Last week I bought the (almost) final dish in my new set of Bennington Pottery.
That’s important because three years ago, I found myself suddenly a one-person living unit, every room of the new apartment stacked with bins and cardboard boxes six feet high. I was Keeper of The Household as I had always been, but now with a much smaller Household to manage. It was simultaneously frightening, sad, and a relief.
The containers spilled over with stuff saved for other people, for future needs and/or disaster: financial papers, cooking equipment, furniture, clothing, decoration–and dishes. Most of it had been purchased already-used decades ago, found on the street, or gratefully acquired as other people cleared out their basements and storerooms. The items didn’t necessarily match or work optimally, but they functioned, and when you are just barely surviving, that’s what matters.
Happy to have a very different life now, I’ve been learning to go beyond the idea of just-surviving, especially since–as witnessed by the stockpiles of food I’ve been using up–I am releasing myself from the burden of so many belongings, the weight of saving in order to feel safe.
In addition, in the small amounts I keep, I want not only functionality but also beauty. When my best friend was making a pittance on the front lines in human services, she would still buy a little piece of handblown glass or earrings, telling me: Beauty is as important as food.
Since Bennington Pottery is not only beautiful but relatively expensive, I’ve been acquiring the matte finish Elements design over time, buying most of them as “seconds” from the outlet or Potter’s Yard in Vermont (making me much more comfortable with the idea that I might break a piece here or there). I certainly don’t need all of the sizes, just the couple that work for me ; I chortle over picking four different colors to mix and match, the option to make my table look different at every meal. The quirks in curvature and mis-splotches of color, part of being a not-quite-perfect dish, endear each salad plate and soup bowl to me.
During the factory tour on a slow day, one of the fewer-than-ten potters took visitors behind the scenes to see how they smooth and glaze and fire the clay. To meet the artist-makers of my belongings moves me, and I often relive those discussions when I encounter the objects in my home.
Behind the futon on which I sometimes sit while eating out of my new palm-sized bowls, hangs a yellow-and-red Amish quilt, signed on the back by a northern Kentucky woman named Ella Bontrager. As I study its shifting geometry, the rainy April afternoon of its purchase returns: talking in Ella’s little farm-shop, hearing how her husband and daughter work with her, why she used a nontraditional “proud” color in this artwork, what is valuable to her and her community.
My gaze moves to the purple and green and brown placemats I splurged on at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin-Martin house in Buffalo. The nuance in their colors and patterns frequently draw me to thoughts of architecture, simplicity and beauty–same as the quilt and the plates.
In the window, light glows through two tiny hobnail glass vases. From over three dozen of varying sizes, I have kept only a few; the rest were donated, moving on to other people’s homes for their flowers and their meditations. The mis-matched plates and bowls from my past left in that give-away box, too.
Every day we eat off dishes and placemats, look at interior walls and surfaces, use the items we share our living space with. How do we make this inside life beautiful? What choices do we make, what do we get rid of, to add beauty to our lives?