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The Decision

Pottery by Dorothea Chabert

Pottery by Dorothea Chabert

I.

While Eva prepares dinner, I am in the living room holding a ceramic pot in my hands. “Eva, tell me about the large brown pot by the window. It looks like it wasn’t made. It looks more like it was grown.”

“My friend made that, Dorothea Chabert. We lost touch a long time ago. I don’t even know if she’s still alive.” “Eva, why don’t we find out?”

Eva did find out. She called a number she had penciled into an old address book. Eva’s in her mid-eighties and never bothered with computers. It’s a relief to be in her world for the days that I am every year, a world with few distractions, few interruptions, where long conversations happen over long meals, sitting at a beautifully set table with spoons, and plates, teacups and pitchers enjoyed in her family for generations. A world where time moves at its own pace. A world of hardback books, framed photographs, oil paintings, and pottery, a world you can feel and touch.

In Eva’s little Fiat, on the Autobahn, BMWs, Audis and Mercedes Benz are passing us at alarming speed. “Eva, I say, tell me more about Dorothea.”  “Dorothea lives in Wolfsburg, she says. She used to live in Wolfsburg Castle. Now she lives in the coach house beside the Castle. That’s where we’re going, to Wolfsburg Castle. She was part of an artist collective back in the 60’s called Scholsstrasse 8. She taught ceramic art in a university for some years, I think in Braunschweig. She’s more well known in Japan than in Germany. It often works that way.”  “You can’t be a prophet in your own city,” I say, “sometimes not even in your own country.”   

Old wooden floors, huge wooden beams, large wooden work tables, and everywhere wooden shelves, like scaffolding, lined with pottery. A potter’s paradise. “Eva, I feel like I’m walking into a church.” “Me too,” Eva says. Dorothea sits at her wheel, looking out a large, open window. A soft Vermeer-like light illuminates her calm, weather worn face.

Hours pass in Dorothea’s company mesmerized by hundreds of bowls, vases, teapots, cups, containers, and large plates with glazes that look like galaxies. Being in Dorothea’s studio is like being in a scholars large, private library, entranced, surrounded by a person’s unpublished autobiography, written in clay.

In the twilight Dorothea’s pottery sits quietly, numinously. As if she could read my thoughts, Dorothea says, “You know, I don’t throw much anymore. I can’t sit for very long because of my back. But I spend time looking at my wheel. On good days I used to feel God sitting right there in the center of my wheel. On those days throwing a pot was like Creation, like Genesis, a world whirling itself into existence. I lived for those days, those meetings.”

Eva and I leave, each holding a simple cup in our hands, and Dorothea in our hearts.

II.

Sitting in a room full of students, about to begin a workshop, I’m the opposite of nervous. I feel at home, in a place I know, a place full of warmth and comfort. Allowing the room to grow quiet on its own, listening for that poignant silence, I find myself thinking about Dorothea.

“I love pottery, I say. It’s the way it feels in my hands. One day I was in Italy. It was hot. I was thirsty. I spotted a water pump in a plaza. I primed the pump. Water spilled out. I squatted down, cupping my two hands together, filled my palms with cold water, and drank. I looked down at my wet hands and thought, two hands, the first bowl ever made.”

“When I came here to Japan, I knew I had landed in my artistic home. Your country reveres pottery, constructs entire ceremonies around a tea bowl.  The chawan is Japan’s holy grail, a sacred vessel with a sacred purpose; to commune with nature, with people, and with life itself.”

“Maybe that’s why pottery feels so quintessentially human to me. We unearth ancient civilizations and what do we find? Pottery. Where there are people, there is pottery. Like kanji, the word human is comprised of two images. The character hu, as in humus, meaning earth or clay, and the character man, as in main, meaning hand. So human could mean, an earthling made of clay who has hands.”

If we’re made of clay, then maybe potters have something to teach us. Maybe if we study their creative process we might learn something about transformation, about how to change ourselves into something beautiful and useful.

III.

This essay will contain notes on teaching for those of you who are educators. They will appear in italics. When I teach a workshop where there are a number of trainees and teachers assisting me, which is usually the case, I will occasionally make a T-shape with my hands, indictating that I am about to take a “Teaching Moment.” Actors refer to this as “breaking the fourth wall.”  It’s as if I leave the workshop for a second and turn my attention to my trainees and teachers. The difference is, however, that I want the workshop participants to hear what I am saying to the trainees and teachers, because I actually want the workshop participants to understand my pedagogical choices. You can now officially consider yourself one of my trainees at the workshop!

IV.

The metaphor has now been established for the workshop. It serves me, as you will see, as an outline for the workshop. Within the metaphor lies a sequence through which I can allow the work to unfold. It’s a physical metaphor with metaphysical implications. That means while I am connecting the metaphor to their bodies, I am also connecting the metaphor to their lives, to what it means to be human. I’ve also set the stage for using my hands to do my work, for making physical contact with people.  I have revealed a little about myself as a person: that I like pottery, that I’ve been to Italy, that I love Japan, and by revealing a bit about myself I am indirectly giving them permission to tell me about themselves.

My strategy is to begin big, to create breadth. What it means to be human. I don’t want them reducing the work to their bodies. I want their attention on their lives, on how it feels to move through their days.

V.

So where do potters begin? My friend, Filipe Ortega, an Apache potter from La Madera, New Mexico who speaks four languages and has a Master’s degree in theology, goes down to a nearby pit his relatives have used to extract clay since the early 1800s. It all begins there, in the ground. When Filipe calls the earth his mother, he’s not being poetic. That’s reality for him. He experiences the earth as his loving mother. It’s his source of life. From where doth thou support come, it cometh from the earth. What could be more obvious?”

“Matter in Latin, Matur, means Mother.  Physical life needs nurturance. Life cannot live without it.

But for a couple thousand years Westerns have lived in a culture where the spiritual has been severed from the physical; the spiritual elevated, and the physical debased.”

“If physical life is less valuable, then the nurturers become less valued; the mothers, the caregivers, the nurses and the therapists, the teachers, and the gardeners. Those of us who use their hands, their bodies to do their work, the manual workers, become deemed less worthy, of less worth, and thus are paid less, thought less of, less than those who make a living using their ‘higher’ functions, who live in a more sophisticated world, an abstract and symbolic world.”

“This is one reason why it is important for me to be an Alexander teacher, because first and foremost I am a nurturer, a person who cares for people. I am a male mother. Education is wonderful, but alone, education is not enough for humans to grow. Education and nurturance together make people grow. The Alexander Technique is not about learning; it’s about growing.”

“The mind did not evolve in isolation. Our brains, our voices, our uprightness, our ability to walk, and to use our hands all evolved interdependently. The Alexander Technique values these uniquely human abilities, equally, attends to them equally, continues to see them as interdependent.”

The physical is holy. The senses are holy. The body possesses wisdom that the mind will never understand. Coming to our senses is exactly what we need to be doing in this day and age.”

“Touch is an indispensable sense for nurturance. Infants cannot live without it. Certain primates spend up to 20% of their day in physical contact, grooming each other, huddling together when they are scared or need comforting, keeping themselves warm on cold nights, carrying their young on their backs as they go about their work.”

“I am a manual worker, an intelligent manual worker. I am proud of that. I am tactually literate. Alexander work, for me, heals this mind/body dichotomy. It helps make us whole. It helps restore our humanity. It brings us back down to the earth, to our mother. We all have the same mother. We mustn’t forget this. For Filipe and me, this is not just a metaphor; it’s reality.”

VI.

Before a potter begins to throw a pot, their clay must have a high degree of plasticity. That means it must be flexible, moist but not too moist, and strong but not dry or rigid. This is why potters have to wedge their clay. Once they get a homogenous distribution of tone through the clay, the clay ‘wakes up.’  The same is true for us.”

“There are two ways of wedging clay. Some potters wedge clay into the shape of a ram’s horn, but the Japanese, being islanders, wedge clay into the shape of a conch shell, both spiraling forms. Embryologically, bones spiral themselves into existence, and then muscles spiral themselves in the opposite direction around the bones. It’s a helical pattern. The heart itself is one spiraling muscle folded in on itself. The spiral is a primary pattern within us, and within the universe at large.”

I invite the group to huddle around my computer to watch a video of a master potter wedging clay. They look like little kids ready to watch some cartoons.  (Go ahead. Be a little kid too. Take the time and watch the video.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzX9gtZRyns

It seems many of the students have never seen a person wedging clay. You can hear the occasional rising Ehhhh…….sound that Japanese make when they are surprised and impressed by something.

“Okay, let’s begin to learn how to wedge our own clay.”

I demonstrate a movement on the floor of what a baby does as it learns to roll over from its back to its front. I show them how it’s possible to initiate this spiraling motion from the eyes and head, from the solar plexus, or from the knees, thighs and pelvis, all creating spirals through the body.

I station my assistants around the room, placing them at the head of each student. They serve as a stimulus, something the baby wants to see, creating the impulse to initiate the spiraling motion from the eyes and head. I show them how to use their hands to assist the student in clearly initiating the movement from the eyes and head and insuring that the body follows sequentially.

I’ve now begun to physicalize the metaphor. I call these ‘movement metaphors,’ or moving ideas, ideas that move you.

I sit down and watch. I watch both the Alexander trainees and teachers, and their students. Where needed, I help. People are animated and enjoying themselves. When I see that everyone has improved, I bring the group back together.

VII.

“The clay is then patted into a sphere, another primary form within us and within the universe. A sphere is equally high, wide, and deep. This creates maximum volume, with minimum surface area. A sphere has neither sides, nor a top or a bottom. We have lots of sphere-like shapes within us, like our skull, rib container, our pelvic basin, and lots of ball joints; shoulders, elbows, knees. We’re full of bowls, and domes.”

The assistants and I go around the room showing them beautiful drawings of human spheres from Albinus On Anatomy. Then we go around gently enveloping all the heads, rib cavities, and pelvic basins in the room. Once I can see that everyone is sensing the roundness of their structure, I have them walk around the room.

“Is that how you usually feel when you walk down the street,” I ask? “Zen zen jigau, totally different,” several students say.

Everyone sits down, most of them looking somehow different, less collapsed, and less constricted.

“The sphere of clay is then dropped onto the wheel, as close to center as possible. But to get the clay truly centered, the potter almost always brings the clay up and down a few times, guiding it ever more finely onto center. If you know the poem Burnt Norton, by T. S. Eliot, you cannot help but feel the connection between what the potter does and to Eliot’s ‘still point in the turning world.’ Eliot writes, “…at the still point, there the dance is.’”

“So lets bring the clay up and down. Humans get up and down in many ways, for all kinds of reasons. Buddhists and Muslims bow. Dancers plié. Aikidoists roll. We get up and down from chairs. Here, lots of us sleep on the floor, and get up and down from Kotatsus.”

“I happen to know that, in this room, we have a Zen Priest, a professional ballet dancer, a couple Aikidoists, and people that get up in the morning from their futon and down again at night after a hard day of work. Lets make four groups and do some rising and lowering. Go into the group you want and bring your clay up and down.”

I sit down and watch. I watch everyone. I do my best not to intervene unless absolutely necessary.  And again, people are having a good time.  The bowers are having a great time. They look reverent and about to break out in laughter at the same time. When it looks like a couple good waves of learning have happened, I invite people to finish up and then sit down again.

Now a great potter doesn’t just bring their clay up and down in any old way, they do it in a way where they become that still point in the turning world. And we can learn to do that within ourselves too. Alexander found a way into this. He called it the true and primary movement. He discerned that there was an inner movement, an inner rising and lowering. This inner movement has a certain look to it. It’s effortless, it’s smooth. There’s a lightness to it. It seems to happen by itself. Let’s look at another video, this time of a potter making a bowl. The way the clay changes shape, the way it rises, widens, and spreads out looks a lot like Alexander’s true and primary movement feels.”  (Watching a master potter turn a lump of clay into a bowl is mezmerizing and magical. As you watch this make sure to imagine the movement you are seeing actually happening in your body. See what you are seeing kinesthetically.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpG_rkIvIdc

And so it begins. Everyone is now ready and excited about experiencing Alexander’s primary movement. Soon they will feel the effortless rising, the wetness, the fluidity,the stability, the spreading, the still point in the turning world. Soon they will feel themselves opening, sense spaces within themselves unbeknownst to them.

(If you just watched the potter throw the bowl, then you will see how much Alexander’s primary movement looks like the clay effortlessly rising and opening. I never get tired of feeling this motion under my hands.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iRD66HTDQ4

VIII.

“Okay, what about using our pots? If they’re going to last, don’t they have to be glazed and fired? Here’s how I see it. The glaze is your personality, your color, your design, how you express yourself. We don’t want to change that.”

“And the firing? The firing is your life. Will you be able to withstand, endure, survive the pressure of life, its demands, hardships, disappointments, and ordeals without cracking, irreparably? If you can, if you do make it through this trail by fire, you will become useful, able to serve. And though you may, along the way, as I have, suffer cracking and chipping, and though you may even fall and shatter and have to glue yourself back together piece by piece, as I have, you will, with age, become beautiful.”

“So it’s now time to discuss among yourselves, in small groups, what situations in your life are currently stressful. It may be a situation at work, dealing with deadlines, with bossy bosses. It may be relating with your partner, or your children, or your parents. It might be the pressure of performance. But whatever the situation, take time now, find the people in the room who can help you set up the stressful situation you find yourself in, and let’s enter the fire together, let’s use Alexander’s work so that we can be made stronger by the fire.”

The stage is now set for the second part of class, for applying the work into their lives. The Alexander Technique is not about the Alexander Technique. It’s about an approach to living. When I asked Marj Barstow, my mentor, what my job was as an Alexander teacher she said, “Bruce, your job is to help people to become sensitive, and to help them to bring that sensitivity into their everyday lives.”  Almost 40 years later, that’s still my job, still what I am figuring out how to do, for myself and for others.

Scenes are enacted; an aging daughter caring for an aging parent, a teacher unable to motivate her students, an analyst stuck behind a computer all day, a singer with performance anxiety, a therapist listening to a suicidal client, a physical therapist having to help a stroke patient up from a chair and into bed. These are the kinds of situations that inspire me. The tough ones.

IX.

It’s time to bring the workshop to a close, always a delicate moment, like arriving at the last line of a poem.

“You are the clay. You are the material with which you have to work. You are the potter. You are the bowl. You are the person who shapes yourself. You are the person who has the potential to open yourself. You are the one who can make yourself beautiful, and useful.”

“And it is you who must, ultimately, ask the question and make the decision. With what do I wish to fill myself?”

The room is utterly silent. We sit in that silence together for a long time, in a circle that suddenly looks to me like one big bowl. I bow, thanking my translator of 27 years, my organized organizer, my dedicated trainees, my devoted teachers, and all the openhearted students. I am filled with gratitude.

Yes, I think to myself, that’s my decision.

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