Regaining Balance and Proportion when Life isn't going to your Plan
A long time ago, I used to play with clay. My grandfather was a potter, and at first I made little sculptures from scraps in his workshop. Later, he taught me how to throw pots on the wheel. It was love at first touch, the clay sliding through my hands, bringing the lump of clay to life, getting it on center and then having it bloom outwards into a bowl, a plate, a cup… useful, practical things that once fired and glazed were beautiful. I still sometimes wake up from dreams feeling the clay on my hands.
If you don’t get it centered, the spinning of the clay begins to wobble, to tear itself apart.
In the last several weeks:
I had to face my husband’s mortality.
My baby, the youngest of four, turned 18 and wandered around half the day muttering ‘I’m an adult!’
The selfsame child got his first car.
I restarted the job hunt, with several months to do it in.
I delivered two short stories due in the middle of that, and tried to keep up with a huge graphics design project that just won’t wind up.
Some of that shouldn’t be a big deal. Some of it was rightfully traumatic. Some of it was wonderful. Through all of it, there were dishes in the sink, laundry that needed to be washed and put away, a cat who wanted to cuddle. Life doesn’t stop and give you time to process when it’s taken a sudden turn. There’s always the constants that pull and push and get you through the day, whether you want to, or not. Because there are days or even just hours where you’d like to just… get off this mad carousel and rest for a time.
Going off center warps your sense of proportion. Things that weren’t difficult suddenly are, as you deal with the ripples that are cascading through everything in your life. Recentering clay is a process of applying pressure, forcing everything back into the middle of the wheel, harnessing the forces that you are applying to the clay itself, with the wheel and your own musculature, channeled into your palms and fingers. My grandfather once told me I’d never be able to make the big casseroles he created. The base pot, not counting the lid, started out with a ten-pound lump of stoneware body, matte-damp and gray, thudding onto the dampened surface of the wooden bat on the wheel. You need a lot of power to control that once it’s up to speed, and that kind of upper-body strength is the realm of the male, not the petite female. My power lies in other directions, I know now.
My superpower is recentering my life, and continuing onward, in the face of being broken. There’s a reason - many reasons - I identify as kintsugi. It’s not been an easy life. I’m not pretty inside or out. But I endure.
I can’t take time to get off the carousel and away from everything. I can say ‘I’m not working tonight…’ and take a few hours that aren’t doing anything other than taking care of me. In finding my own center, I’m slowly pulling my life back towards its smooth trajectory, at least until the next tremor rattles it off track. A friend recently asked me some hard questions, and I am still trying to answer them.
“Who are you? Who do you want to be?”
“What’s your plan now?”
My plan was, for the last 24 years, to raise my children to adulthood and independence. I’m nearly there. The last one is almost ready to fly the nest. I didn’t have a plan for after that. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d survive to reach this point, much less still have life to live after… after everything. The other plan was to get my husband to the point where he could retire. He’s been retired for 3 years, and by the grace of God he’s still alive. I mean to keep him that way as long as he wants to be.
Me? I don’t really know. I certainly don’t know who I want to be. In working so hard at making sure life stayed on center for those I love, I’ve lost track of myself. I guess this is the midlife crisis people talk about? If so, I’m kinda late. I’m past the middle of my life. The peak was waves vaguely to the rear somewhere back there, I don’t think I could say where exactly.
The friend asking about my plan is not wrong. I need a new plan. I can’t just take away my hands and let it all fly where gravity takes it. First, though, dishes and laundry and find out why there’s a half-disassembled ceiling fan in the dining room and call the VA about an appointment and all the minutiae of life. Just those little things have a force all their own, and in doing them, you rediscover that you can. You do have the power to change the wobble back into a centered smooth spin, and then you can begin to reshape the clay of your world into what you want it to be.
Or, in terms of the artist’s eyes, what it wants to be.
When you sculpt, you are rarely forcing the media into the form that you wish it to take. More often, there’s a form contained within that you can see, through everything that shouldn’t be there, and you can release it, build it up (with clay… wood and stone are only about removal), until it has reached its full potential. Or the potential the artist has the skill to realize… which is not always all the art has the potential to be, unfortunately. My poor little creations were never what they should have been. Still, it’s not about talent. It’s about persistence, enduring through the bad times when the voices inside and outside your head tell you to give it up. It’s about practice, and doing the same thing over and over until you can see the difference between now and when you started.
Break the clay down, and then, you can reshape it. Breaking a life isn’t hard, but putting it back together is exhausting. Be kind to yourself. Understand and acknowledge that you are working hard, and need to take some time to breathe, find your own center, and then you can begin anew on the tasks at hand in front of you. Pick your tools up and start fresh.
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