Jesus and the Wheel

There was a boy who looked like Jesus who was very good at the potter’s wheel in my high school ceramics class. He was lanky and quiet and had eyelashes that were thick and mournful. He was strong enough to set the wheel in motion, and strong enough to focus on the vessel that was becoming in his hands.

I admired Jesus from afar as I worked my clay at the table, making my coil and slab constructions. Arlene Ferris, our teacher, was equal parts hippy and Harley rider with a perpetual unlit Marlboro in her lips. She didn’t speak much to me or Jesus since she had troublemakers and jokers in her classes who soaked up her time. She was the teacher of last resort for so many of us.

I wished I could work the wheel like Jesus. As I sat at the table creating with clay like I was patterning a dress or making a cake, he would work quietly, meticulously centering the clay.  Kick, kick, kick, KICK, KICK.  Water cupped and dripped on the mound.  Hands shaping into balance — pulling up and then working down and wide.  Again kicks for momentum, again with water and motion.  All the while, the clay was becoming centered, strong, ready for creation.

In January, I used “centering” as my theme in my yoga classes.  I remember when I first started practicing, how odd but how inviting it was to hurry up and get to class only to take a seat and spend some time in stillness and the quiet. Like clay on the wheel, we need to become affixed first in body, breath and mind. Around and around reality goes but we find the sweet spot of the now, where the wobbling stops.  We will be pushed up and down, in and out; the momentum of our practice starts and stops in the grip of the center. The goal, as it is for a potter centering at the wheel, is to become strong and resilient on the molecular level so that we are ready for shaping, for creation.

Since my word of the new year is “surprise”, I made my way to Marie Pavlicek-Wehrli’s studio to learn printmaking a few weeks ago. I have always had a mental block when it came to the printing press — perhaps it is a machine like the wheel that I don’t feel I can tame. Marie reminds me of Jesus at the wheel.  She is disciplined and meticulous yet open to the grace of the moment and gentle with what arises, letting her creations have the space to breathe and be and take shape. In other words, she is centered and was as encouraging and wonderful as she has always been. I came away with prints and didn’t give in to the “I can’t do this” mode. Getting home, looking through the prints, I knew what I wanted to do. I picked up my exacto and my shears and found myself once again patterning dresses and icing cakes. I’m not exactly done yet — still discovering in the rubbing, the gluing and the template making.  Momentum, yes, but moving from the center.

Transfom. Further. Off the Mat.

I had chosen “surprise” as my word for 2020. When I say this to folks, I can tell that they are trying to figure out a polite way to ask me “haven’t you had enough surprises already?” And my answer would be, “No.  No I have not yet had enough surprise.”  I am thankful for the kind of surprise I received this summer.  I got an instant reset in beginner’s mind — there was nothing to do but breathe in the moment and be grateful.  I didn’t know what was next and I relinquished control.  I found my center, despite the chaos. And I am transformed by the experience.

 

In 2020, I expect further surprise (can you expect to be surprised? I say yes!) I want to be continuously awed by the world around me — from the two little foxes that live near our back yard to Great Falls; from the jungle of Costa Rica to the northern lights of Newfoundland.  I want to be delighted by the gifts that come from a relationship that has lasted 32 years and excitement that children who are grown and doing awesome things in the world bring to my life. For the way in which my teaching practice will continue to open my heart up to new studios, new clients, new teacher trainees and students, new capabilities, new things to learn.

I will get back on my mat this month. I guess I could spend some time feeling sorry for the muscular atrophy that awaits me after this second surgery. Instead, I’m prepping myself for the amazement that will come as I step off the mat into the world. As I did these small collages at the end of 2019, the universe was telling me that it will be a very juicy experience.

Surprising, Juicy New Year to you and all you love.

 

What to Expect

Rose

My breast cancer story has come to a conclusion, with my reconstruction surgery last Wednesday.  Now it is time to be there for others who are just starting their breast cancer journeys.  I feel a bit like an imposter since I had stage 1 and didn’t require chemo or radiation, but I have already been pressed into duty by the sisterhood. Like those wonderful strangers I spoke to on the phone after my diagnosis, I will be there to support anyone who needs it.

What can you expect?

Expect grace and actively seek it out. Open up to its descent. Practice staying awake, just like you did as a child before a big, beautiful day. It is there. You feel it healing. Then you will see it everywhere.

 Hmmm…I don’t think I’m going to be very good at this.

You are a warrior, though this is not a fight or a war. You love your body. It didn’t betray you, it is just doing what bodies do.  You are armed with the righteous power of the present moment. You aren’t to kill, but to heal. You aren’t to fight, but to strip your armor and open wide to this experience so that you can heal. 

I think back to the women I spoke with — friends of friends, who were strangers when I called them and sisters when I hung up. I am thankful for their advice, for their willingness to speak about their experience.

The practical advice I received from these women was comforting and helpful. Their lives, their health, their resilience were inspiring. It reminded me of hearing friends’ birth stories when I was pregnant.  The stories were unique, cathartic, mesmerizing and real. They made me brave, but now I know those stories were nothing like mine would be.

The word “grace” in Sanskrit means “that which follows the grasping.”  When I first read this, I thought that grace came after the understanding that I couldn’t control the outcome of my journey.  But the ancients meant the “grasping” of the truth:  that the body is expendable.  It has a time limit.  But the spirit doesn’t.  It is light. Timeless, eternal light that is everything, everywhere.  It is the light that heals.  Pay attention to the light.

See?  I’m really not too sure about this advice thing. Little heavy handed that.  But on the lighter side, I called my tissue expanders my “coke bottle boobs.”  The magnet ports reminded me of the screw off tops, the wrinkles in my breast mounds like the as hard and shiny as the creases on old glass bottles of Coke. Tom and I joked about it because laughter is the best medicine in our family, but there are others who can’t laugh because of what will come after the expanders are placed — months of chemo, worry, exhaustion, surrender.

I am blessed to be me exactly as I am even if my body is cancering. I am also blessed to be exactly as you are, since we are both the same light, reflecting back on itself in a playful, joyful act of love.  No, cancer isn’t a gift, it is just part of this beautiful, terrible life.  It is as mundane and regular as cold, gloomy afternoons and boring business meetings.  All is well if you can be here right now in this present moment, if you can see the light and open to healing no matter what is happening in your body.

I have absolutely no advice on bras.  Still looking for the right one, though my bud Grace told me I would be back in my old worn and comfy ones soon.  I shopped in consignment stores for button downs that covered up my Ursula Andress surgical vest.  I never paid much mind to my breasts, but I had to grieve them when the time came to say goodbye. My dear friend Corinne was there when this realization hit me hard and let me cry a good long time. We will all grieve the physical someday.  Those of us with cancer just get a preview.

I am here to listen, support, encourage and share with you the fruits of grace. Namaste, sister.

1 by three

 

 

 

All Saints Arrived Early This Year

Mom and me

As I’ve recovered from surgery, I’ve found my way back to teaching art to my beloved friends at Thomas Circle Retirement Community. I decided to teach the technique of assemblage. So I set out to make a piece as an example and document the thinking and the process I took along the way.

I didn’t intend it to be personal. I must have forgotten that art is healing and healing is always personal.

I’d asked participants to bring a photo of themselves in their youth and a box to the first class. In the example that I started to create for them, I chose a picture of myself and my mother taken in 1967 that I’ve always loved.  The flash above my head, the light that creates bars across our bodies, the iridescence of the shiny pattern in the old couch — such a beautifully bad photo my father took one morning in Baltimore.  The flash above my head, the light bands across our bodies and the reflective fabric details initially brought to my mind the miracle of genetic code that is inherited from our parents.

A chemistry textbook written in 1941 and downloaded genetic sequences took way too much of my time as I tried hard to make a statement about my inheritance.  I rejected the result as too heavy-handed. I also spent a long time with micro twinkle lights that made the piece a gimmick. I was relaying the surface, the concept, but not the real meaty stuff of legacy.

When I paused in frustration and concentrated on the few things I can remember about this time in my life, the year before my brother was born, I had a breakthrough.  There was an old chest with tall Queen Anne legs,  the bottoms of which were claw and ball.  Mom had painted it a cheery yellow. The two doors of the cabinet had brass lion pulls — the rings were in their mouths.  Perhaps these were memorable because they were right at shoulder level for me.  When opened, the cabinet revealed a red velvet flocked wallpaper — shocking even to a 4 year old in its ironic juxtaposition of school-bus paint and musty Victorian interior.  On many occasions I bent into the cabinet, my belly on the nubby paper and the smell of chemical glue in my nose.

Top of boxThis memory led to my choice to use the box top painted bright yellow to involve the viewer in the reveal of cool darkness inside. I have an old circle pin with Mom’s married initials on it that I’ve attached to the brass pull — making this more of a memorial to her in my mind.

 

Inside of boxThe inside of the box top is part of an old housecoat (I guess I got this from her  –I can’t imagine who else would have given me a housecoat!) memorializing a time and place that embraced the aesthetic of monogrammed circle pins, this piece of furniture, avocado colored kitchens, sculptured wall to wall carpets, bouffant hair dos and brightly colored housecoats.

As I worked with this piece, I laid down, once again, in that cool dark interior and allowed my vision to adjust, something I couldn’t allow myself to do this summer as I went through surgery for stage 1 breast cancer. I couldn’t add another heartbreak to my losses. There in the darkness I remembered a conversation I had with Mom in the Weinberg Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins after her surgery for pancreatic cancer. She took my hand, squeezed it and thanked me for coming every day to see her. I love you mom, I said. “If it were you in this bed, I’d sleep on the floor,” was her reply. The love she had for her family was so bright it still shines on me; it was so bright it was captured in the flash above my head in 1967.

Inside of box 2Her parents loved her as fiercely as she loved my brother and me. As people who were born, raised and are buried in the Appalachian mountains of Eastern Kentucky, they are most likely responsible for the lyrics of the old Carter Family song that came to me as I painted and glued the final parts of the box:

Well, there’s a dark and a troubled side of life,/There’s a bright and a sunny side too…/Keep on the sunny-side, always on the sunny-side/Keep on the sunny-side of life…

The song brought me back to summer mornings in the kitchen in Harlan, KY listening to my Mom and her mother talk and laugh as they put up vegetables from the garden for the winter in their brightly colored housecoats.

My intention was to demonstrate a process of collecting, assembling and evoking a memory, dream or concept for my class. The universe reminded me of my legacy, the darkness and salty taste of grief, and the comfort and warmth of the light of love.  I am so grateful for the healing that comes from the yoga of art-making.