I’ll shake these bones and shout and sing my life away,
It won’t be long before these bones turn to clay.
— from Shake These Bones, by Malcom Dalglish
“Good earth to good earth.”
It’s one of the things we’ll say graveside when we offer back the earthly remains of beloved Bea Wylie. Her ashes will be buried in the UP, alongside her husband, the good bishop, Sam Wylie.
A week ago I rolled out the slabs of clay. And few days later I fashioned the urn. A sprig of lavender harvested from Manna Community Garden along with grasses sporting well-defined seedheads, pressed into the clay. There’s a cross on one wall. And a bird in flight on another. I’m told for 60 years Bea wore a bird like that on a silver chain that rested upon her heart. Unbeknownst, I made the mark of the bird in upward flight, imaging her home-going and the welcome she received as she crossed over to God.
The urn will not be fired. Ashes and clay will mingle with earth. A green burial. One that accepts death as natural as life in the order of things. Bea Wylie enriches the earth in death even as she did in life. Good earth to good earth.
One the creation stories in the Hebrew Bible has God forming the first human being out of the muddy earth and then breathing into its nostrils. An in-spirit-ing. Because breath is wind is spirit, each one identically rendered ruah in Hebrew. Now Adam is Hebrew for earth-creature. I’m told adam is also the Hebrew word for soil. Not dirt or dust. Soil. Good earth which teams with and sprouts life. Think of the shared root between humans and humus. There’s no accident here, just good earth once again.
I like putting clay in a person’s hands. Clay reminds us where we come from and where we are going. And maybe most importantly, where we are here, now. Hold it. Press it into a ball. Let you fingers move the clay. Don’t think about what you’re doing. Just enjoy the heavy, cool, moist clay in your hand. Imagine God’s hands shaping you, God breathing you.
Back in the 2nd century, theologian and church leader, Iraneaus, wrote:
It is not you who shape God; it is God that shapes you.
If then you are the work of God, await the hand of the Artist
who does all things in due season.
Offer the Potter your heart, soft and tractable,
and keep the form in which the Artist has fashioned you.
Let your clay be moist,
lest you grow hard and lose the imprint of the Potter’s fingers.
Clay is made of three things: stone, water and slime. Contemplate that.
How the particles of stone are like the givens of your life – your DNA, family, your values and vows – it’s what lasts, what you can count on, and stand on when everything else is in question or flux. The stone is what makes the clay hold its shape and last.
Now water. In Detroit where the powers-that-be are shutting peoples’ water off, we cry out: Water is Life! What is it that calls you alive? What sustains you? When do you flow? What impedes the flow? In his essay on Marriage in Standing By Words, Wendell Berry says, “It is the impeded stream that sings.” How did the water seep or gush through? Where has life and grace taken you? The water in the clay is what makes it flow.
Contemplate slime. Dead and decaying stuff. Which is really just Life Soup. All that has gracefully bowed and let go, from microbe to leaf to forest creature, that gathers at the stream’s bend or river bank to blend with water and fragments of stone over time. Slime in clay is like the murky , mucky, sticky, messy, grey areas of life. I once remarked to a friend that birth and death are both messy. I’ve miscarried, born two children and attended births, and been with people as they’ve crossed over to God. I was just stating the facts. Replies she: yeah, well, the parts in between can be pretty messy too! Slime is the stuff of story and myth, what holds us together, makes us wise, and teaches us to bend. It’s where thoughtful, so often intuitive, change happens in us. It’s where the wisdom of the ancestors gathers. And where we must remember that death is part of the deal, and that life insists even when death is all around. The slime in the clay is what makes it stretch and flex. It’s what allows it to be shaped and formed.
I love holding all of this in my hands. I love putting it in other peoples’ hands.
MannaWorks Clay Studio is on the 2nd floor of the beehive at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. It’s still being shaped and formed. It’s a fully equipped and working ceramic studio. A place for creativity and delight, where as the philosopher-poet-potter, M.C. Richards says, “it’s not pots we are making, it’s ourselves.” Once in a while one of the guests from Manna Meal kitchen will hang out and make something. Young people from the Student Conservation Association or Northwest Community Center, sometimes Detroit activists and volunteers, or young people preparing for a 3-year stint with the Capuchin mission in Peru or Nicaragua come to the studio. St. Peter’s Peace Camp kids will sink their hands in clay. We engage creativity and spirit, reflect and relax and allow ourselves to recreate. We play. Sometimes pray. Alone. Together. Once a guy from MannaMeal spent a couple of hours making a mask out of clay. He said it was the best day he’d had in 25 years. I never saw him again.
I have this idea: for an open studio time every Wednesday – mid-morning on into the afternoon – good hours for Manna Meal guests. It’d be for people in the neighborhood who would otherwise not have access to creative studio space, due to economic or social barriers. The open studio time – maybe we’d call it Potter’s House – would be a place for community building, acceptance, creativity, healing and dignity. There’d be a little teaching or mentoring when it’s sought.