Wisdom From The Wheel

“How many thousands of hours have I spent over the course of my life just trying to get myself centred?” asks R. Matthew Stevens of Corunna, Ontario. in this essay about retirement from ministry. His answers? Not from a car … certainly not from “Fast and Furious.”

I thought I’d worked it out, and pretty much had it together. After all I’d been to a couple of seminars, consulted with a financial planner, and read countless articles on the topic – what more could I possibly need? I was resolved upon a course of action; I’d provided everyone with ample notice; my wife was totally on-side; I’d even used-up all my vacations days. No doubt about it, I was ready when the first of January rolled around! Retirement – here I come!

Over the intervening months I’ve come to realized just how little I really knew about retirement. Oh sure, I knew the things I wouldn’t have to do: like not going to work each morning, or not having to bother constantly realigning my daily agenda. But, figuring-out what I should be doing is a whole different matter entirely. Without the artificial framework that gainful employment imposes upon life, one suddenly appreciates the essentiality of some sort of self-defined structure.

From others who’d already been down the retirement road before me, I’d learned that it was crucial not to prematurely over-commit yourself to volunteer activities. Of course, it’s good to stay active. But, if you don’t exercise a bit of self-restraint you can easily wind-up with forty-plus hours of volunteer work – work for which you once derived a salary. As word circulates that you’re retired, there is absolutely no shortage of folks popping-up with a plethora of worthy, but nonetheless unpaid tasks in need of your attention.

Some measure of the intellectual impoverishment of our political system, can be garnered from the individuals of different party stripes who somehow perceived my retirement as prelude to my election candidacy. Despite the fact that I possess absolutely no political instincts; intensely dislike back-slapping and glad-handing situations; and still believe that a promise given is an irrevocable commitment to action, I was approached to consider running. It’s certainly not hard to understand how the level of voter apathy continues to rise with this sort of inept candidate recruitment.

Initially finding things to meaningful fill my new-found affluence of hours wasn’t at all difficult. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, and at long last I could indulge in the luxury of ample time to research and attempt more complex recipes. My wife, who’s still engaged in full-time teaching, adjusted amazingly quickly to the prospect of coming home at the end of the day to an ever-expanding selection of creations from the oven and stove. My culinary repertoire was growing in leaps-and-bounds, while the adventure was proving both challenging and rewarding. Indeed, so rewarding that in a couple of months my girth had grown by almost ten kilos.

There’s nothing like a bit of good, honest, physical effort to start working-off that recently acquired surplus weight. Likewise, there was certainly no shortage long over-due projects for me to turn-my-hand-to, some of which had occupied a high ranking on the ”Honey-Dew-List” for years. So, with great gusto I launched myself into a round of renovations and repairs, the extent of which our old house hadn’t witness in the hundred-plus years since it was built. Beginning in the basement with the intent of advancing one floor at a time, I found perfect rationalizations for those tools I’d long coveted, but couldn’t previously justify.

This was about the juncture when my firm resolve about volunteering began to mollify. Without acknowledging any substantive change of attitude, I nonetheless found myself agreeing to perform certain functions within the very church structure from which I’d just retired. These were matters I’d long believed essentially to the ethos of the larger church, and yet within a pervasive atmosphere of “down-sizing” could potentially wind-up receiving rather summary consideration. Subsequent reflection upon this seeming change-of-heart, renewed afresh my conviction that being “called” to ordination truly is more than simply entering a vocation. It really never was about professionalism, nor a pay-cheque!

Returning from our vacation in mid-summer, my wife recruited my assistance in her initial preparations for the upcoming new school-year. I’ve always been an advocate of life-long-learning, but there in my wife’s classroom it dawned on me that I could now indulge in courses that were simply of interest to me. Just imagine! Engaging in a class for the shear joy of learning about something new, without any thought of what this might led to, or even the slightest concern for passing or failing. What a unique experience that would be, and fortunately a neighbouring municipality hosts a community college with an extensive course offering, roughly a twenty minute drive from our home.

For reasons I don’t even pretend to understand, pottery has long held a fascination for me. Perhaps it’s the notion of forming something both functional and aesthetically pleasing from a nondescript lump of clay, with nothing but your own hands. Possibly the elemental nature of the crafting process resonates with some primordial aspect of my nature and ethno-cultural heritage. Certainly Biblical allusions have played a part in shaping my perspective, particularly the Prophet Jeremiah: “So I went to the potter’s house, and sure enough, the potter was there, working away at his wheel. Whenever the pot the potter was working on turned out badly, as sometimes happens when you are working with clay, the potter would simply start over and use the same clay to make another pot.”➀ There’s something compelling about being able to correct the things in life that turn out badly, by simply starting over again.

So, there I was, bright and early on my very first morning, in a room filled with potter’s wheels of various styles and sizes. Although described as “beginner level” programme, it was soon evident that the class was composed of a few new students such as myself, and a much larger contingent returning for a third or fourth time. Indeed, this class had evolved into more of a weekly pottery club, and even all the other newbies were personal acquaintances. Still, I wasn’t about to be intimidated by this revelation, after all I’d spent many decades as a minister, I was functionally familiar with being the odd-man-out in any given crowd.

Now, there are a few basic steps for throwing pottery on the wheel, which are completely logical even when first explained to you. Everything begins by slicing-off an appropriately sized piece of clay, and then working it in your hands to wedge it into a firm round ball. Already I was enjoying the process, and the feeling of the clay forming in my hands was relieving my accentuated self-consciousness in most therapeutic manner. This was feeling pretty comfortable, so let’s get on to the next step – getting the ball of clay centered on the wheel.

Most folks are probably thinking; “just how hard can that be?” After all finding the centre of a circle isn’t all that tricky, especially since the wheel has uniform bands like a bulls-eye inscribed right on it. But I was soon to learn that just because the clay appears to be in the centre of the wheel, doesn’t mean that it’s actually centred once the wheel is in motion. A fraction of an inch off centre, and you can feel the imbalance as soon as the wheel starts to turn. This of course, means that everything you attempt thereafter will also be off-side. Just getting the clay centred each time is no simple trick. No matter how often the instructor demonstrated the technique, the times that I actually managed to do it were more a lucky fluke than any skill on my part.

I’ve been reflecting on this experience a great deal, for it’s really such an obvious metaphor for life. How many thousands of hours have I spent over the course of my life just trying to get myself centred? On those all too rare occasions when it happened, it generally resulted from nothing more than pure luck and had little to do with any application of technique. Like the potter’s wheel, visual centre is not necessarily true centre. So, even when I thought I was centred, a few spins on life’s wheel conclusively demonstrates that yet again I’d missed the mark.

Through the discipline of repetition the technique is finally begun to move from my head into my hands. This is physical learning, quite distinct from the intellectual process that has comprised most of my education. I may never become a true potter, but already the wheel has taught me something valuable. Centring my life involves the same sort of learning. It’s all about coming to trust my own sense of intuition over a pure reliance upon acquired knowledge. Perhaps I’ll wind-up being the only functional piece of pottery I ever successfully turn.


➀ Jeremiah 18:3-4 The Message Version (MSG) – Copyright © 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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