Metaphors

Recently, I had the opportunity to try my hand at making pottery—wheel-throwing, to be exact. In truth, I think I did this once or twice as a kid, but it was long ago. I remembered only the feeling of wet clay slipping between my fingers, the gentle prodding of the clay to create the desired shape, and the uneven feeling of lopsidedness on the wheel.

This time, I had the benefit of a patient and experienced instructor, who led me—step by step—through the process. I threw the clay onto the wheel, missing the center by more than I’d like to admit. The instructor adjusted the clay, pushing it closer to the center, and started the wheel. He demonstrated how I should hold my hands to gently push or pull the lump of clay into the center, shaping it and rounding it out. The clay resisted. I pushed harder, using some muscle to move it beyond its resistance. I was a bit surprised at the muscle necessary to move this inanimate, shapeless lump.

I smoothed the edges into a disk, and I pulled up toward the center, raising the height of the nameless object on the wheel. I used the side of my hand to flatten the clay and push it into the center. I repeated this process of centering until I had a flat disk resembling a hockey puck.

I began to work the center, slowly and gently pressing my thumb into the clay to create a hole from which I would begin to sculpt the vessel. From here, the process became one of gentle pressure—make an indent and watch it slowly become deeper and wider. The next steps would take an increasingly gentler touch as I steadied one hand against the other to work the sides upward and outward. The farther out and up I went, the more I could feel a slight off-centeredness of the piece. While I wanted to pull it back in, I didn’t want to exert too much force.

In the moments before I declared my piece “done,” and the wheel was turned off, the metaphor of potter and clay was not lost on me. The fact is, it’s not easy to mold a shapeless lump of clay into something both beautiful and useful. The clay resists. It won’t stay centered, and if it’s off center, it will become increasingly lopsided until it ultimately spins out of control and falls apart. Sometimes, it takes greater force from the potter to coax a piece back to the center. Perhaps sometimes, when we get too caught up in our lives, we are particularly unyielding and need to allow ourselves to be pulled back to center.

Ultimately, I added a spout to my piece. I not only wanted a vessel that could be filled up, but I also wanted one that could be poured out. One that would easily contain and distribute ingredients. It will take some time for my bowl to be dried and fired, glazed and re-fired. At the end of this month, it will arrive, beautiful and useful. I can’t wait to see the finished product and recognize the steps—and the patience—necessary as the potter molds the clay.

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Classroom Etiquette

As a teacher, I spend some time in the front of a classroom. Because of the nature of my full-time work—one-on-one academic support—I generally teach only one face-to-face class each year, but it is enough for me to track the changes in educational engagement through the years. Or is it?

As I stand in front of the class, with students working away on their computers, I (used to) make the assumption that they are taking notes or otherwise engaging in educational activities that will ultimately enhance their learning. That’s what I want to believe, so I create that reality in my head.

Fast forward to this summer, when I am taking a face-to-face class. This is the first time I have been a student in a physical classroom in many years, though I won’t say how many. I mean, I have attended various trainings (as recently as this past February) which mimic a classroom situation, but in those “classrooms,” it always seems as though people are interested in learning the material so they can bring it back to their own workplaces and put it to use.

This week was my second class in a summer-long Masters-level research class. I am not in a degree program; I am taking the class because I have research I want to conduct, and I don’t really know the best way to start. At this week’s class, one of my work colleagues was seated on my right. She and I were actively taking notes, discussing the topic, and beginning to get excited about our research projects.

On my left sat a fellow classmate, a young woman I have seen before, but I don’t know. She arrived right before the class started, took out her computer, and immediately picked up a message stream that she had left mid-conversation. To her credit, she also opened a document window where she could take notes during the 2+ hour class.

Class began, and she continued to occupy herself with messaging. Somehow this new generation of students hasn’t learned that they can say, “Hey, I’m in class right now. I’ll message you later,” and they don’t find it important to do so.

But this woman wasn’t engaged in class at all. Before 4:30, she removed a glass container from her bag and opened it on the desk. Inside was a nice looking dinner salad. She removed another container from her bag, opened it, and poured dressing onto the salad. Then she spent the next fifteen minutes crunching away on her dinner. (Did I mention this is a two-hour class? Have a snack before class, and you can have dinner at 6:15). When she was done, she dropped her metal fork into the glass container (not even attempting to be quiet), snapped the cover on, and put the container back in her bag. Then, she promptly returned to messaging her friend.

While I was trying to pay attention to the professor and concentrate on the material, I had developed a deep curiosity as to this woman’s non-stop in-class extra-curricular activities. Weren’t these activities just as effective when done from one’s couch in the comfort of one’s living room? Why would someone commit the time and money to a class when she wasn’t going to exert any effort beyond being physically present?

When I looked at her computer screen again, she was browsing the Crate & Barrel website, scrolling through dishes. The woman sitting to her left was commenting on the ones she liked best. In class. While the professor was lecturing. Clearly, taking a class means something different to these women than it does to me.

Perhaps I have an archaic notion of classroom behavior, left over from my student days long before the advent of portable computers. However, I don’t believe that respect for someone teaching a class has completely gone by the wayside. And I know for certain from all the studies I read that the best way to learn is to actively engage with the material.

We are only two classes in, and this experience has been eye opening for me. When I stand in front of my class in September—a class that is designed to help students make connections, discover how to learn, and serve as a foundation and resource for college life—I will tell my students that our classroom will be technology-free. Because sometimes, the best way to learn how to make connections is to disconnect.

Water

I was in the basement moving the laundry from the washer to the dryer. It was quiet in the basement, despite all manner of teen antics that were presently permeating the first floor. I live in a townhouse-style condominium, and as with most condominiums, this one was built quickly and cheaply. Sound travels from floor to floor, from room to room, and—pretty much—from end to end.

I concentrated on sorting the items that needed to go into the dryer from those that should be line-dried, attempting to ignore the laughter and shouts from above—sounds that clearly indicate mischief is afoot. But then C came tumbling down the stairs, his feet sending vibrations through the house before he skidded to a halt on the second to last stair.

“Can you just keep yourself busy down here for like ten minutes? I’ve got everything under control!”

“Um… no,” I told him, the gears in my brain grinding to a halt. “What’s happening up there?”

But he had already begun the sprint back up the stairs. “Nothing,” he said. “I’ve got it under control!”

I sighed as I hastened my sorting, knowing his story might be more than a bit skewed, though I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what was going on. J came down to get away from the ruckus and breathe, the boys’ rough play proving to be overwhelming. “They got a lot of water on the floor.” And then she proceeded to tell me that one boy threw a cupful of water at the other. “But they’re cleaning it up,” she added.

I took a deep breath pushing the minor complication from my thoughts. After all, it was just water. If my boys need to involve some “weapon” in their fights with each other, I suppose I should be happy that they choose to fight only with water. It’s (generally) easy to clean up, and (with the exception of frozen water balloons) it doesn’t hurt.

Let’s face it: my house has a long relationship with water. In the early days of parenting, I had toddlers jumping out of the tub and running down the hall “to get something,” with no thought for drying off first. I had little ones playing “car wash” and “baby bath time” on my kitchen floor. Water balloons, sprinklers, and pools filled my summers, and snow play with its soaking wet mittens, boots, snowpants, and jackets filled the dark afternoons of December through March. Rain, “frogging” in our pond, puddle jumping, water pistols and super-soakers.

A late-stage teenage water fight? I’ve got this! After all, what’s a little water between brothers when it’s all in fun?

Ice Cream

The question was bound to come eventually. We had finished dinner (though apparently not dessert), and I was upstairs when I heard it, asked from one boy to the other, older brother to younger.

“What is it about those two flavors that make it better to mix them?” he asked. A burst of laughter threatened to give away my own curiosity on this issue. In truth, I had wondered this same thing countless times, but because this was a long-standing habit, I was used to it, and never asked.

Ever since I can remember, any time we went out for ice cream, W would order one scoop of vanilla and one scoop of mint chocolate chip in a large bowl. Then he would proceed to stir it up until it was all one flavor—vanilla-mint, melty and smooth.

I had been observing this phenomenon for years. I bought cartons of classic vanilla and mint chocolate chip ice cream, so he could prepare this concoction at home. And yet, I had never asked the reason why.

Sometimes, brothers can take not knowing only so long, and they finally break down and ask. But then I heard him ask, “What does it taste like, anyway? Can I try it?” And I wondered if he really wanted to try it, or if this was his way of getting some of his brother’s ice cream. Vanilla-mint or diluted-mint would not be my own personal choice….

The question of why he mixes these flavors was bound to come eventually. From upstairs, I didn’t hear the full answer, but for me, it was satisfying just to hear the question asked.

Apps

“There’s an app for that.”

It seems there’s an app for everything these days. I have this growing list of apps that I’m supposed to check out because they are all the rage and using them will be life changing. Today, as I was cleaning off my desk at work, I came across a post-it note that had just one word: “Wunderlist.” So I spent a few minutes Googling Wunderlist and wondering what it was about this app that was so compelling. Like so many other apps that have been recommended to me, this one will help me organize my life. I can make lists, set reminders, create folders, share my lists, collaborate with friends….

It seems that these days, apps are designed to do everything for me except the actual tasks that need to be done. Like shopping for groceries, for example. And cooking dinner. Or finding a recipe or cleaning the house. An app that schedules these things, lists all my tasks, and reminds me to do them is not really what I need. After all, wouldn’t I have to spend the time to input the list into the app in the first place? That requires time spent not doing the actual tasks….

While I’m sure these apps are notable—as someone has recommended them to me in the first place—they are not what I need.

I don’t want to organize my life. I want to simplify my life. And by simplify, I mean I want to stop relying on technology to make my life easier. I want to interact with the people around me. I want to enjoy nature, climb a mountain, play in the tide. I want to be present as I live my life. I want to be mindful enough to observe what is going on around me. And I want to be reflective about who I am, what I’m doing, and who I am becoming.

Apparently, “There’s an app for that.”

Nope. I don’t think so.

Default Settings

Recently, I stumbled across two separate articles that referenced navigating life on Default Settings. This idea of moving through life on “default” definitely gave me some things to think about. After all, it makes complete sense. We respond to things without thinking, and we never bother to reflect on how we might handle a situation, what we might do differently. Instead, we respond first. Think later. This idea made me stop to ponder: How often do I navigate my life on a default setting, and how does this affect my life?

I believe we all have a tendency to be reactive rather than proactive. Life gets busy, and conscious decision-making in every situation gets pushed to the back burner. I react to what is coming at me rather than purposefully living out my life. I do not take the time to think and respond intentionally, but I act on the emotion of the moment and the patterns that have been established in the past. I make up elaborate excuses to keep doing things the way I have always done them, so I don’t have to disrupt my “zone of ultimate comfort.”

But beyond that “zone” could be amazing possibilities, and my defaults might just be holding me back….

So… over the next few weeks, I am going to examine my “default settings.” I am going to begin to think about how these settings, and my knee-jerk reactions, may be holding me back. I am going to think about how I can push myself beyond my “default” to live a more intentional life—a more authentic life. And I’m going to start making choices that will push me beyond comfort into possibility.

What are your default settings, and are your defaults working for you?

Positivity Post: Light

The weekend gave us a taste of some beautiful spring weather, and on Monday, I drove to work through falling snow. It has been a long, hard winter—literally and figuratively.

This morning, as he was disappearing out the door into the churning gray fog of an indecisive season, W turned to me and said, “Is it supposed to get light out today?”

Now, I knew what he meant, but it seemed an odd thing to say as the sun struggled its way over the horizon, sending as much of its radiant light as it could through the thick cover of rain-snow clouds.

My gaze followed him out the door, but I said nothing. Grey and dreary with a cold, soaking rain. This was as light as the day was likely to get.

But outside my kitchen window, crocuses, hyacinths, tulips and daffodils are poking their little green heads out of the ground, testing the air to see if it’s ready. Because outside my window is the promise of spring, and the light that is destined to arrive.