Just out of the corner of my eye I caught it: a little porcelain ramekin with a pretty cable-knit pattern imprinted on the side, serving as a penny dish at my grocery store’s pharmacy counter. What a lovely contrast between shiny, smooth porcelain and lofty, fuzzy yarn; between something made quickly in the thousands in a factory in China (I checked) and the hand-made cabled socks that take me hours to complete; between warm and cozy, and cold and hard.
It reminds me of my own brief foray away from knitting to pottery when I was living in New York years ago. For one winter, a couple of days every week I would leave my desk job on west 39th street and take the train up to the Upper West Side to work with and learn about throwing clay on the wheel. Afterward I would hop on the M60 bus and travel across the Tri-Borough bridge to Astoria, where I lived for a short time. While I usually took the train to get around the city, crossing the bridge seated up high on a bus was a treat: for once I could let my eyes relax and stretch beyond the confinement of the tall, gray buildings and let my gaze rest on the expansive lower Manhattan skyline across the river. The breathtaking view of the city, lit up after dusk, was all too brief. I felt like I had been let out of a cage and yearned for an entire day to stare at the wide, open expanse of the ocean, or perhaps the lake I grew up on in northern Minnesota.
But besides the meditative bus ride, there was something so satisfying about having just worked with mucky, sticky clay, about having created something literally from the earth with the force of my hands (so much more strength than knitting!). Working with the clay helped me forget the itchy feeling of sitting behind a desk all day under dark fluorescent lights, clicking a plastic mouse and keyboard and pushing buttons on the telephone. At my office job, there was nothing that required the absolute strength of my hands and forearms and even back muscles, nothing of the earth about shuffling light, dry sheets of paper in a temperature-controlled environment. Granted, I loved so much of my work – the wonderful people I worked with and met, the mission of the organization, carefully crafting language and taking phone calls that could directly help someone in need – but it was knowledge work, as it’s called, not visceral, physical labor, and I often romanticized leaving my desk job and devoting myself to clay full time. My best work at the pottery studio, however, was heavy and rough, and several bowls I had intended for the kitchen lost their meaning when I used non-food-safe glaze. Despite my failures with clay, I appreciate nice hand-made pottery all the better now – the smooth finish, the lightness, the beauty of the glaze.
By the way if you’re thinking that my grocery store is pretty high-end for such a fine penny dish at the checkout, I’ll have you know that just around the corner from the pharmacy counter was this striking piece of ceramics (presumably hand-made, even, unless there are thousands of these around the country). Go Hoosiers!