I’m really into making pottery. I don’t talk about it all that much, partly because it’s hard to talk in words about something that happens purely from the right side of your brain, and partly because, well, it’s my thing, and I don't always feel like sharing it. Sometimes it’s nice to have just one thing that you don’t share with anyone else. I go to a pottery studio once a week and make things. And usually my favorite part of these evenings is putting in my iPhone earbuds, blasting some Chopin, and tuning everything and everyone else out.
Last night though, was different.
I was feeling sad when I got to class. I have terrible jet lag this week, it’s been rainy and glum in Mill Valley, and then, fuck it all, Steve Jobs died yesterday.
I know it’s a little weird to get emotional when a public figure dies. I did not know Steve Jobs and I really do have bigger problems to worry about. But Steve Jobs was that rare public figure whose existence actually did touch my life, personally, and the lives of those around me. He impacted my own life deeply with his brilliant product innovations at Apple, but also with his creative vision, in which way he was truly a role model. THINK DIFFERENT. He was a legend, and he really did the change the world. He definitely changed my own life. Everything I’ve ever done that matters, I did on a Mac.
So when I got to pottery, I was feeling heavy-hearted. I didn’t really want to be there. And I definitely didn’t want to talk to anyone. I wanted to stay home and worry about what’s going to happen to the world without someone like Steve Jobs in it.
I put my headphones on, and I started throwing pots. But then, a funny thing happened. I somehow ended up talking to the guy next to me — a new face at the studio — and ended up having a really meaningful evening. He was a visiting ceramic artist who gave me a whole bunch of insightful tips about how to throw on the wheel. Some of them were useful practical tips: “Get in, get out.” “Keep your elbows in close.” Others were more philosophical.
I watched him give a demo on how to throw off the hump. This is where you take a huge pile of clay, sloppily center it on the wheel, and then make little objects (bowls, mugs, whatever) from just the very top part of the wedge. In this way, you can pop off a whole bunch of things really fast without having to keep wedging, centering, and cleaning off the wheel. It also gets you away from the rabbit hole of being obsessed with centering the entire lump of clay perfectly, which can be a real time consuming OCD endeavor.
My favorite part of watching him throw off the hump was that he kept spinning these beautiful creative pieces, cutting them off the hump of clay, holding them up for everyone to admire, and then smashing them on the floor.
He said: “pottery is not precious.”
And this is what I love about pottery. You can’t take it too seriously. It’s a transient creative format. You can focus everything you’ve got on the most brilliant piece of artwork you have in you, but there are a million things that can go wrong. Even if you manage to throw it successfully, cut it off the wheel without warping it, carry it to the shelf without tripping, and trim it without fucking it up, you never know what’s going to happen in the bisque fire, or the subsequent glazing fire, or when some silly person picks it up to admire it and then accidently drops it. There might be an earthquake, or you might put a glaze on it that ends up sucking. You might get it home, only to have it break in the dishwasher, or slide off the edge of the table, or maybe the handle just breaks off one day. The thing is broken before it was ever born.
You’ve all probably heard the fable about Achaan Chaa, the Buddhist master, who loved his tea cup. His disciple said, how can you teach us about non-attachment when I see you always use that same mug? In the words of Mark Epstein:
“You see this goblet? For me this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds my water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns. If I should tap it, it has a lovely ring to it. But when I put this glass on the shelf and the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”
Pottery is all about nonattachment and it’s also about getting over yourself.
I left the studio in a great mood last night, grateful for a few lessons learned. And then I came home and watched one of the many Steve Jobs videos circulating around the Internet in memorium, the one in which he said:
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”