I’ve been taking a pottery class lately, which is the fulfillment of a little dream of mine that has been percolating for a while. I was going to local artisan shows and galleries and the more pottery I saw, the more I wanted to try it myself. I wanted to cut into the clay and feel it spinning on the wheel. I wanted to make something in-your-hands tangible.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t write about the pottery class. The potter and the clay is a common metaphor and the English major in me has been trained to avoid cliche at all costs. The first night that I sat behind the pottery wheel, though, a certain space was created. It was one of those unexpectedly holy moments. I stumble upon those kind of spaces when I do artsy things, or when I go to bookstores, or sometimes when I swim, but I’m sure that everyone has a different way of finding those moments. It happens when you slip into your niche or knock against something that absolutely fills your soul. Anyway, I found a new way to worship in the pottery studio.
The very first thing I learned is that when you start out with clay on the wheel, you have to centre it. The centring process is something you have to learn how to feel. I kept messing up at first because I’d try to force it. I didn’t know, yet, what I was supposed to be feeling. I spent hours on that wheel, understanding the clay, guiding it, and learning where and how to apply pressure. It’s like a rhythm or a dance. You have to feel it in a different part of yourself. You have to be present and in tune with the speed of the wheel and the way the clay is moving. To shape the clay, you have to learn a balance of firmness and gentleness.
I usually aim to swim on a regular basis. I enjoy it, but I’m trying to redeem it into something more filling for me. I associate swimming with a certain amount of competition and intensity. I’m not the most amazing swimmer and the only times I ever swam in a remotely competitive way was long ago in grade school. I have been a lifeguard for a few years, though, and I’ve taught swimming lessons and, even though I love it, every time I go into the pool, it feels like a job or a training session. I feel like I should be working on some skill and swimming better than I did yesterday. It suddenly dawned on me recently that I can just swim for fun.
Today I went to a lap swim and intentionally went into the slow lane, which is something I’ve never done before. I had 40 minutes and one rule: just swim for 40 minutes. I wasn’t allowed to count my laps or time myself or anything that felt too competitive. I just swam. I didn’t think about how fast I was going or how many lengths I had completed. At one point I was swimming parallel to a guy in the fast lane and, I admit, I had to beat him to the end, but that was the only time I let it come to that. Otherwise, it was just me and the water and time fell away. I stayed in the pool because I wanted to. I have no idea how many laps I did. All I know is that I swam for 40 minutes and it was enjoyable in a soul-filling way.
This is something I am training myself to understand: I don’t have to be beating someone or constantly pushing myself to the furthest edge of my potential to be my best self. I feel hypocritical even writing those words, in a way. I am always a proponent of change and growth and reaching toward your very best self. However, lately I’ve been realizing that sometimes I live life as a competition, and it really isn’t. We’re all at different points in our journeys and our maturity and our faith. This is a really hard lesson for me to learn, admittedly. I fight hard against it. I know there is something deeper going on, though.
The question is: why am I trying to be the best? Is it genuinely making me better in the sense that it is the right path for me to take? Is it genuinely making me a more fulfilled and freer person? If it isn’t, I might be doing it just for respect and applause. I’m not saying that respect is bad. This isn’t an issue of “good” or “bad,” exactly. It’s more an issue of the heart and motivation. If I’m constantly trying to be better because I want people to say that I’m a really accomplished person, I’ll probably be burned out and always feeling a little bit lost or never really satisfied. That place is never a good one.
I think that someone who is gentle with their self, their person, someone who learns the rhythm of when to apply pressure and when to let go, is a person who is centred, just like the clay on the wheel. I think we’re all kind of learning the balance and rhythm of life and sometimes what we need is to challenge ourselves and other times we need to allow ourselves grace. We need to learn that we don’t have to do everything that we know we can accomplish; and not accomplishing what we know we can do isn’t necessarily failure, either.
The catch is that this whole learning to be centred thing isn’t going to turn out perfectly. Just like the clay, we might end up a bit wobbly in some places and maybe have a few nicks or rough edges. The other thing about clay is that once it is off the wheel, that isn’t the end. The clay must be prodded and shaved and smoothed by hand as well. It’s all a process of gentle shaping and sometimes you keep a bit of the asymmetry because it adds personality and character.
It’s ok to be in the slow lane, sometimes, even when you know that you can hold your own in the fast lane. I also think that it is very ok to aim high and test your limits. The trick is understanding why you are there, and where it is leading you. It’s the divide between pride and humility, fear and growth, trust and letting go. It ultimately comes down to you and your heart and your story. You’ll know. After a while, you’ll learn the rhythm and you’ll learn where to place pressure and when to be gentle with yourself. You’ll feel when things are off centre and how to pinpoint the problem areas. You’re being shaped, surrendering to the Potter’s hand and, one day, something unexpectedly beautiful may emerge.
*Right after I wrote this, I began reading Donald Miller’s newest book, Scary Close, (and if you’ve never read Donald Miller, you really should) and in chapter 5 he recounts a strikingly similar swimming experience and a strikingly similar epiphany. I don’t know, maybe we’re onto something…..