Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Mugs and Cups

Joining the sides of the mug with slip

A few weeks ago, I decided to sign up for a pottery class. I’d wanted to learn pottery for a long time and thought finally, now that I was starting to feel normal again, it would be the perfect time to begin. I also thought it might help with my lymphedema.

The first class was in wheel throwing. I enjoyed that very much and made several items. The next class was in hand building. Hand building is a pottery-making technique that involves creating forms without the use of a pottery wheel. It would be more difficult.

As I stood in front of the classroom counter, a large lump of brown clay lay before me. My job, the instructor said, was to wedge the clay. Wedging the clay is a process to rid the clay of air bubbles which could cause problems in firing. I listened as she explained the process and then watched as she showed me how to manipulate the clay. She worked for a few minutes and then turned the clay over to me. I picked up the brown lump and slammed it down on the counter as my teacher had done. The clay was heavy and dense. After slamming it hard on the counter, I began kneading it. Pushing and pulling the clay, I felt like I was in the process of making bread, only this was more difficult. Slam, turn, knead, press, and repeat. Over and over again, I wedged the clay. Finally, my instructor said I’d done a good job and now it was time to begin working on my project.

I moved to the work area and held the massive blob of clay in my hands. The coolness of the damp clay against my skin was comforting. As I began to roll out the clay and feed it into a large slab roller, my thoughts drifted. Just a few years ago, everything in my life was out of control. Breast cancer consumed me.

Sliding the clay between two sheets of canvas, I began the process of cranking it through the machine to flatten it. I watched as the mound of clay was pressed and compacted. I knew how that felt. It wasn’t too long ago that my breast was being squeezed tightly during a mammogram. It was so uncomfortable, it hurt.

When I’d rolled the clay to the proper depth, I gently carried the canvas sheet holding the clay to my table. Now the fun would begin. I could mold and shape the clay into anything I wanted it to be. The power was in my hands. I decided to make a mug. Pressing and molding the clay, I watched as it began to take form. Next, it was time to trim. I picked up the knife and gently pressed it into the clay. As I moved the knife through the clay, my mind shifted once again. I was being wheeled into the operating room to have my breasts removed. The surgeon was skilled and promised to do a good job. Still, I’d hoped to keep my breasts, but she assured me it was best to remove them based on my diagnosis.

I continued trimming the clay. Working around the sides of the mug, I removed the excess. Gathering all the clay trimmings, I walked toward the trashcan. I stood over it looking down. Thoughts continued to swirl inside my head. I wondered if my breasts had been thrown away after they’d been removed. I shook my head to clear my mind and went back to complete my work.

Why was I struggling so? I was supposed to be enjoying the art of pottery but instead, I was thinking back to my cancer days. Lately, it seemed that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I was reminded of breast cancer. Maybe I’d been so focused on breast cancer because this is Pinktober, the celebratory month for breast cancer awareness.

My mug was complete. Now it was time to place it underneath a plastic covering so it could dry to the leather hard stage. On my next class, the instructor said, I’d learn the art embellishment. I smiled as she said I could decorate the mug as ornately as I wanted. Once again, I thought back to my breasts. My breast surgeon had basically said the same thing to me as we discussed the possibility of reconstruction. She said, “The world is your oyster. You can be any size you choose.” Although I’d chosen not to go the reconstruction route, I knew if I had made that choice, I could have been any size I’d wanted.

Mugs and cups. They didn’t really go together, but then again, they did. Making a ceramic mug reminded me of my missing breasts. As I thought about adding embellishments to my pottery, I had been reminded of the opportunity to increase my cup size.

My hands are dry and cracked from working with the clay. Those wounds will heal quickly and won’t leave any visible scars but my breast cancer scars did the opposite. I’ve learned to face the fact that Breast cancer is always going to be part of my life. Mundane things surprise me by sparking memories taking me back to my cancer days. It’s hard to accept those memories but its important I do remember. Paul Greengrass said, “Remembering is painful, it's difficult, but it can be inspiring and it can give wisdom.”

Sometimes, when I think about the difficult road I’ve traveled, I can’t help but relate my life to pottery. The hard things have shaped and molded me just as I shaped and molded the clay.

My newly created mug will sit for a week on the counter as it dries enough for the next steps -glazing and firing. Those steps will give the mug a beautiful sheen and hardness. Breast cancer has done the same for me. Over time, it’s given me a new outlook on life and it’s helped me become resilient.

I’m glad I took the pottery class. It was a lot of fun but it was also a lot of hard work. Slamming and kneading the clay to wedge it was tough. I realized my upper body strength has weakened due to surgery and lymphedema, but I pushed through. I wanted to learn this new skill and was willing to do whatever necessary to do it.

I can’t wait to see my finished mug! I’m sure, when I hold it in my hands, I’ll be proud of the work that went into creating it. And if I get the opportunity, I might just make another. On my next mug, I think I’ll add a little pink ribbon embellishment to remind me of the lesson I learned about mugs and cups.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Molding and Shaping

Centering the clay at the wheel
Today was my first pottery class. One of our regional artists, Tammy Troyer, was giving lessons so I jumped at the chance to learn. I'd met Tammy at a local arts and crafts fair last month and had the pleasure of watching her at the wheel. When she said she'd be offering classes soon, I jumped at the opportunity to learn. This is something I've always wanted to do and since I've had it on my bucket list for some time, I figured why wait any longer.

I met Tammy at our local Arts Center early this morning. She asked if I was sure I didn't mind getting dirty and I assured her I didn't. She said she was glad and she had some aprons hanging on the hook in the corner. "Why don't you get one while I change into my work clothes." I did as instructed and picked out a nice, heavy denim apron. I figured that would be the best choice for keeping clay off of my clothes.

After Tammy had changed, she pulled out a large box with a huge square of clay in it. "This will be your clay," she said. It was a twenty-pound block and was wrapped in plastic to keep it moist. She took a wire and sliced a chunk from the block. Then she cut the chunk into four equal parts. "The first thing we need to do is to round off the corners," she said. Then she began to show me how to pound the clay to work off the corners. She did two and I did two. It was fun but it was also hard work. The clay was dense and my arms were weak. When the clay had been worked, Tammy said we were ready to start. 

She took me over to the pottery wheel and sat down in front of it. She wanted me to just watch for a few minutes. She took the hunk of clay and slammed it down into the center of the wheel as she explained how important it was to make sure the clay was in the middle. Next, she began pressing the base of the clay tightly to the wheel explaining that it would help keep it in place and prevent it from sliding away. Next, she took a small sponge and soaked it in water. She drizzled the water over the dome of clay and turned on the electric pottery wheel. As the wheel began to turn faster, Tammy straddled the pottery wheel, leaned forward, and placed both hands around the clay in a cupping manner. She told me she was going to start to press in and as she did, the centrifugal force would help round out the clay. I watched as she periodically added water and continued to press in with her hands. The next step was coning. By moving her hands together and pressing inward, the clay began to rise up into a cone shape. Next, she'd press it down. Over and over again, she'd repeat these steps until the clay was perfectly centered. 

After centering the clay, she dug her thumb deep into the center of the clay forming a well. Then she inserted the other thumb and began to spread the clay out. I watched as the hole grew larger and larger. When she got the hole as large as she wanted it, she began to lift up on the sides by adding pressure to the inside and outside of the clay. I was amazed as I saw the project form and then, Tammy pressed a little too hard and the clay collapsed. She laughed and said, "See that's what can happen sometimes, but don't worry, you can always start over."
My first pieces of pottery!

I was surprised when my instructor got up from her chair and motioned for me to sit down. Sitting in front of me, she asked if I remembered any of the things she'd taught me and said if I did, I could begin. I took my clay and slammed it down into the center of the wheel. I needed to make sure my clay was centered otherwise my piece would wobble and become distorted.

I worked hard with that clay and found myself struggling to cone and press down the clay to get it completely centered, but as I continued to work, I did it! My arms were weak because of the lymphedema but I leaned my elbows on my knees and gained more momentum.

I couldn't help thinking about Scripture as I worked today. Isaiah 64:8 says, "Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand." As I molded and shaped the clay into my desired project, I thought about all the ways God's worked to make me into the person He wants me to be. Although clay is very pliable while wet, it's resistant when dry. I'm sure I haven't always been easily moldable and I know there have been times when I've been very resistant. But instead of scrapping me and starting over, God's worked with my imperfections. He's taken time to smooth out the rough spots and make me useful. Just knowing He's fashioned me into the exact work He pictured amazes me.

Some of the work I started today will be Christmas presents. Next week, I'll be attaching handles to my mugs and getting pieces ready for glazing and firing. It will take several weeks to complete finished pieces but I'm sure it will be well worth it. When I hold those finished pieces in my hands, I know I'll take pride in my work. I will have made a functional, useful object and I will have had fun doing it. I wonder if God had fun molding and making each of us? I'm sure He probably did.

It was a fun day and I'm so glad I was brave enough to take the class. Last year, I wouldn't have been ready to go out into public and try something new.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Lessons from the homeless

I almost missed her. There among the shadows, she sat quietly waiting. Her voice was soft as she spoke the words, "Help me, lady?" I almost dismissed her, thinking she was speaking to someone else, but she was speaking directly to me. That's when I realized she was homeless.

One step further and I stopped dead in my tracks. I turned to my husband and whispered, "Give me your wallet." He knows me well enough by now not to argue with me. Obediently, he fished in his pants and pulled out his wallet. Handing it over to me, I opened it and grabbed a twenty. I told him I'd be back in a few minutes and asked if he could wait there. He nodded.

I backtracked to the seated lady and squatted down until we were at eye level with one another. Gently I spoke. "What's your name?" I said. She replied, "Regina." I could only see one eye because the other was hidden by her long, unkempt hair, but that one eye held such pain. I sensed she'd had a very difficult life, one she didn't care to discuss, especially with a complete stranger. With eyes locked, I spoke to this woman. "Regina, I want you to know, I saw you." She acknowledged my words and then I continued, "I saw you, but someone else saw you, too. Jesus saw you. He sees you, Regina." As I said those words, I took her hand and placed the money into her open palm. I closed her fingers around the bill and reminded her, "He sees you." She smiled and nodded drawing her hand from mine and placing it gently into her lap. I rose to my feet, smiled, and began walking back to my husband.

Within those few feet, I felt the weight of Regina's problems on my shoulders. Although I had no idea who she really was or what her history, I felt her pain. The pain of rejection. The pain of longing. The pain of want.

My husband and I walked on hand in hand. He whispered, "Is everything okay?" I assured him it was. I told him her name and told him we needed to pray for her.

We slipped into a corner restaurant to celebrate my youngest daughter's 30th birthday. After we'd eaten our meal, we took a short jaunt across the street. A local bakery was there and their specialty, according to the sign, was cupcakes. We entered and made our selections. It was a tiny place and it was quite crowded so we took our cakes outside. Several metal tables and chairs were there for customers. We pulled two tables together and rounded up enough chairs. Each of us enjoyed the sweet taste of sugar as we sang to the birthday girl.

I'd just finished my key lime cupcake and was about to throw my napkin into the trash when I saw an elderly black woman. She was leaning over the trash can digging out half eaten cakes and stuffing them into a white paper bag. She was so frail. I judged her to be about 80 years old. My heart broke. I couldn't bear to see this sweet woman living in such a way. I walked over to her side and placed my hand upon her shoulder. I could feel her bones, she was so thin. Our eyes locked and I said, "Ma'am, you don't need to dig through the trash for food. Let's go in and get you something good to eat. She shook her head and said she'd be fine. Once again, I went to my husband. I didn't have to say a word, just held out my hand. He placed his wallet in it and again, I took out a twenty.

Walking back over to the trashcan, I placed my hand on the woman's back and spoke softly to her. I felt like I could count every bone in her spine if I'd left my hand there long enough. I took her hand and placed the money in it. She smiled the biggest smile and lifted her head toward heaven. I encouraged her to use it to get something nutritious to eat. Half eaten cupcakes weren't what she needed, I insisted. She threw one of the cupcakes back into the can and took the other two with her telling me she'd feed them to the birds, but I knew otherwise. She asked where the Dollar Store was located and I had to tell her I didn't know. I explained we weren't from that area.

Turning my head for a split second, I looked back and she was gone. That's when I lost it. I couldn't stop crying. Two homeless people in one afternoon were too much. I had no idea Chattanooga, Tennessee had so many street people. I felt like I was back in Atlanta where homelessness is prevalent in the downtown area, but I hadn't expected to encounter it here, in the midst of an area known to attract tourists.

All the way home, I couldn't help thinking about Regina and the older lady. I wished I'd done more. I wished I said more.  I didn't even ask the older woman's name. I didn't share the gospel with either of them. I could have taken more time. I could have listened more. Why didn't I?

We'd been there on a mini-vacation. We were there with other family members. Surely they'd have waited while I ministered, wouldn't they? And aren't we all called to share the gospel of Christ, in season and out? I knew these things and yet, I didn't do them. I hated myself for not sharing the good news with those two precious souls.

All around us people are perishing. Some of us see and some of us don't. Some of us choose to see while others walk quickly past, imagining the problem doesn't exist, but it does. The Bible says when we see someone who's hungry and feed them, we're doing it as if we were doing it unto Christ. Although I didn't react exactly as I should have, I did act and I think God will honor that.

I haven't shared any of this to make myself look good. The only reason I shared it is because I wanted you to see and understand that we have to pay attention. I think God allows us to cross paths with those less fortunate and at times, I think He might even use those situations to test us a see how we'll respond. Will we stop? Will we see? Will we help?

The next time you see someone begging for help, don't be afraid. They're people just like you and I. Sometimes bad choices have put them in their current position and sometimes, something completely out of control has placed them there. In any case, the shoe could easily be on the other foot. You or I could be the ones begging. So please take time to minister to the "least of these" and in so doing, you'll honor Christ. We all need to show a little unconditional love because we all need love, don't we?

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