Jay sat on his teacher’s lap. His little four-year-old body was stiff and his arms were crossed. Jay goes to a preschool for kids who can’t get along in a regular preschool because his little life has already seen violence, or abuse, or addiction in the people who are supposed to protect and shield him from all of those things. And the tragedy of a world and systems of injustice that create and sustain these environments is a heartbreak.
I was visiting Jay’s class that day with some potter friends to give all these little people an opportunity to see and experience throwing a pot on a wheel. Last year, when my friend came to offer the same experience to another group of kids at this school, there was a little boy who became completely unglued about getting dirty. This year, the families and children were well-warned and prepared for what the experience entailed. However, some fears run deep and overcoming them is no small thing.
Clay is messy. It gets on your hands, under your nails, on your clothes and shoes. If you notice a small chunk of something in my hair, it’s probably clay. In order to fully experience it, you have to get messy.
Jay and many of his classmates live in situations that are precarious. Social Services visits these families regularly to make sure the children are safe and well-cared for. In my middle-class, white, suburban life, dirty clothes on kids are a sign of a day well spent. However, in these families, dirty clothes and dirty children are seen as a sign of neglect and the consequences are sometimes severe.
But the ironic thing is that these kids needed to get dirty to fully experience all that the pottery wheel has to offer. They needed to be close enough for the clay to spit off the wheel and on to their pants and shoes. They needed to step in close to feel their hands glide across the wet clay as it turned and calmed their little hearts with the hum of the motor. They needed to take the risk of stepping into an unknown space and experience something new for it to have an impact on them.
It’s risky. I get it. So I reached out my clay covered finger to Jay as he sat stiffly on his teacher’s lap a few feet away from me. He wiped the clay off my finger the way you wipe frosting off of a knife. Jay squeezed the wet clay between his index finger and thumb. Mesmerized, he slowly slid off of her legs and inched his way towards me and my wheel. Before long, he surrendered to the mess of the wheel and all it had to offer. And I was happy to make the mess a little less scary for him. Because in that mess, he learned that you can make something from what seems like nothing.
I think sometimes we have to get messy to experience all that life has to offer. We have to be willing to leave our safe places and risk disappointment, failure, and maybe heartbreak. The safe places are clean and predictable, but they might not be where you grow, or heal, or find God. With clay, the mess is where the magic and mystery happen. And I’m pretty sure that’s where God is, too.