The Best Homesteading Lesson I Ever Learned From a Ceramics Teacher

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I took my first ceramics class when my second child was just born. It was my way of getting out of the house. Once a week, I would leave my two little ones — my first two were very close together — with their adoring dad and escape for two or three hours to another world, with all unfamiliar smells and colors and textures. We learned the steps of wheel throwing: how to wedge the clay, place it on the bat, form a cone and work the cone up and down and up and down again between our palms. This is all before you even begin to shape the bowl.

 

I found the wheel hypnotic, the sensory experience calming. But of course my first creations were little disasters. The clay wasn’t centered. I made ripples in my cone. I didn’t even get to the point of actually turning my first bowl before the whole thing fell in on itself into a misshapen mess.

 

The teacher wasn’t a bit perturbed. He restated the steps. Then he said, “If you do everything right, then you will have no problems.”

 

I almost fell off my stool laughing. I’m quick to laughter, not a mean kind, I don’t think, I just find a lot of things to laugh about. I laughed at that moment because I knew my ceramics teacher had just reduced all the problems of life into a simple — though a bit infuriating — statement of pure truth.

 

Translated:

THIS MESS IS, ACTUALLY, YOUR FAULT.

ENTIRELY.

BUT THERE’S NO NEED TO FREAK OUT ABOUT IT.

 

That moment comes back to me all the time now, as an off grid homestead wife. Though my mother may have been a homesteading expert, still I am her millennial generation child. And as such I don’t have the skills needed to homestead unless I intentionally learn them. Day after day, and season after season I find myself approaching each new (old) skill just like I approached that potter’s wheel. And just as often my first projects are a mess.

 

I try to remember the calm of that teaching. I try to remember the resolve of that difficult but perfect truth. To be successful as the homestead wife I have to do things right: steadily and precisely, the way they need to be done. Proverbs like haste makes waste (a paraphrase of Pvbs 21:5), are something more than platitudes when you’re producing your own anything, from clay pots to crocheted hats to loaves of bread.

 

Of course very few things of modern life are really like that, anymore. In the modern work world, it might be the opposite. If you do everything right then you will be chewed up and spit out. If you are one of the lucky ones you’ll get rich. If you’re not, you’re going to struggle your entire life no matter what you do.

 

We’ve made bold choices with our lives to escape that kind of psychic stress. We’ve made bold choices with our lives to get into places where cause and effect will (at least some of the time) reflect reality. Get it right and it’s right. Get it wrong and you have to try again. You don’t have to be ashamed, or justify yourself. The consequences play out right in your own life. You do your best. And you go to sleep at night tired, maybe crammed into a tiny house, but you can say that all is well in your soul.

 

Of course we also bridge our chosen life with the life we’re born into. Which is 2015, my family the rare ones, only one generation off the land, and Nick’s not far from farming, either, but both of us still having town experiences and town educations. In these we weren’t taught the patience to develop our own skills, over and around difficulties and failures. My first batch of canned tomato sauce I made when my little Stella was a baby and I was just trying to make a switch. The entire batch was inedible. We couldn’t even eat it. I’ll spare you the list of things I did wrong. The ethos of my generation — the will of chasing shiny things — would have said, “Don’t bother. Just quit. You’re not made for this. Someone else (or a machine) can do it better than you.”

 

But there is another voice that says, “Do everything right. And you will have no problems.”

 

It’s a little harsh, but it’s also freedom.

 

This late winter my husband and I have made the choice to push. Even against the edges of winter, we’re packing our weekends full of learning and projects and learning projects. I’m balancing this with writing work, which comes with its own deadlines. Also, my upcoming TEDx talk, which at first didn’t seem like that big of a deal but now seems like a Very Big Deal. This weekend I found myself inhaling and exhaling stress.

 

I spent a lot of time yesterday in bed, with a headache that was basically a physical expression of the stress. Bridging two value systems. Living into one and being judged by the other. And sometimes not knowing which is which. But through my headache I went looking for the wisdom of that ceramics teacher, who taught me the best homesteading lesson I ever needed to learn.

 

Do everything right. And you will have no problems.

 

I have no energy available to be spent in insecurity or frustration. Really none of us do. Each one of us has a human life to live and that’s as much as a person can possibly handle. There’s no time for me to be mad at myself or have unrealistic expectations or to play to what I imagine anybody wants from me. I just have to keep shaping myself — or really, allowing myself to be shaped — like the clay on the wheel.

Wishing you all peace and perseverance, even when the lessons are hard and reality is kind of fierce.

Love, from the yurt.

 

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