The Seventh Ball

I recently heard about a potter in Connecticut who was known for making beautiful bowls of a certain size and form. Demand was high, so she spent most of her day at the wheel creating what everyone expected her to make.

She had a tradition, however, with every seventh ball of clay: she’d experiment with color, size, shape, edges, depth to create something completely new. After the seventh ball, she’d return to her assembly line. Not surprisingly, some of her most amazing inventions originated with the seventh ball.

This got me thinking about how many doses of free-form experimentation I allow into my life. I thrive in structure, but are there rules-free zones within its boundaries?

It’s tough to find this balance. I’ve known people who are audacious with every ball; they are fun to be around but can also be unsettling to me — I’m not sure who they really are as they trot out a new version of themselves or embrace their latest passion. On the other hand, I can be overly rigid; I like to find what works for me and keep my dial there.

This is undoubtedly one of the reasons mild-altering substances have appealed to me over the years; they offer, at least initially, a glimmering exit door from the expected. When a friend of mine in college got caught with marijuana, her Dad asked, “Tell me, why’d you do it?” She replied simply, “Because it makes me feel different.” Ah, the wish to break free from our own norms.

That said, any departure from routine can become a routine itself if employed often enough. Folks don’t call marijuana “the chronic” for nothing. I’ve known many stoners who punch the clock as dutifully as the straightest of arrows.

I’m in search of letters outside rote’s alphabet, even though I am also averse to the risk that implies. But how else can I evolve? I’ve known folks who get so set in their ways that they probably couldn’t throw a fresh bowl with the seventh ball even if it promised gold. On the other hand, there are people who remain flexible and keenly interested in what they don’t know; as Rilke put it, they “resolve to be always beginning.”

A few months back, I was visiting a friend, and she recommended that we go dancing on a Sunday morning at a nearby art center that hosted ecstatic dance sessions. The idea of dancing in front of complete strangers without the aid of dim lights and alcohol was frightening to me. I reluctantly agreed, but in the parking lot outside the center I felt panic rise in me like I hadn’t in years: I wanted to sprint to the nearest coffee shop and crawl back into safety. But instead I walked in. I found a quiet empty spot in the corner and closed my eyes. Beautiful Indian music filled the room, and I began to slowly move, to unhinge my hips, to unfurl my arms and release the fears I’d been carrying like a chronic cramp. Before long, I’d forgotten the panel of judges I’d turned my dancing neighbors into and was feeling sensual, opened up, renewed. I looked around and saw that the strangers were vulnerable and tentative too. There was an exquisite beauty to that.

Dancing in front of people is not in my traditional body of work: but there I sat at life’s pottery wheel, expanding my own notion of what was possible.

Sailing the High Seas

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

One of the gifts of being around children is the reminder to find adventure in the mundane moments of a day. Rio has always been a little man of action, and there is a lot of time to fill when we are together: thousands of walks to the bridge and hundreds of trips to the store result. I realized early on that I could either grit my teeth through these duties or believe that each turn of a corner could bring surprise even if the same path were taken yesterday.

Part of this is infusing regular objects with magical properties. Rio and I often travel to the Pirate Ship under the bridge that is actually just an outcrop of boulders. Other times we’ll have breakfast at Fox’s Place, which is in truth just a restaurant called the General Store that once was selling fox puppets among other knick-knacks. Because he’s still young, Rio doesn’t see much difference between imagination and reality, so it doesn’t strike him as odd that a stuffed animal might be running a restaurant. With him, magical realism is easy.

In my youth and into my twenties, bold travels were the norm. I remember one trip when I was living and teaching high school in South Africa. I had hitchhiked from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, across the border into Namibia, where I planned to meet a friend in the capital Windhoek. To get there, I had to travel the Caprivi Strip, a long, dusty road that separated Namibia and Angola and had been a battleground during the war between those two states. I remember waiting at a gas station with only my backpack, a bottle of water, and two pieces of sugarcane I’d cut from the roadside that morning. Who knew what might happen?

The first guy who picked me up was an Afrikaner who at one point pulled over to vomit: “too much Klipdrift” [rum] he managed to say as he lunged out the door. Next I caught a ride with a truck driver who was returning from a delivery with an open-air trailer that he had filled with travelers along the way, most of whom were African. I sat atop my backpack for 100 miles, bouncing with the road’s potholes and making friends with two black city slickers from Johannesburg. When we finally got into a town, we tried to get a hotel room together, but the sole proprietor was a portly white man who took one look at my friends and sneered, “Sorry, sir, no rooms here for you.” Somehow the South Africans knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who was building a home in that tiny Namibian village, and through a series of phone calls, we managed to procure a spot on the empty house’s floor for a night’s rest. One of the South Africans snored all night long.

All this to say that I often used to travel without a map: walk out the door and trust the wind. As I got older, I became less spontaneous. Part of this was intentional; at times unstructured adventures turned into irresponsible binges, so I started building structure and routine to keep me grounded.

A mentor of mine noticed this and suggested that the patterns I claimed as anchors were now leading me to stagnancy. He was right; somewhere along the way I’d lost my sense of adventure and had then desperately tried to rediscover it with mad impulsive jaunts; in response, I had swung too far the other way and now had become a drum stretched too tight.

“You’re in a rut because you’re not taking to the Seven Seas every day in your pirate ship,” my mentor told me. “You need to get out there, do something unexpected every day! Talk to a stranger! Walk a street you’ve never walked!”

And so Rio arrived just in time to bring me my very own pirate ship. Interestingly, now that he is almost six, he has become choosier with his adventures. The other day, I recommended a walk to the bridge, usually a sure winner — he looked outside, saw the freezing rain, and said, “Nah, I just want to stay inside.”

So I’ve started importing adventure. An eight-year-old with a funny voice named Billy Bob has been showing up at our house, in the form of my body. His dad’s name is Rock and his mom’s name is Willow. He lives on another planet and has to slide down a rainbow to get to Bynum. He only gets grumpy if Rio tries to kiss him.

And there I sit, off the map of Tim, getting smothered with smooches.