a postscript

“Thank you to the sun, I owe you one.” – lou shoes & sweaters

Dear Michael, Ron, Brandon & Kyle,

It was great meeting you face to face, getting to know you a little more, talking the talky talk, hanging out. I will now feel so much more comfortable harassing you online, which is probably the real, long-term gift. Thanks for the long awaited esprit de corps. It’s inspiring, and I will draw on that inspiration for quite some time.

Dear Janice, Jacob, Susan, Julia, Lucille, et al.,

Thanks for enduring me, for our daily conversations, and for all your help. I sincerely appreciate you pushing me a little, battling the elements together, teaching me new things, and reminding me that solitude isn’t always the optimal condition in the studio. I’ll miss our magical little window of time together.

Dear Cindy and Maggie,

Thanks for indulging me on this adventure; for helping make it real. I couldn’t have gone without you, and as with everything, it’s all so much better with you. Let’s do it again in seven years!

Dear Everyone; those who read this and cared, or who read a little and pretended to care, or didn’t even know it existed, but let me imagine that you there watching from the wings,

Thank you. It was amazing — amazing! — and you helped me make the most of it, the best of it, and to better understand what “it” was in the first place.

Hope to see you all back home.

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the last

“Sun has long gone out; sun comes up like it’s been about a year.” – Athlete

Dear Carter,

As much as I’d like to wrap this adventure up with another riff on The Hobbit* — and despite the fact that I’m fairly certain you’d be okay with me cramming two primary metaphors together, and intermingling them into some unholy conglomeration — I think I’d better finish with the one I started with.

{Let’s call this a footnote:

* The impulse to just go full-on Tolkien here is turbo-charged by the fact that Maggie is not only letting me read her an [age-appropriately abridged version of] The Hobbit, but that she is totally into it. I mean, she’s so into it that it instantly supplanted all the books about princesses and fairies and ballerinas, and it’s all she wants now for stories. (Okay, yes, I’ll admit that it’s actually just replacing one set of princesses and fairies with another — the little girl’s version with the adolescent boy’s — but still: at least we’re getting closer to the source material and further from the Disneyfied versions. Plus: less ballerinas.) She’s even asking if we can slip in another chapter before dinner, and now has all sorts of questions about wizards and giant eagles and “gobblers” and magic rings and such. A nerd dad’s dream come true.


So my sabbatical month at Penland was like a solar eclipse: long-predicted, eagerly anticipated, overflowing with whatever ritual or supernatural significance one cares to attach to it. Rare enough to be quite noteworthy, yet not so singular as to be overwhelmed by its own weight.

A dramatic change from the norm; something that reveals all that I take for granted, in the day-to-day slip of time and rumbling grind of life’s wheels, by casting it in an unusual light and temporarily obscuring its details. In that magic, freaky light, long-suspected truths were confirmed; long-held doubts undermined; facets of my identity and circumstances seen with an uncommon clarity and resolution. Seeing who I am on “sabbatical” tells me a lot more about who I could be when I’m not.

And now, as eclipses always do, this one ends, and things return much too quickly to their sameness; their comparative lack of brilliance “under a punishing sun”.

Even as the afterimage fades, I’m already struggling to remember just how different everything looked by that rare light. “Was it really so strange?” So amazing? So true? How could it possibly have been, I wonder.

Another one isn’t coming any time soon. Remember, Scott, they’re so grand because they’re so rare. Otherwise, it’s just a Tuesday. Right?

So I’ve got to learn to see my surroundings by the harsh, overbright light of the regular sun again. To face the life that I’ve built and earned thus far, compromised to and settled for, on its real terms; minus the fantasy of escape from all my normal constraints, and without the excitement of that temporarily occluded view.

It’s going to be hard. Better, but still hard. “Does it hurt to fall in love a little slower? I know it hurts at any speed.” But as you said, I’m not done learning from those experiences quite yet.


Closer to the metal, as much as I’d like this little blogging adventure to continue, I think it’s time to make an end of it. Things need to have natural lifespans, limits. Otherwise, it’s impossible for us to ever make any meaning from them; they become like the same old sun on another same old day: taken for granted and therefore unnoticed.

Which is not to say that this escape from my norm wasn’t fun. It was almost too much fun! Tossing off ideas as they came to me; writing whenever it was convenient, as much or as little as I liked, and not feeling (as much) guilt or remorse when I didn’t make time for it; composing on the iPad and throwing those words onto the web while they were still all hot and breathless; instant stats and built-in feedback (for better and for worse); playing with all the widgets and shortcuts of such a fully-featured, easy toolkit…

Every blog dies; not every blog truly lives.

(Braveheart, yeah? OMG, LOL; it’s a swords & sorcery geekfest up in here, now isn’t it? Pathetic.)

So despite the enormous appeal of all that WordPressery stuff, there’s still a lot to be said for my old way, flawed and archaic and self-reinforcing as it may be. And also for the barely-tested third way, of committing time and attention to longer pieces, like that “killing the dream” article, even if it means hitting the pause button on the day-to-week blogging cycle more often.

Trying to hold on to this experiment seems intricately tied into trying to hold on to my time at Penland; squinting and counting down and hoping that, just this once and in defiance of all Nature, it doesn’t have to come to an end. That the magical time — so great, so fun, so full — can somehow become the norm. Sadly, it can’t.

And yet:

“Today is a fine day, and everyday is a today at some point. The difference between this week and today is not so big, but not so small either.” – Carter Gillies

This, my friend, this is why I chose to address most of these Dears to you. Nobody else understands all this quite like you do, and despite your absence there — or perhaps even because of it — that understanding continues to show me new ways to see, more lenses to try on, and even the occasional screen hide behind. I can’t tell you what that means to me, or how much. If virtual friends can be this good, perhaps leaving home for Adventures is overrated. Tricksy hobbitsses.

So. We’ll see. Some of this way is sure to infect some of that way; they’ll blend and merge despite any attempt to control or corral them on my part, just as the time spent in that place, in that studio, at that wheel, with that clay, in those kilns, and with those people will undoubtedly inform and change all of those things here.

Even if just a little bit. I’ll feel compelled to come back to them on occasion, to hold my hand up on a cloudy morning and pretend the moon is somewhere else, and that will be both good and fun. And even if the wait is long and the forecasting tenuous, there will be more eclipses in future years. There always have been. The universe moves along, the arc of history bends, without much care for our plans or words. We both suffer through that and reap its enormous benefits.


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Day -1: … and back again

“‘So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their ending!’, said Bilbo, as he turned his back on his adventure.” – J.R.R. Tolkien

Dear St. Earth,

My Tookish part is getting very tired, and my Baggins is getting stronger. It’s good to be back in known lands and amidst my comforts; discomfiting to also be so quickly back in my burrow, with chores and a hundred minor responsibilities. Great to end the slogging home part of the journey, sad to know that my adventure has come to an end. I was both well overdue and not quite ready for it.

Carrying my boxes of tools and junk, loot and proof, back into my studio last night was like achieving a final victory condition. I could almost feel the XP raining down on me; cha-ching! It sparked the realization that I had indeed been gone a long while, long enough to have forgotten the last pots I made here before leaving, somehow still slightly damp under their plastic sheeting. Long enough to have lost track of the fact that the shelves here are already pretty well crowded; so that even though it is now somehow instantly March, out here in the real world, I’m not as desperately far behind schedule as I’d feared, and in fact may be a bit ahead of it, pending how the pots I made there seem when I drag them out into the harsher light of inspection here.

I’ve not yet had or made time to think too deeply about the experience as a whole, the entire journey there and back again. Small distractions add up, and perhaps I’m not yet ready for that caliber of assessment. It might even be foolish that I’m trying to describe it now, without having yet collapsed into the slothful heap that I probably need to be for a good two days. It won’t happen — life goes on, of course, and every minute costs the same — but in little nibbles and pieces I expect some awareness and conclusions will present themselves. Bilbo, if I recall correctly, didn’t just charge into is memoirs right away, either. There’s probably some wisdom in that.

So I went out and started a fire this morning — my wheel, my bats, my music! — and plan to step back away from the digital realm and go unpack some stuff and sort through some boxes, assess some pots and see how things seem different for having dared to leave for a while. I’m much richer than before, in certain ways that have nothing to do with treasure, and perhaps poorer in aspects that are yet to be revealed. So it goes.

I think I’ve another dispatch or two from here to go before I abandon it to the archive; but — of course, of course! — nothing’s certain. I’m open to being talked into or out of the various alternatives, if you’re interested in doing the talking.

We’ll see.

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Day 32: packing it up

“Endings are nowhere near as fun as beginnings.” – St. Earth

Dear Scott,

Stop procrastinating and get it over with.


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Day 30: Plans

That heap’s about a hundred fifty tons.
Go make yourself a life.” – Jack Troy

Well, Carter, my man,

It wasn’t a great day for photos, overcast and cold, so the new pots are still stashed in their boxes. I should get them out and line them up on the window sill. I’m foolishly denying myself the gratitude of dwelling on them some more while the effort it took to get them like that is still a fresh memory.

Here’s a pic of Mags and I with our favorites from the kiln (hers was some bits of clay jewelry, hidden in that napkin that’s keeping them from clanking together too much):


And I’d aimed to write some today about that firing and how I felt about it; the ways in which it confirmed some hunches and started a bunch of new leads; how it was much more of an exploratory firing, with still-new glazes and clays in a completely unfamiliar kiln, and tht therefore it wouldn’t be proper or smart to hold it to the same standards and expectations as I would a firing back home. Oh, and I had some more thoughts to share about this journey coming to an end, about how I’m much closer to the “and back again” part than the “there” part, and the implications of that… But… You know: plans.

Today was more like aiming for that distant shoreline, hammering down to throttle, and then going belowdecks for a long nap. Wake me up when we hit something.

As I mentioned privately earlier, I’ve had some wonderful responses to that article I wrote for CM — which means that issue must have hit the mailboxes and CDN servers in the last couple days. And so I’ve been trying, I fear unsuccessfully, to reply in kind. I really wasn’t expecting any substantive feedback, beyond the great help you gave me in the editing phase, so all of it has been a sweet bonus; payment of another and better kind than I could have asked for.

It’s funny that they mailed the advance print copy to my home address after we’d left to go dragon hunting, and that, as a non-subscriber, I can’t access the online version. (I could pay up now to see it, I guess, but my stubborn self-defeatist streak keeps getting in the way of my reason.) So here I am replying to people who just read it, and I haven’t even seen it in the final format myself. I’ve almost forgotten what I wrote! (Duh.) (Surely it’s around here somewhere, if I’d pause to dig for it.)

Anyways, it’s getting late for this here blogging experiment, too, and I’ve got to think a little harder about what to do with it and how I want to proceed when I get back to the Shire. There are things I’ve really enjoyed about the format and the tool, but also ways in which I think it might be my undoing; toys that I probably can’t be trusted with longer-term. Then again, up until a couple days before I started this, I had no idea I was even going to be doing it, until you talked me out of my plan to go full radio silence for the month. And that’s seemed to work out pretty well, hasn’t it?

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Day 28: coming back into view

“Some people say the sky is just the sky, but I say why?” – Paul Simon

Hello World,

Sorry to keep you in suspense about that firing; that wasn’t by design. After cleaning out the kiln and sorting out its furniture, I had a mad scramble to get all my gear, junk and pots out of the studio by yesterday’s 9pm deadline. Just barely made it. In the midst of that, I never quite got the pots back out to the sunlight to photograph them, and then they went into boxes for transit. Bummer.

Here’s a snapshot of one of the keepers:


I’ll try to get them back out and shoot the good ones soon. There were plenty to be excited about, mixed in with all the usual false starts, missteps and plain old failures.

More about those and all that later, I hope. I have a headfull of thoughts about the pots, the month, the eclipse and my rapidly fading time to see by its temporary, surreal light. But Family Day makes its demands. Why deny the obvious, right?

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Day 26: cooling off

“Every once in a while, you’ll succeed. Most of the time you’ll fail, and most of the time the circumstances will be well beyond your control.” – Aaron Sorkin

The day after a firing is always weird, and it seems like I say so almost every time. No exception today. Waiting, waiting. Anxious to see it. Trying not to cool it off too fast.

Miss Lucille went off without a hitch, twelve and a half hours, three point five pounds of soda, both tens bending, barely half a cone apart. Not bad for a crossdraft that neither of us had fired before, my first pure soda firing since 1999, and with sketchy past logs to work with.

So, we wait. Sometimes the worst ones are the easiest, and vice versa, so the fact that it wasn’t more of a struggle makes me nervous. Heck, with 55 pots in the purgatory between started and finished, the wind blowing the wrong way or the sight of a deer running into the woods makes me nervous.

Vastly unlike my normal post-firing routine, however, today I had the fantastic distraction if a group trip to John Britt’s studio down the mountain. It was like two solid hours of a firehose to the brain; so much information and intrigue, it was hard to even file it away for future reference. I learned a lot from just a quick look around his kiln shed and the several small, unusual kilns there; proof that there are many options and ways to go about building such things. His glaze room is a thing of beauty. One entire wall was lined with small tubs of raw materials; every glaze ingredient I’ve ever heard of, and several I hadn’t. The space and organization dedicated to exploring glazes there was inspiring and impressive. I don’t think I’ve ever seen better.

I got to ask him a few questions, about the relative toxicity of an oxide-saturated matte black glaze from the P-land studio (Answer: probably not food safe; send it to a lab to get conclusive results). And about a fantastic cone 6 reduction test tile of a Teadust glaze; exactly what I’ve been wanting to get from mine for almost 15 years. (Answer: less talc and/or more flux.) And about which glaze calc software he uses. (Answer: surprise! More than one: Insight and HyperGlaze.) And about his choice to go all metal for his kiln shed, from massive structural I beams to metal struts for the entire roof. (Answer: wood will always have a lower ignition point years later; why risk it?) In each case, he was tremendously generous, completely open about sharing his vast experience and knowledge, and seemed enthusiastic about almost any topic — I could listen to him talk about ceramics for days on end.

I brought home a small Oil Spot yunomi, brown and black, a great varying glaze pattern where it changes around the fluid form, and a second copy of his high fire glazing book, my primary source and the assassin of my 20 years of xeroxed and hand-copied recipes, filling two massive binders and now almost completely useless by comparison. Now I can have a copy at the dining room table that doesn’t have chrome and feldspar dust on it.

Whew. That was just the morning. The days here in the mountains are jam packed and sensory overloaded, from the misty clouds over ice-shrouded pine trees to Maggie Bear helping me pack up pots to haul home and starting to clean up the mess that I’ve made these past few weeks. In some ways, it feels liked it’s been an entire season, or a miniature second life; in others it seems like I was just getting started, and it’s sad to have to pack up and start reconciling this fantasy journey with the reality of home. It will be good to go back, but hard to leave.

Home, I guess, is where the wheel is.

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Day 25: {some bad pun about fire}

“Control is for suckers!” – St. Earth


Dear Miss Lucille,

As your colleague, Miss Julia, gave me a hard tutorial last week, perhaps you could go a little easier on me today? I mean, yes, it’s all for the sake of future learning, everything is process over product, every pot’s a test tile: I get it. I’m not being greedy; I don’t need all 55 of my wares to come out great, or revelatory, or “flawless”. Really I don’t.

But I’ve seen what you can do, with your other students holding the reins, and I’ve now had two little batches of my pots come through your tutelage very well. So I have some expectations — in spite of myself — and I have hopes, because without those how do we ever get to cone ten?

Anyways, all’s well so far; the early morning climb was like a dream, and not just because I was still kind of sleepy; it’s getting hot in there and I still see conepacks, and I feel like I understand what you’re telling me thus far.

So go a little easy on me, will you? Please? I’d really appreciate it.

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Day 24: Fresh from the crossdraft soda


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February 20, 2013 · 11:09 am

Day 23: eclipse

“I was the living embodiment of a weird song with a soft verse and a loud chorus.” – Steve Hyden

Dear Carter,

So I’m sure you’ve noticed the eclipse over in the right sidebar, because you’re rather observant. And I also suspect you’ve figured out what’s going on there, with that most iconic bowl from my last firing cycle at home gradually fading from right to left, like its being occluded by something else, something previously unseen but with the power to hide all that was formerly known, if but momentarily. Yes, I’m fairly certain you’ve figured that out by now, because, as I seem to keep telling people, you’re really freaking smart.

So I won’t belabor you with more metaphors about my chosen metaphor, as fun as that can be, and I won’t gin up some fancy diatribe about how I expect to return Back Again from my adventures to There as a completely reinvented aspect of my old Hobbity self. No; tempting as it is, I swear I won’t.

Because in my post-Dream era, I have to be wary of attaching rampant significance to transitory experiences. My neural pathways are dug and primed to believe in such things now, because I’ve run so many cycles of current down those channels over the years. The wasteland of innocence, depleted and schooled by experience.

So as I start thinking about my old hole in the ground, and returning to it, and all the ways I find to bury myself in its comforts and routines, I’m trying to remember that this month doesn’t change everything; it can’t possibly be transformative to the extent that it eclipses twenty years of prior experience. Rather, it’s just another waystation on the path to wherever I’m going; a good waystation, for sure, but more a dot that helps form another segment of the lines we’re always trying so damn hard to divine than a brand new line towards some scintillating new, go for broke horizon.

Help me remember that, would you? I’d appreciate it. I’ll be better off if I do.

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