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.

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.