Lessons on integrity from pottery class

Why nature is good for the soul, Thank you, and Giveaways: Dignity and Virtue Politics

Gracious readers, this week, we’ll explore:

  • Lessons for life from pottery class

  • On why connecting with nature makes us better human beings

  • What is Civic Renaissance? A brief overview

  • Thank you for being here and giveaways!

Lessons for life and learning from pottery class

After a long few months of concentrated reading, thinking, and book writing, my husband and I got away to the mountains for a few days last week. We stayed at Blackberry Mountain in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains, which was lovely—and also basically summer camp for adults, and with incredibly delicious meals created from freshly mountain-forged ingredients.

It was a great chance to reconnect with nature, as well as a great opportunity to get back to my crunchy roots by taking a class in throwing pottery. It reminded me of my homeschooling days, when my mother actually had us forge our own clay in riverbeds before we attempted to bring forth form from the amorphous, sticky substance.

While re-learning to throw pottery last week, I was struck by the numbers of apt metaphors for life the experience offered.

First of all, there’s “centering.” This was by far the most difficult part of the process for me—and, my instructor Kate assured me, most people. Centering is the process of taking one’s lump of clay and, while spinning it on the wheel, attempting to use both hands to make the clay a perfectly spherical and symmetrical little puck.

This is far more difficult than it sounds.

In my seventy-five minutes or so on the pottery wheel, I spent far over half the time centering. It felt like it was the boring and unglamorous part. I wasn’t creating some beautiful and original work of art. I was making a lump of clay into a circle.

I quickly learned, however, how essential this process is for any pottery project.

You see, without a solid, centered foundation, the entire structure quickly collapses.

How true this is in life, too. The process of building a strong foundation—good habits of integrity through practice and education—can seem unglamorous and mundane. But this process is absolutely essential, because without these habits—without this strong foundation—a life can quickly collapse on itself.

To those of you in education, keep up the good work. Even when it’s difficult to see progress, trust that your efforts, though subtle, have impact beneath the surface, and that the benefits of your investment will be reaped for years to come.

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Second, throwing pottery taught me the importance of fixing mistakes early and often. Instead of letting an imbalance of imperfection go, it was essential to remedy it immediately, lest the mistake be replicated throughout the entire piece of work. The same goes for our lives, too. It’s easy to ignore problems and vices until there is a catastrophe in front of us. An important buttress again neglect-induced suffering is regular self-examination: Where can we improve? Where are we at fault in the challenges in our lives? What can we change in ourselves to prevent the same negative things from happening to us over and over again?

Lastly, pottery class revealed to me the perils of perfectionism. I found myself getting frustrated with myself. This isn’t very good. Why isn’t it perfect? I can never do anything right, went my inner monologue. It got ugly very quickly—especially with that candle stick that makes an appearance in the video :)

I found myself thinking, If i’m not perfect at this, I don’t want to do it at all. I think this a value that I’ve imbibed over time from our broader culture. We have exacting standards in a free market society and a meritocracy like America. We want results, which we reward. We don’t want failure; we punish that.

So much of our daily lives is oriented around success that it makes failure intolerable—so much so that many of us would rather not try something new so as to avoid the possibility of failure and consequent embarrassment.

Yet this way of thinking is antithetical to both a meaningful life—not to mention a life creatively and intellectually fulfilled.

To learn something new is to become fully human. We are created to create, to learn, and to grow. When we stop challenging ourselves, we atrophy. We must be willing to fail to realize our potential as human beings. And when we fail, we try again.

How might we counter this dominant trend and cultivate a beginner’s mind? How might we develop the courage to try something new, to fail, to get messy, even if it might be a bit embarrassing?

How can we foster cultures of self-examination, that promote the cultivation of character and integrity?

Maybe it begins with offering more pottery classes!

Write to me with your thoughts at ah@alexandraohudson.com

On the sublime, and why connecting with nature makes us better human beings

I grew up in Vancouver, Canada, which in my view is among the most naturally exquisite places in the entire world—and also why the mountains are so important to me. The rugged peaks, the ocean, the rolling hills in between: they demand to be admired, referred. They instill fear in the hearts of men and women.

On the sublime

Philosopher and conservative thinker Edmund Burke wrote an essay on the difference the beautiful and the sublime.

The Sublime originates in fear—fear in the Biblical sense, though, meaning a humility before vastness, power, majesty. The sublime makes us feel our smallness. We encounter it when we encounter beauty in the natural world, such as gazing up at a mountain, down a yawning canyon, or into the eternity of the ocean. It leaves us with a sense of awe and wonder.

The Beautiful originates in love. It makes us feel at home, safe, comforted. We encounter the serenity when we see the balance, order, and harmony in nature. We feel a stirring sense of inner peace, such as when we observe the gentle movement of a green pasture in the wind, a babbling book, a sunset. Beauty endears. It elevates.

Both good and necessary because they lift us out of the ordinary and the utilitarian and the practical. They help us reflect on what matters in life.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” wrote Thoreau in his Walden.

Thoreau’s words reflect why retreat into nature offers a chance for people to reflect on what really matters — “the essential facts of life” as Thoreau put it. It’s a chance for each of us to rediscover who we are, and what our role is in this chaotic and broken world, and how we each might be a tool of healing in our own spheres of influence.

Nature is healing for the soul. As we are healed by nature, we are filled to heal others in turn. Nature’s beauty draws us to itself; it compels us to love and care for it. Stirring that love within us makes us more generous and merciful with others too. Nature elevates us. It encourages us to live with integrity. It causes us to reflect on whether or not we are living the life we want to—or are meant to—lead.

This sort of introspection is tough business, but Heaven forbid we miss the chance to do it—and, as Thoreau worried, discover that we have not truly lived.

I hope that each of us find time to allow the sublime and the beautiful of the natural world to nourish us—to restore us—in our everyday.

What is Civic Renaissance? A brief overview

I think it’s a good idea for any community to take some time every once in a while to remind itself what it stands for and why it exists.

I wanted to take the opportunity to do that here for Civic Renaissance.

My hope is that Civic Renaissance is, and increasingly becomes, a place for the curious, for those who are passionate about the way that ideas can heal our public discourse, and for those who seek to cultivate a higher way of engaging with the world around us.

There are two components to the vision, purpose, and title of Civic Renaissance: civic, and renaissance.

First, civic.

Civic Renaissance explores the concept of the civic in its fullest sense. We’re all familiar with many conceptually and etymologically interrelated concepts pertaining to the civic: civility, civil society, civic engagement, civil discourse, civic leadership, among others.

Second, renaissance.

Civic Renaissance draws inspiration from the long tradition of civic humanism. Civic humanism emerged during the Italian Renaissance and extolled a high view of humanity while reviving the ideas of classical Greece and Rome.

Civic humanists weren’t content with a contemplative life of reading and translation alone. They were inspired by human excellence and sought to cultivate the fullness of our human potential—through a pursuit of beauty, virtue, goodness, and truth—in every realm, particularly the public square.

When we hear the term “Renaissance,” often our minds jump to the age of Petrarch, DaVinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael. But Civic Renaissance is not just about civic humanism or Italy’s golden age. While there is much we can learn and benefit from in a close study of these individuals and the broader era of European renewal to which the Italian renaissance led, the concept of renaissance is far too rich to be limited to one era alone.

Civic Renaissance aims to learn from golden eras of human achievement across time and place. History shows again and again that recognizing human potential and investing in cultural institutions such as art and education—especially from a society’s political or educated elite—leads to a flourishing of human achievement.

Many nations have “golden eras” to which they harken back. But we cannot be content with nostalgia. This is why Civic Renaissance is explicitly present and forward thinking: reviving the best of the past to make our life here and now, and our future, better.

We each have a role in this.

Thank you for being here, and for helping to create a more intellectually and civically vibrant future together.

Give aways! Dignity and Virtue PoliticsArnade’s powerful photojournalism gives names and faces to those in America who are often overlooked and marginalized.

It’s impossible to reflect on the humanistic project—or the project of creating renaissance in our world today—without listening and offering a voice to the dispossessed. In Dignity, Chris Arnade takes his camera across America and tells the stories of those in need in our country today.

I have a few copies left of his powerful book.

To be entered to win the book, send me an email with DIGNITY in the subject line, and tell me why you’d like to read this book.

I also have one copy of Virtue Politics by Harvard University’s James Hankin to give away! This book explores the power of sound, moral education to transform leaders—and transform society.

This book is an education in itself.

To be entered, send me a note with VIRTUE in the title.

ah@alexandraohudson.com

Thank you so much for being here!