Mythical

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“Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical.”
~ Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones

marriage certificate

An ordinary document: my grandparents’ marriage certificate.

My grandmother’s life was ordinary: she immigrated to Canada as an infant with her parents and older brother, she went to a country school. She worked as a housekeeper and cook; she married, farmed with my grandfather, had two children.

Her life is also mythical: her story is – in many ways – the story of Alberta, the story of this country.

Her stories filled my childhood and became part of the mythology I carry with me everywhere. I may have missed many of the Greek and Roman classical stories growing up, but I know about the first time my grandmother, Olga, baked bread on her own: it was the day her youngest brother was born. He was born on her last day of grade eight, her last day of school ever. Olga’s basketball team was playing a game but she couldn’t go to school because her mother was having a baby, and Olga had to stay home to bake the bread. (She never let my great-uncle Art – the baby born that day – forget it, either, and teased him about it the last time she saw him, when she was in the hospital. I know because I was there.)

I know all about the adventures she and her siblings had growing up along the train tracks, and all the trouble they got into on the family’s farm. I know how the men on the threshing crew at the farm where she worked when she was a young adult loved her baking, especially her pies, and told her she should open a bakery.

Of course, there is a darker side to this mythology too, one she didn’t talk about. Now, as an adult, I am slowly uncovering more pieces to the puzzle and filling in the gaps of some of those stories.

Last month I wrote about finding inspiration in history – and what better place to find it than in my own history?

While that is a rhetorical question, I’ve been thinking about the connections between the ordinary and the mythical lately, as my current project – although fiction – touches on my family’s history. I find myself asking other, real questions. Questions I don’t have answers for yet: what do I do with all of these stories? What is my obligation, my responsibility? And: if I am telling these stories, how do I do so in a respectful way – but a way that is also honest and doesn’t shy away from the darker parts of my personal mythology?

Finding inspiration in history

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europ2014 458

I discovered these dishes in the Vindolanda Museum, along Hadrian’s Wall, and have been thinking about them ever since.

This almost-complete set of Samian-ware pottery was imported into Roman Vindolanda from France and, after being broken in transit, was thrown away, unused, into the ditch of the fort.

Imagine the disappointment of the intended owner – and the thrill of the archaeologists who found these dishes almost two thousand years later!

As a writer, I have all sorts of questions:

Who were these dishes intended for?

Did whoever ordered these dishes get a replacement set? How long did that take? How much did it cost?

Not all the dishes are here… does that mean a few of them arrived intact? If so, what happened to them? Where they given to a slave or someone else, or did the owner keep them?

These questions could be the beginning of a story. My current project is set in Alberta in the 1930’s and I have been thinking about a set of dishes ordered out of the Eaton’s catalog that arrives broken…

Firing the wood kiln

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wood kiln

Twice a year, the pottery studio I work out of rents this wood fire kiln. It’s an incredible opportunity for amateur potters like me to learn about wood firing. These photos are from the June firing. This month, while I am travelling, my newest pieces will be fired without me.

During the rest of the year, I fire my pieces in the studio’s electric kiln. Glazes are a combination of chemicals that when heated during firing turn to glass, the colour of which depends on the recipe of the glaze used. The heat in an electric kiln is always constant, so the colours of the glazes turn out consistent and predictable. If applied correctly, robin’s egg blue is always blue, and autumn leaves is always a deep red-brown.

Firing in a wood kiln adds an element of unpredictability to the process, and with this unpredictability comes opportunity. Instead of rising steadily, the temperature fluctuates as the fire is stoked by hand until it reaches 1200 degrees Celsius. Ash blows around and settles on the pots, producing unique effects that can never be reproduced. Even the weather during the days the kiln is fired can affect the results.

This particular kiln takes about 48 hours to fire. During that time, students, instructors and the kiln owners take shifts to stoke the kiln, adding more wood every five to ten minutes. One of the indicators that more wood is needed is the size of the flame flickering out of this small peak hole:

firing the wood kiln

Once 1200 degrees is reached, the “cones” are checked to see if the kiln is hot enough. The cones are small upright indicators that bend in succession as the kiln heats up. Then the vents are closed so that reduction can occur, a step that is important for some of the glazes.

Finally, we close the kiln and leave for several days to let it cool down. Later, we return to empty it:

emptying the kiln

Here are some of the finished pieces from the June firing:

pots fired in the wood kiln 2

Finally, you can see some of my pots from that firing by clicking here.

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Postscript:

It’s been more than ten years since I took my first pottery class and made my first crooked and heavy pots. During that time, I have thought a lot about how the process of creating pottery and the writing process are similar, and I have written about those similarities. There is nothing like a wood-firing in the writing process, though: there is no moment when the writing is so out of the writer’s control that it can come out in completely different than expected. At least, not in my experience. For the writers out there, do you have any thoughts about how writing can be (or is) “wood-fired”?

Thank you for reading. I love it when people stop by to say hi in the comments. All kind and thoughtful comments are welcome.

Sabbatical Project #2: Get Back Into the Pottery Studio

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first pots in over a year

In April, I went back to the pottery studio after more than a year away.

Before, when I was working, going to the studio was about doing something with my hands. About the pleasure of taking my frustrations out on an unsuspecting lump of clay and feeling a bit better at the end of the evening.

I was happy to make the same bowl over and over and to glaze those bowls with a few favourite glaze combinations. I learnt a lot about technique making those bowls, discovering exactly how thin the sides could be and how little clay I could leave at the bottom before a piece collapsed in on itself.

I was always late for my Thursday evening class – but I made it, and that was an accomplishment by itself. At some point, during the busiest part of managing the library expansion project, I decided I didn’t have time for pottery any more.

Now, I have more time and I’m on time: I get the full three hours of studio time. I find myself thinking about new techniques and designs to try next all week. I discovered Pinterest and am busy pinning pieces that inspire me. I’m not throwing many bowls these days – instead I’m trying to create my version of this creamer with a matching sugar bowl and playing with vases with cutout designs.

Not all of my experiments turn out well; in fact, my bowls were probably more appealing. But for the first time I am thinking about design and balance and composition and “what if” and “how about…”

For the first time, pottery is about more than just technique.

Suddenly, I am a beginner all over again.

And I’m having fun.

A few of my favourite finished pots:

pots1

pots2

pots3

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Note: this post is part of a series about my adventures during a year long, self-funded sabbatical. For more, click here.