Retirement Hobby: Pottery with Purpose
March 26, 2023
Throw clay on a wheel—whatever that meant—I wanted to do it! Shape clay with wet, slick hands. Go beyond painting-on-pottery that I did when my daughters were young. I wanted to create something that I could use and look at, thinking with pride, “I did that.” The time finally came about a month ago.
In the first lesson, I learned that it’s harder and more frustrating than I imagined. It’s also more satisfying. Now, after five classes, it’s slightly less frustrating, but still satisfying. There aren’t any finished products yet to use and wonder at, and having an end-product is starting to feel like a bonus.
It really is about the process, about being absorbed in the making. There are specific steps. While going through them, a connection is created between myself and a lump of clay—many lumps of clay—as I keep repeating the process, feeling the clay in my hands, and my body becoming centered as I focus on centering and shaping the clay. I am my hands, my mind is focused—in/on—my hands, all other thoughts fade away. (Except, perhaps, ugh, another failure; time to try again.)
It's not easy. It feels as if I’ve pulled the walls up as high as one pound of clay can go only to see that it’s barely an inch, or two if I’m on the right track. (From what I see, looking around the classroom space at the others who’ve taken this intro class before, it can get as high as 6 inches.) Clearly, this takes a lot of practice. But it’s also a test in patience.
Wheel throwing has become a way to be absorbed in something outside of myself. I knew that I needed to do something physical as a counterbalance to all the reading and writing that I do in a day. And while I usually walk and swim as exercise, my mind still wanders amidst words and memories and ideas. I need an occasional break from myself and my thoughts. Friends recommended meditation, but that feels like too much of what I do; I don’t want words swirling around, even if I acknowledge them to dismiss them.
As the practical person that I am, I needed a hobby where I make something useful. I thought about sewing, but that would mean my being more in the small apartment I share with my mother. And I definitely needed a break from being there as well.
About two months ago, I signed up for this wheel throwing class after telling a friend how much I enjoyed my initial dipping-the-toe-in lesson, but that I wouldn’t continue since what would I do with all the things I create. Her response was that I can give the stuff away, but why not do something for myself—mind you, this was right after my mother was sick and intense caregiving duties seemed to be looming on the horizon. While those duties have retreated as my mother got better, they are still a concern for the future; truly, she’s not getting younger. My friend, and her daughter, were right: pottery is the meditative, creative, centering activity that I need right now, active caregiving or not.
For a change, I’m doing something with no motive other than the thing itself. It’s not a walk for my health, or a meet-up to make new friends and perhaps meet a man. I went because it was something that I needed to do—for me. The women I’ve met there have all been nice, but we’re focused on our pottery. And it feels good to leave after a few hours not thinking that I didn’t make any lifelong friends, but thinking that the brief conversations, mainly about what they’re making and some helpful tips, were part of the experience of the moment and not meant to go beyond it. They are of the time and place. And that’s okay.
It turns out that the throwing part is momentary. Prepare the clay by wedging, which is like kneading. Form it into a ball or a cone and then throw it onto the center of a pottery wheel (actually a bat, which is a disc that goes on the wheel itself). Now, using your hands and water to keep them wet so they can glide over the surface, shape the clay to form it into the vessel you want. Throwing is so brief. Oddly enough, the act of the throw isn’t satisfying because you’re so intentional on getting it centered that you can’t throw with abandon. It feels good, though, to hear the thunck when it hits the surface (kind of like a good thwack of a pickle ball). Yet another surprise.
Even with all the positive feelings about this foray into pottery making, I’m not sure that I’ll continue and I’m not sure why. The frustration is real, but so is the incremental improvement. Maybe it really is that I don’t make to make things. Or that I’ve gotten so used to being alone, that it’s uncomfortable with other people around (which should probably be a reason to continue). But maybe it’s okay to not know. And maybe it’s okay to just try something, enjoy it, and then move on. I don’t have to commit to something, I don’t have to have one specific hobby.
During the first lesson, I jokingly told the other beginner in the class, “I’m glad I’m not thinking of making this a career.” I tend to think that my activities need to be important. When I started baking, it was to have a bakery. When I came up with ideas for toys and games, it was to have a company. (And this was before Shark Tank.) Maybe I really can just enjoy something in the moment for itself without having to turn it into more than an enjoyable activity. Perhaps this is the lesson here: I’m allowed to do things for myself without feeling guilty that not every action is about giving.