Making Beauty Out of Next To Nothing–a post at Convergent Books

Not long ago, I spent several weeks learning to make pottery in a simple studio on the shore of Lake Malawi. Initially I’d been most interested in “throwing” pots on the electric wheel, which is mesmerizing and almost magical in its speed. The spinning surface facilitates the transformation of lumps of clay into vessels of varying shapes with only the slightest coaxing of the hands.

But I soon found the pace of the wheel overwhelming. I drifted away from the machinery and toward two old village women, Gloria and Fatima, whom the studio employs as “traditional” potters.

They spoke almost no English, and I almost no Chichewa, so they taught me as one might teach the very young or very old, with hands guiding mine, with nods and smiles of approval and the gentlest of corrections. A finger would nudge mine into the correct position for forming a curve; a hand placed over my hand would help shape the rim as it should be shaped.

As we made pots, they taught me to speak the names and uses of each pot: this one, an mpica for cooking ndiwo; that one, an msugo for carrying madzi from the well.

Their work, with its deliberate movement and delicate repetition, with its earthiness and its practicality, was remarkable. It was no less mesmerizing or near-magical than the wheel, and, indeed, much like the wheel, but so much slower. It was calming just to watch the women make pots, and it filled me with something like hope. Here were artisans who knew how to take mud from termite mounds and, using nothing but their hands, a scrap or two of bamboo, and perhaps a shell or a bit of broken pottery, would coax it into something useful. And not just useful. Whether they were forming a vessel for common or ceremonial use, they made it beautiful.

Not to mention—once tried by fire—durable.

Gloria’s smile, broad and beautiful, was, like hard laughter, close to its opposite: nearly a grimace. It spoke of joy as well as pain—of making beauty out of next to nothing, since that is what life had given her. Of earthen vessels bearing the weight of glory within them. I thought of the trials that forged but did not crack them, that, I imagine, gave them something of their patience and burnished grace, and etched maps of sorrow and joy around the eyes and mouths of their beautiful faces.

{Continue reading at Convergent. Convergent Books is a new religion imprint from the Crown Publishing group dedicated to an open, inclusive & culturally engaged exploration of issues related to faith.}

The Ordinary, Extraordinary, Ancient Craft of Pottery


I’ve always wanted to learn pottery. As a child I had no fewer than two very crappy toy potter’s wheels that did nothing but frustrate me. I don’t think my high school had a pottery class. My college certainly did not. And after that, well, I never seemed to have the time, money, or opportunity–all at the same time!–to learn pottery.

So when we found out about a lovely lodge on Lake Malawi where you can stay, swim, eat, and learn to make pottery, I knew we had to try it. It’s in Nkhotakota, where David Livingstone facilitated the agreements ending the slave trade in Malawi. And it is simply gorgeous. At certain moments, and from certain angles, you may as well have been transported 5,000 years into the past:

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 3.52.40 PMThat is the view from the porch of the little cottage where we stayed. I only saw this one herd of cattle, though. There was a friendly half-blind dog who kept coming around to make sure we were okay, though. All the dogs and cats at the lodge were the fattest of their kind that I’ve yet seen in Malawi. It’s because they get lots of kitchen scraps.

I thought I would be most interested in learning to use the wheel, which is a mesmerizing and lovely tool. (Cue embarrassing scene from Ghost. Wait, not really.)

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 11.20.12 AMScreen Shot 2013-09-15 at 11.19.56 AMWhen our instructors couldn’t explain how to do it, they just put their hands on ours and showed us the way.

Even the children had a chance to make some things, especially the older one:

Trimming a bowl made on the wheel.

Trimming a bowl made on the wheel.

Decorating a traditional pot that he made.

Decorating a traditional pot that he made.

So as I was saying, I thought I’d be most enamored of the wheel, but was surprised at how much I loved making traditional pots by hand. I loved it. I can’t wait to do it again. They’re made out of the clay of termite mounds, so, essentially, they’re made out of termite poo. And all the shaping is done by hand, with the help of things like a piece of bamboo, a shell, and a rock. Yet another thing that might as well be 5,000 years old. (As in fact it is–but older.)

Finishing my msugo, traditionally used for carrying water. On one's head.

Finishing my msugo pot, traditionally used for carrying water. On one’s head. That’s Gloria on the left. She has the best laugh and smile combo in the world, probably.

There is so much that I love about pottery: how the elements involved are undeniably simple: earth, water, fire, but how pots are decidedly of culture, not nature and must be shaped by human ingenuity. I love how ancient the craft is and how even the simplest pot always has some touch that is gratuitously, needlessly lovely. I love the transformation involved in the making and firing.

And I love that when we got tired of making pots, we could go jump in the lake. Literally.

Graeme doesn’t love taking showers–all they had at the lake–but he fits nicely in a bucket:

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 11.18.51 AM

And the puppy wanted to be sure we got the memo about not leaving her behind next time:

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 4.17.12 PM