In hindsight, I should have known a skirt was a bad idea.
I didn’t think it through — the mechanics of learning how to use a pottery wheel. Though, in my defense, I didn’t actually know I’d be throwing, as they call it, the first night, and there were no hints about proper attire on the organization’s website. I’d wanted to look cute, perhaps a little chic with a touch of artsy flair. You never know whom you might meet after all, and it’d been several weeks since I’d felt anything close to charming. So, on went the maxi skirt. (Thankfully I’d had the foresight to at least go long.) Sadly, my chosen wardrobe carried more of a “doesn’t-have-the-slightest-clue” vibe than I was going for. At least it was representative of my true self.
“Maybe it’ll be good for you!” was the common refrain from my friends when I told them I was taking a beginner’s pottery class. I knew what they were really saying, of course: “Hey, you’ve been kind of an emo nutcase lately. Maybe this’ll fix you.” And that’s why I hated hearing that particular statement of encouragement. Not to belittle their concern, but no one likes to hear they’re broken, even when you know you are.
But they did have a point, and I was hoping this new adventure in clay would take my mind off things, or even just turn it off for a bit. As I straddled the wheel as closely as I could, per the instructor’s direction, pulling my skirt down beneath the lip of the splash pan between my legs, I was certainly not feeling any more comfortable with myself. My fellow classmates — a married couple on their second set of classes and an art student — paid little attention to the noob across the table.
I’d been handed off to the advanced instructor because the beginner’s adviser was running late. He carried himself with an easy, amused swagger, and his smirk between swigs of a local microbrew made it clear that my situation was worth laughing at. So I did. And he did, too. We quickly developed a comfortable, banter-filled rapport, one that could have verged on flirtation if the circumstances had been different. As it was, I was mostly just happy to have someone smile at me.
As he demonstrated how to center the clay on the wheel, it occurred to me that pottery, GHOST jokes aside, could probably truly be a really sensual, meditative experience if you approached it with the right attitude.
I, however, couldn’t help thinking of Annie on Community as my instructor demonstrated “coning,” which is, to be frank, the art of shaping a ball of clay into a quasi-phallus. I never did figure out how coning helped center the clay. I remain convinced it is to test the maturity level of beginning pottery students. I managed to keep a straight face, but, on the inside, I flunked.
After he’d shown me how to create a cylinder, he set me loose. And by “set me loose,” I mean he left the room. I was on my own. Me and a ball of clay. I pressed down on the foot pedal, setting the wheel spinning. I put some water on the wheel. It flew onto my skirt, taking gray molecules of clay along for the ride. It had begun.
Undeterred, I set to work, bent on replicating the instructor’s technique. Unfortunately, I could not for the life of me remember how I was supposed to position my hands. He’d told me to dig my elbow into my core (which I’d learned by observation meant my groin) in order to stabilize. I tried, but it felt like I was trying to contort myself into an advanced yoga position. My legs weren’t long enough to get the proper leverage. I lamented that I was physically predisposed to suck at pottery.
But I persisted. I managed to get the clay somewhere near the center of the wheel, or at least I guessed I had by the lessening of the flat-tire-sort-of thud-thud-thud I’d felt when I started. I dug my thumbs into the center. It was the first thing that had gone right. The clay eased out into a bowl shape. I smiled. Maybe I wasn’t such a failure after all. I looked up for my instructor’s approval, but he hadn’t returned. This was problematic both because of my Gen-Y need for encouragement and approval and also because I’d forgotten what I was supposed to do next.
I looked at my fellow potters. One was attaching a handle. Another was making clay balls. The third was creating a tiny, intricate vase. They were no help. I set my jaw and went on, an increasingly-clay-covered warrior against the gray lump gaining shape between my hands.
I remembered something about pulling up the walls. Again, I found myself unsure what to do with my hands to make this happen. I took a guess and set my thumb to the wheel and scraped away a ridge at the bottom. Nothing collapsed or exploded. So far, so good. I put my left middle finger inside and placed my thumb and forefinger together on the opposite side of the ridge. I took a deep breath. I moved them up in unison. The clay came with them. I’d created a wall! A tiny wall, mind you, only an inch and a half in height, but a wall nonetheless! I tried again. Another inch.
By the time I’d gotten it up to a respectable three, my instructor returned. I looked up at him with a kindergartner’s eyes.
“Not bad,” he said. “Now cut it in half.”
Isn’t this what always happens? I wanted to say. I work so hard for something, only to have to cut it away, destroy it, try to learn something from the broken pieces, and start all over again! I’m tired of it! I want something to be easy, to last, to just be good without so much strife, so much exhausting effort! This is exactly what I was trying to get my mind off of!
The instructor waited patiently. I decided this wasn’t the proper arena to give voice to my neuroses. I grabbed the wire, slid it under the cylinder, and sliced upward.
“See how it’s a little thick on the sides there? You could have raised the walls more. Not bad for a first try, though.”
I mumbled a thanks as I mushed the imperfect sides of my cylinder together and squished them into an arch. I looked at the table, where seven other balls of clay remained, waiting to be created and destroyed. It was going to be a long night.