In describing a sleepless night, a friend of mine once said, “My thoughts were too loud.” That phrase struck a chord, not because I’m an insomniac, but because I’m a busy professional with so many competing demands. My mind is constantly juggling several problems at once. At the end of a stressful day at work, my thoughts are sometimes cacophonous. I marvel that anyone can go home at the end of the workday and watch television. My mind is too full of information that I’m still processing; there isn’t room for any new stimuli.
For many people, exercise provides the perfect outlet. They find a release from the demands of the day in the endorphin rush of their after-work 5K or their noon-hour swim. My release is at the potter’s wheel.
Functional pottery has long been a passion of mine. I’ve collected wheel-thrown mugs, bowls and plates for decades. But I’m not an artist. At least that’s what I’ve always said. My daughters are the artists. I’m a Political Science professor, a department chair. So for decades I limited myself to holding beautiful pieces of functional art, wondering whether I could create them myself.
At the start of my 2015-16 sabbatical I finally acted, signing up to audit the wheel-thrown pottery class on my campus. I was terrible. Centering clay did not come naturally. The challenge of new vocabulary and tutorial guidance was a sobering reminder of what it feels like to be a new learner. (That was no small lesson for someone who has had the luxury of being an “expert” for quite a long while now, giving me fresh perspective on how my students feel trying to master new content.)
Still, I persevered. I produced chunky, wobbly pieces, but kept at it. As the semester progressed, something lovely happened. My throwing improved, piece-by-piece, but the real miracle was in the mind. How still and quiet my mind became at the wheel. Fellow students chatting around me, music I didn’t choose and often didn’t even like, the stress of the day – all dissolved at the wheel as my mind and body stilled and fixed on a single spinning lump of clay. It takes particular concentration, leaving my mind rested, calm, almost clean, like a warm bath for my brain.
Now I’m hooked. I’ve continued evening classes twice a week and I set aside studio time on the weekends. Sometimes as I fall asleep, instead of running “to-do” lists through my mind, I find myself thinking about how the clay feels between my fingers as I center and raise the wall. It’s restful.
Anne Lamott writes about “radical self-care” and, for me, finally giving myself permission to make time for this quiet, creative space has been that. In the 18 months since I became a potter, I’ve also become a nicer person -- calmer, less frenetic, more focused, more empathetic. The shape of a newly thrown pot is one of my well-rounded curves.
Shala is a professor of Political Science at Fort Hays State University, Kansas. When she is not throwing pottery, she delights in art produced by her daughters, working by the fireplace, Leonard Cohen, fried oysters, friendship, knowing how the story turns out, and all the food, wine, and books her husband can tolerate while planning trips to Italy and Vermont.