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Humility, hubris shape the clay of Genesis


Maybe it was that erotic scene at the pottery wheel in the movie "Ghost." Or maybe I've heard the hymn "Earthen Vessels" once too often. But I've wanted to learn pottery for years now. When I lived alone, the desire was almost abstract -- "Someday, I'll take a pottery class," I'd tell myself. But when my husband -- an overcommitted Renaissance type sympathetic to any potential hobby -- saw me standing in the Pottery Barn store, stroking urns and bowls against a background of glowing flame and dark green velvet, the stone and iron and old dark wood -- he bought me two books and a box of tools and gave me class tuition.

Waiting eagerly for the first session, I remembered a quote from Dag Hammarskjold: "I am the vessel. The draft is God's. And God is the thirsty one." There is a humility to pots, I reflected -- a closeness to the earth, an honest simplicity. By the same token, the potter must have hubris. Godlike, he or she will patiently, firmly, insistently shape the clay of Genesis, giving it form and final cause.

But first, God must learn to make pinch-pots. It's class one, and everybody else has a suspicious ease: They've done this before! Jealous yellow butterflies swarm into my stomach as the students all smooth their clay into a round friendly ball, hollow it with an insistent thumb and quickly press it into a respectable little vessel. Soon they're on their fourth.

Me, I'm still reworking my first, pinching and pulling and hoping. "I'll just enjoy the feel of the clay," I console myself. "There's no final exam here, this is for fun, chill out." I dent the clay one more time, and it obediently sucks itself concave. Then I realize an error -- a thick spot on the wall -- and move to correct it. The clay turns stubborn, like a matriarch in a traditional society who plays her docile role but always gets her way. "How can it be so forgiving and so unforgiving at the same time?" I demand.

My teacher smiles. "Clay has an amazing memory. It remembers everything you ever do to it." I hang my head, looking apologetically at the ill-used, misshapen lump of clay before me. Too scattered, too ambitious, I scold myself. "Why can't you ever keep it simple?" Furtively, I secrete my lump in a plastic bag, feeling more Job-like than divine.

Next we're to roll thin coils of clay and pile them into vertical structures. I pay close attention, roll carefully. Alas, my coils prove all too mortal, drying into attenuated threads before I can stick them together. "The clay cracks faster on the table than in your hands," notes a voice somewhere over my shoulder. So do we, I answer silently, when fate rolls us against hard, unyielding surfaces with no warm flesh to guide us. Back at the shore of this swampy lyricism, I hear our teacher, John, urging us to hurry: "You can't work it too long. The clay gets tired."

Ah, and so do I. One tangled, seaweedy pot later, I give up for the night. Slowly I unbend myself from the short metal stool, stretching the muscles that are pulling my shoulders into a permanent slouch. Arriving home bedraggled, I thump my bag of clay on the hardwood floor and flop into a chair. My husband eyes my red-stained white blouse. "I hope that was an old shirt."

"Oh, yeah," I assure him, unwilling to admit I forgot my sweatshirt. Potters may learn to gently accept the flaws of each piece, but tonight my ego is porcelain-fragile. I'm overeager and I know it. Still, I love the words: the softness of "slip" and "slurry," the casual violence of "throwing" and "pounding" and "scoring," the weight of "slab." If only I could get the knowledge into my hands faster.

Before our next class, I wander around the studio, taking in the burnt-orange chalkiness of terra cotta, the thick gleam and swirl of cobalt melted glass. The room breathes red dust, inspiration everywhere. I lapse into romanticism again, thinking of pottery's naturalness, its primitive roots as the first craft, its fusion of earthy human needs and sacredness.

Wide open and innocent, clay vessels have mouths and bellies and arms; they're easier to anthropomorphize than Burgundy at a wine-tasting event. And their medium comes closer than any other to the consistency of human flesh. Like us, it must be molded, thrown, "opened up" and fired at extreme heat. These are all violent transformations, yet none is possible unless the clay is ready and willing. Timing is everything, and paradox lives at the center: Pottery is about acting on the clay, yet it can only be accomplished by listening to the clay, accommodating whatever qualities it's exhibiting at that moment.

As usual, John interrupts my reverie with a lecture on slab-building a box. Pulling off a cloth with a flourish, he shows us a flat oblong of clay that's been drying, and is now "leather hard." For all its surface toughness, the slab remains disconcertingly fragile. To gain real strength, it will have to be sealed in a blazing-hot kiln until it loses its moist, porous openness to the world and takes on its own firm integrity.

We start slicing up the clay, planning its assembly. Silence falls, a vibrating kind of group silence that's new to me. Total absorption, communal but very private, as we each do battle with this elephant-memoried slab of clay. John walks around, studying the structures and elaborations as they emerge. "Be honest," he warns, "or it will show."

In the last class, we "throw." John demonstrates every step carefully; the wheel is as whimsical as fortune itself, and without the proper attitude, it will spin a rising vase into slurpy collapse. "Keep the clay nice and wet," he directs, "and when it wobbles, don't wobble with it, stay steady." Nervous, we try, each at our own little foot-pedaled wheel. Even the sculpting whizzes have lost their cool. "When do you speed up?" we ask each other. "How do you know when it's centered?"

"You'll know," John repeats quietly, over and over again. Fingertips tingling, we strive to feel the clay. "Don't force it," he calls. "Lean into it, the clay will center itself."

As will a life, if it's kept moist and guided gently.

And its Creator isn't a control freak.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 1997