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 thatís 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, thereís just fun stuff to do all day long.
My daughterís schedule was beyond my ability to keep straight. Thank God for her Nana, who played Julie, the cruise director for the week (ďAnd 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.Ē Iím 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 couldnít resist the opportunity to do it. As we sat down to get started, our teacher Dan explained that there are three steps.
- Centering. After kneading the clay until itís 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 itís centered on the wheel. Otherwise, you wind up with a lopsided pot.
- Opening up. Once youíre convinced that your clay is centered, itís time to dig your thumbs into the center of the mound and pull out the edges into something decidedly bowl-shaped.
- Finishing. After ďthrowingĒ your pot, you have to let it dry, flip it upside down, and carve the ďfootĒ 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 didnít 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 itís 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.
What Happens When You’re Off Center
Day two was a whole other story. From the get-go, I couldnít for the life of me get my clay centered. After over an hour of centering and re-centering and un-centering and going back to square one, I finally gave up and decided to go ahead and open up my pot, knowing full well it wasnít centered.
So what happened? Utter disaster. One side of the pot was about 3/4 of an inch thick, while the other side was barely an 1/8 of an inch thick. And when I used my hands to try to round out my bowl, the thin side caved in and my sculpture wound up looking more like a cala lily than the candy dish I was trying to make.
Getting It Right
By day three, I managed to get centered and wound up with a decent shaped object that looked remarkably bowl-like. So now it was time to finish. I flipped the thing upside down, leveled out the bottom, and started carving out the foot. Only I misjudged the thickness of the bottom of my pot and wound up digging all the way through, putting a ginormous hole in the bottom of my bowl.
And then, just when I thought my bowl was finished and ready for the kiln, it was suddenly back to square one, and I was back to the beginning.
After our third day, I finally had a piece I was proud of. That night, they were supposed to get fired in the kiln, but our teacher decided they were too wet. So class got canceled the day we were supposed to glaze our pots, which meant that I wasn’t able to glaze my own pot because we were going to be away for the next day’s class (at the AWESOME amusement park Cedar Point, so I couldn’t modify my schedule). But my teacher offered to glaze it for me instead. And I just had to trust him to do it the way he saw fit, rather than micromanaging the outcome, the way I tend to do.
Then, I got to go pick up my pot. My teacher glazed it beautifully in the lovely aquamarine color I had selected. But my nephew wanted to carry it home from the art center. I was a little worried that he wouldn’t handle it properly. I was tempted to insist that I carry it myself, to cling to it, to put it up on a high shelf, to protect it from the grubby paws of my beloved 11 year old nephew. But he loved the pot, and he was so excited to hold it in his hands and carry it back home. But then an accident happened. And now, the pot is chipped. Which just seems fitting in a way. There’s a certain poetic justice to the whole thing.
Life Is Like Clay Pottery
Thinking back on the whole process, I realize how much my life is like a pot. Some days, I just canít seem to get my center, and no matter how much effort I exert, I wind up back at the beginning, or sometimes, even three steps behind where I started.
Other days, I find my center easily, and everything I try to create feels nearly effortless.
Sometimes I get all focused and attached on a certain outcome – and then something gets canceled or the plan gets changed, and I wind up feeling wobbly again.
The frustrating thing is that itís often hard to predict which days Iíll be centered and which days I wonít, and in spite of my attempts at meditation, yoga, and other centering activities, I donít yet feel like I have the skills to relocate my center when I lose it. So instead of chucking the whole day, I try to push forward anyway, and everything I create winds up off balance. Sometimes it even collapses in on itself, leaving a pot that looks more like a cala lily than a candy dish.
What If I Had The Tools?
After nearly a week of daily pottery, I can see how making a regular practice of throwing pottery on a wheel might help you feel more in control of your center. Perhaps if I got good at centering clay, Iíd improve at centering myself. The pottery even feels like a sort of meditation. The clay is like earth, very grounding and centering to hold between your wet fingers and mold with the strength of your two hands.
What if I approached everything the way you have to approach pottery? What if I started every project/ conversation/ business meeting with a centering process, rather than floundering into what I do every day? Might I wind up off balance less often?
And how exactly would I do that? I could close my eyes and send down redwood roots into the core of Mama Earth. I could connect myself to the earth with a beam of golden light. I could stand in a balancing yoga pose. I could throw a pot on a pottery wheel.
Iím sure there are more techniques for finding your center. Iím learning as I go.
And what if I could actually practice what I preach – set goals, and release attachment to outcomes? What if I didnít attach to whether we got to glaze our pots on Thursday or whether my pot broke in the kiln? What if I could really just trust the process?
What if YOU could?
How Do You Get Centered?
What works for you? How do you find your center when you get wobbly? Share your tips with us here.
Still finding my center,
Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of†OwningPink.com,†Pink Medicine Revolutionary,†motivational speaker, and author of†Whatís Up Down There? Questions Youíd Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend and Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax.