of ruining something after running through all those gauntlets. It’s like those feverish game show contestants, knowing when to say “deal” or “no deal” and cut your losses or go for the big bucks. As you watch the wheel spinning round and round you continually butt up against choice points and option “A” always seems to be “be afraid.” This is not simply a trick question, it’s an open invitation to see through to a different option, a different way of being. The lesson here is that you’ll always have fear, it’s like the loyal collie companion of living, always at your beck and call.
Keep the wheel moving
This has become my mantra – thanks to the multiple times during class I hear my plenty-patient instructor utter those very words as she passes by me. It reminds me of that physics law, “a body in motion stays in motion” and I have found, as in exercise, it forces me to breathe (you can only hold your breath for so long, you know…) Keeping the wheel moving is a practice that forces you to work with things as they are in motion, to match your form to a moving form, and to breathe independently of my actions on the wheel. In this start-stop, hurry-up-and-wait, want-it-now culture, I’ve found it’s a radical act to keep my foot slow and steady on the wheel. Going zero-to-sixty, slamming on the brakes or making sudden herky-jerky movements just don’t fly with the wheel world. Slow and steady she goes.
When you let go, let go gently
Yeah, this one was a one-two punch for me (in a good way). There’s the whole “letting go” thing, but then kissing up against it is the whole “gentle” thing. Friends with benefits, they are. Here’s how it looks: you’re moving your hand across the bottom of the bowl and then smoothly up the sides to pull them up higher and higher and then – BLAM – you withdraw your hands like you’ve been jolted with a lightening bolt (in my case because I’ve run out of breath…which I’ve been holding.) So now a perfectly smooth and graceful line has a pinch and a wobble to one side. The letting go, well, that’s an obvious lesson, but here’s the subtle nuance when you overlay it with the “gentle” thing. My instructor watched me today and said, “right before you let go, you need to gently release pressure until you’re no longer touching it.” I nearly broke into tears with understanding. I thought of everything I loved so dearly – my children, my beloved and the life we’ve built together, my business that I adore. I thought of that adage, “if you loved something, let it go” and how it will come back to you. So letting go is about love and gently releasing our hold on it.
Don’t take yourself so seriously
So how do you – or I, in this case – stay sane when all these thoughts and realizations are pouring out of me as the wheel keeps spinning and spinning around (make it stop!) Laughter. Thank heavens it comes easily to me – a saving grace, for certain. I look over at my neighbor and we both roll our eyes and exchange knowing nods and we chuckle. I watch as my classmates learn to make handles for mugs by “pulling from a pot” and I bust a gut at the suggestive nature of it (google it…you’ll see what I mean.) I channel my friend, Katie West and the philosophy that is the basis of her Levity Institute and periodically chant ha-ha-ho-ho-ho or rehearse a laughter story I will tell later to my friends and clients. If none of that work, I just look down and see that I’m covered in head to toe in brown slop and slurry – is there anything more hysterical than a person trying to take themselves seriously looking like that!? I rest my case

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