I have the attention span of the tiniest of fleas right now. A million thoughts are jostling for my attention at any given moment. Did I take the meat out of the freezer for dinner? What day is it? How am I going to figure out my move back home? When are we leaving here? Should I go to the store? What’s New York going to be like? Where’s my blanket?
When it gets overwhelming, I get up and move. I strength train, do yoga, or take a walk. And usually that does the trick. But I am finding that there are still long stretches of time, which I think of as the “in-between times,” when I am neither working nor exercising, nor cooking, nor cleaning. During these times, if I am left to my own aimless devices, I begin to despair. Sitting in stillness with that despair is one option. I know the feeling will pass — it always does. But it is risky. Sitting still with despair’s heaviness can overwhelm me as much as those pinball-machine thoughts. And honestly, as we close in on two months of pandemic life, I sometimes need a break from sitting in stillness with my despair.
So I took up a new hobby: pottery! Since childhood I have always turned to making crafts when I am feeling restless. I was inspired to try pottery by a few friends who have gotten into pottery in the past year or so. I told myself I would take lessons when I had time. Well, I certainly have time now, and although I don’t belong to a studio, a Brooklyn studio I have been following on Instagram, Clayworks on Columbia, is offering drop-in Saturday sessions online designed for doing pottery at home with whatever you have on hand. I emailed the studio asking if the class was suitable for a novice and they said “absolutely.” I was told all I needed was some air dry clay or even play dough. So I decided to order some air dry clay from Michael’s and give hand-building pottery a whirl. I am several pounds of clay in, and I am so grateful for this new practice.
Pottery is active, tactile, and grounding. You are quite literally working with earth. I make bowls and plates and little figures that aren’t remarkable but I am here more for the process than for the product. As I work the clay into various forms, I work through my feelings. I still sit with my despair, but rather than sitting still, I work with clay. Making pottery lets me connect with my feelings and even understand them better. I move the clay around in my hands as I move through my sadness.
In fact, I have noticed that every piece I make is a replacement of something I have lost. A plate I made reminds me of time with my grandmother at the Museum of Modern Art. A small abstract sculpture I made reminds me of my security blanket from my childhood. And the fortune cookies I made are filled with hope.
I am not merely busying myself with clay like I would be with a more “productive” hobby, like cleaning or organizing. Working with clay gives me the time and space to feel okay being so sad.
In “The Big Impact of a Small Hobby,” John Donohue recounts turning to drawing to keep himself “sane” when he lost his job five years ago, and that same hobby is helping him now. Drawing helped him find calm in a storm of frustration. He noted that by simply drawing a pair of shoes, “time seemed to expand and slow. There was quiet in the house, and in my soul.” This expansion of time to find space for quiet may seem like the opposite of what you need or want right now — we have so much time. But we need to be grounded in that time in order to process the chronic stress we are under. A hobby, such as pottery or drawing, can give us that grounding.
If you would like to pick up a new hobby but are unsure of where to start, I suggest that you ask yourself either of the following questions: What hobby have you put off until you had more time? Or, what did you do when you were bored as a kid? Allow yourself to feel the freedom to explore these two questions. And remember, whatever hobby you choose for the purposes of self-care, the process takes priority over the end result. This is about being, not producing. It is about creating a space and time to process whatever you’re feeling without becoming overwhelmed.
After spending some time making a pot or a plate I am usually left with one concern: how the heck am I going to get all this pottery home!? But I am also calm enough to feel that I will figure out how in due time.
Working with clay leaves me feeling more relaxed. There is space between my thoughts. I can tend to those thoughts and people that need tending to, and I can table the others so I may find some rest too.