by Charles LaFond
As a potter, I know how fragile clay is when it has yet to be fired in a kiln and what fire does to it. One may indeed have created the most beautiful vase, with sweeping handles like the legs of a ballerina and a neck like that of a swan. It may sit on a foot, round and lifting the vase off the table at the most perfect height echoing its upper opening, and the lid may crown the graceful vase with an elegance which catches your breath when you see that slight top-knob in the gentle shape of a lotus flower and then notice, with the speed of the internet-brain, that the pot’s body is almost imperceptibly impressed with a lotus leaf design which, when beneath a celadon glaze will shimmer like leaves on water. Indeed, you may see all of this beauty when you see a freshly made pot in a potter’s house. But it is mud.
By dinner, the pot is drying, and by morning the pot is indeed dry as a bone, pale, light, little more than dry mud. Touch any part of the pot and it will break off in your hand and the potter will grieve your carelessness – for even one break, and the pot is useless … de-formed. Then the potter takes that beautiful pot and lowers it into a vat of water so that the clay may re-wet and then be run through mesh, mudded, strained and re-worked into another lump for a potter to re-throw next year, after it has had time to rot, to age some.
Our lives are like that pot. The potter works and work on the beauty of the form, getting the curves so sensual and the rim just right so that it sits like an empress on the throne of a base of carved, black wood. And then there is suffering.
Suffering comes, as it always will, and transforms our clay.
You want to fight me. You want to say (as do I secretly; shhh) that suffering is a planetary design flaw from the hands of a careless God. And it is so tempting to agree with you, to take up my torch and pitchfork with you and together, storm God’s gates. But we must not. And here is why.
Suffering cleanses us. We think it is confession, or a twelve-step program, or seeking the forgiveness of those we wrong. And though these things are good and have their time, suffering and only suffering deepens our soul and cleanses us at the intersection – the cross- of our contradictions.
When a potter places that pot inside the kiln, she does so gingerly, like placing the detonator in the casing of a bomb. Slowly. Not breathing. Muscles guided by a brain monitoring every sinewy strand and skin sending texts by the millions. Computing movement like a drone pilot setting targets, a potter moves carefully when placing a greenware pot on a shelf. The pot is utterly useless – just formed mud, like a pale and pasty Adam and Eve at creation – wide-eyed, innocent, useless and dull. Even a gentle spring rain shower would reform the vase to a pile of mud.
But after the firing of the kiln, as temperatures rise…500 degrees…900 degrees…1800 degrees…the fires begin to roar and wrap and lap up and around the pot with crimson and orange flames. the brisk and pots move in the fires like waiting cobras. Poisonous gasses exude from the brick-slits such that the potter must leave the room as the dead matter between the silica – dead matter which made the clay sticky and elastic – is now burned out, leaving microscopic caverns in the clay – the absence of the dead matter which made the clay so lovely to work, dead animals and dead leaves from a thousand, thousand years ago, beneath some riverbed where layer after layer of death and sparkly stone-flakes settled to form the clay while apes became mankind, furrowing their brow at fire and wondering “What might we do with that one day?”
As the clay is caressed by fire like a lover caressing a thigh, the pots cure. Interesting word. The poisonous gasses leave the kiln as death and illnesses in plants and animals, centuries old, is burned out, leaving only crystal, rock and colors.
When the potter removes that pot from the kiln, still hot to the touch, it is no longer grey but bright white, like the garments of Revelation. And now, only now, may she be dressed in the glazes which will bring her to her a new life of beauty on a museum pedestal, under the awestruck gaze of millions. the watery ash and oxides filled with earthen elements is poured over her like heavy cream and she sits, again in stoic patience as fire, a second time, dances around her in a double helix in the kiln. More fire, more gasses, more heat, more melting.
And from that second firing the potter cracks the kiln open seven days later with her chisels, removing the graceful vase, tortured twice by fire after fire.
Suffering is like that fire. We are lied about. We are betrayed by the shallow, the silly, the frightened. We are diagnosed. We are operated on. We are bullied. We are whispered about. We are manipulated by power. We are exposed to so much suffering. We regret. We grieve. We envy. We betray our best selves. And we suffer.
And like you, I wish there were a different formula for internal, spiritual, authentic beauty. I envy the shallow, pasty silly ones who seem never to have suffered much, until I see them living – and then, suddenly, I see that the slightest rain will melt them into uselessness. And I embrace the fires, embrace the kilns, embrace the transformation and even the potter with the wood, there, in her hands. Am I a gorgeous vase? No. I am a cup. Simple. Useful. But I am fired. I sparkle. I can hold water for a drink and for a baptism.
So, dear friend, as you suffer in this life, know that a potter is feeding those logs to this kiln in the high hopes that the heat will rise and rise and rise. The pain will pass and the gasses will be swept up in the winds of the East. And you will be left strong, gleaming in the sun. Useful when someone comes by needing a cup of water or baptism. That water will be poured out from you easily, elegantly. And all shall indeed be well. And a bit weird.
Image: “glory” oxidation cone 6 firing, plum glaze with quartz, Charles LaFond, 2013