A Million Right Turns

Making a butter dish! Photo: Donna Dahlstrom

Making a butter dish!
Photo: Donna Dahlstrom

“I don’t get attached until after it’s trimmed,” my classmate tells me, looking up with apprehension from the pottery wheel across from me, where she’s just finished shaping a tiny cup.

It’s seventh period in the ceramics room, where I spend the ends of most days taking Ceramics 3 as a student. Though I’ve taken the classes slowly–three in the last four years–I’ve come to love these sweet hours in the clay studio, times full of creativity and casual, pleasant conversation with students I love. This semester has seen us beginning to make–or throw, in ceramic terms–ever more complicated forms on the pottery wheel.

Mom with her finished pot.

Mom with her finished pot.

The language of pottery is familiar to me. I grew up listening to my mother tell stories about her own ceramics classes in high school and college, and saw their artifacts all over the house. In our retreat-center days, I remember watching-dozens of times–an anonymous potter’s hands on an evangelical video that drew heavily on the metaphor of Potter & Clay. Towards the end of my own college career, Mom went back to take more ceramics classes at Seattle Pacific University, filling our cupboards with earthy bowls in blue, green and grey. When the opportunity came for me to “audit” the classes at Black Forest Academy, taught by two dear friends, I jumped at the chance.

Still, I know what she means, my classmate leaning over her just-finished cup. My own work today has been uneven. One cup with an uneven rim slumped over before I could even get it off the wheel, and now I hold my breath as I slice this one–still imperfect–off the slowly rotating surface. It will have to dry, first right-side up and then upside-down, before I can even approach my classmate’s least favorite step, trimming the bottom into a smooth, grooved foot.

Jennifer throws in her studio.

Jennifer throws in her studio.

I recall a conversation I had with my mother in September, when she came to visit and spend the day with Jen and me in the studio. “There’s just so many points it could go wrong,” she said then. “From when you’re throwing it at first, to moving it, to drying, to trimming.”

“And you still have to glaze it,” I had sighed, citing my least favorite part. “You could want it to look one way, and then it could–well, look like anything else.”

Mom laughed. “Now you understand!”

I did then, and the thought has lingered ever since. Here’s something that we do–for fun–at which we can be thwarted half a dozen different ways before the end. There’s so much that can go wrong.

I’m drawn to metaphor–perhaps more than is good for me or anyone–and tempted to think beyond pots. How much of life consists of such endeavors, projects threatened by disasters, seen or unseen. What if? But that could… How will I know if…? If I’m looking hard enough, trouble is lurking everywhere, enough to make it feel like a miracle that anything works out, ever.

1185700_10205290413484064_565090307768442962_nMy own cup comes off of the wheel in reasonably good shape, and I set it in the cupboard to dry, turning my attention to the finished pieces that line the shelves around the room.  I have things to glaze, but I don’t like glazing, so I stare at the glazing done by others. Even some of my own work catches my eye.

I remember what I thought each piece would look like, almost never the abstractly-colored pieces that ended up warm in my hands. Sometimes my vision of perfection was met, but seldom. Occasionally this ended in disappointment, just another wrong turn, but more often something unexpectedly beautiful emerged from the flames. More interesting and complex than I could have planned for, glaze works mysterious magic without the help my imagination.

Practice and plan though we might, we can’t always avoid the ways things go wrong. This has never seemed more true than this last week in Germany, as every day brought a horrible new revelation of a plane that crashed for a reason no one ever worried about. It’s as if one of our whirling hunks of clay flew off and caught fire spontaneously. We hadn’t even thought of that.

The glaze, though, is the rest of the metaphor. There are many ways that everything can go wrong, but just as many unforeseen ways for it to go right. I can’t avoid every wrong turn by worrying, but I’ll miss many of the right ones if I’m not paying attention. A million serendipitous turns have taken my breath away with their unforeseen joy, a rightness infinitely better than the right I’d been planning. And though I’m still not wild about glazing, that imprecise variable, it’s brought more beauty than heartbreak when I’m willing to step back and see it.

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