Learning the Clay

“That wheel is too slow. It makes you work too hard – you use all your strength to control the clay.”

I sit up out of my hunched position, and look at the mound of wet clay on the center of the pottery wheel. I stretch my arms, hands covered in slip. For twenty minutes, I’ve been trying to center the same ball of clay, and it is resisting me.

My God, if that isn’t the truth of my whole life, I think. I do. I do use all my strength to control the clay.

What I know in this moment is how afraid I feel. I have seen her be harsh and exacting, and I have waited for weeks to be on the receiving end of her scathing critiques peppered with shame.

I am so afraid that a few days ago, when she tells me to throw a perfect cylinder, somehow by mystery and miracle, I do it?

I sit back half-satisfied and half-horrified, knowing I couldn’t do it again if I try, and wondering if she will ever teach me the right way, or if this will be like most things I try, in which I’m good enough to fake it, but never actually learn it.

I like how meticulous she is, that she pushes and challenges me, risks on me. I don’t have an art degree, but I’m teaching like I do, and no one is more surprised than me. I like her wit that comes on from the side when I least expect it, the occasional break in her clouds for a bit of warmth and light to peek through. I do not like what I perceive to be her frustrations with and lack of grace for ineptitude, her relentless impatience.

And I am inept, simply because I have no idea what I am doing and no training otherwise. On Tuesday nights, I teach pottery for four girls, but I am barely a step ahead of them, figuring it out on Mondays. Sometimes I make it up on the fly, giving half-formed directions I’m not certain will work, boldly leading them into who knows what bad technique.

At moments, this feels like a metaphor for my whole life.

I eye the clay. I think about my frustration with it. “It can only go where your hands tell it to go.” She says this over and over again.

Except that it can’t really go anywhere – my hands aren’t telling it to go. Instead, they’re fighting one another. They clench the spinning wet ball of clay, two equal and opposing forces controlling, micro-managing, fussing over any bit of unevenness. The clay gathers in wet globs on the heel of my hands, the force peeling parts away from the ball. It looks violent.

“Try a little more speed,” she says, and walks back out.

A week later, we are back at it. I have watched her go through the steps with exquisite attention, memorizing as much as I can, anticipating her next moves. My whole being is an eye. “Make sense?” she looks up from the wheel, and I nod. “Now you,” she says.

I make my circles on the vat with a colored pencil. I slam my wedged clay as close to the center as I can manage, wet my hands, wet the clay, and off we go – with a little more speed.

In the case of wheel-throwing, which might be the only case in life this applies, a little speed is my friend. The clay spins faster than my mind can meticulously over-think it, and my hands are more free to just work. I have the distinct sense of being out of control. The more wet the clay, the more the whole thing feels like I can’t get a grip.

I flash back to childhood, the tree-shaded creek that flows into Lake Michigan at Warren Dunes, deep cut, with walls of slippery wet clay, as grey as the clay on my wheel – with a creek bottom made of clay. There we would slip and slide with joy as children, laughing and squealing, gathering handfuls of stinky clay to take home.

But I push the memory aside. As I work, I feel adrenaline course through me as if I’m doing something very important, like creating a human being from the dust of the earth, forming and molding him – instead of making a practice pot which will probably collapse when I take it off the wheel, or which she’ll randomly cut it in half with a wire to show me the consistency of my walls.

“You’re working too dry. I know because this is my problem too. Your hands should always be wet, and the clay should always be wet. Otherwise you can push it off center. The dryness will work against the force of the wheel and you’ll snag. The clay can only go where your hands tell it to go.”

Everything already feels far too wet, but she grabs a sponge, soaks it, and squeezes it over my hands and the clay, then walks out.

If things felt out of control before, I now feel like I’m driving on ice at night without headlights. In frustration, I hit the acceleration pedal on the pottery wheel with my foot and ramp up the speed. Everything is spinning. For a moment, I stop paying excruciating attention to my hands and the clay, my mind sorting out my emotions, talking down the fear of failure which has now become irrational, as if making pottery were a life and death matter.

The emotions settle out a little, and I descend back out of my fears down into my eyes to see the clay. What’s on the wheel has a good shape. I sit back and watch it spin, a perfectly centered disc, stunned to see what happens when the clay is wet and the speed is fast and I surrender.

You could say I’m learning the clay in all of this – learning the properties of the medium, its limits and its possibilities. And this is true.

But like nothing else has, the clay is teaching me myself. It can only go where my hands tell it to go, and so it reveals me. It reveals my fears, shows me my graspings for control, the ways I can make every move so laden with importance that I begin to crack under the weight of such gravity.

It also reveals how deeply I want to be good. It reveals my fears of inadequacy in the midst of the desire to make something beautiful. On days I am at peace, it reveals my capacity for tenderness and the ways hyper-vigilance can give way to exquisite attention which is productive, skilled even. It reveals my limits and possibilities. I am also clay.

I picked up Jack Bernard’s How to Become a Saint a few weeks ago, thinking about All Saints Day, and he has an amazing line in the introduction which has been messing with me lately. He says,

“I have not been a great sinner struggling with God. I have been a petty one wrapped up in deceptive images of myself.”

His words feel true, and for me, the learning of myself which is the learning of the clay is in the realms of this truth. On the wheel, I am sometimes wrestling it out with the deceptive images of myself, afraid that I am an impostor, and my whole life is an act which might be seen through or fall apart at any moment.

Of course I’m not perfect at pottery. Of course I need instruction – I’ve sat at the wheel about five times now.

But the practicing let’s me see my performance anxiety and perfectionism, and the ways that comes out in my pots – but perhaps also the ways it comes out in my soul, and even my neighbor. The clay is a mirror of myself, and I see how the images of myself can mal-form the world around me.





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