Who isn’t mesmerized by the dancing flames of a campfire? Outside, under the stars, breathing crisp air, crackling wood, the mind sharpens and opens itself to pondering the expansive universe.
Last weekend in Colorado, the campfire’s usual duties expanded from warming hands and feet and toasting marshmallows to something much more artistic and existential. Over the years, I have admired and appreciated my mother-in-law, Moe’s skill: throwing, glazing, and firing a variety of beautiful pottery. Though most of her pots are fired in either electric or gas kilns in a studio, the unique pieces produced at primitive or pit firings have always intrigued me.
You can imagine my delight when she brought out several boxes of pottery one morning. Carefully unwrapping the vessels, we checked the bottom of each piece where she inscribes a short dated journal entry. Some of the pieces had been thrown and bisqued as long as ten years ago. We laughed and reminisced about where life had taken us as she prepared her materials and the fire.
When the fire burned hot enough, each pot was placed inside a tin coffee can and dropped gently into the hottest flames. And then the work began. My husband and his cousin gathered and chopped wood to keep the scorching fire blazing. Moe was never far away, periodically throwing sawdust, dirt, and gerbil food into the cans. She explained that the chemical reaction produced by different organic materials placed in the cans would leave permanent markings that would then define and distinguish each pot.
She encouraged us to add our own elements to the flames. Pinecones, grass, leaves, wires, and endless amounts of sawdust were thrust through the smoke and ash at the tortured pieces of shaped clay.
As the hours passed, it hit me. The life metaphor. Where was that passage in the Bible? I had stumbled upon it years ago while going through hard times. Isaiah 48:10 “Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction.” The pots, the cans, the fire, the artist throwing in seemingly random materials: all of it resembles this life—and we are the pots.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t choose the shape, size or purpose of my vessel. I came to earth with a unique set of physical and mental characteristics. They could be the result of the universe randomly throwing together my elements, but I don’t think so. I believe that a skilled potter sat at a wheel, carefully centering, pulling and shaping me before I came here. Maybe I even have a journal entry inscribed on me. I would love to know what the artist was thinking, especially when putting size nine big toes on my size six foot.
And now here I am. In a coffee can. Surrounded by flames. Just when I become accustomed to the heat, another burst of something is thrown at me. The discomfort caused by the flaming sawdust. The mark left by the pinecone. The searing pain of the copper wire will never rub away. All too easy to lose perspective. I can only see the flames and the can. I don’t understand the purpose yet.
As with all fires, the time comes when the chopping stops. The wood disappears. The flames diminish. The embers die. The ashes cool.
Who will be waiting to lift us out of the can? To gently rub away the soot, ashes, and dirt? To inspect the marks left on us. The scars and blemishes.
After the firing, Moe invited each of us to choose a pot, beginning with her brother who was celebrating a birthday.
Removed from the furnace of affliction, I knew immediately which pot would be chosen first. It stood out among the others. The elegant red ribbon of color couldn’t have been more perfectly placed if it had been hand painted there. This pot may have suffered the most. The copper wire left that mark.
The fact is that this life is a fire. We are here in these cans whether we like it or not. We do not control what is thrown at us. We may choose some of the marks that are left on us, but certainly not all of them. What we do choose is our reaction to the process. Do we trust it or fight it? Do we try to hide our scars and blemishes, or do we embrace them as what makes us beautiful and unique? Do we appreciate and thank the artist for the constant care of the fire and even for the materials thrown into the flames or do we curse the very wire that is making us exquisite?
Only you can decide. The flames will burn on regardless.