Saturday, 8 November 2014


When you start to learn the basics of throwing pots, you're desperate to get going. You watch a demonstration, someone sitting there with the clay singing through their hands, rising, falling, charmed like a snake, soothed and coaxed into beautiful symmetry, smoothed by the patter of their words.

Then you try it yourself, sling a lump on the wheel, start it moving, have a stab at getting it centred, then rush, rush, get your thumb in there, start pushing, pulling, you want it to grow, you want to make a thing like you just saw her make! And it collapses. A tiny assymmetry at the start gets amplified with each turn, but by the time the sides are coming up it's too late, you can't do anything about it, so you keep going, maybe turn the wheel faster, pull harder, try and push it back where you wanted, mutter, look around, chuck more water on, then BAM it's down, it's off, your whole top edge has seared off sideways and is slumped in the water catcher, while the remnants of the base spin on, mocking you with their broken misshaped edges.

The key is to centre the clay, and I don't think it's a skill you can explain, because it comes from somewhere way beyond and behind language. All you can do is get it in roughly the right place on the wheel, set it going, put your hands there and feel, feel where it's not right then brace one hand, firmly but without gripping to make dents, and place the other one just so, on the top, angled down, press it exactly right and breathe with it. It's moving all the time, you can see it as trying to get away from you or you can say wait, this clay is singing to me, it's urging me to get it centred, to make it whole and clean and complete and ready to begin, and you relax your whole body apart from your listening hands, and switch off your brain apart from the bit that can pick up this song, and you wait, and lean, and adjust, and balance, and suddenly there it is, that sweet spot, like a humming glass, it's centred. If you have to ask whether it's right, then it's not, there's no mistaking it when you've got it.

Of course you can mess up the pot from there, and I usually do, and of course getting your clay centred isn't something you do right once then never struggle with again. But when it works, oh the physical and spiritual joy of it, the satisfaction of knowing that you listened well.

Why this, now?
Because it's exactly the same feeling as coaxing a baby down to sleep in your arms or a sling. There's a pattern of movements which can be reliable, but to make it work you have to pour your energy into a special focus on the feel of your baby's body, where the tension's going, how to correct his motion with yours. One sway-step might work to step him down from the world to begin with, but it changes as he floats away. In the critical few minutes between awake and asleep, your breathing has to align, your movements constantly reflecting and stilling his, your senses all alert to where his attention might prickle and grab and splutter to the surface, distressed at being pulled out but unable to resist for himself. It's a musical kind of magic, a skill you relearn every time, and the sweetest of sweet spots when it works - if you listen hard enough, you can feel the moment when it's truly sleep, the moment when once more you have done your job well.

As for the rest of the analogy, no, I don't think I believe my children will grow up wonky if I don't always do very well at helping them to sleep. But I do think the start matters, I think we set patterns and more importantly these early years define our relationship, how well we can listen to and respond to each other, how smooth the dance can be.

And one day I'll get the chance to cover my hands in clay again.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful post Helen! You know, when I was a kid I loved the pottery we did (well, making things with clay) at primary school, but then at middle school we never did any. I always longed to have a go at throwing a pot, but never had a chance. I think there's something very instinctive about wanting to manipulate earth/soil/clay. Love the parenting analogy bit! Now I want to see some of your pottery!