The Humbling Art of Practice
Here I am again at the family cottage where I first landed a year ago last June. The cottage is an old friend with its distinct, musty smokiness, with its little spit of rock that juts into a little cove. There is a constancy here that’s a kind of anchor in my life. I decided to come home to Maine not only for the most important reason of caring for family, but also because I needed both a reconnection to the past that the cottage embodies and a major change.
Lately I’ve been thinking not about the exciting sort of change or the unwanted sort of change, but about the uncomfortable, gambatte sort. For the past few months, I’ve been taking swing dance classes a few nights a week. As an introvert, this is far beyond my normal comfort zone for a number of reasons and there is dependably one moment a week where I cringe inside (at myself, not anyone else). When I do, I remind myself that I want to be good at this thing that I don’t have an innate talent for, because I really love doing it. The fun trumps the cringe or as they say in class, “ the road to Coolsville is through Geeksville”.
I have a theory that almost all potters had an affinity for sports and video games as kids, developing their hand-eye coordination naturally. Although I’ve always felt confident making and doing with my hands, coordinating my feet, in fact my entire body and my brain on top of that, is a struggle. The mental exhaustion I felt the first few weeks of class and continue to experience after a few hours is similar to learning to throw pots, except much more humbling and challenging.
No one miraculously gets to be a good potter without having had (and continuing to have) the discipline to practice repetitively for hours on end, days on end. Gaining skill is inherent to craft and part of the cycle of problem solving and problem making that Richard Sennett talks about in “The Craftsman”. As soon as we master or solve one difficulty, we create another in order to move forward. Because being a cold beginner is not a position I’ve put myself in for years, it’s both fascinating to me as an educator and exactly what I need at this juncture in my career and in my life. The reality is that my stomach for failure ebbs and flows. On the nights where it feels less tolerable, I call it quits early knowing this is a long term commitment. Some nights, the gambatte spirit kicks in to pull me through, while other nights it feels easy because I get lost in the simple pleasure of moving. Thankfully, the trajectory of my development from a beginning ceramics student who sanded off the skin on their hand to where I’m at now is not in the too distant past. I can already see that I’ve come a long way at the same time as I can see how far I have to go.
I love the total focus that dance demands, the escape from the digital world into the kinesthetic. There is no question of not being present. The space of being present is a track that is being replowed in my mind, a track that has gotten caved in like a collapsing snowbank with distractions and superfluous details. When I was first in the studio as a student, I was fortunate that it was before cell phones tugged at our attention constantly. I practiced and practiced until I could intuit how much pressure I needed to make the floor on a cup or how to complete a scalloped ridge on the side of a bowl. That kind of proprioception, the act of muscle memory where doing replaces thinking and we know subconsciously what our body is doing, is what I’m looking for in dance because when a good dancer dances, it appears to be a holistic joy boiled down to its essence. Being able to intuit something leads to much more complex and interesting questions. I trust my gut all the time with aesthetic decisions ranging from the height of a beam, the color of a finial, or the exposure of an image. What I want now is to have that proprioception about body and movement that transcends studio tools and existing artistic frameworks. I’m afraid of complacency in the studio and dance is a force against it. Our value as craftsmen lies not in the objects we create but in the capacity we have to recreate well-made stuff again and again. Not only that, but when we have conditioned intuitions, we can play, and playing is what life is about.
In moving to Maine, what’s become clear to me in pushing past my comfort zone is that it’s more possible because of the reciprocity I feel with this place. There is such an abundance of beauty in Maine that I feel fed from many angles- the people, the land, the ocean, the architecture, and the objects. My new studio is getting close to being done and will be another kind of beginning. Every day I wake up and count my blessings.