Living into this great tension

Today I signed up for open studio week at Lillstreet Art Center and started throwing pots again for the first time in five months. My hands remembered the feel of the clay, the tension of pulling walls, the process of centering and the techniques used to create a pot, which was a delight as I had prepared myself to be disappointed in my productivity following such a long hiatus.

For those of you unfamiliar with the art of wheel-thrown ceramics, the pot takes shape first as a centered ball of clay then transitions into its form by pulling up the walls of the pot to create a bowl or a cylinder. In pulling up the walls, one hand (the left hand) is always inside the pot to stabilize it and the other hand is on the outside exerting an equal amount of pressure as the excess clay at the base of the pot is guided upward. While doing this over and over today, I was struck by the great tension in this process. As the clay circles around the wheel and gets pulled up, there is a very real feeling of tension – both in the force of my inside and outside fingers pressing against each other and in the way I can feel the clay on the brink of collapse. More than anything, it wants to fall down instead of going up. Its spinning self calls out in defiance as it is forced upward, pulled thinner, and pushed inward. The tension is so real I can feel it in every finger, in my forearms, and even in my shoulders as every piece of my body focuses on keeping the clay stable as it climbs. It feels like an eternity, this tension suspended in time. Each time I think that this will be the time it collapses, this will be the time it crumbles. But I press on. The only true way to break through that tension is to continue, to press into it, to use the tension to continue the process, to engage it, to be in it, to live it.

In these days of a vastly divided nation, tension abounds. Tension lives in the conversations we have with those we disagree with, tension lives in the debates about politics, tension lives in the interactions we witness and do nothing about, tension lives among us and in us. Many of us are crippled by our inability to make change in big ways. We want to do something but we don’t know how or what or when, so instead we shy away from it all, abandoning the tension. Or maybe we embrace some aspects of it but not fully, not enough. This is my current struggle.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. [RAINER MARIA RILKE]

Rilke says it well, as always, as he encourages us to live everything, to live the questions now. We may not have the answers, we may not know how to solve the questions surrounding this tension, but that’s not our task. Our task is to be in it: to live it, to think about it, to embrace it, to let it challenge us, to let it open us, to let it embolden us, to let it break us.

My new way for living in and expressing this tension is by focusing on awareness, both inwardly and outwardly. I will be aware of the people in pain around me and let this compel me to act. I will be aware of the things I’m saying (or not saying) and the implications they may have on our marginalized brothers and sisters. I will be aware of opportunities to gather with others in support of productive discourse. I will be aware of who I am amidst all of this and how I can be more, do more, see more. I will be aware of my discomfort toward acts of injustice and let this lead me to action. I will be aware of what I claim as truth amidst so much noise. I will be aware of what I buy and the lifestyle habits I’m cultivating as I try to consume less so I can share more. I will be aware of the diversity of relationships I have and look for ways to broaden my bubble. I will be aware.

And as I continue making pots this week, this tension will remain present both in my hands and in our world. May this tension propel me on toward awareness, understanding, intentionality, courage, empathy, kindness, and hope.


[Photo credit to Ellen Fondell – taken at Tokheim Stoneware this summer as we spent three lovely days learning from the dearest Gene & Lucy.]

My name is Elisabeth Fondell. I quit my corporate retail job in May of 2016 and have been on a self-appointed sabbatical ever since. In the pursuit of reclaiming my life, I’ve spent this sabbatical filling my days with travel to illuminating places, thought provoking words, poems, pottery, and the pursuit of wholeness.
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    • Hi Paige! Wow, it has been ages. I didn’t know you were in Baltimore. Don’t think I’ll be in Baltimore anytime soon, but if we’re ever home at the same time let’s please catch up!

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