Resiliency 4 Today: WORKING THE CLAY

I took a ceramics class in grad school thinking it would be an easy-cheesy-recreational-brainless class! Nope. It was one of the most intense and profound courses in my entire academic career. On the first day of class, the instructor, a gentleman in a wheelchair, schlepped us out into Eastern Washington dirt fields to dig up our own clay. Not what I expected.

Struggling at the potter’s wheel I bonded with the other students exploring new realms of profanity as lumps of clay schlocked out of balance and slopped onto the floor and all over our clothes. Each assignment was a challenge and after countless lab hours, (in the class that was supposed to be a lark) we eventually were given our final graded assignment: “Construct a wheel piece that is a minimum of 6 inches in height.” Right. Over and over I failed to get anything to rise over 3 inches high. Finally the instructor, a man of few words, rolled his wheelchair behind me and with my permission put his arms over my shoulders and cupped his hands over mine around the spinning clay. As the wheel rotated at the speed of light the muddy lump began to lift; 1 inch, 2 inches, 3 inches. Then he gently pulled both of our hands slightly away and said quietly, “Let the clay be the clay, get out of it’s way.” Astonishingly, without working the clay like a madwoman, and with the barest whispers of touch, the clay lifted to an incredibly sweet shape well over a foot tall. He simply said, “Good,” and left. I knew that although my ego was grinning and saying LOOK I MADE A TALL PIECE, that wasn’t the lesson. The lesson was about “getting out of the way.”

On the last Monday, students were instructed to put their required assignment pieces on lab tables with their name and class period for grading on Tuesday. I was starting to learn how “get out of the way” and noted two art major students stayed behind to stage their work like an art show. Hmmm. I immediately went home and baked cookies for my “plate” piece. I grabbed a lampshade for my “over 6 inches tall” piece and made it look like a lamp. I chose some lovely fabric to curl around my crooked and lame looking mug and bowl, some dried weeds for the slab vase, and one rose bud for the sad little we-made-our-own-clay-from-Cheney-Washington-dirt pinch pot. At the appointed hour the instructor entered ceremoniously and sped from lab station to station checking off names on his clipboard giving no acknowledgement to the nervous students waiting in the wings for their final grade. When he got to my work he grabbed a cookie off the plate before he picked up my name card. I expected him to continue his “speed grading” but he didn’t move on. He spent time looking at my pieces. Were they that bad? Did I forget something? I was wondering why no other student’s work had gotten this much attention when he turned his chair all the way around and looked directly at me. Why did he look at me? It was unnerving. He gave me a slight nod and smile and rolled to the next station. I received an A in the class and I guarantee it absolutely was NOT due to the brilliance or quality of my ceramics. It took me some time to realize the grade acknowledged that I had gone beyond the assignments and learned the lesson he was really teaching: Art is the Ongoing Practice of Learning How to Get Out Of The Way In Order To Truly Be Present.

I think we have to dig deep to find the clay of our lives and when we do find it we need to work to center it on the Wheel of Life, work it more while it slops around, curse a little, survive the messes we make, maybe start over, don’t give up, and then learn when to get out of our own way to become The Art of our Essential Self.

Aloha August 12, 2015

Dr. Vali

Subscribe to the blog to receive more free excerpts from my upcoming book, The Resiliency 4 Today Workbook: Stories for the Journey. And for more in the Resiliency Series, see the $tore at

Comments are closed.