“Sophistcated mud pies,” and what they’ve taught me

As a child, I loved getting my hands dirty – literally. When I wasn’t reading (up a tree, under a tree, on the stairs, in my closet…) I was most likely getting dirty. During free afternoons and all summer long, I would stomp around our back yard with the family dog at my heels to turn over rocks and logs and see what was underneath. I had a particular fondness for poking pill-bugs so they would roll up and gathering slimy worms in my hands to gross out my older siblings. After learning about geodes in a Childcraft book, I spent a whole weekend one spring trying to break open rocks that I pried out of the thick clay that lay under our lawn. Not too long after, I tried to make hand-built pottery from that same clay.

Then I watched Art Attack one rainy day, and I discovered a whole new way to get dirty.

Over the next decade or so, and much to the chagrin of my mother, the drab beige carpet in my bedroom became a ten-by-ten low-pile testimonial to my exploration of art. Splotches of paint from dropped brushes and overturned jars of paint, a rainbow of pencil crayon shavings and broken tips, snippets of bright cloth and embroidery thread – no matter how much I cleaned (when I could be convinced, in one way or another, to do so) that carpet was never pristine.

While I profess writing as my main passion – my life’s craft – I’m fond of saying that, “Once, I was an artist.” And that’s true. I drew, painted, sculpted, papier-maché-ed, coloured, doodled, and crafted my way through childhood and adolescence. When I hit university I had to whittle down all those hobbies due to time constraints, and I chose card making and knitting. Being too broke to afford presents and living within walking distance of a Dollarama created an ideal situation to perfect the art of handmade cards, while working with long needles and giant balls of yarn gave long winter nights a warmer, cosier feel. And, of course, I developed my writing skills to the point where I felt comfortable enough to start this blog.

But my hands yearned for more – more than just paper and glue, needles and yarn…more than just typing term papers, opinion pieces, and these blog posts. My inner child was beginning to need more entertainment than I was providing – something dirty and messy, something reminiscent of those afternoons in the backyard.

Being an archaeology student had given me quite the academic insight into ceramics, and once I’d spent a couple of years in the full-on grown-up world of working for The Man instead of sticking it to him, I could no longer ignore what had become a truly visceral need to create things with my own two hands. A Google search led me first to the Montreal Art Centre and then to the Griffintown Art School here in Montreal, and I was soon enrolled in a ceramics class.

A friend of mine recently asked me why I choose to spend so much money on making “sophisticated mud pies.”  The answer is simple:  it brings me joy because it’s two hours a week when I am working on myself while simultaneously creating for others.  It’s two hours a week when learning how to create with my own two hands allows me to learn more about myself and about life.

I’m halfway through my second eight-week course with Nicolas Ouellet, local ceramicist and fantastic instructor, and I have loved every second I’ve spent at the orange wheel in the studio. I have created more than a dozen pieces of ceramic ware under his careful, patient tutelage, learning the process of hand-thrown pottery from start to finish.   From wedging the clay to marvelling at the uniqueness of each glazing job, I have created a handful of pieces that are functional in my daily life and remind me of the life lessons I’ve learned that transcends my “sophisticated mud pies.”

Somebody else will always know something you don’t, so keep quiet and let them teach you. – I think this is pretty self-explanatory in both contexts of pottery class and the rest of life, but it’s still important to remember this every once in a while.

Creating something truly beautiful and unique takes patience and time. – From wedging a lump of clay to the first time you admire a finished piece, the creation of one piece is probably about a week and a half to two weeks. But this is true of anything you create, whether it’s a piece of flatware or the person you were meant to be.

 Never underestimate the effort of any creation process. – I kid you not when I say that after two hours at the wheel, my back and hips are stiff and that my fingers, palms, wrists, arms, and shoulders literally ache with the effort of turning a shapeless handful of clay into something recognizable. But again, whether you’re making a hand-thrown mug or becoming a better person, the amount of effort that goes into that whole process is largely unnoticed by anyone on the outside looking in.  Nobody sees how hard you’ve worked to be kinder, more patient, more loving, or more aware of the world around you if these things don’t come naturally to you, but the see the end product of those struggles to learn and grow.  Nobody outside of the gym will know how hard you’ve worked (even the other regulars at the gym probably don’t see that either) but everyone sees that you’re slimming down and putting on some muscle.  Life itself is a creation process — it is what you make out of what’s been given to you, and turning it all into something beautiful will always take more out of you than you realize.

Close your eyes and feel what’s going on.   — This is how I learned to understand my clay – how to know when it’s stable and centred, when it’s too dry or too wet, when it’s not the right thickness, and when it’s getting loose and tired. This is also how I learned to feel when a dry piece is centred and ready to trim, and during the trimming process how to know when I’ve trimmed off enough excess clay. And yes, this is applicable to the “real world” – when was the last time you just closed your eyes for a second and focused on the feeling of your surroundings or even how you’re really feeling inside?  When was the last time you looked in at yourself and saw what was really there, and then did something about it?  We’re always so concerned with our outward appearances and how we look to the people around us, but why are we so afraid to look inside ourselves and see what’s buried deep inside our hearts and possibly waiting to be let out into the world?

It won’t always work out the way you want it to, and even when it does it will still surprise and maybe even delight you. – I’ve had to turn a butter bell lid into an eggcup (or shot glass) because my clay was too thin. I’ve had to reshape a piece or two because I’ve deformed them while attempting to remove them from the wheel. I’ve experimented with beeswax, slip, and glaze. And every completed piece is a total surprise, regardless of what happened on the journey it took from shapeless clay to ceramic vessel – even the final colour is a surprise, because blue glaze starts out red and red glaze starts out blue. It’s the same with life: it rarely plays out the way we expect or want it to, but we forget that it plays out the way it’s meant to in order for us to become the best possible versions of ourselves. Just like clay, we start out with very little beauty or shape – but as time goes by we are formed, first physically in our mothers’ wombs and after we are born, which is when our emotional, intellectual, and internal formation also begins. Our families, friends, and other influential presences coax us into shape in our lives. Hard times bring us down, and positive times pull us back up. We are thrust into fire and coloured by our experiences…

…and at the end of it all, in the same way that grey shapeless clay becomes a beautifully glazed mug or bowl, we are revealed to be unique, beautiful, and useful in our own ways.

“…when all persons alike share in government to the utmost.”

— or so said Aristotle.

The True North, Strong and Free, goes to the polling stations tomorrow to vote in a federal election that, from the onset of its campaign, has been poised to make history one way or another.

Don’t worry – I’m not going to get up on the political soapbox (I tend not to unless absolutely necessary). But I am going to get up on the social soapbox that concerns politics – specifically, the one about a citizen’s duty and right to vote in a federal election…about the democratic privilege of being able to choose the regime that runs the nation.

This right is something too many Canadians take for granted.

I voted in my first federal election just a couple of months after my eighteenth birthday, which in and of itself is a big deal: I was not born on Canadian soil, but because I was able to obtain citizenship, I am now able to vote here.

Where did I come from? The Philippines – an island nation that has been plagued by corruption, dictatorship, and tyranny ever since its conquerors departed from its shores. Though I do not remember it, I have heard the stories of martial law – including the one about my parents, who worked a polling station in Manila during an election and were held up at gunpoint by guerrillas who were stealing ballot boxes and therefore silencing the voices of the people. I also have heard how my oldest sister left the Philippines before her eighteenth birthday and before a huge election that was poised to become one of the most important in our motherland’s history, and how she had to wait another ten years before she could vote again – this time, as a Canadian, and in another election forecasted to be some kind of watershed in Canada’s history.  This is my family’s history and personal relationship with democracy, and this is why we vote.

I have also heard stories from friends who came to Canada like I did from other nations where the right to vote and choose the governing body is nothing more than mere fantasy – a dream, a wish, a cause to fight for and, in some cases, to die for.

I read newspapers from all over the world and daily shake my head over articles about political regimes that strip away basic human rights in the name of personal gain for those in charge of these nations, and I feel sorrow for the loss of human dignity – and sometimes even human life – that occurs when those brave few who attempt to defy these regimes in the name of democracy.

Democracy — something about Canada that we, its citizens, are so very blessed to have yet in the past have proven to take for granted; a point of pride that we have in our nation’s charter and history yet barely know anything about when it comes to how it really works or what role we, the people, play in the production known as The Federal Election.

I’ve heard so many people say that if they don’t go to the polling station, it won’t really matter – it’s only one less vote, and that won’t change anything.  But a federal election is no time to have an inferiority complex.

One vote can make a difference – especially one vote from each person who thinks that his or her ballot won’t count for anything. And that’s one of the things that makes democracy so desperately sought in the modern world: the mere fact that your opinion contributes to the political future of your nation is a complete given if you are a citizen and of age on election day.

I won’t tell you who to vote for, because that’s personal and that’s up to you. But I will tell you that if you don’t vote tomorrow, the fact that you didn’t exercise your civil duty and take full charge of your right to cast a ballot means you ought to forfeit your right to complain about the government we have in Canada on Tuesday morning. No, really. Because if you couldn’t give a damn enough to make a mark on a ballot on election day, you’re in no place to bitch about who got voted in to run the show on Parliament Hill the morning after.

This, our hymn of grateful praise.

This weekend is Canadian Thanksgiving, which entails most of what’s involved in American Thanksgiving, minus the crazed, murderous shopping spree that follows once the nation awakens from its food coma. There’s a long weekend during which we all flock to one nest or another to eat our way through mountains of food, raft down rapids of drink, and enjoy the bounty of our first-world lives.

Because my favourite first brother’s birthday is always around Canadian Thanksgiving, we never really celebrated the holiday proper until our family found itself scattered across the continent. (Alas, my favourite second sister and her family had to reprogram themselves to call this weekend “Columbus Day” and wait until late November to gorge upon the cornucopia.) We’ve never really been a family for turkey on this particular holiday, preferring to leave that magnificent fowl for Christmas and indulge upon other game instead in October. This year we’re roasting up two brace of Cornish game hens (we always take care to e-nun-ci-ate the name of this particular bird).

As for dessert during this autumn feast – well, we’ve never been a family for pumpkin pie, either; I myself am in adamant opposition to the craze of pumpkin spice. Just because it’s fall doesn’t mean the entire culinary world has to undergo a mass apocolocyntosis. But I digress – we are perfectly content with the other common fruit of fall, the humble apple.  Good thing we enjoy them immensely, too, for here in Quebec we’re blessed with a countryside bursting with a variety of the pomme, and we’re equally blessed to have the chance to pick them ourselves. Orchards in all directions off the Island open their weathered gates to eager harvesters every year – and this year, we walked among them.

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A beautiful view at Vergers et Cidrerie Denis Charbonneau (Mont-St-Gregoire, Quebec)

Having recently proven my own ability to host a “company meal” entirely on my own without setting anything on fire or making anyone sick, I was tasked with this year’s Thanksgiving dessert. This was probably also due to the fact that going apple picking was my idea, but in any case I spent my evening carefully prepping for a deep-dish apple pie for tomorrow’s lunch.  Yes, taste-testing was involved at several stages along the way.

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From peeling and coring these babies by hand to making the pastry from scratch, you can bet your bottom dollar that the apple pie will be freakin’ worth it!

Whilst preparing pie crust from scratch this evening, I was also watching a BBC documentary series wherein two British media personalities explore culinary history by eating historically-accurate dishes while living and dressing to period standards. It’s absolutely hilarious and brilliant, and it’s made me rather thankful to be living in this day and age.  But my gratitude goes beyond the fact that I’ve been spared from Baroque France’s aspic-and-vegetable recreations of architectural landmarks or Tudor England’s sheep and calves served a pedibus usque ad caput (warning: do not Google translate if you are weak of stomach, as this was literally how they consumed these animals).

I am much more grateful for more than just the fact that I live in a time when my diet can be balanced, varied, and wholesome.  More specifically —

“For the joy of human love:  
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above;
For all gentle thoughts and mild —
Lord of all, to You we raise
This, our hymn of grateful praise.”

          — Pierpoint, “For the Beauty of the Earth”

— for indeed, of all the things for which I am grateful, my family and my friends top my list, followed closely by my health, gainful employment, four walls and a roof over my head, clothes and shoes in my closet, and (because Canada is a week away from a federal election) the fact that I am a citizen of a country that allows all its age-of-majority citizens to vote.

I am thankful for the gifts of faith, hope, and love, as well as the opportunities I am given every day to develop them in my own life. I am thankful for the talents I have been given as well as having many ways by which I might share them with others. In turn, I am equally thankful for the talents of others, and the ways they choose to share those talents with me.

I am thankful for everyone I have met who has taught me something and I am thankful for everyone who has stood by me through thick and thin, supporting me through the worst to celebrate with me during the best.

As the nights grow longer, as the temperature gets colder, and as the pumpkin spice craze continues to sweep the nation, I raise a freshly picked apple (Cortland? Liberty? Sparta? I can’t remember what’s what in my giant bag anymore) to you all and toast everyone around the table:  may your hands, working and toiling in the lives of your loved ones, be blessed by the Hands that put us all here in the first place.

Watering my mustard seeds

The other day, a very old and very dear friend of mine shared a humour post on Facebook – “30 Ways to Win a Catholic Girl’s Heart.”  It actually was pretty funny and I’m sure I’m not the only reader who can relate to several of the points on this list — though I really do think that you do have to have some working/practicing knowledge of the system to really understand why I had a giggle fit over “Become a Swiss Guard.”

Humour aside, though, the whole thing did get me thinking about this whole “being a single practicing Catholic” thing I’ve got going on.

I turned twenty-five a couple of months ago, passing that particular milestone with the experience of a few long-term relationships and various short-lived ventures into dating. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert because I so totally am not one, but I’ve loved enough and lost enough by now to have a pretty good idea of what it takes to win over this particular Catholic heart.

Some people I know think that the most fulfilling relationship I could possibly have would be one with a practicing Catholic guy. However after my last turn around the LTR block with one, I can tell you that being of the same religious background and having a reasonably comparable level of faith formation is no guarantee to everlasting marital-worthy happiness. Sure, it makes things easier sometimes, and I definitely have peers whose young marriages are working out rather nicely due to shared faith, but castles in the air of any kind are simply that until they’re grounded in your reality.

My reality contains within it a highly secularized demographic of peers who, while perhaps not being so ardent in their natal religions as I am, are still wonderful, decent, and amazing people. And I’m not about to whittle away all my options down to a small handful of churchgoing, God-fearing guys (who I know by appearance alone because the only time I see them is during Sunday Mass) simply because I’m Catholic.

I can stand on my own two feet in my faith.  My mustard tree, though small yet and still sometimes desperately thirsty for grace, is sturdy enough that there’s no danger of me uprooting it from that nourishing soil to please somebody else.  If I am meant to share my life with another person, then I know that I will be able to freely and happily share everything about myself with them – including my faith and all the experiences that I have had because of it. But I will never beat somebody over the head with my old Baltimore Catechism, make full conversion or RCIA a dealbreaker, or drag somebody by the scruff to Mass. That’s no way to win a non-Catholic heart, and that’s also kind of hypocritical (you know, that whole “Free Will” deal and all).

I’ve come to realize that what makes things easier for me is mutual respect, honesty, and openness. If a guy can respect that I have my faith and my beliefs, and doesn’t ridicule me, put me down, or insult me because I am a practicing Catholic, then I can return to him a sizeable measure of respect. If a guy can be honest with me about why he’s lapsed, doesn’t believe in God, or doesn’t understand the whole religion thing, then I am happy to share the little I know to help bring further clarity. And if a guy can be open with me about what’s in his own heart and what his intentions are, then I can find it in my heart to return the gesture.

I’d much rather be alone and happy than be trapped in a relationship of religious convenience.  I would rather be loved, cherished, and respected for everything that I am, not just wanted because of the religion into which I was baptized and which I practice willingly as an adult.  And that’s what would warm and win this particular Catholic heart, because the end of the day, being able to share my faith with my partner on any level would be a precious blessing and I would treasure it…and I honestly believe there are many ways to share faith – many ways to grow together in faith, hope, and love, even as a “mixed” couple. If that’s what’s in store for me, then I gladly welcome it and will eagerly walk that path alongside whatever upright, just, and decent man God sends along that same way.