"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Thursday, April 24, 2008


For weeks this spring I looked forward to last Monday's class. This year at school we have an art teacher who is a real artist. Her specialty is clay and she sells her work in galleries. Our principal has an artist's soul. When I approached her with the idea that it would be cool for the staff to have a clay experience with our new teacher, she needed no convincing.

My happy anticipation of the class was flavored by childhood memories of clay and by my only other official experience working with clay.

A lazy creek runs through the farm that was my childhood home. Its banks are pocketed with rich deposits of oozy blue-gray clay. The most perfect summer days were spent squishing my naked feet deeply into the clay, or rubbing it all over my body in imitation of some native ritual I had seen in National Geographic, or pretending to be a a pioneer creating pottery that would hold wildflowers in my log cabin. In a life that was far from idyllic, the clay gave me the pure pleasure of creative solitude - moments of idyll that were enough to carry me through.

Fast forward twenty years or so. 

I'm a student to become a teacher. I've just left my husband and a religious family, both of whom I had vowed to love and be with forever. After a decade of living in the strangling safety of a severely structured world, I am free. And brimming with long-repressed feelings that threaten to overwhelm me. Art Methods Class. A required course for anyone working on a teaching degree. I feel like I'm getting away with something - this is so fun. Every week we're given a new medium to  work in and given the time to create with it. This week it's clay. The teacher, a serious artist herself, instructs us.

"Don't be gentle with this clay. Or bashful. Smack it. Throw it onto the table as hard as you can. Put all of your feeling and energy into it. Don't be afraid of it. It's earth and there for you to turn into whatever you choose. You have to be forceful to get it to surrender its form to your vision."

It feels unbelievably good to pound, throw, smack, punch, hammer, attack the stiff red clay. The room resounds with a powerful symphony of released emotions. Hands against earth is the only conversation in the room. At the end of the class I feel giddy with release. 

A few weeks later when she presents us with our final glazed and fired products, I am instantly in love with the simple little pinch pot whose flame-red shine reflects my beaming smile of pride. I have conquered the clay and created a container for the small treasures of my life.

Fast forward another twenty years or so. Last Monday. 

I sit at a sheet-covered table in the art room surrounded by my colleagues, excited at the prospect of smacking some new clay into a new form of submission. Looking forward to getting out some anger. Anxious to turn the picture I've had in my head for weeks into reality. The artist has promised to teach us how to make boxes. Boxes that are meant to  contain the most sacred parts of ourselves that we are working to care for as part of the book study that frames this art experience.

At first I don't realize what she's saying because the instructions of twenty years ago are still clear in my head.

"Be gentle with this clay. Mold it. Form it. Let it become what it needs to be. Your hands are your best tools. Let them gently turn your clay into what your heart sees. Your palms are the perfect vessels for it to round itself into. Don't rush and don't worry about making your piece perfect."

She talks for ten or fifteen minutes, all the while cradling, coaxing, caressing the lump of gray earth in her hands. She teaches us how to make the box, repeating over and over again that we need to trust our hands and the clay and not try too hard. That we need to give ourselves to the process. That perfection is not the goal.

I want to weep with relief and gratitude. I want to laugh at the glory of being in this place of gentle acceptance and nurturing creativity. I want to hug the teacher for being God's voice. 

I wonder what I'll be able to release through gentle hands that are guided by an open heart.

For the next two hours I mother the small lump of earth that has been given to me. I hold it in the bowl of my palms, talk to it - her - it becomes her quickly. I mean for a female shape to emerge from an egg, wings unfurled to take her soaring away from her safety. Usually fiercely independent, this time I ask for help from the teacher, so badly do I want to birth this clay into my vision.

The wings are a challenge. They will be very fragile until the firing. We have a slight disagreement - the wings and the teacher on one side, my vision and me on the other. I decide to trust and let go. I choose that trust consciously and with a sense of relief. The wings don't reach quite so high as I'd wanted, aren't quite so symmetrical, and look absolutely perfect.

The emerging female form makes me happy. My fellow artists see an angel. That's not who she is, but I don't want words to be a part of what I'm doing, so I don't correct them. The wings are what everyone sees, and I'm happy with that. They are strong, still reaching for the sky, ready to carry the form that now looks like a fertility goddess as high as she cares to go. I am deeply happy with this clay form.

And then as I'm doing one last thing to the base of my winged female container, the top falls off. The part with her head and breasts and wings. Splat. Onto a clump of sheet where I was meant to set her while I worked on the base, but totally forgot. Wings bent and torn. Head askew and deformed. Breasts flattened into nothingness.

I sit stunned. The women around me stop their soft chatter and prepare to hold whatever feeling I offer. I pick my winged woman up and apologize to her and prepare to restore her as best I can. Word reaches the teacher quickly. Deb dropped her angel. Someone makes a joke about naming her Lucifer. Fallen Angel. I breathe. I created her from a gentle place. I will fix her from that same place. If I can. My heart is much more able than my hands in this endeavor.

The teacher approaches me with a story about a fourth grader who had wing issues just that day and was hysterical. She said she was able to fix those wings, would I like her to perform surgery on mine. 

I'm faced with a serious dilemma here. Skilled artist's hands will fix my form, but then she won't be entirely mine. If I insist on doing it myself, she won't be all that she could be. Receiving help of any kind is so hard. My heart says say yes. And so I say yes. Please help me.

The resulting container is exactly as I envisioned yet immensely more. Egg-like, grounded, global on the bottom. The top is completely female, richly curved, with much larger breasts than I allowed myself to give her. The simple oval head is tilted in an attitude of curiosity and wonder. The wings have become something alive. One is folded closer to the body while still stretching upward. The other reaches away from the body but curves back toward it.

As I bless her with finishing touches, I find tears in my eyes.  I'm not sure why until someone says that the wings look like a hug. And someone else says that she looks shy (I hear "vulnerable") from the back. And someone else says they really like how substantially feminine she is - not scrawny and wispy, but full and round.

This lump of clay has become me. Softer, fuller, freer than I knew. Still winged for flight, but grounded. Substantial but empty.  Born of a gentle hand, a trusting heart and the help of a skilled teacher.

Monday, April 14, 2008


Toby gets excited - a lot. I come home. He sees a cat. Walt comes home. He sees a cat. Someone says, "Do you want to eat?" He wakes up. He wants out. He sees a cat. He meets a new friend - human or canine. 

It doesn't take much. The problem is that he gets so excited that he jumps and twirls and leaps. He snaps and licks and chomps - mostly accidentally. He weighs almost sixty pounds. Sixty pounds of unrestrained Golden Retriever puppy can be painful and scary and more than a little off-putting to his new friends.

So I find myself using the command "Settle!" with him on a regular basis. Sometimes it involves helping him sit and holding him firmly until he can get control of himself. Sometimes it involves turning him loose and letting him run the steam off  and then talking to him. It always involves a calm voice and a deliberate effort on my part to be calm and soothing. Somehow yelling "Settle!" doesn't seem to work.

This time of year, I also use this command regularly with my students. Not quite as commanding as with Toby, but still firm.  "Alright you guys, settle." or "Settle down now so we can get to lunch." or "Come on, settle yourselves."

It's interesting that I find myself using the word so much right now, because I have history with it. This is a word with multiple meanings, but to me it's always meant to accept less than I really want or need. As in -  To settle for second best. To settle for a boring life because I'm too old and tired to find anything else. To settle for what I have because I don't really deserve better.

Lately, however, as I'm working with Toby I'm aware that I'm asking him to settle so he can have more of what he wants - love, fun, attention - not so I can deprive him of anything. It's the same with my kids. I ask them to settle so we can get work done, so they can learn, so we can enjoy each other's company. I'm not trying to take anything away from them. I want them to be able to have everything they need and as much of what they want as they can absorb.

I'm using Stephen Mitchell's tao te ching for a morning meditation right now. This is what I opened to on Saturday:

Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity.

I am being asked to be still in my life right now. To accept things as they are. I have been  a roaring spring-swollen river, always in a hurry to somewhere else, muddy full of everything I sweep up mindlessly in my path. Now I find myself eddying gently - a pool born in the protection of a sacred cove. My surface is calm, the sediment settles to the bottom, and there is clarity. Sunlight shines through me revealing transparency all the way to the stones and mud of my bedrock.

I can feel the call and pull of the river. I may be her again one day. Or I may find all I need in this calm, clear pool of light and refreshing water. Settled.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Toby Turns a Corner

I'm feeling a bit confused tonight.

 Today was the first day back to work after our annual spring break week off. We stayed home this year to be with Toby and to rest and to let life settle around us for a bit. Walt was sick. I worked on my book. Every day Toby got more attention than he's had since we first got him. 

He's sleeping regular and relatively long hours these days. He minds his mouth much better. Leash walks no longer threaten to dislocate my shoulder. He's growing up and turning into the sweet boy I thought we were getting with a Golden and wondered about my judgment  for the first two months we had him. 

He's still no angel by any means, as you can see here. I shot this picture through our dining room window.

The week home with him was fun and lovely. I've taught him to say, "Please!" to get a treat. It's really a bear-like growl that rolls out of his mouth like music. No barking is allowed. The cool thing is that now he does it for everything he wants. That sound makes me laugh every single time I hear it.

So far so good. 

I assumed all of that wonderful grown up dog behavior was because of all the attention and time he was getting. I was really worried about today. Both Walt and I had after-school things so Toby's day home alone was almost ten hours long. I felt guilty all day - or at least during those moments when my twenty-two human darlings weren't consuming my attention and energy.

Driving home tonight I anticipated torn chair cushions, dug-to-China craters in the lawn, huge clots of mud on the windows from his feet. I considered that I might find dead cats, Toby seriously hurt from trying to dig under the fence, or really angry neighbors from having to listen to him bark all day. Even if nothing was wrong, I knew without a doubt I would be met by a maniac mutt with more energy than could be contained without some serious discipline.

What I came home to was a calm dog who was happy to see me. He smiled and wiggled and wagged. He consumed all of his dinner, played tug, and gently mauled my arm. He chased one of the cats without any regard for the fact that I was standing right next to him with a leash ready to walk - the thing he loves more than almost anything else. I was almost relieved at this behavior that usually sends me over the edge because it was so familiar. When we went for our walk he didn't pull on the leash once. In fact it was slack so often I kept checking to see if he was hurt somehow.

I'm feeling a bit confused tonight.

All systems are working fine. He's so calm. And so happy. And so sweet. Why is it so hard to just accept that he's turned a corner and to be deeply grateful for the change? I am grateful. Truly. I'm just afraid that something's wrong. I recognize a life's pattern here. The waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop pattern. I'm tired of it. I think I'll go snuggle with the tremendous gift that is our Toby and try to enjoy what is.