On the last day of this past year, I trimmed my last pot before closing down my ceramic studio of 20 plus years. In the early months of this year, I ran a last firing. I am intrigued with endings. They invite me to constantly take stock of all that still is.
To date I’ve written at least seven poems whose titles start with The Last. The last mattress, the last elephant, tree, child, illusion, kiss, lovemaking. It may have started around the time when I turned 60 and it became clear to even me that I would not be the exception. I may or may not grow old but either way, I too would certainly die.
We take note of firsts but much less note of lasts. I remember as if yesterday the first time I put shaky hands on cool whirling white clay. Walking down those few steps of an old slightly decrepit Colonial building to the basement where my friend Marga worked as a potter. The studio was located in the same complex as the pre-school where my son went every day to play with his friends, climb trees, cavort with the resident and visiting monkeys, and very occasionally deign to enter the simple school room converted from an old garage, to listen to a story read out loud.
The darkened sprawling basement studio was a cool sweet relief after the searing heat of an Indian summer afternoon in Poona, India. It was also another world, of whirling wheels and kicking legs (propelling ancient kick wheels), as Marga and her two assistants operated the production ceramic studio for the benefit of the spiritual community we were both part of.
Delighted that I had finally come to visit the place, she plopped me down in front of a potter’s wheel, determined that I try my hand at this ancient craft. She quickly determined which direction the wheel should turn, the opposite direction to most people since I am left-handed. She threw a round lump of white clay on what was approximately the middle of the wheel, and positioned herself alongside to give me the rudiments of a lesson in ‘centering’, which is not only a metaphor that has been co-opted into ordinary parlance, but also the mandatory second (and hardest) step in fashioning any vessel on the wheel.
Centering is that (rare) state of being at home within oneself and not easily pushed off balance. When working clay on the wheel, the centering process requires the most refined balance between stillness and effort; between holding utterly steady yet directing the clay so it evenly distributes inside itself. It is the still point between two equal and opposite forces, and if you ever have a chance to feel a centered piece of clay on a turning wheel, you will feel your cupped hands completely quiet above this circling clay, because the clay is so evenly distributed. It is remarkably difficult to do but looks easy when you see it done well.
Marga left me to flounder on my own. My abject failure to do anything close to what she had showed me did not impress me as much as the sensation of the cool damp clay under my sincerely cupped hands which had almost zero effect in influencing the wobbly lump of clay in any discernable way.
It was the intoxication of that sensation that I remembered and chose to pursue when, in another chapter of life, I returned to ceramics and over many years and much effort become somewhat competent in the art that she had made look so effortless.
I then had thirty years of vases and mugs, of tea pots, of art shows, exhibitions, of selling and gifting, of making my son and daughter-in-law a full set of eat ware for their wedding, of birthday gifts, gifts for no reason at all, of placing several beloved friends’ ashes and my mother’s in urns that I had crafted, of crying over spoiled firings or being gleeful when it all worked and magic shone from the door of the open kiln when finally, the wait was over and it had cooled enough to open. That excitement and anticipation was unparalleled.
The hours of solitary concentrated work, of wedging the clay, throwing, trimming, firing, glazing, firing again, cleaning, the endless cleaning and beginning again. I always used to joke that if you really knew what it took to make a fine hand-thrown mug, you would actually pay a lot more than most are willing to pay for a ‘simple’ mug. I certainly will miss being able to drink from my own mugs when one day the last one breaks. I am a bit of a mug snob. I test its weight, its balance, how it holds heat, how comfortable the lip is when placed against my own, how artfully the handle is attached and how the shape of the handle does or does not compliment the style and shape of the actual body of the vessel.
I’m even more picky when it comes to teapots and wanted to throw a perfect teapot before I retired from the whole maddening art form, which I did. I was so proud of it. It sat in my studio unglazed for over a year. I loved it, its delicacy, balance and grace. When it was time for my final firing, having little choice, I plucked up the courage to glaze it, fired it, then realized with abject horror and utter amusement when I opened the kiln, that the glaze had run and the teapot was firmly stuck to the shelf and was utterly ruined. It felt so fitting. The whole art of ceramics is a constant reminder of letting go. Unlike paint which is so forgiving, clay is less so and the fire is not forgiving at all.
What felt memorable as I was closing down my own studio of twenty years, was how unusual it is for us to catch ‘the last’, as we are a culture that celebrates ‘firsts’. We love and revere the new, the original, the young and the utterly innovative. We certainly celebrate graduations but even in that, we have a bias towards the next new chapter that follows. In death however we do have to acknowledge and turn our ears and hearts to endings, as we all face and eventually have to confront that particular ‘last’.
I’d venture to guess that most of us remember our first kiss but not the last one by that same person. The first lovemaking but not the last. How might we say goodbye to our partners or family members if we thought we might not see them again when casually they left the house to get groceries or go on that business trip, or hike the nearby mountains? Might we take the time to really see them, to really measure the weight of our love? We take tomorrow as a given. Maybe it’s only those of a certain age, or those who have known loss through illness or death that come to appreciate endings as real, and every bit as powerful and mysterious as starts.
I remember going to a luggage store to get a new suitcase after my old faithful of too many years had finally split her seams in the Bob Marley hotel in the Bahamas, as his famed lyrics, ‘Don’t worry about a thing, cos every little thing, gonna be alright’ were piped through the whole complex of the hotel all day long. ‘Alright’ in this case was some string of questionable strength that the management was able to offer. The new suitcase that I selected upon our return ticked all the boxes but was way more expensive than I was comfortable spending on such an item. I rationalized the purchase by saying, ‘this will be my last suitcase’, given its warrantee and my age. Turned out not to be the case, as I outlived both the suitcase and the warrantee. I used the same rationale to procure the mattress of my dreams and doubt that even my granddaughters will outlive that particular piece of organic wool and magic.
Many years back a dear friend of mine, with three young children, had been fighting for her life against a harsh cancer diagnosis. I asked her one day if during that time of ‘not knowing’ whether she would even have a tomorrow made today more precious, and whether she might miss that sharpened focus as her prognosis moved by steady increments into the green zones? She looked at me with level and penetrating eyes and said, “No, I will not miss that, it’s exhausting.”
That little vignette has stayed with me. To live without knowing that she had a tomorrow was exhausting. To live as if we have endless tomorrows might well lead to complacency, as if we might be taking life as a given not a gift. Seems that each of us would do well to find that sweet spot within where the presence and reality of death sharpens us to the privilege of life, and also where we can lean into the possibility of a future so we aren’t living each day in exhausted tension. Each of us have to find our sweet spot between complacency and exhaustion, much like that delicate balance while centering on the potter’s wheel.
My mother had a saying that she was fond of trotting out on varied occasions, one that she had gleaned from a philosophy professor she was particularly fond of: “Live every day as if it was your last because one day you will be right.”
I imagine many long-term partners may ask each other, cuddled up in worn slippers, if they even remembered the last time they made love. How might it have been different had they known it was to be their last? The last lovemaking, the last kiss, hug, suitcase, mattress, car, journey, night, sky, shortbread cookie, wearing your favorite shoes, eating your favorite dish, the list goes on and on.
That list is an homage to all you love. My list is an homage to all I love and cherish and will miss and am so grateful to still have. The weight of my dog’s body against my leg as I write this, the heft of this pen in my hand, the privilege of being seen when my husband looks at me, the voices and gestures, words and deeds of the many beloveds in my life, the outrageous trees blooming in the yard, the comforting cooing of the doves in the trees, the geese flying home again to Canada as we too will soon do, and the angst and excitement of that last firing, because sitting pertly next to the ruined teapot was one unexpected surprise of understated but undeniable grace.
May these stretched days of light find you well.
The last illusion
The last lovemaking
The last mattress