Monday, September 21, 2015

Learning Forgiveness


    A month without rain; fish and turtles
    retreat, swallowed by the wider mouth
    of the Charles where even the snowy
    egret is mired in mud. Still we gather
    here, pockets filled with week old bread
    and year old sins, eager for the current
    to scour the banks clean. There is more silt
    than flow. I hurl hunks of stale baguette
    and green-tinged sub rolls. This is impatience,
    this jealousy. I keep missing the narrow thread
    of moving water. The sky is relentless,
    unblinking blue. It would be sacrilege to pray
    for clouds, for the rush and spill of storm
    grates to empty into this tiny culvert
    just for the benefit of my failings.

                         - LJ Cohen, 2008

I've been thinking a lot on the nature of redemption and forgiveness. Certainly because this is the time of the year in the Jewish calendar when it's all about reflection. While I am not much in the way of a religiously observant person, it's hard to ignore the power and the pull of the liturgy for these "Days of Awe."

Tashlich is a ceremony, usually performed on the first day of Rosh Hashonah, the Jewish New Year, in which we gather by a moving body of water and cast bread into the flow as a way of making the naming and ownership of our failings tangible.

What I have begun to realize is how powerful a ritual of self-forgiveness it is.

Especially when it is done in the presence of others.

We are, all of us, flawed. We are, all of us, prone to human failings. We are, all of us, worthy of redemption and of forgiveness.

But it starts with a frank acknowledgment of our errors along with a sincere desire to be better.

I have made no secret of the fact that the past few years have been hard. Along with the joys that time has given me, it has also brought great sorrow: I have lost loved ones. I have had to make necessary choices that still fill me with regret. I have experienced disasters. I have witnessed the great pain and suffering of a child.

And through it all, I have striven to be a good person, to fulfill my promises and discharge my responsibilities. To be there for neighbors, friends, and family, both in times of need and in times of celebration. I have continued to create and write, pouring my emotions onto the page and struggling to be authentic.

I recently realized how much I feel like a failure.

That no matter what and how much I accomplish, there are projects I have neglected, interactions I have avoided, people I have disappointed and probably angered.

This, too, is the human condition. I have always been better at understanding that for others, yet holding myself to more impossible standards.

I am learning the power of forgiveness, of holding myself in the same lovingkindness I hold others.

It is hard. And so I remind myself:

We are, all of us, flawed. We are, all of us, prone to human failings. We are, all of us, worthy of redemption and of forgiveness.

To any I have harmed, either though words said or unsaid, through action or inaction, I ask for your forgiveness. I ask for a chance to be better and for your forbearance and patience when I stumble.

And if I have a prayer for the world and all its inhabitants, it is this - not a religious tract, or a faith-based message - just a simple hope from a meditation I have found powerful and comforting. One I am learning to direct to myself, as well. 

May you be held in lovingkindness.
May you experience a deep and abiding peace.
May you live free from suffering.


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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Birthday Blues

A birthday gift, painted my my mother sometime in the 1980's

I woke up feeling melancholy this morning. This is my first birthday since both of my parents passed away. You'd think at 52, I wouldn't feel like this orphan child lost in the woods, but it doesn't work that way.

My mother died 3 years ago this week, after a long battle with dementia. My father passed at the beginning of this summer. I miss them. Perhaps this uncomfortable emotion is more acute now that both of my children are emerging adults and out of the house. I am no longer defined by being my parents' child, nor by being my children's parent. It leaves me in a strange place of limbo.

Who are we, when we are not in relation to others? I am a wife, a friend, a neighbor, but all of those things are clarified and understood by some kind of comparison or external metric. I could say I am a physical therapist, a ceramics artist, a writer, but those are titles that describe something I do.

I am sitting quietly by the computer this morning, surrounded by the clutter of everyday life. My dogs are both curled up on their beds beside my desk. Everywhere I look, there are icons and symbols of my life: a copy of ITHAKA RISING (I was reviewing some scenes for yesterday's work on book 3), an empty coffee cup (one of my 'rejects'). Several clay creatures peek out from a set of cubbies on my desk - things my kids made as young children. A tarot card deck - research for a book. A self inking stamp that reads "WTF". A sea shell from a walk on the beach in Maine a few years ago. A crocheted 4th Doctor, complete with scarf I bought at a con.

Clutter and mild chaos

My office is the place I carved out of the rest of my home. Everything that's here is something I put here. Even the clutter of notes, mail, and bills. Which means, I suppose, that this is how I see myself. Perhaps it's not wrong to define ourselves by our choices and our actions. By what we choose to surround ourselve with. Because, strip all that away, and what makes my bundle of bones, nerves, muscles, organs, and skin any different from yours?

Or maybe it's enough just to say "I am."

Today, I am here.

I love and I am loved.

And even in my sadness, I am so very grateful for that.

With my parents, 1969


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Saturday, September 05, 2015

This house protected by an attack dinosaur

When we moved into our home 23 years ago, we noticed a small plastic toy dinosaur sitting up about about the 6 foot high mark on a piece of knobby brick near the side of the house. I don't remember what kind of dinosaur it was, but it always amused me that it was there.

The prior homeowners had been parents of a small child, so presumably, it was his. Perhaps it fell when they were getting out of their car and one of the parents stashed it up on the brick so it wouldn't get run over. Regardless, we kept it there.

Some years later, perhaps as part of a construction project, or from a storm, the little dino vanished. By then, we had our own small kid and the eldest was a fiend for dinosaurs. So we had plenty to choose from to be our house's protector. I think we picked a stegosaurus. It lived on the ledge for over a decade.

Just this afternoon, I was helping my husband with some work on his car, and I looked up to find our stegosaurus was gone. There had been a severe wind/hailstorm in the area last month and I suspect it blew our protector down. Which may explain why we've had so many house issues this past summer.

A friend happened to be by, talking with us when I discovered the loss. Her grandson lives with her and has a huge stash of dinosaurs. She went home and found one for us.

So now we have a fierce predator protecting our home from all possible threats, and all is right with the world.


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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Dragon Bellies!

Until Monday, this is what the ceiling in our LR looked like. . .

I've been spending time in the ceramics studio lately, looking for some peacefulness while my house is somewhat mired in chaos and construction from a bathroom leak.

I don't do chaos well. Unless it's the creative kind. I love the smashing together of ideas and concepts to create something utterly new.

Home repair is definitely NOT that happy kind of chaos. So it's off to the studio, when I can. The past few weeks, I've been making what my writer/friend Bliss Morgan named 'Dragon Bellies' - handbuilt, textured cups with tripod feet and a distinctly 'waddling' shape.

Folks seem to like them. While I've seen other tripod/hand built work, they aren't Dragon Bellies!  I have a lot of fun making these and I love they way they look all together, like they are a little army of marching creatures.

Folks also have asked me how I make them, so I though I'd do a process post.


Slab me, baby!

Dragon Bellies start out their lives as clay slabs, about 7" wide by 12" long. Because no two finished cups are alike, and I like the slight 'wonkiness' of their handbuilt natures, I don't fret over exact specs for the slabs. The studio has a wonderful piece of equipment - a dedicated slab roller - which definitely makes things easier, in terms of getting slabs with even thickness.


It's all about the texture

Yes, I know it looks like a spider web. It's actually lace. We have a lovely collection of fabrics with great textures. I go for a large variety. Part of the fun is taking a symmetrical design, like lace, and warping it in the process of shaping the clay so it looks more organic, like skin.


Roll it up

After the textured slabs have 'set up' a bit - which means they are stiff enough to hold a shape and their own weight when stood on end, but still soft enough to mold without cracking - I roll them into tubes and start sealing the seams.

You can make different kinds of seams, including invisible ones where you miter (bevel) the edges of each end and attach them 'face' to 'face'. But I like having seams that show for these cups and deliberately cut the seam line to be ragged.

To make clay that is not very wet seal well, you have to score the edges and coat with slip (a mix of clay and water.)


You can't march without feet

I use both hands to pinch the circle into a triangle form. (I needed one hand to take the photos!) Notice how the outside edge is scored. It's then painted with slip to help the adhesion. At this point, the 'feet' are usually too soft to hold the weight of the form, so I let them dry upside down for a while.


Push that belly out

Once they can be safely flipped on their feet, I start to use my fingers to gently push their bellies out and create a shape that is pleasing, but not symmetrical. The finishing work is what takes the most time. The inside seams from the tripod feet need to be sealed with snakes of clay and smoothed. To make the handles, I usually cut off the right amount from the top of the bellied-out cylinder, which gives me a handle of the same relative dryness that matches the pattern of the mug body.  Sometime, I swap handles. Because I'm radical like that. Then the top of the mug needs to be smoothed. I use a damp chamois for that. 

Then the dragon bellies need to dry to leather hard so they won't explode in the bisque kiln.


Color me!

Once the mugs emerge from their first trip in the kiln, they are at the bisque stage - fragile, but hardened clay. That's when the glazing begins. To pull out the texture, I paint the outsides with oxides, which then must be wiped off with a damp sponge, so that the oxide is only deep within the texture. It will react with the glaze in particular ways, depending on the oxide and the glaze, to create a subtle variance of the color within the grooves of the texture.

Then the mugs are dipped in one or two coats of glaze before being fired a second time.

When they emerge from the glaze kiln, they will be fully vitrified (converted to a glass like form), non-porous, and safe to use.

Unless they reach sentience and take your kitchen hostage.



How long does it take to make one of these?
Longer than I realize. LOL. I tend to make between 4 and 6 at a time and all told, the batch takes several hours of hands-on time (rolling slabs, rolling texture, making the cylinder, shaping the cup, finishing the cup, glazing), separated by days to weeks of waiting time. (Waiting for the slabs to dry, waiting for the cylinders to harden, waiting for the finished cups to dry, waiting for kiln time, waiting for the glaze to dry, waiting for the glaze kiln.)

What does it cost to make one of these?
Well, if I needed to make my living from ceramics and had to price these relative to my materials costs, kiln charges, studio fees, and my time, no one could afford to buy one and I would be making far simpler and easier to produce work. I price them in the $30 range, depending on size, which seems to me to be a reasonable price for a piece of functional art.

Do you take commissions?
Sort of? Occasionally? The problem with commissions, is it's often not possible to create the exact color or size specifications someone wants. Glaze is chemistry, and doesn't work like paint. E.g., you can't mix blue with yellow and expect to get green. The colors emerge as a chemical reaction triggered by heat and unless you know ALL the chemical properties of ALL the glazes, you will have no idea how something will turn out until you do a glaze test.

So, if you want a set of 4 dragon bellies, for example, and you're happy with the colors I choose, (I can usually promise color families, e.g., blues or greens or neutrals) then sure, pop me a message.

The other problem with commissions, is that because my day to day work is as a writer, and I don't have the time to be a full production potter, it may be weeks or longer before I can promise finished work.

Is this all you make? Don't you get bored? 
No. and No. :) I also throw on the wheel, to make smooth, symmetrical forms including bowls from small prep size to large serving size, and cups/mugs. And bored? Playing with clay is my kinesthetic therapy. It's soothing and I end up with something that someone will use and enjoy in their day to day life. How cool is that? And having a passion that takes me out of my thinking brain is also good for my writing process.

I'm an artist too. Do you want to do a trade?
Hell yeah! That's one of my favorite things to do. I've traded for paintings, jewelry, blown glass, knitted work, wood work, and even cookies!

You can see more photos of my work on my ceramics site: And wish me luck - I've applied for a spot in the juried art show at World Fantasy!

Any other questions about my ceramics work? AMA in the comments!


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