Red clay and a task

Yesterday afternoon, throwing cups in the studio with Drew and Brian, I was listening to them talk about what every senior I teach is talking about within two minutes of any conversation’s start:  college applications.

I watched them work – these  talented, thoughtful, and generous young potters who can make wondrous things even without full focus.  And I found myself remembering what it felt like to be on the same cliff where they stand.  Not knowing the answers is a hard thing, a creeping thing, the type of distraction that can pull us away from feeling immersed and centered even in the work that we love.

It’s not surprising that every conversation comes back to college.  The type of pressure they face on what is, for many of them, their first really big life decision –  from teachers, parents, counselors, each other, and most of all, themselves –  is nothing short of a mountain.

I’ve been reading lots of interpretations around Csíkszentmihályi’s work on Flow.  In a number of papers and books, Csíkszentmihályi presents that in order to achieve a Flow state, one must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress.  Right now, the task of making 200 cups and doing 200 interviews seems daunting – but we have clear goals and clear progress to make.  Yesterday afternoon, it was 5 PM before any of us realized we had just spent nearly three hours after school throwing cups.

By contrast, the college decisions facing my students have unclear goals (“My top three are __, ___, ___, but I also like ___, but I don’t know if I have the scores for ___…”), sporadic progress (“I have to wait back on my SAT scores… still have to finish my common app…. this one school has like nine extra essays to write…”), and big parts of the process that are far out of their control.

I want to tell them that it’s going to be okay.  With their talent, insight, and generous approach to the world, they will be more-than-fine wherever they choose to spend the next chapter of their lives.  And I also want them to know that it is okay not to know, and that sometimes, not knowing can be its own gift.  From an interview with Chris S., a distinguished artist and teacher:

One of the most profound things I heard when I was a graduate student was when I asked one of the professors what he thought of some of my artwork, and he said, “I don’t know.”  And I had never heard a teacher say, “I don’t know.”  What a remarkable gift that was, for someone to express doubt.  In him doing so, it made me feel okay about myself, because I knew there was so much I didn’t know.  And here’s the teacher who’s supposed to know very willingly saying he didn’t know.  In him doing that, it allowed me to engage more fully in the creative process of allowing me to do my own work, because it told me I was okay, that I didn’t have to know all the answers.

I want to tell them all this.  But I also remember that cliff of not knowing, and how scary these big decisions seemed in my own life.  So instead, I offer red clay and the task of 200 freeform cups, 1-2 pounds each, in a little less than a month, and a progress chart.

Here’s to finding flow where we can.


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