by: Lisa Alexander
I never, ever thought that I would become a yoga teacher. I’ve always viewed my yoga teachers as perfect, ethereal beings, who were born flexible and at peace with themselves. Although I’ve worked out regularly since college, I am not very flexible. I was not a dancer or a gymnast when I was young. I’m not super thin, my hair is not blonde and I’m 54, for god’s sake. And, even at this age, I’m still on a journey of self-acceptance. The yoga studio where I practice is owned by a gorgeous, sweet, young (and 0% body fat) friend of my son’s, who teaches most of the classes. Over the past couple of years, I had been doing more and more yoga. I couldn’t run anymore, due to low back pain. A fall on the tennis court last summer put me out of tennis for a year. Yoga seemed to help me feel better. Most of all, yoga didn’t make me feel like I needed to lose weight or change myself to advance in the poses. When the opportunity for a 200-hour yoga teacher training class opened up five minutes from my house, it seemed like the universe was conspiring to give me more yoga in my life. I had thought about training, but thoughts like I cannot do the splits, I’m old, and I don’t look like those yoga girls on Instagram, kept me from taking action. Until the training was practically dumped in my lap. I signed up and then thought: What did I just do? I’m going to make a fool of myself. Surely enough, the other students in the class were mostly in their 20’s. Thin. Flexible. Beautiful, and all with the requisite tattoos that look great on young skin. I was intimidated from the first day. Because I’m an English teacher, teaching part time at a local community college, I purchased and read all the yoga textbooks before the class even started. One of the first things I learned is that yoga is not just about the poses (asanas). In fact, the asanas were originally designed to help the body be able to sit for hours in meditation. I learned that everyone will look different in the same poses, because our bone structures are different. I learned that stilling your mind and following your breath can take you to places in the pose, and in your life, that you never, ever thought you would go. I found out that doing my training with young, talented yogis only made me try harder and become stronger. About six weeks into the training, I did a backbend for the first time in my life. At 54. I was terrified before teaching my first official (read: paid) yoga class. Then, two of my best friends walked in. And then some 20 year olds. And they all loved it. I am still unable to do the splits, but I have discovered that being able to do fancy poses is not what makes a good yoga teacher. What matters is having a genuine desire to share the benefits of yoga with other people. My students can see that I’m not perfect. And that’s OK.
by Debby Gaines
My experience of being a Reiki practitioner and teacher is not only about creating space for healing during Reiki sessions. It is also about staying in touch with my path here on Earth, connecting to other like-minded individuals, and keeping my faith during challenging times.
I received my first Reiki session from Gretta Anderson, in her home. At that point, I had never heard of Reiki but I was open to trying it since my mom bought me a session. I remember that during my time on the table, my throat felt a little tight, then I started seeing some colors, right before I moved into a relaxed state. Later that day I realized the pain in my lower back was gone. I have a chronic dull aching pain that comes and goes depending on how much lifting I do at work. Anytime I reinjured my back, I made another appointment with Gretta and experienced the same relief.
About a year after my first session with Gretta, my best friend asked me to take a Reiki class with her. I thought it would be a nice way to spend a day together but was pretty adamant that I was not planning on doing Reiki on other people. I would learn it to help my daughter and myself.
I began to use Reiki on my daughter to help her sleep at night. Because Virginia is mostly non-verbal, doing Reiki on her proved very valuable. I began to feel different senses in my body that connected me to what was happening in Virginia’s body. I sensed that there was hardened concrete in my stomach when I was working on my daughter’s gut. She had undiagnosed Celiac disease at the time. We later found out that her cilia were not functioning properly due to her eating gluten and that her bowels were unable to move anything through them on their own. Doing Reiki on Virginia helped me explain how she was feeling to her doctors. I was hooked.
During the next few years, I continued my Reiki journey, taking Reiki II and Advanced Reiki Training with Colleen Helgerson. As I became more committed to my spiritual life, I began to connect to the true calling of my soul. I went back to school to get my M.F.A. in Writing and Consciousness, writing for social change. I also deepened my Reiki practice by taking the Master Teacher Training so that I could give attunements to students and provide a space for others to begin their journeys. I love meeting other like-minded people who are ready to find their own connection to the Reiki energy.
When giving Reiki sessions, Reiki practitioners become a channel for Universal love and healing. The more Reiki we have going through us, the easier it is to connect to love and compassion for others. Not only is the Reiki energy helpful to the person on the table, but it is also opening for the person giving Reiki.
by Kari L. Bukowski as part of Debby Gaines' Creating Stories and Sharing Lives Community Writing Class
A year or so after my dad passed, my sister emailed me and my mother to say that she was coming in from California to see us on the 4th of July; her note simply said that she was longing to enjoy a “good, old-fashioned, Midwestern 4th with family.” Other than the fun family reunions we had at my aunt’s house on a lake in St. Cloud, Minnesota, when we were just kids, I couldn’t immediately think of anything that would spark such a nostalgic statement from my sister. But given her flair for the dramatic and even grand gesture, I didn’t think much of this outpouring of sentimentality as I responded to her email. I was just glad she was going to come out to visit for the holiday. This was a new twist in her usual timing of visits home, but all of us were still adjusting to new normals – my mom to being alone, I to being without Dad and separated, with divorce pending, and my sister still missing Dad as deeply as I.
That 4th of July visit was much more purposeful than she initially let on, and that became clear when she broke the news she had discovered her husband was having an affair (had been for a year, as it turns out), and that she was going to file for divorce. The fact the affair had begun and was continued while the two of them were in counseling sealed the deal. There was no going back. Unable to stand being in the house with her husband while this pain of discovery was so raw, she had literally made the decision to come home on the spur of the moment, opting for flight before she had to prepare to fight. She needed a place of comfort and security to tend her wounds, get her thoughts sorted out, and be nurtured back to a semblance of emotional health. To that end, she cleared her schedule and got on a plane.
This 4th of July was actually our second one without Dad. The first had come just a few short weeks after his memorial service, for which my sister and her family had been out, but they had to return home before the holiday rolled around. This 4th was the first I ever recall spending as just mom and daughters. My sister, wanting to do something meaningful to remember Dad, decided we should all put together a planter for his graveside for the remainder of the summer season. This gave us a little project to pursue together, a simple but meaningful task, that would involve planting living things, our expressions of growth, symbols of beauty, possessing the innate ability to flourish even though we ourselves were in various stages of pain and grief, my sister’s the most raw.
Having settled on the task, our first stop was the garage, where mom had a lovely ceramic planter we all agreed was portable enough to tote to the cemetery. We measured its diameter and depth and headed to a nearby local nursery that always has a lovely variety of plants. As our good fortune would have it, the mother of one of my former high school students was working that day, and she made it her personal mission to help us find just the right things once she learned our purpose.
Ever so patiently she walked us from greenhouse to greenhouse, showing us a variety of flowers while expounding on some suggested choices. In the end we determined we wanted a succulent, my sister’s preference, that would be hearty, would spread, and could cascade over the edges of the planter over the course of the season. We settled on Portulaca Grandiflora, or moss roses, and were able to get several different colors to create a rainbow effect. Loaded up with the starter plants and a bag of good, organically-rich potting soil, we headed home.
It didn’t take long to fill the pot, which we did along-side the garage so as to avoid spilling dirt on the driveway. Mom likes things clean and neat, so even dirt spilled outside would have bothered her. The potting soil had a rich, organic aroma that filled our nostrils as we dug holes for the tiny plants, inserted them in the loam, and tamped them down.
We opted not to water them until we reached the cemetery, simply to avoid adding heaviness to the planter, which we had to carry both to the car and then to Dad’s marker. Since the outdoor pump at the cemetery doesn’t work, my sister and I found a re-sealable container in which to safely tote some water, loaded up the planter, and were ready to head out when Mom called to us from the house. She was inspired to also have us load up a cement garden gnome my sister had brought back from a trip to England years before as a gift for my parents. Gnomes in general, and this one in particular, had been a favorite of Dad’s, and his coloring was a perfect match with the planter. The two items were destined to spend the summer together – a companionable pair - until fall rolled around.
We arrived at the cemetery in the mid-day heat of the summer sun, pulled the planter and gnome out of the car, and walked them down the row containing Dad’s headstone. As I carried my burden, I tried to recall the last time I had completed a simple project like this with my mom and sister. Living so many miles apart for decades has kept my sister out of our day to day lives here in the Midwest, and though I help Mom periodically with things, she’s very much independent, and my own life is busy with work and various commitments. It felt good to be together, to be working together, to be hauling something tangible together that we had created together to mark Dad’s resting place. I think he must have been smiling down on us as he watched all “his girls” come for such a special visit, and the thought of was comforting.
Placing both items in careful proximity to the stone, but also well within the mowing paths, we watered our creation and, sweating, stood back and admired our handiwork. There were some tears as each of us was lost for a bit in our own private thoughts or words spoken quietly (I have made it a habit, particularly in the first years after his death, to go to the cemetery and speak to him regularly) before we turned back toward the car and headed home for a tall glass of much-deserved “good, old-fashioned 4th of July” lemonade.
It didn’t dawn on me until later that the first and only other time the three of us girls had been in that cemetery together was also a day on which there had been a project. It was a year and two months earlier, the day we got the news of dad’s final cancer prognosis and his end of life timeline. After the doctor delivered the sad news with appropriate condolences, having shown us the PET scans in which Dad’s insides lit up like a Christmas tree, we cried together as a family and showered our grief-filled love on him for the better part of an hour. Finally, tears dried up and a certain numbness set in. That’s when he said he needed us all to do him a favor; he needed us to go pick out his burial plot. He said he didn’t have to see what it looked like. He just needed to know where it would be and know that the matter had been taken care of. What could have seemed like a truly horrifying request actually set us in motion after an hour in which it seemed time had stopped.
As hard as it must have been for him, he gave us that important, thoroughly heart-breaking task to move us forward together out of our love for him, bonded by a common purpose. It was something we could do for the man who had always been there for us, a way to give him some time alone to begin the deeply personal struggle of grappling with his impending mortality, a way to put his mind at ease on this one count. He did similar things many more times in the remaining weeks of his life, moving the ones he had loved so deeply in this life forward, knowing full well he wouldn’t be able to make our journeys with us. With a year’s perspective, I saw the amazing strength and wisdom and grace it took that day to send us, his girls, to purchase the plot he will eventually share with Mom.
As I allowed my thoughts to drift back to that April day a year before, I remembered we called and made an appointment to meet the caretaker of the quaint, old, local cemetery that sits on a lovely hill not far from our homes. Appropriately named Pinnacle Hill, the small space possesses undulating slopes surrounded by ancient pines that lend it quietude and set it apart as sacred ground. Though there are two entrances, there is only one horse-shoe shaped road running between them. Consequently, when we pulled in at the appointed time, we couldn’t miss the car out of which climbed the 85 year old woman carrying a hand-drawn poster board of the plots, wearing a plaid coat and matching fedora, who was making her way toward us with the assistance of her hand-carved walking stick replete with a mallard duck for its crown.
We awkwardly introduced ourselves, and very business-like she explained pricing, the rules of what décor could and could not be placed at gravesites, the maintenance services provided, and then proceeded to explain how to read the poster board, giving us some time to walk around with it and determine which plot we wished to purchase. We chose one in line with an ancient pine. After confirming it was available, the caretaker clarified in which direction Dad’s head would be placed, which side of the two-person plot would be his, and which side would someday be Mom’s. These customs are based on etiquette linked to the wedding ceremony. Dad and Mom will lie in the same positions as they had once stood when they walked down the aisle to begin their life together. This custom was quaintness beyond belief. My mind instantly juxtaposed the two images – wedding and burial. Because it was clear there was nothing else to be done but make the payment, Mom pulled out her checkbook, and the deed was done. It was surreal, and it was done.
I recall standing there that day, perhaps in shock, for a few minutes before we remembered we needed to move – to start walking back to our car. The gravity of the simple task we had just completed seemed to root us to the ground for just a few moments as we wrapped our heads around the fact that when all is said and done, this is what it boils down to: a piece of earth in which one’s remains will rest once he has crossed over into eternity, and for which his family can write a check to a complete stranger on a spring day in April.
Exhausted but starving, as I don’t know that any of us had even eaten breakfast before meeting the doctor in the hospital room hours before, we decided to go somewhere to have lunch. We ended up at a favorite, local, Mexican restaurant eating chips and salsa, tacos and rice, and my sister and I drinking jumbo margaritas. Mom initially looked horrified that we would order such large drinks, but they were the special of the day – a bargain. And, having just had such a surreal experience there seemed to be no better way to process what we had just done together. Even Mom took a couple of sips once the food arrived, something I don’t think I had ever witnessed before. The food was good, the margaritas sweet, we were together and had done as Dad asked, but our hearts were broken…
…And there we were again, a little over a year later, marking Dad’s headstone with flowers we had chosen and planted together. It seemed a fitting way to bring our journey to this hallowed ground full-circle, and I marveled at how much had changed in all three of our lives in just a year’s time. The circle of life strikes home profoundly in moments such as these. A few days later my sister headed back to California, back to the personal battle that awaited her, feeling somewhat restored – steady enough to have formulated a game plan and determine some next steps that would allow her to move forward.
As the rest of that summer unfolded, I went periodically to the cemetery to water and check on the planter and gnome. One such day my eyes were met with an amazing surprise. When I parked my car and looked down the row containing Dad’s headstone, I could see that the once-tiny flowers had begun to cascade over the planter’s edges, just as we had hoped. I was thrilled! There was a spring in my step as I walked down the row, and I could see one particular tendril was remarkably longer than the others. In fact, once I got up close, I realized it was literally growing toward the firmly planted garden gnome. When I knelt at ground level, my heart smiled. A single, perfect, pink moss rose had bloomed at the end of the tendril and was sitting right under the nose of the gnome. There he was, literally, smelling the roses, and I could almost hear Dad’s laughter at such a marvelous metaphor.
Kari is a state-line resident, the mother of three wonderful grown children, and a 25-year veteran high school English teacher who has loved literature and writing since she was a child. Mid-life and empty nesting have given her the opportunity to re-visit her writing passion more personally and reflectively.
Written by Deborah Gaines as part of her Creating Stories and Sharing Lives Community Writing Class
I don’t want to die in the middle of a big project. I have this vision of dying at the end of a week when I have all my bills paid. I have cleaned my house and mowed my lawn. Not only did I finish the book I was reading, I finished the book I was writing. My daughter is happy, well adjusted and I am able to leave this Earthly existence without the worry of anything being undone. When I die, I want to be fully present in death. I don’t wish to leave this world looking backwards, clinging to a life that isn’t mine anymore. I want to be prepared to move forward, to embrace death.
When I talk about being prepared for death, most people may think I’m referring to going to the funeral home and talking to a well-trained professional about their funeral arrangements. And I say, that is a good idea, but that is not the only thing that I am talking about. Going to the funeral home can help prepare one in earthly ways which can bring about a level of mindfulness in accepting that death happens. But I am talking more about preparing ourselves spiritually for death. I may never be able to die at a moment when my lawn is mowed, my house is clean, and my to-do list is done. But, I can die when I am mentally and spiritually prepared.
As a mortician, I think about death more than most people would ever want to and I wonder, why when birth and death are the two times in our lives that we make a big transition, do we embrace preparing for the birth of a child, and yet many times avoid putting any effort into planning for our death or the death of our loved ones? We dream about what our baby might look like, how it’s going to feel to breastfeed, or when our baby grows up to become the first female President. But, most of us rarely spend time actively imagining what our death might be like.
One of my favorite questions to ask people is: “If you could choose the manner of your death, what it would be?” Would you choose to die alone or surrounded with loved ones? Would you die in bed or out in your garden? What outfit would you have on or would you be naked? To prepare ourselves for a peaceful transition, we could spend time imagining our departure from our Earthly body. We could picture the perfect day with loved ones, family and friends and a blissful night of good food and wine. If you could choose to die while you’re sleeping, would you? Or would you rather be awake and conscious for as much of the process as possible? Would you choose to know when you were going to die, such as a terminal disease, or would you choose to die instantly? If you knew you were going to die within a year or two, would you live differently? What would you do different? Would you choose to die in silence or would you enjoy being sung to? What is the feeling that you would imagine having in your heart? Do you remember the most peaceful feeling you have ever had?
When I speak of preparing for death, I am not suggesting that people rush into death. I am talking about putting intention into living a full life and, when it is time, attempting to be present and making as peaceful of a transition as possible. Dying is an essential part of living. To live life mindfully, death needs to be brought into our awareness.
by Marge Orchard, as part of Debby Gaines' Creating Stories and Sharing Lives Community Writing Class
For the last few years, I have been telling myself it would be wise to take better care of myself. The busyness of caregiving for many years had limited some of my more rejuvenating remedies. One solution I knew that would be good for me was a retreat. However, I allowed too many things to get in the way. When a friend told me how much she had benefitted from a weeklong retreat, I again resolved I would make the time to get away and give myself this gift.
The opportunity was given to me when I spotted the Womanspace offering of a Day of Silence and Journaling.
With some re-arrangement of my schedule, I arrived on a Sunday morning excited about the gift of the next six hours. I felt pregnant with ideas ready to be born, I wondered what this time with myself would bring forth. The day was cloudy with a promise of snow flurries and possibly rain. It felt like the perfect day for some reflection. Time to get in touch with where I am and who I am.
Three other women were present as Elaine, our guide, explained what we were free to do. The day and the facility were ours to use. Our lunch and snacks were laid out in the kitchen, as well as all the tea and coffee we wished to drink. We were asked to maintain silence to promote a contemplative atmosphere for each other.
I was invited to “allow myself conscious time to slow down, to savor the quiet and to enjoy being.” That was certainly what I wished for myself. With the help of some journaling prompts to direct our contemplation, our day began.
After using some prompts, I found that the peacefulness surrounding me supported me in delving into some of my reasons for showing up. As I looked around seeing the beauty of the paintings on the walls and the serenity of the snow quietly falling outside, I felt a gentle nudge to release and let go of all thought of my busy life. It was as if a soft voice said, just be and go with the flow. My journaling brought forth some of the issues I had been putting on the back burner for the last year or so. It was no surprise as I had stuffed so many feelings away, they couldn’t be contained any longer.
When my husband Jim died in 2015, my role as a wife of fifty-one years, as well as his caregiver for eighteen years ended. I have come to accept that going through the grief process is a mighty, challenging task. Working with a spiritual companion, a grief counselor, and a “change and loss group” has been a comfort and a validation of where I am on this journey. During these past two years, I have been living alone for the first time. Redefining who I am in this moment continues to be a work in progress that I have come to understand will take time.
Prior to Jim’s passing, I knew what was next. He and I were partners in most of our life decisions. Now, the decisions are up to me, as well as the responsibility of taking care of myself. I am grateful for my faith and my belief that God walks with me always. And during the hours that I am alone, my questions are what else is there for me to do? Is there more for me than my part-time teaching, occasionally giving Sunday talks at our church and, coordinating prayer chaplains? Perhaps it is time to get on with my travel plans and become serious about writing my memoirs. Maybe I would receive some glimpse of the answers this day.
We had been offered the use of the art studio and the materials in the cabinets. I was led to do a collage and hauled out several magazines with no definitive idea on what I was looking for. It wasn’t long before I was cutting out certain images and quotes that began to create an image of the thoughts of my short and long-term goals and the conclusions I had been journaling of just a short time before.
One of the first images I was drawn to was the saying “At a Crossroads.” Then a travel picture “A Place in the Sun.” A full page with a picture of the earth and the question “Where Are You Going?” Then the words “Say Hello to the Real Me” popped into view. What didn’t come up was a picture of someone writing a story. I have since added that to my collage. The most assuring of my clippings were: “The Future: A Perfect Fit” and a picture of open hands with the saying “Lord, Here I Am.”
I was in awe of seeing how everything fit together. And yes, it was a reminder that synchronicity flows when I get in touch and listen to my inner voice.
After I finished journaling about my experience with my collage, I decided to check out the garden and labyrinth outside. There was a light coating of snow covering the ground and trees, which gave me a feeling of a winter wonderland. As I walked the labyrinth, the snow continued to fall gently; I allowed my pace to slow, my spirit to embrace the beauty surrounding me, and let the peace seep deeper into my soul.
All too soon, we retreatants gathered to close our day with Elaine. We shared how our day had evolved. Several of us had done collages and it was suggested we take them home and put them where we would see them daily. Mine is on my bathroom mirror to remind me of the things I am creating to bring me peace and joy each day so that I don’t wait so long to plan my next retreat. Perhaps, it will be a longer one next time.
I did not receive all the answers to my questions and yet in some ways I did, as I received the reminder to surrender all to God. When I let go of any struggle and trust, I am shown a path. This way has worked in the past and can work now with my conscious cooperation.
I am grateful for the miracle of those six hours of silence that opened my heart and mind. The space supported me in taking a break and helped me to re-connect with my inner self. Yes, I am at a crossroads where my choice now lies to let go of my present ways or to move on to those things that call me, writing my story and travelling. I was recently told that the cost of not being who you are while you are busy pleasing everyone around you is that a precious part of you dies inside. It is no coincidence that I was advised of that. To trust in Spirit and to be true to myself is my goal and when I come from love nothing can keep me from growing. The answers are always here for me when I open myself to the wonder of it.
By Sharon Nesbit-Davis, written as a part of Debby Gaines' Community-Based Writing class.
Wasps live in our attic and find their way into my room. They hit against bare light bulbs with a ping. When I hear that sound I escape and stay away all day hoping it will be gone by bedtime. If it's still there I sleep in my closet.
One morning I wake to a wasp on my chest staring at me. It marches over pajama buttons and creeps toward my face. I shut my eyes, hold my breath and wait for tiny spikes to stab my neck. I hear the pings and look up. The wasp bounces off the light bulb and I dive under the covers.
I want this wasp dead but if I hit and miss he’ll attack. I can’t use insecticide because my mother will smell it, I’ll get in trouble and my brothers will know I am afraid of wasps. They will use them for torture.
I hide behind the doll crib and watch. The wasp bumps the bulb a dozen times, hits my desk, bounces to the lamp, and then book case. It crawls over books and toys, up the wallpaper and onto the window sill. It lands on the screen and pauses. I run to the window and slam it down. The wasp is caught between the glass and screen. It flies against the window pane and falls back on impact. It does it again, and again, and again.
I press my face against the window and taunt. “You can’t get me.” Another wasp enters the room looking for his friend. I run to my hide-out. It searches the room and makes the same fatal error in another window.
It is summer in a house with no air conditioning. My mother comes into my room to vacuum and yells, “What’s going on? Why are the windows closed?”
“I want it hot because I am pretending to live in the jungle.”
“Then you vacuum it.” She waits in the hall and gives instructions. “Get under the bed…and under the dresser…and in the closet. Take out your shoes and then put them back.”
Sweat is dripping off my face when I give her back the vacuum cleaner. She sighs and takes it into my brothers’ room and turns the fan on high.
There are more wasps than windows. When the captured wasp is at the top of the window I open it a crack to let in the new victim.
It takes two weeks for a wasp to die, but it is hard to tell when that happens. They look dead then a leg jerks. I wait another day before opening the window to touch the body. I leave it for the newly captured wasps to find. I hope it makes them sad and afraid.
When I see a wasp outside, I think it knows I murdered its family. I stand still to flaunt my power, but ready to run if it comes after me.
The summer after my freshman year in college, I go on a retreat with a woman who talks about the spirits that surround us and how animals and insects can be called on for help. We speak to them through our thoughts. I know what she means because I talk to my dog this way.
There is a wasp on top of the shelter we are sitting beneath. It edges close to the story-sharing woman and closer to me. I want to run, but instead send a message. “This woman is saying things I need to hear. Please go. You don’t understand how scared I am of you.”
The wasp stops, looks at me, and then flies away.
Years later I wade in Lake Superior searching for Spirit Rocks. They are formed from the waves and most look like odd shaped animals. Round ones are rare but I want to find two to take home to my children.
The water is freezing and I'm cold and tired. My body is ready to give up but I won't let it. A large hornet appears and follows me. I stand still and it circles. A thought flashes through me. It is here to protect the rocks. This is Native land and I am not a member of the tribe. I have permission from friends who are, but the hornet doesn't know that. When you take something from the land you leave tobacco as a sign of respect.
I whisper to the hornet, “I have tobacco”.
The hornet circles in closer forcing me to take a couple steps back. I reach into the water and lift out two perfectly round stones. I sprinkle tobacco and the hornet leaves.
I visit my parents before they move. The room still has my bed, desk, lamp, and bookshelves. Early in the morning I hear the ping. A wasp lights on the desk, the lamp, my books. There is a desperation in it’s movement I do not remember.
The wasp discovers the window and rests on the screen. Air lifts its wings and I see a lightly etched design.
I kneel down, push the screen up half an inch and watch it discover the opening and escape on a breeze.
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
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