By Susan Lee, written as a part of Debby Gaines' Community-Based Writing class.
For me, sitting at a pottery wheel realigns my senses. The spin of the wheel along with the soft gentle feel of the clay, soothe my being. When I throw clay, I prepare, very intentionally, for the full experience. I start with selecting my wardrobe. What I wear has to be loose, it has to move when I move, and it has to tolerate damp oozing clay. I do my nails. To really become adept at working with clay, nails have to be strong and just the right length. Finally, I gather my accessories. The essential accessories for me are sponges to wet the clay, pin tools to gauge depth, and ribs to shape the clay. Now I’m ready to select a clay body and feel my stressful day melt away.
I teach wheelthrown pottery on Sundays. More often than not, my class is a parent/child activity. Usually Moms with their teen daughters building new bonds. The youngest student, so far, was a little girl who took the class with her Dad. That was unusual, but it taught me a really good lesson about the abilities of special children. She threw some nice pots for a beginner and had a discriminating eye for style.
Without fail, the first day of a new class, someone brings the movie Ghost into the conversation. Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze were in a scene that was clearly erotic. The vessel she had on the wheel, tall, slender, and very wet, was quick to collapse when he began to touch her. I have a guilty confession, that’s why I went to my first class. The reason I stayed, I discovered the metaphor of clay. Humanity!
First and foremost, there’s the clay. Humans were created from it. Like human bodies, there are infinite possibilities for the clay bodies. That means each clay has different characteristics and different elemental makeups. Porcelain fires really hot, raku clay has some flexible thermal properties, and the reds make for good sculpture and can tolerate throwing. And then, there are a few million or so more.
Porcelain is to clay bodies like well-oiled skin is to chapped hands. There’s a delicate, smooth nature to porcelain, yet it’s the one that can withstand the highest heat without sagging. It takes a really light touch to handle this body. There’s something very sensual about throwing with it. Like a good relationship, it takes time to build the piece, patience to overcome challenges, and the ability to step into a sort of Zen with the wheel as the piece grows, moving past the bumps in the spiral.
Raku has a lot of grit in it. Grit gives this body the flexibility to resist breakups. Those happen after fast heating, then a rapid quench. This body is made specifically for that very thing. Red hot vessels come out of the kiln and are doused immediately. Other bodies would experience shock and simply break up. This one isn’t fazed. I worked this body on the wheel once, it was like working concrete. My fingertips had to heal before I could throw again. It’s not a bad body, it’s just not the body for me.
The reds have a lot of iron in them. They are well suited for sculpture, but will work on the wheel. These bodies leach out into whatever they touch. If you’re familiar with the changes, and are accepting, this might be the body for you. Just plan for it. This one is OK for a while, but if you want to maintain control, eventually you must move on.
Most potters use a mix of different clays. Ours is a mix of porcelain and smooth raku created by the potters at the studio. This body has a soft, smooth feel, can perform using a variety of techniques, tools, and sometimes toys. When finished, it has a pristine, classy appearance. We decided that we all want to be able to switch from fast, hot bodies, to slow ramp ups with a gentle slow cool off, to a body that quenches as soon as it reaches a heated peak. This body gives us that and much more. It took some work, some failures, but we finally found the one that works for all of our needs, especially our classes.
Teaching others to throw clay is a personal endeavor. Every teacher has little secrets and hints to the process. Some share more than others. We all agree on one thing, any piece that comes off the wheel starts as a mound of clay that needs to be worked. This process is the first time you get to touch your body. The first time you actually feel the soft smooth texture. This is the first experience of knowing you are sliding down a path to total gratification. It’s the first moment of contact, aligning your body with the clay body. It’s a bit like a massage for your clay, you work the knots out. It’s like kneading bread, but there is some finesse to the act of handling this soft damp mound.
You find your piece of clay. Soon it will be rhythmically worked on the tabletop. The cadence of the process is not to be rushed, not if you want to be satisfied in the end. At the wheel, centering and pulling walls, while fundamental to creating a vessel, won’t be fluid without those initial strokes. This technique is called wedging. It’s hard to learn, hard to master, most things we desire are.
After the wedging is over, your piece of clay that’s just right, needs to be centered on the wheelhead. Settling in at the wheel, you start the very intimate process of throwing. Take your clay and forcefully throw it on the wheelhead. Try to hit the center spot, at least get close to it. This is the time to move very quickly. Get the wheel spinning fast, keep your piece slippery wet and brace yourself for the centering process.
First, position yourself hovering over the clay body. Use your hands and fingers to coax the slippery clay to a smooth spinning mound. Once there, move on, shaping the clay carefully with your fingers, into a tall, narrow, stiff column. At the peak, take the column and let it wind down on itself, then quickly open the smooth disc of clay as the rhythmic motion of the wheel literally pulls your fingers in. You’re not finished yet, this early penetration, simply provides access to the real beginning of the vessel. While inside, gently stroke the clay away from the center until you feel the span of the bottom you were anticipating. While doing that, create an undercut you will use to take the pot up.
Keeping the clay lubricated is crucial at this part of the experience. Go back inside your wet piece, slow the spin, and take your time. Slowly and purposefully pull up with your fingertips as the wheel spins, over and over again until you have the piece where you want it. You now have the sides of your vessel pulled up.
Now, your piece can come to fruition. Begin to shape your vessel by gently touching the sides as it spins. There will be times when you will press in from the outside, other times you must press out from inside. Many times, you will use both hands to hold the body and each hand will move in tandem as the piece changes shape to satisfy your intent.
The finished piece, still wet and delicate, now must rest until the next round. Once leather hard, the piece can be carved, trimmed, or paddled as desired. Once again, your piece must rest. This time until bone dry. It’s time to get hot. The clay gets fired twice, once on low fire, to prepare for glazing, next on high fire to let the glaze slowly ooze over the piece and come to completion. Finally, you can step back and gaze at your creation. Admire the curves and lines that your mind envisioned and your hands created. Then take your piece home and have it to appreciate for years to come.
Being a potter, and teaching eager newcomers has many rewards. Teaching adults the difference between their right hand and their left hand is not one of them. I find myself reminding them repeatedly that they should use their “other” left hand. Or, saying, “You need to be wetter.” Likewise, the rhythms of the process are hard for beginners. First times are always a mystery. I remind students that there are many ways to reach the same end. Explore.
I always demo the throwing process before they sit down at the wheel for the first time. By the time I get to centering, and create the “column”, I’m always observing reactions. Watching the connection register in their eager faces is priceless. Most often it’s a very slight flicker of an eyelid, or eyes that open a bit wider. Moms are more stoic than their teen daughters. Harder to read. The daughters just giggle silently, thinking no one gets it but them. They arrived expecting a family bonding moment, they got one.
By Laura Laughlin, written as a part of Debby Gaines' Community-Based Writing class.
Could courage be contagious? Or could courage be a pheromone, that invisibly commutes in a community and like in a tribe of females living in close quarters, could the willingness to share flashes of Self, with a capital S, be passed from the mind and heart of one woman to the mind and heart of another?
In a dark and chilly basement, the warmth of community grew. With returning members who knew why they were there, and with rookies, such as myself, not certain what the class would be and if it would resonate.
Beautiful naked angels, the vital nature of expectations, dragon flies and spider webs, panther totems, revisiting childhood, dog as significant other/child/key source of joy, navel band-aid birth control. These are the flashes of beautiful Selves shared. Passionate prose and vivid poetry.
I watched these women walk through the fire of honest self-revelation. And they came out the other side. Intact. Maybe, improved? Could I tell a story that had pieces of ME in it, and survive? They made me believe that I could.
So it isn’t even necessarily about the Self. It is about the Honest. The breathtaking combination of words, that ring true. Like shooting stars in a mostly dark sky, their words illuminate and embolden. Words shared here, they are: A safe place to tell little truths, a game of peek-a-boo with my willingness to find my voice and to speak my truth. They are little pieces of honesty practice.
By Nancy Benson, written as a part of Debby Gaines' Community-Based Writing class.
My knowledge of India was based on popular fiction and historical novels I had read, as well as movies I had seen. Shiraz Tata’s presentation at Womanspace in February gave me an excellent opportunity to experience Shiraz’s India through her eyes.
With digital photos we began our journey at the new and beautiful Mumbai International Airport, and from there to Shiraz’s birthplace, Jamshedpur, a place of beautiful, green landscapes. She described her life as a young girl at the Sacred Heart Convent School, an English school based on the British system. Administered by the Carmel Order of Nuns, Sacred Heart was an excellent girls’ school where Shiraz thrived as a student. Shiraz also spoke fondly of the Girl Guide program in which she participated every Saturday. The girls met to join in different programs and activities, very much like our Girl Scout program in the US.
Shiraz shared photos of her family: her 86 year-old father, who is living in the family home surrounded by treasured memories, and her sister and other family members who eagerly await Shiraz’s visit every summer.
In the discussion that evening we focused on India’s progress. Changes that Shiraz has seen are evident. The middle class is growing, technology and education are advancing, roles of women and dual careers are shifting, transportation and communication have become easier. And yet the values ingrained India’s history as a nation: respect for elders, family, duty and harmony are ever present.
I thoroughly enjoyed Shiraz’s program. I believe the more we, as global citizens, learn about other countries and cultures, the more we understand our world, its differences and similarities I look forward to additional presentations like Shiraz’s at Womanspace.
By Wanie Reeverts, written as a part of Debby Gaines' Community-Based Writing class.
An image of strength and longevity, the oak tree breathes a spirit of
ruggedness and grit, standing firm against extreme weather thrown
in its direction. The roots mirror the branches stretching far below ground as
the branches above. In a mixed forest of trees with bare limbs, the oak’s
summer foliage may still be clinging to its boughs as Christmas approaches.
Sometimes, life is like a fall storm, whipping branches and flinging the leaves
of our concentration and contentment to the four winds. Standing firm like
the oak with its family of fir, elm and ash on our campus, we women grow beyond
the trunk of our past, giving birth to new shoots brushing the sky. Often
the druids danced beneath oak trees for ritual and revered the virtues that come
with years of experience, dividing feminine energy into three phases: maiden,
mother, and crone. Our foremothers and forefathers respected each phase and
relied upon their wisdom and guidance. Naturally inclusive, sharing our roots
with others, we ask for encouragement, when we need it, ready to give the same
to those who come to us.
A member since 1979, a hesitant young mother, struggling with issues of
unresolved grief and shame, I began sharing my feelings with the staff and
members in art classes, workshops and retreats. Feeling safe and understood,
I learned a valuable lesson about trustworthiness. Invited into Womanspace
roots, I knew I’d found a grove of like-minded oaks. Days and years like columns
of trees, I credit the co-founders for instilling the courage to leave guilt and
shame behind, stoking the fires of my creativity through watercolor and poetry.
Exploring and sharing my roots in the community based writing class,
facilitated by Debby Gaines for the past two years, I’ve learned to “lighten up”
and “play,” letting my writing juices flow. Reclaiming the crone within myself,
I’ve traded unforgiveness for blossoms of love, writing poetry that honors my
Encircled by women, we have fun in writing class, listening to each other’s
stories and hearing the sound of our voices. A gigantic heart, Debby encourages
us to write at a deep level inspired by her prompts. Treating each other with
respect, we fan the flame of new ideas, reminding ourselves that the only failure
is not trying.
Recently, a young writer took the risk and talked to me about her struggle with
doubt. Willing to share wisdom I’ve gleaned at Womanspace, I shared my
journey—one of recovery, discovery and empowerment.
By sharing our roots of compassion and support like a family of trees,
we women create a place where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts;
inspire each other to blossom into our potential for wisdom, beauty and service
By Gina Wise, written as a part of Debby Gaines' Community-Based Writing class.
Who knew Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) would feel so good! It's like abracadabra with a sturdy chair, a lit candle, and a very skilled guru to fix you up and get you on your way again.
I am writing this article to bring awareness to a surgical procedure known as axillary node dissection. On November 18,2016, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I knew I needed surgery but had no idea what was going to happen to me. Mastectomy? Lumpectomy? I was told I could choose between these two surgeries. But what I didn’t know about was axillary node dissection. What is it? What are the reasons for it? What are the lifelong complications that accompany this procedure? I had a lot to learn. Good thing I had a lot of help on the road to discovery, treatment, and recovery from breast cancer. This is only a small part of the story of my journey with breast cancer. I am still on this journey. I am now undergoing radiation therapy. But that is another part of my story.
On January 6, 2017, my axillary node dissection was done in conjunction with a lumpectomy of my left breast. Axillary node dissection involves mapping out the most likely affected lymphatic nodes adjacent to my breast cancer and the lymphatic chain leading away from it. It is the most likely part of my body that the cancer would spread to. This is known as sentinel lymph node mapping and involves the use of nuclear medicine and blue dye, which involved a big needle to inject blue radioactive fluid in my ARIOLA! I found this to be a scary and painful experience. Once this part of my lymphatic system had been “lit up,” my surgeon used a gamma detection scan to determine the best site for my underarm incision and which axillary lymph nodes, now blue, to remove. These nodes were sent out along with the cancer tumor, the margin surrounding the cancer, and a section of my breast skin to a pathology lab to test for cancer. This sounds very simple, but I can assure you that it was not! However, the results of this pathology outweigh the postoperative pain, impaired mobility, and now, a lifelong “mindfulness” of my left arm.
Axillary node dissection results in a permanent impairment of the lymphatic system and the immune system of the surgery arm. The circulation in my left arm of good, clean lymphatic fluid “in,” and bad bacteria, virus, and waste-filled fluid “out,” is now impaired. My immune system now has fewer nodes and therefore fewer lymphocytes, infection-fighting cells. I am now at a greater risk of developing lymphedema and have a greater risk of infection from something as simple as a small cut, burn, insect bite, or sunburn. On the day, my nurse navigator said “It's cancer,” she also gave me my “Breast Cancer Treatment Handbook,” written by Judy Kneece. This book is as big as an old phone book and has been a valuable source of information. It has pages and pages listing risks, precautions, and lifelong care of my surgical arm. I've read it many times and have integrated this new “piece of myself” into my holistic lifestyle. I am now a cancer survivor. So, this is the story of my left arm and how Adaptive Yoga with Keri Knutson at Womanspace was my way station to discovery, treatment and recovery.
After my axillary node dissection, my left chest and left arm were in a lot of pain. My left arm was very stiff and hard to move. The incision and removal of the lymph nodes disrupted every other biological system in my arm and chest. Including my nervous system. After my surgery, my left arm was in constant pain and I was experiencing a strange numbness with sharp tingles in my arm. My arm felt like it was “asleep” all the time, and just the activity of my day caused pain across my chest and down my arm. One of the complications after my surgeries included a seroma, a buildup of fluid, in my armpit. The treatment for the seroma included extra doctor visits, another ultrasound, and icing my armpit every night. I iced my breast and armpit every night for 24 nights, right up to the day I started radiation. My seroma is now gone.
One week after my surgeries, I had healed enough to start my lifelong aftercare of my surgical arm. My “Breast Cancer Treatment Handbook” included a series of daily exercises and stretches to regain strength and mobility in my arm. This regimen is important in a two-folded way: first, to counterbalance my lifelong risk of lymphedema by supporting my lymphatic system, and second, to help regain strength and full mobility of my arm. This is where Keri Knutson and Adaptive Yoga at Womanspace entered my new life path.
Keri is a true guru! Her knowledge of Integral Yoga and practice gave me the much-needed guidance to safely begin my daily series of exercises and stretches. Keri's special brand of adaptive chair yoga and her intuitive knowledge of holistic healing helped to restore my mind, body, and spirit. The use of a chair, yoga strap, and Keri's mindful eye gave me the correct physical support and posture to safely perform the seated yoga poses to help open my chest, shoulders, and arms. Practicing a supported downward facing dog and cow face pose would come to be very important in my journey with breast cancer. I gave myself time to heal and slowly added more daily exercise to my Adaptive Yoga practice. Womanspace and my newfound friends and fellow Adaptive Yogis gave me hope and courage to heal and restore my body. For me, Adaptive Yoga with Keri was a true way station. For the next four weeks, I was able to regain my strength, health, and full mobility of my left arm. I have since moved on to Keri's Restorative Yoga class. Not only did my time and experience in Adaptive Yoga restore my health and mobility, but it also gave me the ability to move to the next important step in my journey with breast cancer, six weeks of radiation treatment. During my radiation treatment, I need to lie on my back, hold both of my arms up behind my head in a modified cow face pose, hold my breath, and not move AT ALL while different x-rays of the chest are taken and then, again, for each different body angle for the radiation treatment. My ability to remain absolutely still helps minimize the radiation scatter to my ribs, lungs, and heart. I am able to do ALL I need to do to continue my journey with breast cancer. I continue to live a holistic lifestyle with good food and exercise. I am mindful of my energy level and resting well. I continue the practice of mindfulness with Elaine Hirschenberger in the Mindfulness Group, Meditation as a Wellness Practice with Dr. Shiraz Tata, Reiki One with Debby Gaines, and Restorative Yoga with Keri Knutson. Thank you.
I am very grateful to Keri and all the women in the yoga classes at Womanspace. My time in Adaptive Yoga was very healing, both mentally and physically. My time being in fellowship and laughing with the other women helped heal my spirits. This is the story of my left arm. Who knew that Adho Mukha Svanasana would feel so good! No matter how you adapt it!
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