It took me several years, but I have learned that clay is always talking. It tells you what to do. When to do it. Sometimes how to do it. The key to making a beautiful pot is to listen. I’m not saying I always listen or I don’t push the envelope (I certainly do), but I know that when I listen, I make my best pots. And I am happiest.
Listening is the essence of the craft component of what us potter’s do with clay. Clay has its limits and is not shy about establishing it’s boundaries. Add too much water and it will collapse. Not enough and it will crack. Dry it too fast, it will crack. Fire it too fast and/or too wet and it explodes. Mix two otherwise stable glazes and see the mixture blister. Cool the pots too fast and see the pin holes. Stoke the wood-kiln too slowly and see your copper greens go pink (and not necessarily a pretty pink). Each step of the process requires rapt attention. Ignore any part of it and you will regret it. But listen each step of the way – pay attention – act accordingly – and you are rewarded with beauty.
Every religion teaches us to listen, whether it be to god, a dogma, a religious leader, yourself, your community, or nature. By listening (even if to our self), we must step outside our ego; we must set aside our judgments in order to find what we are seeking. Most likely, we turn to religion or clay or other pursuits to find happiness. But if we don’t listen during any of those activities, we won’t find it.
Some examples might help. Take someone who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. They might turn to a church or temple to help them comprehend “why me”, and to find peace and happiness with their life before they depart. The religious leader will explain how god works in mysterious ways and talk about what the person can do to make the most of the time they have left. If the person listens, instead of focusing on “why me” – a question that can never be answered – the person will find their path to acceptance and happiness.
Similarly, a person enters a pottery studio hoping to get in touch with their creative side. They start working with the clay. Their first pot collapses because they used too much water. They get frustrated. They try again and the same thing happens. If they don’t listen to the clay, they will continue to struggle and never explore their creative side (except maybe for making mud pies). But once the person starts listening to the material, their creativity will find an outlet.
After detachment, listening is the next most important lesson pottery has taught me. I try to listen to the clay. Yes, I still push the envelope to achieve what is in my mind’s eye. But I do listen intently to see how the clay will respond; always trying to make sure I stay within it’s comfort zone as I stretch my beyond my own. This skill has become very useful in managing my health. Certainly in my adult years, I have pushed my self unmercifully. I was awful at listening – not eating well or getting enough sleep. Now, if I am to realize my goal of potting into my nineties, I understand that I must listen as intently to my body as I do my clay. And not just listen, but respond. Like clay with too much water or me without enough sleep, we both collapse. So now I eat healthy food instead of what is quick and easy. I get enough sleep. I exercise. I give my body whatever it needs to keep listening to the clay for many years to come.
So how well do you listen? Do you push your clay beyond reasonable boundaries and get frustrated when it doesn’t conform for the umpteenth time? Do you push your loved ones beyond their reasonable boundaries and get frustrated when they aren’t there for you? Do you push your body beyond what it can reasonably handle and then wonder why you are sick or injured? How do we avoid this hamster wheel? Listen! Listen to your clay. Listen to your significant other. Listen to your body. When you listen you enter partnership with the other being (whether clay or your spouse) and are no longer alone and struggling.
So you don’t listen very well. Try it for a week. Truly listen. See how your life changes. Let me know.