Eulogy for a Kiln.

“And just like that she’s gone,” my husband said, his sooty hands clutching both sides of the frame of the open French door as he leaned in to the living room to talk to me. “Are you gonna come take a photo?”
“I am! I am!” I exclaimed, twisting this way and that, looking for my phone. “I was on the landline when Sabrina’s message came in and couldn’t just…”
But he was already headed back up to the kiln shed, eager to have this part of the process documented.
I spied my phone on top of a kitchen table and snatched it up before trotting across the living room to catch up with him.

The kiln was gone, I thought, as I followed the path in the grass up towards the garden. I sighed; after all those pots she fired for us.

Empty kiln
Of course, I probably shouldn’t say “she” because this large, double chambered, norborigama was not a person and had no gender. But since it was productive, unpredictable, required a certain amount of learning to get it to peak temperature, and birthed countless pots on our behalf, it feels right for me to embrace it into the sisterhood. In fact, when I brought customers up to see the kiln, as part of the “tour” of the pottery, I would joke that the difference between firing pots in a wood-firing kiln and firing them in an electric kiln, was like the difference between natural childbirth and being knocked out for the experience. My husband would be out there, six times a year, sweating it out with the old gal, hoping that if he gave her what she needed, she’d give him the colors he preferred on his pottery.
Stoking the kiln
First firing

Sometimes she did. It’s always hard to go by the potter’s evaluation because he’s the harshest critic of his own work, but all the pots found homes over the years. Even if sometimes home was the ‘street of broken dreams’ outside the kiln shed, where shards get trodden back into the earth, maybe to be discovered by future archaeologists. Yes, there really was culture in the technocene era.

I went past the garden and rounded the corner towards the kiln shed to see my husband, our business associate, Reed, and our erstwhile studio assistant, Sabrina, looking like they’d just danced with Mary Poppins and Bert on the rooftops of London. They were all pretty sooty.
Stephen, Reed, Sabrina

I took their photograph and said, “so where…?”
My husband pointed to the chunks of castable refractory that used to be the arches of the kiln, sitting on a tarp under a roof close by. It looked like broken peppermint candy, except more gray than white. It was all there to be ground down and recycled into the new kiln. When we built the old kiln, 30 years ago, my husband hoped for 15 years out of her. She gave us 30. I’d say that’s good juju to put into the new one.

And the old kiln needed to come down. She had a serious sag in one side of the second chamber, which could have been disastrous had it collapsed at the height of a firing.
Second chamber
From a practical standpoint I didn’t have trouble letting go of the kiln. It was all the memories we’d accumulated around her which made me ache inside at the thought of her being gone.

How many times in all the years of that kiln had my husband let her cool down for two days before walking open those big doors, the sound of gentle tinkling accompanying his footsteps as the warm surfaces of the pots met the cold outside air? How many people had stood in front of those open doors, their eyes growing larger and larger as they realized just how much work went into making a piece of pottery?
Kiln opening
Mum, Reed & S at kiln
Our children grew up taking dinner up to their dad as he sat with the kiln, stoking it every 3-5 minutes.
Stephen & Esther
With Sean & Reed
Then they’d visit him 12 hours later, before they got on the morning school bus, and see the flame coming out of the chimney.
Kiln firing

And what about the friends that we loved and lost during the lifespan of that kiln. Robert, who designed and built the frames for the doors.
Donal, who helped fund the kiln.
With Don Butler
And Waldo, who isn’t in this photograph but who took this photograph and many more of our pottery business.
With Carole Schaefer
To name a few.

None of which references the legacy of pots that came out of that big, wood-fired furnace.
Molly & kiln
So many pots
Too many to show in photographs here but which you can find, in abundance, on our Facebook page. Once, when our son was a teenager, he sat with his dad during a firing and calculated how many pots this kiln had made over the years. I think the number at that time exceeded 30,000. That’s a lot of pots.

And we got to see the happy faces of the people who received those pots.
Juliana at kiln
Chris & Marissa at the kiln

And now the old kiln’s gone and my husband is hard at work building another one, which will give me more stories to tell. But before we forget the old kiln completely, I wanted to say farewell. And thanks for the memories.
Stephen and Nicola
Stephen, Reed, Nicola


All the World’s a Stage

Sitting in Le Pain Quotidien at St Pancras Station, drinking coffee and eating croissants, I mention to my husband that the flat serving tray, a ceramic cutting board of sorts, with a small hole at one end to hang the item between uses, and slight, inward curvature like a fish tail at the other, might be an interesting new object for him to make in the pottery. People race by on the main platform of the station, the to and fro from England to destinations European, and a man raises his voice to one of the serveuses, accusing her of being rude instead of responding to a simple question.

“I could make these,” my husband says, turning what he thinks is a handmade object over and around in his hands. “But I’d ask the waiter if he likes using them.”

“Ah no,” the waiter tells us in English laced with just enough of an accent – maybe French, maybe Italian – that it’s charming. “They don’t break or chip but for eating, is not so good. Messy,” he adds and flaps his free hand in the air over my plate, to indicate crumbs falling off the sides.

Behind him the belligerent customer opts not to eat in the café and as he storms out, a young man enters and immediately apologizes to the now smiling waitress for something he wasn’t even part of but senses was not her fault.

“I think he’s right,” my husband says to me, meaning the waiter’s opinion of the ceramic object. “They need a return on the sides.”

“But we wouldn’t sell them as plates,” I explain, “I’m thinking cheese boards. Or vegetable trays.” The rectangular flatware has a small bread motif stamped into one corner. I point at it and add, “You could put your tulip stamp here.” Three tables down from us, two men in elegant, silver-grey suits keep up a lively discussion in French about the percentage decline of the stock market. I lean into our table, so my husband can hear me over the background noise. “I really prefer cutting cheese on a flat board.”

“Uh huh,” he says, inspecting the tray again. “But I’m sure there’s a compromise in here somewhere.” He runs his index finger around the perimeter of the clay. “I could make a simple groove just inside the edge.”

I nod; that makes sense. I tear a section off my croissant and look beyond him, to the small Marks and Spencers food shop on the other side of the main platform. We went in there before coming to the café, to buy a green smoothie for me, and I was very impressed to see that they sold pairs of peeled, organic, hard-boiled eggs on fresh spinach in plastic cups to go. I should tell my friend, John Scott, about those, I think, remembering that I owe him a reply to the beautiful missive he sent me about morning time on the beach in Costa Rica. I dip the piece of croissant in my coffee, noticing the remnants of flaky pastry now on the table around my plate. Maybe he could suggest they sell something similar at the Co-op, I continue in my head. I bite down on the coffee softened croissant and nix the idea, realizing that John Scott probably doesn’t want me reaching across the miles with a business suggestion while he’s got his toes on a sandy beach in paradise. Although, I think with a certain amusement, here we are on our way to Paris and I’m talking plate design with my husband. How curious.

After we finish our petit repas (the time wasn’t right to call if breakfast or lunch, just a little snack) the waiter clears up our plates and cups and I hear myself saying, “Shoot! I should have taken a picture.”

“If I were a journaling kind of person I’d draw it,” my husband says and immediately my mind buzzes to the red writing journal I have in my backpack and the drawing he could make in it. I want to get it out and let him do just that but the backpack is behind him, the table is fairly cramped and now it’s covered in croissant crumbs, so I resist.

But not before thinking how strange (yet appealing) this idea is, a journal with sketches of pottery in it. Not birds or wildflowers, things we’ve come to expect in journals, but cups and bowls and plates and cheese trays.

Quick sketch cheese tray

Quick sketch cheese tray

And then I wonder how my life went from thinking almost exclusively about acting to discussing serving ware over café au lait on the way to Paris? And if I didn’t know that businessperson was just another role for me, I could let that bother me. Fortunately all the world’s a stage in my head and I love the range of roles I get to play.

Now about those flat, ceramic trays; how about a Mishima drawing of trees in the corner?

3 Beaches in 3 Weeks.

When my mother called to say that she had purchased her ticket to come out and visit me from mid-September into October, I decided to set the date for my book event at Adelaide’s Coffee and Books in Ocean Park, WA. My mother loves the water and was particularly impressed when I took her down to the Oregon Coast last November, when she came out to join us for her first ever Thanksgiving. Taking her to Ocean Park on the Long Beach Peninsula, I decided, would not only lengthen her view of the Pacific Ocean, but would allow us to discover a new place together.

We arrived close to dinnertime and pulled into Klipsan Beach Cottages where a five-minute walk on a trail through tall, patchy grass takes you directly to the beach. At 81, my mother doesn’t do uneven terrain so easily but with the help of her walking stick and my husband’s arm, she conquered the trail to get her hit of the Pacific Ocean just as the sun was beginning to set.

Sunset at Ocean Park

Sunset at Ocean Park

We were on the ‘world’s longest beach’ according to local lore and as fresh and invigorating as this section of coastline felt, it also hummed with centuries old history. The Long Beach Peninsula is where Lewis and Clark saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time and carved their names into a tree and I wondered, because of the rugged nature of the short trail we had just crossed, whether this 28-mile long peninsula had once been thick with trees? I found myself thinking of Annie Dillard’s description in “The Living” of women in the late 19th century lifting their hooped skirts to get between the trees in the Pacific Northwest.

The next day we explored Ocean Park, where we were welcomed not only by the owners of Adelaide’s Coffee and Books (and presented with a very tasty lunch) but also by some of the neighborhood artists from the gallery across the street, Bay Avenue Gallery. Sue Raymond, who owns this gallery, is also a potter. She was introduced to my novel by Mary Peterson, and went on to help spread the word about my book event. We met potters, painters, glass artists and metal sculptors. Plus Sue gave Stephen, my husband, the deluxe tour of her new pottery teaching studio, making him feel right at home.

After lunch we journeyed from Ocean Park to Oysterville, staring in wonder as we passed beautiful, shingle-sided homes that are part of the historic register. We found piles of oyster shells and filled two coolers with some of them for Stephen to use in his kiln. He leans the oyster shells up against the unglazed sections of his pots and the calcium flashes gold on the clay.

Oyster gold on a wood-fired mug

Oyster gold on a wood-fired mug

Here it is again on the lower part of this pitcher

Here it is again on the lower part of this pitcher

Once we had the shells we headed back down the peninsula to Cape Disappointment, where we explored the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and finished our day with our friends, Jay and Mary Ann, eating a very tasty meal in Ilwaco at Pelicano Restaurant.

The weather began to close in as a storm approached the peninsula on the third day of our visit, which made the atmosphere inside Adelaide’s for my book presentation and reading that much cozier. Fortunately we were well on our way home before the rain hit so hard it drenched Mary Ann as she was loading her car, and before the 70 mph winds raged through the Long Beach Peninsula, making everyone that lived there glad to stay at home.

A week later, my mother and I headed down to the Oregon Coast, this time purely for pleasure. The weather was in our favor again as we explored Rockaway Beach with our friend, Erin, and her 4-year old daughter, Matilda.

Mum with me and Matilda

Mum with me and Matilda

The coastline in this part of Oregon is impressive for its sheer magnitude, for its pristine natural colors and for the waves that curl onto the sand filled with froth and foam. Erin and I walked and talked our way along the white-gold sand towards a rock formation rising up out of the ocean while mum explained to Matilda that if she dug down into the darker, wet sand she would find water under the surface. Matilda was enchanted and proceeded to dig a line of puddles in the sand that were just big enough for her to put her two, bare feet in.

Rockaway Beach

Rockaway BeachMatilda and her puddlesMatilda and her puddles

After playtime, we drove a little further north along Hwy 101, in search of lunch, and discovered some great viewpoints, where we could look down and see the natural wonder that is the Oregon coastline.

A view of just part of the Oregon Coast

A view of just part of the Oregon Coast

Erin, Matilda and the view

Erin, Matilda and the view

I don’t think Americans know just how impressive the sight of so much land is to the English – but take it from me, it is. We come from an island that is miniscule compared to the United States, and to look down on this wide, meandering sweep of sand that seems so untarnished by humans – well, it’s mind-boggling.  Maybe that’s why Lewis and Clark named Cape Disappointment thusly; they were expecting to step off their boat after navigating the Columbia River and onto a mighty coastline. Instead they found a spit of sand steeped in fog. They probably thought to themselves, “What a swizz!” (Which literally means what a disappointment but because it’s a British expression, from the days of my youth, I doubt Lewis and Clark really thought it. Apparently they thought something close to it, though.)

Another week later and it was time for my mother to return to England. I flew back with her because my father had passed away during her visit and my brother had organized his funeral for after her return. For the third time in 3 weeks, I found myself at the beach. This time in Southend-on-Sea, the town where I grew up and where my mother still lives, in Essex, England. Southend is rather like the Long Beach Peninsula in that it finds itself at the confluence of a large river and the sea; in this case, the River Thames and the North Sea. It also boasts the ‘world’s longest pier’ and, although it doesn’t have oysters, it is home to some of the best cockles and mussels to be found in the British Isles.  And it also has a sense of history; across the water from the beach, you can see Sheerness, in Kent, where the “bouncing” bombs used by the Royal Air Force to blow the dams in the Ruhr Valley, Germany, during WWII were tested. (And if you haven’t seen the 1955 film The Dam Busters, which retells this particular piece of history, then you should. It’s very compelling – and available on netflix).

Sheerness across the water

Sheerness across the water 

Going down to the seafront for my daily walk I was struck by how much saltier the air smelled here than on the Long Beach Peninsular or in Oregon. I think it’s because of all the seaweed that gets deposited on the beach at high tide. Or maybe it’s all the  beach huts and development along the seafront, trapping the air and making the aromas more pungent.

Seaweed at high tide in Southend

High tide on Southend beach

Beach huts on the Southend seafront

Beach huts on the Southend seafront

I watched the waves lapping backwards and forwards on the pebbly beach and remembered my dad teaching me how to float on my back and then do the backstroke in this water. After that I progressed to swimming on my front without him and my dad applauded me because he said he’d never learned to swim on his front. That was the nature of our relationship; he would teach me the basics then get out of my way so I could go further than him. I don’t think he expected me to go quite so far geographically from him in my adult years but, before Alzheimer’s robbed him of all cognitive thought, he would often end our telephone conversations by telling me to keep on doing what I was doing with my life because it obviously made me happy.

I turned and started stretching out down the seafront, memories of things near and far, past and present, floating in and out of my mind. And I realized that’s what the sea does for us with its tidal waters; it gives us a sense of renewal.  And as my family sat around a table overlooking Southend seafront at the Roslin Hotel, eating a farewell meal to dad after his funeral, the tide slowly went out behind us. He was on his way.

I leave you with the photograph of a rainbow over the Pacific Ocean taken by Charlotte after the storm that we missed on the Long Beach Peninsula. I hope my father is somewhere over that rainbow, at peace.

Rainbow off the Long Beach Peninsula

Rainbow off the Long Beach Peninsula