By Catherine DiMercurio
Sometimes the most basic lessons are the hardest to learn.
Sometimes I think the best in the shower. In my soul, I’m a water person, though this body can’t swim very well. But whenever I’m around water, I’m calmer. Recently, in the shower, it occurred to me that it is almost the one-year anniversary of the ending of a relationship. It was a relationship that was hard to let go of, in spite of the fact that it needed to end, and I got to thinking that I seem to have more anniversaries of things that ended than things that began. Not long ago, that thought would have sunk me, at least for a few days. I would have ruminated, and found ways to feel increasingly worse about myself. But standing there in the water, after a year of becoming more in tune with myself, my next thought was this (and yes, I do address myself in the second person sometimes): Wait. Are you really saying that you think you have more to mourn than to celebrate?
My immediate answer to myself was no, but part of me still wanted to tally, to dig into hurt and remember it. We get used to making ourselves feel terrible sometimes. For a lot of reasons. But I have spent the last year looking at those reasons, my past, my deeper past, and learning. And in this moment, I understood that it is natural for me to have a lot of emotions around this time of year about the ending of that relationship, and that having those feelings did not have to translate into a trip down the rabbit hole. That’s progress.
Some of that progress can be attributed to the pottery studio. I feel as though I’ve been on an incredible journey when I think of the first several classes back in January. I pushed myself way out of my comfort zone, not only in trying something new, but in hauling myself out of my cozy house in deep dark winter for a 7 to 10 p.m. class with strangers. I am definitely a morning person, so I knew one of my obstacles was going to be my own fatigue at this point in the day. Optimal learning and creative time for me happens much earlier in the day. And there were a lot of other obstacles, one being that physically, I am not very coordinated, and hand-eye coordination is pretty important when you are wheel-throwing.
I was not prepared for how challenging the experience would be, for how frustrated I would feel. I have no poker face, and even when I’m trying to have a neutral outward demeanor, it is plain for the world to see when I am struggling. Though the class was different from any that I’d ever taken, my brain slipped into student-mode where the usual process was: work hard, study, succeed. In the past, doing well in school meant that the people around me were happy (teachers, parents), and it allowed me the opportunity to excel at something, since it wasn’t going to be in the realm of sports, or anything social.
But, I struggled. Class after class, I felt clumsy and awkward and self-conscious. I had almost no control over what the clay was doing and trying to understand the relationship between the movement of the wheel and how my hands were interacting with the clay seemed like a mystery that I couldn’t unravel. There were too many factors—the wheel speed, the moisture level of the clay, the pressure, placement, and movement of each and every finger on both hands, my posture. I was certain the other new people were already better than me. I thought about quitting. A lot. I even bought a cheap-ish pottery wheel so I could practice at home. It is easier to fail without anyone watching. I wanted only to get a little better between classes so when I sat down in the studio it would be evident that I was making progress. I wanted so badly to be perceived as someone who worked hard, and if my work did not show evidence of that, how would anyone know?
And I did make progress, in my own epically slow way. But I was doing so out of some sort of ancient ache to prove myself, to insist on some kind of worthiness I wanted others to recognize in me even when I routinely overlooked it in myself. Part of my pottery journey has been to trace this powerful need, which has shaped (malformed) so many relationships, back to its roots. This work is not done, as the work of truly understanding ourselves and making peace with it all never is.
Even though I felt like I wasn’t progressing fast enough, my instructor was so good at underscoring how difficult it is to learn any new art form. I remember getting frustrated at the wheel, trying to accomplish something that wasn’t working out. I had a poorly centered lump of clay in front of me that I’d been able to open up enough to begin to pull up the walls. She was standing near, talking me through it, and I said something like, “I just can’t. . . .” I was unable to finish the sentence, because I felt like none of it was working. I couldn’t do any of it. And she replied, “And it’s what? Your third class?” She taught me to embrace wherever it was that I was in this journey. If something turned out wonky, and I could get it off the wheel, I could still practice trimming and glazing. It was all part of the process.
That was kind of a turning point for me. After that, some fresh ideas began to make themselves known in my brain. Couldn’t I just learn and play and grow? Trying to force progress wasn’t working. And feeling tense internally was something that found its way into the clay. Everything was going to happen on my own timeline. And there was no grade. There was no metric by which to measure failure or success, only those that I imposed upon myself. Doors and windows flew open inside me. Soon, I began to feel energized and creative and good-messy, and suddenly, when I thought of all there was to learn, I saw the future blossoming in front of me, whereas only weeks before, when I thought of how much I didn’t know, I’d felt overwhelmed.
The whole experience thus far has reshaped the way I look at myself. It is shocking to me that learning how to throw and work with clay is revealing so much that has nothing to do with clay. I think because I was already doing some of this work, the experience simply shoved open doors whose locks I’d spent some time jimmying open.
To some friends and family, I’ve tentatively equated my evolving feelings about pottery to falling in love. I say tentatively because it seems a strange thing to admit. But what I’m beginning to comprehend is that what is happening is that I’m falling in love with myself. Sometimes it takes us so, so long to learn elemental lessons. And sometimes it takes the elements—earth, water, air, fire—to teach us.