Throwing and Growing

Originally posted to the Ryerson Student Affairs blog, ryersonstudentaffairs.com 

Early in April, I had my first class in a ten week pottery course, the first fine arts class I’ve taken since grade 8. That same week, I participated in the first of five sessions as part of a train-the-trainer workshop for Thrive RU, essentially my first foray into group therapy. Each Tuesday in April, I rolled out of bed, biked down to campus, and began my morning in a session with a collection of other folks across RyersonSA, and we worked through the five-factor model of resilience, guided by Dr. Diana Brecher. Later, I rode up to Clay Design to learn how to wedge, center, throw, tool, and glaze to make creations all of my own.

Walking into my first class, the butterflies flutter in my stomach. It’s been a while since I signed up for something new, all for myself. It’s exciting. There are four of us new to the studio, and it makes me feel a bit more comfortable being among other first-timers, taking away some of that first-time anxiety because at least we are going through the unknown together. There’s no pressure to learn too fast or to be the best in the room. It’s about individual learning, creating. The teacher exclaims “I hope you brought your sense of humour!” as I make my way to the back studio, walking carefully through the storefront of clay masterpieces (terrified of knocking into one and breaking everything in sight).

That morning had been the first Thrive RU session, something I admittedly hadn’t really prepared for or fully understood what I was committing to being a part of—but I’m very glad I did. In this group, too, we were mostly all beginners—at least in the sense that we hadn’t gone through the Thrive workshop before, and not together. The initial unease I felt was soon washed away as I realized I was in for a treat: getting to spend time at work exploring the way I think, building my personal model of resilience, and thinking about our work with students in a different way, all alongside others doing the same. In this first session, we were introduced to the five-factor model of resilience that Dr. Diana Brecher proposes: how gratitude, optimism, compassion, grit, and mindfulness each feed into and work off of each other to form a person’s unique style and path of resiliency. Some of these factors are more active or present than others at different points in our lives; some are situational. After a guided meditation, we dove into the first of the factors to explore: gratitude. We defined this for ourselves as that feeling when you savour a moment or experience, a feeling that is enhanced through sharing. We talked about creating habits around gratitude—for example, reflecting each day on things you’re grateful for; writing a letter to someone expressing your gratitude; reflecting on why you’re grateful and how it makes you feel.

I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but I was surprised when we started right into throwing on the wheel after a quick intro to working with the clay. I’m in love immediately at how tactile the entire experience is, revelling in this opportunity to get my hands dirty. It’s a forgiving process, allowing you to rework the clay as it spins—to a point. Shaping my clay from semi-sphere to cylinder, pulling and shaping and drawing a creation of my own out of just a lump of clay; it’s exhilarating. While certainly none of my cylinders are even close to the teacher’s demonstration, I’m proud of them anyway. One of them is a little twisted, wonky, but it’s secretly my favourite; the teacher said “You only get one creative one!”, insisting we learn the techniques before we experiment, but I went for it anyway. As we finish class, we clean our workstations and wheels, covering our work in plastic to sit for a week, waiting for us. I give myself a metaphorical gold star for having tried something new.

A well shaped clay pot, made by hand.

A week later, I wake and spend my morning listening to the radio and reading reports on the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat, the First Nation that declared a state of emergency after a series of suicide attempts shook the community. I’m also working through my emotions regarding some mental health crises in my own family. I feel sick, sad, and tired. I walk into the second Thrive session very much intending to tune it all out and stew in the feelings of hopelessness and sadness I’m experiencing. Our session? Optimism. Needless to say, I feel just about anything but optimistic that morning. I have lots of questions swirling around my head while the group discusses optimism/pessimism as explanatory styles that can be taught, how we tend toward one or the other. Does pessimism always stall us, or can it drive action, too? How is this binary related to realism vs. utopianism? I have a tough time grappling with the idea that being optimistic or pessimistic is a choice; I don’t like the idea of putting the onus on individuals and that you should just “Pick yourself up!” or “Choose to be happy!”—it’s not that simple. (Keep in mind my sour mood is colouring my experience of this session; although I’m sure I’d have been as critical, I wonder what my concerns might have been had my perspective been different that morning.)

I’m still feeling sick, sad, and tired as I walk into class.  Everything is much harder. I’m not a natural anymore. I can’t get it quite as quickly. It’s tiresome; I’m no good. These feelings of frustration carry over to my classmates, as I feel distanced from them; they seem uninterested in me, and I don’t feel a sense of community as I had the week before. I’m also quicker to find faults in my teacher, whose methods I can’t jive with and feel boxed in by. By the end of the class, while throwing a piece I just can’t get working for me, after endless failures that night, I look up at my teacher and ask “Can I be done with this?”, sighing, effectively giving up. I go home and declare “That class sucked!” and go to bed in a huff.

The next day, I understood that I had a bad class because of the bad day, the bad mood, the bad world; I decided to look forward to next Tuesday’s class, hopeful that I could make it different. By the time week three rolls around, I’m comfortable in the Thrive RU group, having gotten used to the flow of the session and my role in it. We focus our discussion on “compassion”, which I feel I can relate to more than “optimism” like the week before. Even better? The sun is shining. Need I say more? Dr. Diana Brecher guided us through another meditation where we found the four “characters” of our selves on stage, representing aspects of our “best, wisest self” and our “worst, faulted self”, and we reflect silently on what lessons we can tease from what they bring to us as a whole. On the stage in my mind materialized my wiser self, intelligent and empathetic. My faults: anxiety, rashness. I thought about how sometimes being rash is a curse, other times it leads to spontaneity; I thought about how anxiety and being rash on the surface may seem like opposing forces (ruminating over choices vs. making quick judgements) but in action, on my stage, they work in tandem, creating chaos, sometimes. (In retrospect, I spent more time focusing on the faults and how they manifest than my “wiser” self’s characteristics; I do tend toward pessimism most of the time, after all.)

Tonight, we’re learning a new, mellower part of the process, tooling our semi-dry pieces before they’re fired. It’s a welcome respite from throwing on the wheel, so I don’t spiral down into frustration once again. It’s a quiet class, everyone working by themselves, and the space that had once felt new and unknown feels familiar and comfortable.

Tesni in the mirror, an unmade pot covered in clay shavings before her, spinning on the wheel.

By the fourth Tuesday, both Thrive RU and my pottery class are nearly always on my mind. I’m seeing intricate shapes and glaze designs everywhere, inspecting their craftsmanship, hoping to emulate the things I like in my own clay experiments; I’m thinking about resilience and find myself bringing up the Thrive concepts in discussions both in and outside of work.

I am more comfortable making whatever I want, rather than just what we’d been taught or what was expected; I’m okay with messing up. I just grab a new lump of clay and start over, instead of stewing over it and feeling frustrated. The fourth concept in Thrive? Grit. I can’t help but see the parallels at this point. I manage to make some pieces I’m happy with, looking forward to next week’s glaze-a-thon, and the clay I scrap gets lumped together for reuse by someone else at another time. The teacher introduces us to “Alberta-slip”—a soft, runny clay that we use to paint some pieces in an earthy, textured layer of clay. I’m still making it up as I go; I’m intrigued by this feeling.

We discussed “grit”, that thing that helps us grin and bear it when it gets tough, that helps push us through situations to make it out on the other side. We talked about the costs of quitting and the costs of persevering, for students and situations we’ve encountered ourselves. We thought critically about how grit can easily be conflated with the neoliberal idea of the “American dream” and how being told “You’re just not working hard enough” is anything but helpful. We asked ourselves what implications social determinants like class, race, gender, ability, or sexuality have on our capacity or training for having this type of grit. We came to understand grit as a marathon, rather than a sprint; it’s passion and perseverance for long term goals.

We also individually developed our “personal model of resilience”, a toolbox of our strengths and strategies to apply across situations that demand resilience. I identified lack of motivation, (perceived) lack of time, and fear as the obstacles that stall me from persevering through a situation. I highlighted frustration and anxiety as the feelings that surface when I face those obstacles—thinking of that second clay class as a clear example.

 

The fifth and final time our Thrive RU group met was a morning discussion session talking through each of the concepts we’d covered, exploring how we plan to infuse Thrive into our work in our various areas. It was clear we all see the value in the Thrive concepts and are eager to bring it back to our departments. Though we’re still in the beginning phases of discussing what Thrive RU could look like on a campus-wide level, the discussion is rich with energy and inspiration for what we could make happen. From using Thrive in training, programming, storytelling, events, or supervising, we threw all sorts of ideas out there. We’re hopeful.

We’re putting the finishing touches on the work we’ve been creating up until now: glazing. Here, too, the atmosphere is inspiring, experimental, and creative. None of us newbies are quite sure how the glazes and combinations we choose will turn out, so it’s a lot of guesswork; like the final Thrive discussion session, we are taking chances on our work. In art as in life, sometimes you can’t be too attached to what you’re making because otherwise you’ll never make a decision of what to do with it, you’ll remain stalled. Although I don’t take too many risks in my glazing, I do explore different varieties and methods and quite enjoy the lack of clarity in the process, as it lends itself to a bit more freedom to take those chances, to just try it out and see what works and what doesn’t.

A whole bunch of clay creations lined up in their final form.

Pottery, once a week in a studio which houses all the equipment and materials I need, isn’t something I can practice on my own time (beyond scrolling through Instagram feeds of clay masters for inspiration). But Thrive, which I’ve come to understand as an ideology, is something I certainly find myself practicing, mulling over, thinking about across contexts both in and outside of work. Compassion, optimism, grit, gratitude, and mindfulness are each concepts, ways of thinking, and even actions I can engage with daily, whether it’s during my walk to class in the sunshine, taking in the greenery finally lush around us; or powering through a difficult meeting where I feel insecure, unsure of myself, or unwanted; or coming into the studio and revelling in the big reveal of my first round of work, complete, and learning from what I’ve made and planning what I want to do next.

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