Of Hands and Wheels

Mugs“Um, I’m not good at this.”

She’s hunched over a pottery wheel, the “gumdrop” of grainy clay whirling beneath her beginner’s fingers. This is her third day throwing on the wheel, and it’s not going the way she expected. I know how she feels; it’s only my second day.

Knit into the busyness of these fall days–a thread running between planning lessons, Rome trip, wedding and future–is fourth period Ceramics 2. I took the entry-level course a few years ago, back when it was taught by one of my close friends. This year, at the encouragement of the new teacher, I’m back.

The other students in the class–proper high school students who earn grades and take tests–found it amusing but charming that I was there.

“It’s like, you’re a teacher. But also you’re learning!

This revelation of my capacity to learn out of the way, I enjoyed the time in the studio with these nine girls, hearing about their busy lives and sharing about mine. For a few days I comfortably planned out a slab lantern, a feat of engineering but also of the familiar processes of slab-making, cutting, slipping and scoring pieces of just-damp clay together. I was rusty, but it didn’t take all that long for me to remember those earlier classes.

This wheel madness is another story entirely.

I grew up hearing about pottery from my mom. She’d taken classes in high school and college, and later continued her ceramic education by taking classes at SPU for the last few years they had a studio. We even have a wheel in the basement of our house, but I only saw her throw once, a Sunday that she created pottery as a living sermon illustration of the Potter and the clay. It was beautiful, mesmerizing and looked so easy.

I look across my own wheel at my classmate, who’s also one of my seventh-period Honors American Literature students.

“We’re just new at it,” I shrug, trying to brush a stray hair out of my face with my shoulder, the only part of my arm that is still clay-free.

feel new at this. The clay under my fingers is wobbly and unruly, feeling more like a squirmy wet puppy than a docile substance for my confident fingers to shape. I remember what my friend, Ceramics Teacher, told us about posture, and brace my forearms against my knee and the wheel, leaning even further toward the whirling mass.

Last week, in the wheel throwing demonstration, she reminded us again and again that centering the clay on the wheel was more a matter of firmness and balance than wrenching it in place with sheer strength or will power. “If you are stable,” she demonstrated, holding her hand firmly against the side of the clay, “it will center. It just will. You can’t make it happen. You just have to be firm and calm.”

I think about all of those analogies of the Potter and His clay, and how often I must feel as out of control as this lopsided clay. I’m thankful that my Potter has a firmer hand, bringing me back, again and again, with gentle stability as He shapes me into what He has in mind.

I’m just a novice potter, learning to be still, to feel, to realize that patience is as important as strength. Yes, it’s another hour of the day, but always one from which I leave having learned about more than clay, having grown more than in my skills with the intimidating wheel.

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