Lucky duck that I am, I got to spend Memorial Day weekend at Touchstone Center for Crafts in Farmington, PA. I enrolled in the “Creating Pottery for Everyday Use” extended weekend workshop with Amanda Wolf (view her work at http://wolfsdenpottery.com/) and arrived to campus Friday evening.
I was assigned to Cabin #1. This cabin became my humble abode for the next three nights and four days:
The first thing I noticed about my cabin’s interior was the smell. To my delight, it smelled exactly like the clubhouse in my parents’ backyard that my dad built for my sister and me when we were little! It was practically an adult-sized, squarer version of our triangular clubhouse; for that reason alone, I felt quite comfortable . . .
. . . but maybe not so comfortable at night. The first night was the worst. I slept cocoon-like in a sleeping bag. And when I say cocoon-like, I mean it. I was wrapped up as tight as possible in that thing, trying my best to retain all my body heat so I could get some sleep. Night number two was probably the warmest, and night number three was slightly colder than I had anticipated. Alas, staying in the cabin made me appreciate my own warm bed at home. And even though I had the option to upgrade to a dorm, I’m glad I didn’t. It was a true summer camp-esque experience (I even decided to forego the meal plan so I could eat canned foods and packaged snacks!).
When I walked to the pottery studio (conveniently located about 30 steps away from my cabin) on Friday evening, I was introduced to Amanda and my two fellow students, Cindy and her daughter, Taylor. We spent the evening making clay stamps and sprigs for our pottery. Then back to my little cabin I retreated. The next morning would be my first full day at the wheel.
Our day started at 9 a.m. We learned how to wedge the porcelain clay with which we were working. The next step was to center it on the wheel. I experienced problems with centering when I took my first pottery class at my workplace back in March. Fortunately, centering came quite easy to me at Touchstone. “Pulling,” however, didn’t.
Pulling the clay basically involves lifting it up and allowing it to take shape. Silly me didn’t think to cut her crazy-long fingernails, so I couldn’t grab the clay the way I needed to in order to master the technique.
“Your nails are beautiful, but they gotta go,” Amanda said.
A few minutes later, she emerged from the glaze room with a pair of scissors. I refused. I mean, I can “go grunge,” but not that grunge. Haha. So I learned to deal with my long fingernails getting in the way (I did cut them as soon as I got home, though!) and stayed focused on the wet clay circling around in my hands.
Pottery, my friends, isn’t easy. You have to wedge the clay, center it, pull it, shape it, trim it, bisque it, decorate it, glaze it, and fire it again. It takes dedication, patience, and skill. The process itself is a long one, and it’s risky, too. You can’t get attached to a piece because it might not survive one of the many stages (I lost three mugs during the trimming stage . . . sigh). When I encountered a hiccup in the process (there were many, many times when I pulled too hard and completely ruined the piece), I wedged a new piece of clay and started over again. Despite being the kind of person who gets frustrated and discouraged quite easily, I was determined to master the pottery wheel. Luckily, our awesome studio assistant (shout out to Eric!) and two talented potters (hey, Lee and Bridget!) were kind enough to let me continue to work after our allotted open studio hours. On Saturday evening, I stayed in the studio until about 10:30 p.m., throwing and throwing and throwing until I emerged with a little jar that, I decided, I would give to my boyfriend. Amanda was also kind enough to stay with me for awhile, offering me advice and telling me what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong.
Cursive, by the way, got it right: "Art is Hard."
It was dark by the time I left the studio, and I was happy to know that the next morning I would wake up and get to do it all over again.
Here’s a photo of me late Saturday night--sticky clay hands and all!
I admired our schedule: working for a few hours, taking a small lunch break, working a few more hours, taking a supper break, and then working again until almost dark. I imagined myself hanging out with Henry David Thoreau (okay, so I should also admit that my cabin made me think of “Walden”), enjoying that type of technology-less, connected-to-nature, working-hard-all-day way of life.
Aside from making some bowls from molds that Amanda provided for us, I spent a majority of my Sunday on the wheel. I was comfortable there. Eager to learn more. Appreciative of the opportunity to have a teacher who kindly pointed out the progress I was making. So, by Sunday afternoon, I finally understood how to pull the clay. To get my clay to take shape. Gracefully.
Sunday was also the perfect day for a walk on Meditation Trail. With my notebook in hand, I walked into the woods, crossed over the creek, and sat on a rock and wrote. Here’s a photo of me enjoying that alone time:
The entire Touchstone campus is gorgeous. It’s nestled in the boondocks, where cell phone service is limited and artists gather to create art with like-minded artists. Even though I was only there for four days, it felt as if I became part of an artist’s colony. The people there talked art, made art, celebrated art. I loved it.
We spent Monday morning and afternoon decorating our pottery, adding handles to our mugs, and letting our work dry so that we could take it home. By the time check-out time rolled around, I didn't want to leave. I made some new friends. I wanted to jump back on the pottery wheel. I discovered that not only could I use my hands to write, but also to bring a lump of clay to life.
I ended up leaving Touchstone with 12 finished pieces (all of which have yet to be bisque fired, glazed, and then fired again). I created mostly mugs, as you can see:
I have a long way to go when it comes to reaching Amanda’s skill level . . . a longggggggggg way . . . but I’m grateful that she was gracious enough to teach us what she knows. She offered me the perfect mix of constructive criticism and praise; now I have the confidence to keep learning, to keep creating. This means I need to get my own pottery wheel!
From my cabin to Meditation Trail to the clay studio, my first experience at Touchstone certainly won’t be my last!
For more info: http://touchstonecrafts.org/
While researching tea during my lunch break earlier this afternoon, I came across the term "monkey-picked." Ladies and gentlemen, you can't just come across a term like that without researching it further.
Sidenote: There is an ADORABLE monkey picture coming your way very soon.
Here is what I learned: the term is commonly used to define high quality tea. When a tea company claims that they are selling you "monkey-picked" tea, you can bet that you are purchasing the best of the best tea leaves.
But the origin of the term . . . here is where the real monkeys enter the picture. Harvesting tea leaves was no easy task, especially once the demand for tea increased. That's when, apparently, monkeys became quite useful.
Various legends surround monkey-picking; one legend states that Buddhist monks trained monkeys to pick the leaves from tea trees that they deemed inaccessible. Another legend claims that the monks would throw stones at the monkeys in an effort to make them fall to the ground, thus breaking the branches containing the best of the best tea leaves on their way. What I consider the funniest legend--and perhaps the easiest to picture--involves villagers taunting the monkeys so much that the monkeys would get mad and retaliate by throwing handfuls of tea leaves at them.
Some people say that these legends are all bogus, but you know what? I wouldn't be mad if this little guy picked my tea leaves by hand. I guess the only problem would be trying to find a way to tip him.
As much as I want to use this space to compose something beautiful and poetic, I feel the need to just move you right along. I encourage you to push "play" on each of the following videos, and I kindly ask you to take a few minutes out of your day to not only watch, but also listen. I don't think we do enough listening nowadays. I also think that poetry sometimes goes unrecognized, but these three poets are doing something special that is helping to keep the genre alive . . . they're lighting their words on fire, balancing them on the tips of their tongues, and demonstrating that they are brave enough to share them with us.
I'm posting this video for anyone who has ever questioned the act of proofreading. I'm also posting it because the weather is warm and it's a perfect time to enjoy good, hilarious poetry. Enjoy.
on your tongue
off by twos,
trying to decide
who stays with me
and who goes with you.
Last night I got to cuddle with a cute little guinea pig named Pixie, who belongs to my cousin April.
Despite having no prior guinea pig cuddling experience, Pixie and I hit it off while I watched "Let's Make a Deal."
But first, we had to make eye contact. Establish our friendship, you know.
Step number two: I had to ask Pixie if we could be friends. In true "Matilda" fashion, I was big and she was small.
Pixie, my new friend, allowed me to take a few photos of her while she sat on my stomach and tried chewing on one of my fingernails. What a doll.
And her feet! Oh my, were they cute.
One thing I didn't know about guinea pigs: they're very vocal. Pixie was purring like a cat and squealing like a little mouse while I was petting her. So, I decided to do a little research on guinea pigs this morning. I pulled this helpful paragraph detailing guinea pig sounds straight from Wikipedia:
Thanks, Wikipedia, for teaching me that guinea pigs make all kinds of cute sounds, some of which are classified using neat words ("RUMBLESTRUTTING!"). And thank you, April, for sharing one of your guinea pigs with me. Next time I'll have to set aside some cuddle time with Lola! :)
When actress and artist Mari-Claire Charba agreed to answer a few questions for one of my upcoming newspaper articles via email last week, I was thrilled. When I received her answers less than 24 hours later, I was speechless.
Here's why: one of Mari-Claire's answers to my questions resonated with me. I stared at it. I chewed it. I swallowed it. I digested it. I appreciated it.
Now, by sharing it, I'm giving other artists an opportunity to do the same:
"As an artist, one definitely needs to be able to feel comfortable with the aloneness of artistic development . . . it is as important to be nurtured and inspired by like-minded creative colleagues."
Like Mari-Claire, I understand the desire to be supported by like-minded individuals who understand the process of creating art. Who understand that putting yourself out there is always a risk. Who understand that inspiration is like food and water, and support just as crucial. Who understand that sometimes creating art isn't easy, but when it comes naturally, it is one of the best feelings in the world.
And her use of the word "aloneness" . . . how striking. I've experienced that aloneness. I experience it every day. Whether it is in a local coffee shop or at home on my couch or on a train, being a writer means composing alone, letting the words pour out of my little teapot fingertips. Letting the steam rise.
To all of my fellow artists out there--no matter what medium in which you work--take this quote, fold it up, and carry it with you in your back pocket. And to Mari-Claire--thank you.
Yesterday my boyfriend and I traveled the whole way to Addison, Pa. to purchase a bike from a lady who, I'm convinced, knew that I wanted her bike. It was quite ironic, after all, that when my "I Want a Bicycle" column was published in last week's Our Town, she put an ad in the Daily American classifieds stating that she had a 26" turquoise women's bike for sale.
Anyway, we got to her house and I took a little test run on the bicycle in a church parking lot nearby. It felt so good to be back on a bicycle again. And I knew that this was the one I wanted. It was blue. And it was cheap.
I paid her $50 and Eric loaded the bike atop his car. We drove straight to Confluence, unloaded our bikes, and pedaled our way to the start of Rails to Trails.
"Do you think you can do 20-some miles?" he asked. "'Cause we could always just go halfway and then turn around."
"Twenty-some miles," I answered. "Go big or go home, right?"
Of course I could do 20-some miles. It was my first time on Rails to Trails and I wanted the full experience. It was a beautiful day for biking and I needed the exercise. Plus, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
Thankfully, Rails to Trails is entirely flat. There are no steep inclines. Just a casual, comfortable riding trail that is perfect for bikers of all ages. Eric explained--and for some reason I never put two and two together--that the trails used to be train tracks, hence the name "Rails to Trails."
"So you can imagine the ghosts of trains as you ride your bike," he said.
I thought that was neat.
Turns out I didn't really end up thinking about trains. Rather, I spent the next ten miles thinking about how awesome it felt to finally own a bike. I thought about my family, my friends, what's to come with the summer sun. I thought about the poems I want to write, the essays I need to compose, the endless ideas for plays that have settled in my brain and are collecting dust (sad face). I realized that biking was not only a physical exercise, but also a mental exercise. I was burning calories while creating to-do lists and plotlines.
I said hello to every biker I passed.
"Do you say hello to everybody?" Eric asked, smiling.
"Of course," I said. "I think we should say hello to everyone. It's just part of keeping up with humanity . . . I mean . . . keeping humanity, well, humane."
About an hour into our ride, we stopped near a little resting place that led to beach area and parked our bikes in the woods. While we were passing an apple back and forth near the shoreline, we heard a scary sound. A gunshot.
"Ummm, are you allowed to shoot guns around here?" I asked.
"Are you scared?" I asked. "'Cause I am."
After we finished our apple, we walked up the hill toward our bikes.
Eric's bike was still resting against a tree. Mine was on the ground. Someone shot my bike!
I lifted it off the ground.
"That wasn't a gunshot," Eric said. "That was the sound of your tire exploding."
My first time on Rails to Trails and I had a flat tire. Ugh. I was so bummed.
"Well, Confluence is ten miles that way, which means we're closer to Ohiopyle," he said.
"Let's just walk back to Confluence."
"That'll take approximately four hours."
"Fine. Then let's ask someone how far Ohiopyle is."
We walked up to a brother and sister pair lounging on a picnic table.
"Excuse me. Hi. How far is Ohiopyle?" I asked.
"About three miles that way," the lady said, pointing her finger toward the trail.
"Thanks," I said.
We spent the next mile walking along the trail, leading our bikes like miniature ponies.
"Do you want to try to get on my bike?" Eric asked.
That plan turned out to be a disaster. Imagine me getting on Eric's bike while he pedaled AND held onto my injured Roadmaster's right handlebar. Yeah. That was not happening.
"This isn't a three-ring circus," I said.
So we quickly abandoned that plan and continued to walk. We asked passersby if they had a bicycle pump, but no one did. Go figure.
An older couple passed us and asked why we weren't biking the trail.
"Flat tire," I said, quite flatly.
"Try riding on it," the man said. "Just go slow."
I jumped back on the bike and pedaled it about two miles down the trail. And here's what I learned during that little experiment: it's really hard to pedal a bike with a flat tire. Really hard. A challenge.
Eventually Eric and I decided to switch bikes because I was going approximately 0 m.p.h. and I knew that he would be a trooper and up the ante by at least 2 m.p.h. He's athletic like that, whereas I was sweating and frustrated and embarrassed.
We made it to Ohiopyle and found the bicycle repair shop. The teenager at the counter said that he could replace the innertube, but my rim was crooked and in desperate need of repair.
"It'll be $5 for the innertube and $5 for the service," he said.
"And that'll get us back to Conflluence?" Eric asked.
"Yeah," he said.
"That'd be great, then," I said. "How much time do you need?"
"Half an hour."
"Cool. See you soon."
Aside from music, here are four things that can make me feel better: ice cream, cookies, cake, and chocolate. Find a way to combine two or more of them and that's even better.
We went to the little ice cream shop and I ordered one scoop of Extreme Brownie Batter and one scoop of Oatmeal Cookie Extravaganza--two flavors I had never tried, but sounded delicious enough to put a big smile on my face.
After we ate our ice cream in the warm sunlight, we went back to retrieve my bike. It was good as new--or as good as it could be. Whatever. As long as I could get back on the trail, all was well.
"Do you still like your new bike?" Eric asked about a mile into our journey back to Confluence.
"I do," I said. "It may need a little tune-up, you know, but I'm just happy to own a bike."
And I was so happy to be alive.
With the wind against our faces, and at times against our backs, we pedaled the 12 miles back to Confluence. And it felt so good--the wind in my face, in my hair, in my pupils, in my soul. Fresh air. Tall trees. Beautiful flowers. As much as I sometimes complain about living in this area, Rails to Trails makes me feel grateful to live in this part of Pennsylvania. It's postcard worthy.
Twenty-four miles and one flat tire later, I was grateful for the experience. I did it. We did it. And even though my legs felt like Jell-O and my butt was sore, I felt as if I could have kept pedaling into the sunset.
"That was pretty sweet," Eric said after preparing our bikes for the long drive home.
"It was," I said.
"It was kind of like life, you know? Some joys, some struggles, some monotony . . . some people come, some people go . . . yeah, a bike ride is a lot like life."
On our way home, I rolled down my window, watched the shadows of our bikes drift along the road, and let the wind tangle my hair.
Fiction, poetry, and all that good stuff . . .