The clay I form on the pottery wheel when I have some time off from work, is a kind of companion to me. We talk. Sometimes we argue. Sometimes we just sit together looking out the long windows that offer a view of the island’s rainy, green forests. Yes, we sit together, quietly, both of us wondering what we will be made into by our maker, and what that form will be used for by others – once we are out of the kiln, out of the fires.
After forty years of being a potter and more than 10,000 hours at the wheel, I have lots of large and mostly small “creations” all over the world. I’ve left tea bowls in Thailand when visiting potters. I’ve left baptismal bowls, chalices and patens in churches when clergy and bishops asked for them. My family eats out of my pots. My friends have bowls that are two and three decades old. And yes, I expect many of my pots are broken in dumps and selling in thrift stores just as they are sparkling in museums and shimmering in art galleries. It’s a mix really. The end-results of pots. The end-results of lives.
It feels hard to live in a the Western Hemisphere sometimes. And yet I realize that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. And so, although I long for a culture like that of Japan – thousands of years old and with a reverence for the wise elderly and the “wabi-sabi” of the blemished pot, I also know that every country, every place, every church, diocese, and village has its advantages and its disadvantages, its lovelies and its bullies. So there’s that.
As a potter, I watch the clay as it goes through its stages of “becoming.” First, it takes millions of years in darkness underground to become clay from its previous incarnation as rock, rotting dead stuff, and water. Then, once it has been dug up and made into sticky throwing clay, with hours of wedging and waiting, the clay spins on my wheel and is forced by my wet hands into a vase, a mug, a plate, a vase. We negotiate together; usually I win, but sometimes the clay wins.
Then my pot dries, is trimmed and is fired in a kiln to a little under 2,000 degrees and for ten hours, cooling for 24. In that process, all the rotting slime of millions of deaths, are burned out of the pot, it is hardened and sometimes, it cracks under the stress.
Then the pots are dipped in my vats of glaze and refired to 2,400 degrees. They emerge transformed, shiny, resilient, usable. They ring like a bell when struck with a pencil. They bring water to lips. They hold food at dinner tables. They bring wine and bread to mouths and they even hold special water which, we are told, will grant babies eternal life and membership in a group called “Episcopal” – a group largely made up of upper-middle-class people who are sure that the mystery in which they believe is fact, a mystery they consider far superior to practices and beliefs of all other groups, in turn, making some feel righteous and superior. Which I guess they need.
As I watch the pottery go through these phases of “becoming” I notice that the final phase, longest except for its under-ground-becoming, is the phase of its use.
A cup takes water, arrives at lips, gets chucked into a sink, placed in a dishwasher, warmed in a microwave, stained by tea day-after-day, chipped in a fall, cracked by temperature extremes when left overnight on the woodpile, in a snowstorm, only to be found again in March and in which a mouse made a nice cozy home.
In Japan, that weathering of the pot, the cracks, the mouse pee, the tea stains – that is its greatest beauty, whereas most Americans would toss it and order a new one from Amazon (delivery in 1 day and only $5 and made perfect, by …a machine…)
We, in the West, treasure freedom, and democracy but we do not often find the willingness to experience trial and build resilience the way our Asian planet-sharers do. The cracks of life. The stains of life. In the East, those are the beauty of life, of humans, of pots. And yet blemishes are hard-won.
Beauty comes from hardships. Blemishes to body and spirit. Abuses. Punches. I wish it were not so. Grace comes from letting it all happen the way a pot lets me chip it when I carelessly knock it during my own life-tantrums. Grace comes from us letting others hit us in their tantrums.
The best pots I have ever seen were the stained ones – stained with thousands of tea sips and chipped in hundreds of tantrums or careless acts. The best people I have ever seen are the ones with hundreds of scars, worn with dignity, fueled by perseverance.
The Baptist preacher Freddie Gage once said that “the church is the only army that shoots its wounded soldiers, exiling them, then leaving them in distant fields to bleed to death.”
Life can be hard. A few bullies abound in oval offices and on episcopal thrones, but not all. No, not all by any means. And yet, grace abounds as well. So too does redemption. So too does resilience. And like that pottery, the scars, though undeniably sad, will form a patina of gentleness over time. It will make the perfect into the cozy.
I am often asked about revenge and resentment in spiritual direction . I only have one response:
“Your revenge is you, living a beautiful life. Your beauty and your best tools will be the hard-won grace marked by those scars.”
The Daily Sip is a series of short-form essays written by Charles LaFond, a potter, writer, and fundraiser; who lives with his dog Sugar on a cliff, on one of the more than 400 islands in the Salish Sea, pondering and writing about how to be a better human, but often failing. And sometimes not.