It’s a humid 96 degrees outside, but the basement of Fleisher Art Memorial is cool and quiet. A handful of people are busily working in the hushed ceramics studio. No one asks where my husband is. I wedge about twenty pounds of clay, and set down five neat balls on the wheel in front of me. Two hours pass and there are five wet piles drying on plaster moulds, because I seem to not be able to center them. (Centering involves pushing, pulling, and pressing clay into the center of the potter’s wheel so that it can be thrown into something more than a mushy pile). I am frustrated and I am angry. My neck and shoulders are sore. I am tired. When I go back that evening to visit my husband, he asks how I made out…
The night before, the unthinkable happened. While driving our son home from hockey practice, my husband had a stroke.
My husband hasn’t always been a worrier, but as we moved farther into adulthood, there became more to worry about, and the daunting role became his. Balancing the demanding sports schedules of two teenagers, managing a business, maintaining an old home, career changes, getting kids into high schools, and now looking ahead toward colleges are all concerns that plague his pragmatist mind. He has taken on the burden of worrying about the future, and that stress and anxiety seriously compromised his health.
In our efforts to thwart chaos, as teachers, we tend to address the ‘here and now’s, prioritizing according to what needs to be, and can be, handled first. If a student arrives at my door agitated or sad, I have made a plan and have acted within seconds to best support her needs and the needs of my students. It is said that teachers make more split second decisions than ER doctors, and if you are in disagreement, well I invite you to come visit my special needs classroom sometime. This mindset carries into my life outside the classroom. While my husband wrestles with ‘big picture’ problems, I focus on what needs to be handled first and then prioritize accordingly.
Now this situation (my husband’s stroke) was all together different, with no quick fix and here I was for once holding an empty fire extinguisher. I found myself asking “what if” instead of “what now?” My world was spinning, and I couldn’t center a darn ball of clay…
I was pretty sure that I had asked all of the important questions: “What happened?” “What caused this to happen?” “What can be done right now to make this better?” “What can be done in the future to make this not happen again?” We ask ourselves questions like these often when reflecting on days spent in our classrooms, but I forgot to ask one essential question: “How does this make me feel?” I had completely ignored how shocked, sad and terrified I felt. I had literally become uncentered. My husband was undergoing a barrage of tests and we still didn’t have all of the answers.
Yet, the cliché does ring true and life went on. The next day I was shuttling my son to hockey camp and doing my best to try and answer my kids’ questions about their dad. Not much more information waited at the hospital and my husband shooed me off to go smoosh up more clay, which I did quite literally. I told myself that it didn’t matter what, if anything, I made in the studio. It felt good to wedge the clay. As I rhythmically pushed and turned it, my hands felt strong and I enjoyed the sensation of control. Sitting at the potter’s wheel, however, was much of the same as the day before. I noticed that I was doing things I didn’t normally do when I worked on a wheel, such as slouch, clench my teeth, and hold my breath. The difference was this- I knew this day why I was doing these things, but perhaps that my body hadn’t caught up with my mind. I sat and let the wheel turn, simply resting my hands on this wet lump of clay, and that was ok. I was ok.
My husband was unceremoniously discharged late that evening, insisting on walking himself home. He is as fine as I suppose one who is ‘too young’ to have a stroke can be. We still have much that is unanswered and he has a new collection of specialists whose titles I can barely spell.
Things happen in our lives that leave us uncentered. As teachers, one of our common fears is loss of control. I would never be able to center clay until I gave myself permission to not be able to manipulate all aspects of my and my husband’s current situation. I did not like that things were just simply beyond my control, but had to recognize that was the case and needed to allow for things to just plain happen. Clinging desperately to those I love and maintaining faith and trust in what I love to do got me through this experience.
The next day I wedge clay that weighs about half of what I tried to throw the previous days. It comes as no surprise that everything that goes on that wheel centers without fail…
Special thanks to my incredibly strong and selfless husband, who imprudently chooses to worry about things, so we don’t have to…