Monday, June 27, 2011

Withstanding the Fire

In the spring of 1994 I had a most interesting offer. A friend asked me to consider putting together and running a pottery room at a camp for kids with cancer and blood disorders. She had been hired as head counselor and wanted to fill out the program possibilities. It seemed like a change from all the "alone time" in the studio, and I wanted to scope it out, so I drove the two hours with her to camp one day.

My friend showed me a building like a long bungalow. The sign over the first of the four doors on the porch read: “Pot Shop.” We opened the door to a room full of old trash, dead flies, and buried among them, two cheap and listing pottery wheels, and a crumbling old kiln. I knew right then that it could become a neat and functional little pottery workshop, with lots of elbow grease and some fixes for the equipment. I said Yes, and got right on it, drawing up lists, sketching ideas, making practice projects. Finally, as the season was just about underway, I ordered the supplies, and two staffers came to help me dig the room out from under.

I would be there for the next eight summers. We would eventually have two wheels, a slab roller, and a beautiful new kiln. Till then, we made do with dowel rolling pins from Wood Shop, tables and benches from here and there, and lots of effort.

That first summer, I was also working with kids for the first time. Green as an unripe apple, without an assistant, I enlisted my 13-year old daughter to be my sounding-board and helper. I did not ask to get paid, as I was not sure I would do a good job. I figured it would be charity, and if I couldn't make a go of it, no one could say I wasn't worth my salt. I had a hard time acclimating to the emotional fallout I felt dealing with sick kids, but quickly found out there were some really shiny silver linings to this gig. For one thing, I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction with the kids and their very dedicated counselors. As it turned out, I also really loved showing the kids how to work with with my favorite art medium, and to my surprise and joy, they responded with enthusiasm. It was awesome.

(Working with Melissa at the wheel. She was great to work with and laugh with. Last heard, she had a family of her own.)

The pot shop was usually noisy with children and crowded with action. Some children made brief projects as they passed through pottery on their way to sports. That was already good. There were so many other things to do at camp. But some children had so much fun that they kept coming back whenever they could. These children got to know me, and I got to know them. A camp session was only 2 1/2 weeks long, partly because many children needed to get back to a less immuno-compromising environment than camp. But even with the brevity of the season, or maybe because of it, these weeks were intense. We got to know one another pretty quickly. Best of all, as I would discover, some of the children came back year after year, and regulars gravitated right back to the pottery room. By Season Two I felt like a pro. This is what I found out: Kids have fun in Pottery, and fun is therapeutic.

(I did get great outside assistants after the first season. Here is one of my two Dannys*. He was a great help, and always great for morale.)(*Other Danny, send me a picture!)

Ten years since I last ran the pot shop at camp, I try to imagine the children I once knew when they had cancer, as currently healthy grownups, with spouses and children perhaps, with jobs and full lives. I know many of them made it through their diseases, and went on to healthy situations.

(Mikey- one of my most fun pals over the years. We had great chats. Heard later that he was doing great.)

What a lot of emotional ups and downs there were.

In my first year or so at camp, I met a boy of 16, (I’ll call him E.) so sick and frail in his wheelchair he could hardly lift his hand. E.’s counselor wheeled him into Pottery separately from his group, so I could give him individual attention. He made a gift for his mother. Then he signed the back, “To Mom,” with his name, and added the names of his brother and sister, which touched me so much that I stepped out onto the porch to blink away damp eyes. I just didn't think he would make it. But E. did not die. The next summer he returned with crutches, not quite so skeletal and pale. The summer after, E. was walking. We had some good talks. The year after that, he told me he had finished his last treatment, and there had been no sign of cancer for a long while. He was well. A couple of years later, I heard that E. had gotten married.

There were wonderful surprises, assuredly. But then there was always some of that other part.

This week I received a sad surprise. It was old news, four years old, in fact, but because I hadn’t heard, it felt painfully fresh. My daughter came across an “In Memory of” page on Facebook in L.’s name, and called me. Not L.!! “I’m going to put down the phone,” I told her. I had to let out a howl of hurt, and needed to wait until I could speak again. L. was my youngest child's age, and they had been friends at camp.

He wasn’t even one of the ones with cancer. He had a manageable blood disorder. But life is unpredictable. L. received a double whammy. He was diagnosed with cancer just a year or so after I last saw him, and died of it two years later, at age 19. I looked at the photos on his Facebook memorial page hoping somehow it wasn't him, but yes, it was L. all right. In one of the photos he was smiling his wicked and sweet smile, half mischievous, half shy, pale as usual, and sitting at a table in study hall with a study partner and a teacher. It was so like the way he’d sat in the Pot Shop with his counselor and me for all of those summers, talking about life, messing about with bits of clay, and having a lot of good laughs between earnest conversations.

So life goes round and round like a potter's wheel. Sometimes the vessels that are made on it are so beautiful. Sometimes they withstand the fire, and once in a while they just do not. I am sending out a wave to "my" campers, a figurative wave to the ones I can only remember now, and the ones who are busy making ongoing lives (you know who you are!). Wherever you are, health and wholeness go with you!


  1. This is such a beautiful article.

  2. Thanks so much for writing this amazing article about Camp. Idk if you know that I will be going back to Camp in a couple of weeks as a counselor. I love Camp and everything that comes with it. I didn't get the privilege of working with you in the pottery room in Camp but I do know that I learned to love pottery because of the pottery room in Camp. And as you wrote, sometimes there are those who don't withstand the fire. But it's beautiful to see the ones who do.