The theology of suffering is as follows: the worse you are, the better you become. Pain is painful but it can grow you. Or, something like that.
I left my recent bat-swing, loudly cracking, on the page; as though anger at unfairness is a sport, and I, a gleeful player. It would have been much more ME to quickly solve the dispute I'm having with Reality, with a quippy little poem or silly cartoon in a follow-up by the next morning. Sometimes, I leave things because I feel the need to let my feelings linger. But this time, I didn't feel the need to do anything: too tired, too many other things to do; there's a spin about my world and I'm trying to find my center.
A number of weeks ago, I took myself to Salt Spring Island. Days of grace were spent with The Dear and Wonderful Julie Mackinnon Ceramics, in a pottery class. My first experience with the clay was hesitant, at best. Julie had me handle clay almost as soon as I landed on her doorstep. I felt clumsy with it in my hands. My first creation showed my weaknesses; I made it too thin, it crackled, it had a weird shape. The longer I stared at it, the less I liked it. My first full day of classes was spent at the table, shaping blobs into littler blobs, makeshift vases, pinch pots, and the like. My affinity for the medium and the method grew with each piece. Julie told us our pots would look like no one else's pots, that our fingers would instinctively create something purely us. It's true. Looking around the room, after much was made, proved her point: everyone's creations looked like their creations, each body of work had a distinct feel. By the end of the first day, I discovered my creative niche: cutesy detail work. I'll call it a niche because I enjoy what I made, not because I mastered anything.
The second day of classes, I desperately wanted to sit at the wheel -- a graduation from the pinch-pot -- but found myself approaching the opportunity with more of the same hesitation I'd experienced the day before. Spinning pottery on a wheel has been a dream since I was born, or perhaps longer, and yet, I had to talk myself into actually trying it. The thing is, clay is honest. I was scared. Clay shows what you're feeling and, simultaneously, takes on a life of its own. Clay needs to be mastered, and listened to. Clay is a push and pull, simultaneously.
Julie spent a lot of time talking about how to approach the wheel, how to center yourself, so the things you make stay standing. I spent a lot of time listening to her, and imagining, at her suggestion, where this clay had been before. It's got a long life, she reminded me, it's dirt. I began to wonder at her remarks, when, without changing my approach or my methodology, different pieces were created each time. It was as if the clay was meant to be the thing it became, and my hands were merely witnesses.
Before anything is made, the clay has to be centered. Throw the clay (really, throw) onto the wheel, hit it with the palm of your hand so it sticks, then get that wheel spinning fast. Add water, watch it move in spirals to the edge. At this point, my pulse quickens to think of the work ahead. With a centered body, and strong arms, lean in. Now, push. Down, and toward the center. Eliminate the wobble. Add water as needed. Drown the dirt; push. Repeat until its centered. Create.
I approached each piece with curiousity, as if I was discovering something new each time. My ears were open, and my soul entrenched, in the experience of working with earth. Because I know Julie, and she was gracious enough to let me play around on the wheel for an extra day, I got time on the wheel when there were no other students there. I got to try this centering thing repeatedly, on my own. Beside a world class potter. The stuff of dreams.
Let me tell you: centering clay is hard work. Often, I had to lean my body-weight into the wheel to try and get that lump of matter moving. Add water. Push. Add water. Push. Lean. Scrape. Push. Water. Effort! Push, push, push. Doesn't this clay know I am trying to help it become beautiful!? And then, like some miracle - or, as it felt to me - after much strain, the eye blinks, and the clay is centered.
In so many ways, the clay and the work of it spoke to me, but no moment was clearer than this one. I was working with a particularly difficult wedge of clay. It wouldn't budge. It was stubborn, lumpy, and no matter how much I leaned, wetted, leaned, and leaned, the clay stayed hard, like stone. Funny, too, because it came off the same block as the others. But, this one hurt my hands. There in the sunshine of the morning, hands and elbows and knees covered in slip, I sighed loudly, exasperated at this thing in front of me. It was then I heard a whisper in my soul. It spoke of the push, and the purpose behind it. My breath caught as I thought about how hard I was pushing on this stubborn piece of clay, and suddenly, I felt my spirit shift. I'm this thing. I'm this hard bit. I'm this stubborn piece of clay, with a history, and a future made of shapes, and He approaches me with grace, now if only I would let, give way, and become.
So when I left the island, these thoughts were bouncing around the caverns of my spirit, and I felt grateful for the lesson. I was filled with peace. I said goodbye to my beautiful hostess, I found a spot on the boat in the sunshine. I let the wind have fun with my hair. The boat left the dock, and I sighed again - this time, a thankful pause for the gift of a purposeful weekend. The phone rang. My husband called. In the moments before my feet wandered off the island, our world shifted. The ferry moved along and the island got smaller, and I felt the wheel beneath us kick up speed. Time for centering. Time to be made beautiful. But first, the push.