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My Life As A Pot

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My Life As A Pot

I recently spent a week up on Lake Erie at the Lakeside resort, which is a Chautauqua community owned by the Methodist church, where like-minded individuals gather for education, as well as spiritual and emotional development (at least that’s what it says on the brochure). Really, it feels more like summer camp.

Little cottages with picket fences line the streets in a grid down to the lakefront, where a park stretches the length of the shore and is lined with putt-putt golf, shuffleboard courts, tennis courts, a historic lakefront hotel, a foot trail, a playground or two, an ice cream parlor, a pizza joint, sunfish sailing, kayaks, a swimming beach, and various sundry diversions. Essentially, there’s just fun stuff to do all day long.

My daughter’s schedule was beyond my ability to keep straight. Thank God for her Nana, who played Julie, the cruise director for the week (“And now, on the Lido deck, Siena has Rock Painting, followed by a scavenger hunt, then supervised playground games, before the hot dog roast at 6:00 and the country-western dance at 7:00.” I’m not kidding.)

So I decided to sign up for two week-long classes – pottery wheel throwing and soapstone sculpture. I started both on the same morning.

3 Steps To Throwing A Pot

I had never touched a pottery wheel before, but I had always wanted to, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to do it. As we sat down to get started, our teacher Dan explained that there are three steps.

  1. Centering. After kneading the clay until it’s free of air holes, you lump it into a ball, throw it on the wheel, and spin the wheel while manipulating the clay with your hands to make sure it’s centered on the wheel. Otherwise, you wind up with a lopsided pot.
  2. Opening up. Once you’re convinced that your clay is centered, it’s time to dig your thumbs into the center of the mound and pull out the edges into something decidedly bowl-shaped.
  3. Finishing. After “throwing” your pot, you have to let it dry, flip it upside down, and carve the “foot” of the bowl, flattening it out to make it level and removing the extra clay.

Surprisingly, the centering part came easily for me on day one. Most of the students found their mounds of clay wobbling around from side to side, but somehow I got lucky, and my clay pretty much started out centered and didn’t need much adjusting.

Opening up, however, was another matter. I dug my thumbs in, no problem, but one side of the pot rocked and rolled like it was about to flip over. And then the pedal on my wheel got stuck and the whole thing sort of keeled over. So I had to go back to square one. Centering. Do over. Take a deep breath. Remember that it’s the process, not the product, that matters the most. Breathe in. Breathe out. Center. Then open up again.

The second time went much better. I was able to open up the pot more evenly, and it went smoothly enough for me to really enjoy the meditative process of holding the wet clay in my hands and watching how the subtle movements of my hands changed the whole shape of the vessel I was forming. Curving my thumbs inwards gave the bowl an inward facing lip.  Pushing my pinkies down towards the wheel, and spreading my thumbs wide, opened up the top more. And if I lost my focus, I lost my center, and the whole thing started to go splat.

After a lot of kanoodling, my first pot was finally finished. All I had to do was take a wire looped between two pieces of wood, cut it off the wheel, and scoot the bowl onto a piece of wood where it could dry overnight. But somehow, in the process, my smooth bowl wound up with a gaping gash marring the side.

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Lissa Rankin

Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself.  She is on a grassroots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself.  Lissa blogs at and also created two online communities - and She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.


+ add your own
9:52AM PDT on Oct 17, 2011

thanks for the story Lissa!
after working with clay for over 40 years and still making a living at it i appreciate hearing from those who are just experiencing her . She is a wonderful teacher and the lessons? I could write a book on the things i've learned...and still learning!

I do mostly handbuilt work, paddling and coiling, and more traditional building techniques. When i hold a class for tribal members ,we start the class with prayer song on a waterdrum (made from the clay they will be using) to help calm us...people do appreciate this part.

I try to teach students NOT to think of the class as making a POT but learning and developing the skill to do making a pot.
If they aren't END_GOAL focused its much easier to see the experience with clay as a relationship builder with the clay,and not focus on the product.

I also know that "beginners luck" is often the worst thing that can happen to people...because when failure comes(and it will) it feel so much worse than if one simply makes small incremental growth.

sorry for going on and on!
richard zane smith

3:41AM PDT on Sep 27, 2011

I was part of an after-school pottery club for awhile, so I sympathize with your trials and tribulations in clay. Sometimes I just couldn't get the hang of what we supposed to be doing. Maybe that was the beginning of my roll with the punches sort of attitude to life. Your fingers are refusing to make a plate? Try a bowl instead and go back to the plate when you're less frustrated with it. Maybe you'll end up with something amazing!

3:36PM PDT on Aug 28, 2011

Thank you

2:10PM PDT on Aug 25, 2011

Thank you

4:50PM PDT on Aug 22, 2011


1:55PM PDT on Aug 22, 2011

we are such complicated/simple beings. Thank you for this beautiful story.

9:27AM PDT on Aug 22, 2011


9:54PM PDT on Aug 21, 2011

hi everyone, please sign this petition and help

9:36PM PDT on Aug 21, 2011

Thank Lissa for this beautiful story...I have come upon this article in a very difficult time in my life. I was reading through several articles on the site wanting to feel numb, mindlessly passing the time until I could fall asleep. Then this article appeared and reading through it I could feel a quiet peace centering me amidst the chaos that is currently reigning in my life. Your analogies are perfect and came at a much needed time. Thank you so much for your post.

1:49PM PDT on Aug 21, 2011

Thanks Lissa, great article!~

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