Life Lines

Knowing When to Say When, In Pottery and Life


Last Wednesday night, as I was getting ready to head out to my fourth pottery class, I felt tired, uninspired and, quite frankly, ready to grab any excuse to skip class. But, after waiting several decades to finally find the time—and the nerve—to learn how to throw a pot, I knew I’d be crazy to miss one of my six lessons, so off I went.

As I collected my tools and tucked myself in tight to the wheel, I began to feel my mood shift. The tiredness eased, the rhythmic pounding of the clay as we worked out the air bubbles seemed to pound out the day’s tension, and the loud thump as each of us slammed our clay onto the center of the wheel was like a collective and forceful sigh. I quickly realized that this new hobby, one I’d longed to take up ever since I threw my first pot in seventh-grade art class, is in many ways a moving meditation. As we work our clay, steady our foot on the pedal to keep the wheel speed even, put wet hands to the soft mound on the wheel and lean in, attention and intention are front and center.

Move too quickly through the steps, and the pot will be off center; forget to anchor the clay and it might fly off the wheel; rush to widen the pot and you’ll be finished before you even get started, and, perhaps hardest of all, continue to tweak and pull too long and a perfect pot might collapse in a heap. “Know when to say when,” is the mantra of our teacher, one of many pottery lessons that seem to apply to life as much as to the clay before us.

Every step of the pottery process seems fraught with opportunities to fail. If you manage to get the pot off the wheel, don’t worry, you can still mess up the trimming process and, if not that, well, there’s always the glazing process, which is far harder than it looks. And yet, almost every mistake I’ve made in my four weeks of lessons, has resulted in an opportunity to take something imperfect and turn it into something beautiful or at least interesting. From mistake to magic is how I see it. The pot that collapsed in dramatic fashion has become my favorite. I pushed in the edges in an uneven, Seussical style and etched designs into the sides. If only I could remember to take the same approach when life plans wobble or collapse.

As that thought crossed my mind, I found myself singing the song, based on Isaiah 64, from my days in the folk group at St. Aedan parish in Pearl River: “Abba, Abba, Father. You are the potter, and we are the clay, the work of your hands. Mold us, mold us and fashion us into the image of Jesus your Son…”

We like to think we’re doing all the molding and shaping when it comes to our own lives; we’re in control. When I’m at that wheel, I see how easily the clay in my hands tries to go its own way and, inevitably, ends up far from where it should be. I can’t help but see myself in that wayward form. When I am off center and out of balance, when God is calling me in one direction and I’m pulling in another, I’m sure to end up where I don’t want to be. Usually it’s because I have forgotten the key things that ensure a life of deep peace and lasting joy—prayer, mindfulness, silence, gratitude and a willingness to be shaped by the gentle but firm hand of the Creator, even when I’m initially not so crazy about the design. In life, as in the pottery class, sometimes we have to “know when to say when,” and surrender ourselves like clay before the potter.

Mary DeTurris Poust is the director of communications for the Diocese of Albany and the author of six books on Catholic spirituality.   

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