Sabbatical Project #2: Get Back Into the Pottery Studio

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:





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


Across Canada by train

Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? I can imagine watching dense forests and ripe wheat fields pass by while sipping a glass of wine a the luxury restaurant car.

During a recent visit to Calgary’s Heritage Park, I was reminded that all of my great-grandparents, and three of my grandparents, made this trip in much different conditions after landing as new immigrants in either Halifax or Quebec City.

Each of the four families arrived in Canada planning to continue on to Alberta, to settle near family members already living near Ellerslie or Wetaskiwin. And each of the four families would have made that journey in a train car similar to this one.

Colonist Car, Heritage Park, Calgary AB

The sign outside the car pointed out that “these second-class cars, with their wooden slat seats, cookstove, and tank of water, provided necessities rather than comforts.” Even so, for the Stengel family, which included my grandmother Olga (then an infant), the $7.00 fare per person – even if the children rode for free – would have been a significant expense, considering that the family had only $60.00. I doubt they would have splurged the additional $2.50 to purchase bedding for the sleeping berth.

What did my great grandparents, Karolina and Frederick, think about as they began to realize the immensity of their new country? Did they voice their thoughts to each other? Where they excited? Hopeful? Frightened? I’m certain I would have been all of the above.

I love to travel, but I wonder if I would have had the courage to leave family behind and move halfway across the world, never to return “home” again. Even as that question enters my mind, I know it is not a fair comparison: they had very little to lose when they left Volyhenia, Russia, to come to Canada.

Here is my version of the family legend:

Coming to the Promised Land

He said, “This is our chance. We can make a better life for ourselves and our children. We can stay with my brother and his family. They have lots of room.”

So he sold the two cows that hadn’t died during the winter and bought tickets for the five of us: Frederick, his younger brother Julius, me, Henry who clapped his hands in excitement when we told him we were going on a ship, and the baby. I thought I would die in the belly of that ship, the Hesperian, as it belched smoke across the Atlantic and I lay curled up on our cot, seasick, while Henry toddled around playing with the other children.

Then there was the train. The journey I thought would never end, the journey west, west, west, through the rich Ontario farmland where I wanted to get off, but he said, “no, there is no free land here.”

Through the rich farmland into the barrenness of the prairie where no trees grew, and still we kept going. We kept going until we came to Edmonton, where his brother waited to take us on to Millet, the brother who had lots of room.

His brother’s wife said, “We have no room. But you can have the old chicken coop.”

So I cleaned out the shack with a pitchfork and I swept and I washed and I begged some paint from the brother’s wife and I painted. And we called it home.

I waited for a better life. But there was no free land, not here. To get the land we would have to travel far away from the towns to where there was no one. We would have needed supplies: horses, seed, a plow. The money from the cows was already spent.

He said, “Things will get better after I find work.”

I wasn’t sorry we had come. What was there for us in Russia? Nothing, not even the house we had lived it: the landlord’s men tore it down the morning the lease on the farm ran out. Frederick’s family had farmed it for ninety-nine years, but the only land they owned was the bit that was caught under their fingernails.

That first year, he would come home, his shirt soiled with sweat from the long hours in another man’s field. He would sit at the table, head in his hands, too tired to eat the supper I had cooked hours before. We would sit on the step, our children asleep inside, and look at the stars, dreaming of a farm of our own.

After a while, I would put my hand on his shoulder and say, “This is our chance.”

Sabbatical Project #1: Meet my nephew

With Simon

This is my nephew Simon. He is incredibly adorable. I am incredibly biased.

Why am I writing about him?

A big part of my sabbatical is about resetting my priorities, and after several years of focusing on my career the desire to reconnect with family and friends tops the list. A week after my last day of work, I drove through one of those April snowstorms that only Alberta can produce to catch a flight to Ohio, to visit Simon and his parents.

The week-long visit reminded me – as I spent lots of time snuggling with the little guy – that I am in charge of my own priorities. I get to set them, and then it is up to me to act on them. When Simon was born in January, I was disappointed that I couldn’t visit right away. Thinking about it now, I realize that I could have managed a quick trip… except for the fact that I allowed someone else’s priorities to come first.

During the coming year, I will be exploring these questions:

What are my personal priorities? My core values?

How can I act on those priorities and values right now?

What strategies will I use to maintain a balance between work and my personal priorities and values when I return to my career a year from now?


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

Sabbatical FAQ #1: So what are you doing?

For the past eight years, I worked as the Director of the Fort Saskatchewan Public Library. The largest project I managed was the design and construction of a 6,000 square foot expansion and renovation to the facility – a project that modernized the library and brought its space to 17,000 square feet.

I am incredibly proud of the new space, which will ensure that the public library will continue to meet the needs of a city that has grown from a population of 14,000 to more than 22,000 since 2006.

FSPL children's area 2013
My favourite corner of the new library, in the children’s area.

In January, community members came together to celebrate the grand opening of the new Library.

In February, I did something that surprised many people: I tendered my resignation.

Not because I was moving on to a better job. Or because of some problem.

I quit my job to do something not many people seem to do: take time for myself.

My last day was April 7, 2014, and since then, I’ve noticed that people don’t know what to think about what I’m doing. They don’t understand how I could quit “such a good job” and be – let’s call it what it is – unemployed.

Although I prefer to think of my current state of being as “blissfully unemployed,” I have no guarantee of a job when I’m ready to go back to work.

I get asked, “So what are you doing?” [insert puzzled expression] a lot.

There isn’t a short answer to this question. Right now, I am enjoying having time off. The word “sabbatical” seems to fit, even though my sabbatical isn’t structured in the same way most sabbaticals are.

I have lots of things I want to do during the coming year – including writing and travelling – and I intend to use this space to write about some of my adventures as they happen.

In the meantime, I would like to share Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk that inspired me when I was thinking about how to create my own sabbatical:


It seems I must content myself to be
a poet of quiet places and gentle hands
of sun-streaked sky and rough-edged voices
dusty prairie towns and wind-burned faces
everything so commonplace and familiar

– Glen Sorestad, “Sitting on a High Bank Over the South Saskatchewan River”

I haven’t had an extraordinary life
just an Alberta farm girl
few adventures to tell
the lack of tragedy leaves my poems bland,
like soup without enough salt
the cook hiding in the kitchen.
It seems I must content myself to be

relinquished to obscurity along
with the life that birthed me,
consumed by the urban, my great-grandparents’
farm swallowed by sprawl.
I try to tell myself there is room for
a poet of quiet places and gentle hands,

but my words are a generation too late,
even as I am certain that then my poems
would have been planted in the neat rows of a farm garden,
canned into sealers in a hot August kitchen, or blanched
and frozen to consume in deep winter.
There may not have been words
on pages, although I would have noticed details
of sun-streaked sky and rough-edged voices

and heard the poetry in the cadence of their talk
as I refilled coffee cups around a kitchen table
after lunch. But I wanted a life with words
and so I packed a bag, betrayed those
dusty prairie towns and wind-burned faces

became a scholar, and, for a time,
lost my voice to the roar of city streets,
to post-modernism and deconstructionism and
the discovery my words were too late,
that no one wants poems about barb wire fences and sky
and the sound of the wind. Silenced, I thought my words obsolete.
Yet when I come home, the river sings to me and
barley whispers and poems demand to be heard,
recorded, recognized. And so here
is my declaration that,
like my poems, I am a simple girl, awed
by clear winter mornings – that first lung-cutting
inhalation a prayer – as the sun
illuminates snow-covered fields and sets every
tree ablaze with frost, and it is my all, my
everything, so commonplace and familiar.