My plan was pretty straight forward when I decided to retire in 2012 after spending thirty five years working in public education. From the letter that I wrote to students, parents and staff, I pulled this paragraph out that summed up my plan.
I'm leaving because I want to explore some other opportunities. Sound like a cliché? The fact is I turn 59 in February and with that comes a fair amount of personal reflection, looking back and looking ahead to what's to come. I have an amazing family, great house and property, an engaging community life in Northfield, close friends and a lot of interests. My pottery studio sits waiting for me, I have some paintings that I want to do, a few pastels that have been stored in my mind and ready to go on paper, blueberries to plant, a house and shed to build and wood to cut. I have five amazing grandchildren (now six) who expect that I will be in their lives, at games, plays and other events. I have three great kids and two spectacular daughters-in-law (and now an amazing son-in-law) who like being with me and whose company I cherish. I have a best friend in my wife who is waiting for me to plan some trips, go on a few walks, take bike rides and go out for a ski. I'm a very fortunate guy who feels like I have it all. I'm not leaving a bad situation for a better one, but rather leaving one great situation for another.
During the first seven years after retiring, I was able to accomplish what I had set out to do by serving on four community and statewide boards, mentoring several new principals, attending my grandkids’ activities, going on trips with my wife, planting new blueberry bushes, building a house for my daughter and son-in-law, running a portable sawmill business and tackling the routine chores around our house and property, and…almost forgot, setting up my potter studio. I am now able to efficiently produce a variety of functional pots and after firing my new kiln several times, I’ve worked out the bugs to the point where results are consistent, at least as much as I want them to be. I met the deadline to have pots done for my friends who special ordered gifts for their daughters (see the blog, “The New Kiln, First Glaze Firing and Meeting Deadlines”) and they were happy with the results. I held some open studios, took part in a couple of shows, met a lot of wonderful folks and even sold some pots. When I stop and reflect on the past years, I can’t help but take pride in my accomplishments and what I’ve been able to achieve.
Birthday celebration with the family
With this coming year, my eighth since retiring, my focus will primarily be on my family and my pottery. I have learned that I have a finite amount of capacity. The more activities that I am involved with, the less each gets of me and the less I get from each one. The past seven years have been full of rich experiences, but I have not gotten a great deal of satisfaction or enjoyment from any one of them. I am hoping this year will be different; fewer activities and experiencing more joy
I constructed my studio about twenty five years ago in anticipation of this time. The studio is 24’ by 24’ and has an attached shed that is 16 x 20 for my gas kiln. I heat the building with wood and although it’s insulated, it takes a lot of effort in the form of tending the fire to heat up the space when it’s hovering below zero outside. This winter has been colder than normal and so after shutting the water down in December, I have not been able to get into the studio to work since. The snow piled up against my windows reminds me that it might still be a little while, but I’m not complaining because the past three months have provided me time to reflect and look back on the year and prepare to start working again in April.
My studio struggling to get out of the snow
One thing that I reflected on was the level of deep engagement I had experienced in the studio over the past year. I thought back to my very early days of working with clay when I was in high school and the way I felt when I first started throwing pots. I remembered sitting at the wheel, bent over the clay, kicking the flywheel and focusing on transitioning from centering to opening to raising and not having any concept of how much time had just slipped by. An hour of time could have been a few minutes or a few seconds or a day. I remember feeling lost in my work. I wanted my time making pots now to provide me with that feeling of being deeply immersed in a creative activity and that feeling of being so engaged that I lose track of time. The question is, how can I get back to that?
I knew achieving this was possible after doing some research into the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Confined as a prisoner of war during World War II, he observed how many people were unable to live a life of contentment after their jobs, homes and security were taken from them during the war. After the war, he studied philosophy and took an interest in art and religion in an attempt to seek an answer to the question, what creates a life worth living?
Csikszentmihalyi attended a lecture by Carl Jung while at a ski resort in Switzerland. Jung talked about the traumatized psyches of the European people after World War II. He was so drawn to this notion that he started to read Jung’s work, and eventually took an interest in psychology. This in turn led him to the United States to pursue his studies. What he really wanted was to study the roots of happiness.
Csikszentmihalyi’s work eventually resulted in him identifying the characteristics of being fully engaged in an activity. He called this Flow and found eight necessary conditions for an individual to experience it; complete concentration on the task, clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback, transformation of time, the experience is intrinsically rewarding, effortlessness and ease, a balance between challenge and skills, actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination, and there is a feeling of control over the task.
Studies led him to conclude that happiness is an internal state of being, not an external one. His bestselling book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, is based on the notion that happiness levels can be shifted through the introduction of more flow. Happiness is not a rigid state that can’t be changed. On the contrary, happiness takes a committed effort to be manifested. After the baseline set point, there is a percentage of happiness that every individual has the responsibility to take control of. He believes that flow is crucial to creating genuine happiness. Through much research he began to understand that people were most creative, productive, and often, happiest when they are in this state of flow.
I reflected more on Csikzentmihalyi’s work with an eye toward which of the eight conditions was missing from my work and getting in the way of me achieving more episodes of Flow. What changes could I make to experience more of it in the year to come? Of the eight conditions, I kept coming back to questioning my “complete concentration on the task” and whether that was happening. During the early years of making pots, I don’t remember being very intentional about the pots that I made, but I do remember the level of concentration that was needed was high. I would wedge up some clay, sit at the wheel and let the clay determine how it would end up. Some of the reason for this was that my skills were still being developed and I didn’t have the control then that I developed over time to predetermine the outcome of every piece. I accepted whatever happened and was in awe of the process from start to finish. The fact that I ended up with a bowl, a cup, a vase, an ashtray or a flop, didn’t matter, I felt inspired and very satisfied. Contrast that with what my current way of working. I decide what I’m going to make beforehand, weigh out each piece, wedge it, pile up the ten or twenty balls of clay and then sit down to very systematically accomplish my goal. I always throw the same thing during each session whether it’s cups, mugs, bowls or plates. If the piece has handles or needs trimming, I do that all at the same time after the clay dries a bit. I realize now that I’m focused mostly on production and less so on creating.
Part of the reason that I evolved to producing pots this way is because I can. My skills have developed to the point where every pot, okay, almost every pot, makes it off the wheel and is just what I had hoped it would be. I work systematically, efficiently and with intention. Does that mean that I’m not concentrating as much as I used to? Possibly not, but I am producing far more pots than I was capable of when I first started and that’s a good thing. That takes me to another of Csikzentmihalyi’s eight conditions, “a balance between challenge and skills”. Have I gotten to the point with my work where there is too little challenge and I rely mostly on my skill? I think that’s true, but perhaps experiencing Flow is not something to be expected every time that I sit down at the wheel.
At one point last year, I decided to make a batch of teapots. I hadn’t made one for a while and love the process that involves multiple components including a base, lid, spout and handle. It’s one of the most complex pieces that a potter can make and when it comes together, it’s very rewarding. Technically and aesthetically, teapots are a challenge. Perhaps, the greatest in pottery.
I don’t have many teapots from my very early time making pots, but the ones I do have remind me of just how hard it is to make one that works well and looks great. I think my early attempts worked well, but lacked style. Good teapots start with throwing a body that will work with a lid, handle and spout. The body actually determines the design of the handle, spout and lid that will follow. The part of building a teapot that I find most challenging is getting the spout right. Throwing a spout for a given body requires a lot of vision because it’s difficult to foresee what it will look like until it’s fully assembled. I typically throw extra spouts for every batch of bodies that I make and then pick the one that I think will work best when I assemble them. Getting the position of the spout right is the most critical step. I find there’s one position on every body that works for a given spout and usually, only one. This requires some trial and error. The other critical step is to cut and trim the spout appropriately in order to add it to the body. Should the spout look like it’s naturally growing out of the side of the teapot or should it look like it’s added on? Every teapot is different and I’ve had success with both styles. This is a fairly detailed description about one component of a teapot, but the reason I’m getting into it is that whenever I make teapots, I get deeply into the process and I experience Flow. Just writing the previous lines almost got me into it.
Three of my recent teapots
Ensuring time in coming year to do deeper dives into my work gives me a guarantee of some opportunity to experience Flow. At the same time, I don’t think Csikzentmihalyi is suggesting that only those activities that result in Flow are worthy of our time. I think he is suggesting that the more Flow activities that we can experience the happier we’ll be. That said, he might also be suggesting that taking more mundane activities, such as making mugs, can become more challenging if I considered other ways to make them. I have a system for producing mugs that works, but maybe I need to challenge myself to find other ways. Food for thought.
This morning is April 1st and it’s snowing and cold again. My goal is to get back into the studio soon, by next week perhaps, but we’ll see. Having a break between pottery seasons is not what I anticipated when I returned to making pottery, but it has allowed me unexpected benefits in the form of reflection, rejuvenation and planning for the year ahead. Not a bad thing.
April 1st and waiting for Spring to arrive so I can get back to my studio