This past Monday night I did something I’ve wanted to do since I was probably six years old – I went to my first pottery class. Why it took me until almost age thirty-nine to get there I don’t know, but I suppose it was a mix of ambivalence and fear. And a poor sense of priorities as I battled against my obligations. You know how that goes.
When I was in elementary school my dad bought me a mini pottery wheel that I’d asked for at some point in the fall, either for my birthday (in November) or for Christmas. It was just a little toy that probably couldn’t make anything worth anything, but I was so excited to finally have it as my first introduction to ceramics. The problem was, it required clay or some other part that I didn’t have (and that my mother couldn’t afford), so I waited for a few days until I was to visit my dad for the weekend. He could fix my problem and I could be on my way.
I remember only a little bit about this particular day – one that is so poignant in my life story. I remember my dad coming to get me as he always did. I remember gathering a few things and bounding out the front door, my new pottery wheel in hand. I wanted to be extra careful with it by holding it tight, my young brain reasoned. I didn’t want to put it back in the box.
And then I remember that before I even made it to the burglar bars enclosing my mother’s front porch, I dropped that pottery wheel onto the concrete in a dramatic smash. It cracked. It wouldn’t turn on anymore. It was irreparable and I knew it immediately.
And then I cried heavy, heavy tears.
I never got another pottery wheel, so I just filed my interest away somewhere and let it simmer as I moved through adolescence and young adulthood. I would go on to try different things like decoupage and photography and crochet before being lost in the drama that is being a teenager. And as an adult I’d learn to cook and bake, and to create beautiful (and mostly edible) things out of nothing but a few bare ingredients. But I never forgot about pottery.
"Some day," I would say to myself.
When I had a complete and total meltdown a few weeks back (about my life and my career and my struggle with time), my husband eventually asked me what all I still wanted to do that I didn’t seem to have time for. And one of the first things I’d said was that I still wanted to take a pottery class. I’d also said I wanted time to watch my handful of shows on Netflix (The Kominsky Method, Grace and Frankie), and to watch my old black and white movies on TCM, and to have a garden, and to learn how to sew again.
"Let's start with the non-TV stuff," he said.
Within a day I’d looked up pottery classes near me, but the problem was that most of them took place during the day - and I’m the sort of person who has to, you know, work a job during the day. I finally found a school that had evening classes but was disappointed to see that they were all waitlisted. Okay, I thought to myself, as soon as the next paycheck comes in I’ll pay my $50 to get put on the waitlist.
Two weeks or so passed. I could have paid the $50 before the paycheck, by the way.
In the midst of yet another breakdown, which I've been having on the regular lately, I decided that this was it. No more stalling. No more fear. It was a Sunday evening and I went to the website to sign up. I looked at the calendar and clicked on the Monday night option (ages sixteen to adult) so that I could get on the list. “This class has one spot open,” it read. I blinked. Really? It wasn’t waitlisted any longer? ALL of the pottery classes were waitlisted. Maybe it had opened up to me because it was time?
But when I submitted my information to try to pay for the class, the nice computer rejected me with a message that said I was going to be put on a waitlist. Disappointed, I clicked “OK” and prepared to wait until my time came. Then I put down my smartphone and stumbled backward into the blackness that I’d been swimming around in. It had been so, so heavy lately.
The next day, with the fog of those emotions still heavy on my heart, someone from the school emailed me to apologize for the incorrect system message – there was, in fact, an opening. And would I like to go ahead and pay? I would have 48 hours to decide or they would release the spot to someone else.
I hesitated for a moment. Isn’t that the silliest thing we do as humans? We long for something and then we’re at the cusp of getting it, and we shrink backward in fear or self-doubt. It took me about an hour to overcome that discomfort but I pushed through, paid the first month’s tuition plus a $50 deposit in case I bailed mid-month, and timidly called the number to ask if I was to show up that night or to wait a week.
“Oh yes you can come tonight if you like,” a nice man told me in a slight accent. “Or you can wait a week. It’s up to you, but we have you signed up.”
“Okay. Well I guess I’ll come tonight. What do I wear? What do I do? I don’t know what to bring with me.”
“Let me forward you an email the teacher sends out for her new classes. It’ll give you more info about what to bring and when to show up. I definitely wouldn’t wear any clothes you’re attached to! And bring an old towel and an apron if you have one. We have some here but they’re first come, first serve.”
I read the email he forwarded me. I got my old clothes together, and my old towel. I paced a little bit until it was time to go and then I hugged my husband, who told me to at least act excited. But coming into situations where I’m the only new person is extremely uncomfortable for me. I feel like there’s a spotlight on my head and the old shyness of my youth comes back as if it had never left. My immediate reaction is to panic and want to flee.
I drove through the cold and rain to that rickety old 150-year-old house that had been converted into an art school. I parked my car, fumbled my way inside the door, figured out where I was supposed to be, and did okay in the end. The teacher – probably in her early twenties – got me settled in a corner and I plodded my way through my first experience with clay.
And it was glorious.
Now, I don’t think things are glorious very often. I don’t use that word ever. But the experience I’d built up in my head since the day I’d smashed my mini pottery wheel was pretty much exactly what I thought it would be. The feeling of the clay between my hands was exactly as I’d imagined. It was as difficult as I thought it would be, and as easy as I thought it would be, too.
And so what I see now is that I came into that studio depressed, lost, cold, sad. And as I sat there and let the wet clay run through my hands, my fingers depressing it in the middle and then later pulling up the walls, all of those feelings just melted away. I even lost track of time.
Two of my balls of clay ended in a collapsed mess, but one of them became something more after about 45 minutes of slow work. I, Elizabeth, had made a legit saucer in my first class. It was symmetrical and beautiful and ever so gratifying. Mostly because I’d turned a ball of clay into something else.
I think this is symbolic of a theme I’ve had lately in my life. It’s a new word that I’ve learned and it’s called “transmute.” To transmute means to turn something into something else, like turning negative emotions into positive change. And I think this clay was part of my current experience of transmuting old pain and trauma into something beautiful, which is expressed in one way via my upcoming book. Turning clay into a saucer was just another way. I not only changed the clay, but I changed how I felt inside.
This experience (and others) have taught me that you should follow those ideas that you have been “thinking about doing” for a long time. If something keeps popping up in your psyche, it’s probably something you ought to do to achieve some sort of transformation. Maybe it’s just to help you get through your life in that moment, or maybe it’s to move you to your next stop in your journey. Sometimes, I think, it’s to help you discover a hidden talent that you didn’t know you had and that is part of your purpose here on earth.
After ping ponging my way through a career, I still believe the only way to figure out who you are and what you’re meant to do is to try things – especially the things that nag at you. Teaching was another one of those things for me. So was photography. So was copywriting. So were novels.
I’m glad I tried them all.
And I’m sort of hopeful that I’m a closet potter and that this experience will end in my own home studio one day in my spare bedroom. I imagine the second half of my life as me writing my books and speaking/teaching a bit, but also creating art and tending to a garden and taking pictures of nature. It’s good to dream, because you can only achieve things that you have actively identified and strive toward.
But even if that doesn’t happen, that’s okay. For now I’m going to use those Monday nights to let my feelings dissolve into the spinning clay. The transmuting of a ball of stuff – in my hands and in my heart – into something different. Something better.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, will be published in spring 2020. To be notified when it is available for purchase, sign up for my mailing list.
The Big Pause