Shannon Kelley | Credit: Courtesy

I’m back! It’s been a minute since I had a regular column at the Indy — so long, in fact, I kinda feel like a rookie. A strange sensation, given how long it’s been since I’ve been an actual rookie at anything.

But as the mom of an 8-year-old, I’m certainly witness to a lot of beginner drama.

From first steps and going pee-pee in the potty (forgive me) to throwing a pitch or catching a wave, a kid’s life is an unending loop of firsts. And yet, it would seem that no amount of clunky, inept first times can make navigating the next one any less ugly.

Falling off the bike? “I will never ride that stupid thing again!” That unconsummated knot in his shoelaces? Suffice it to say that the dent in the wall corresponds nicely with the specs of a kid-sized wheelie. (And please don’t remind me about the first attempt to cruise on the wheelies.)

Uncomfortable as he is in these moments, and uncomfortable as witnessing his discomfort makes me, I try not to swoop in and fix it. Because tolerating frustration is part of life! I think to myself in a voice that sounds suspiciously like Dr. Becky. (IYKYK.) It’s a lesson I frequently attempt to impart via dime-store wisdom spewed from my smug perch of experience, and generally boils down to the idea that no one is good at anything the first time. That for you to get better at anything, you have to keep doing it. And that we do not throw shoes at walls.

Granted, talk (particularly of the mom platitude variety) is cheap, and newbie-variety frustration runs deep. I was reminded of exactly how deep recently, when I got it into my head to take up ceramics.

Though it’d been years (okay, fine — decades) since I sat at a potter’s wheel, I suddenly found myself fantasizing about using my hands to create charmingly wonky earthenware bowls and mugs and ashtrays, like some sort of serene and unmanicured coastal grandma.

(For the record: Ashtrays were once a fully sanctioned part of the high school ceramics curriculum. I told you it’s been a while.)

I’d think of clay while driving the kiddo express or running mental to-do lists. One day, I remembered at an opportune moment, and lo! Here was the unicorn of a class that my working-mom self could slide into the gigantic Tetris that is my life. I signed up, and was buoyed.

On the big day, I giddily collected my tools and bag of clay and took a seat at my wheel, visions of the bespoke vases I’d gift to each of my friends dancing in my head. Our lovely teacher talked and demonstrated and made it all look remarkably easy and deeply tidy. Then it was our turn.

I slammed my wedged wad of clay onto the wheel, just as my teacher had. It began to spin, and I leaned in to center it, just as my teacher had. But mine did not smoothly form a cone. Mine wobbled violently, as though it was trying to escape the torture I was inflicting upon it with my inexpert hands.

It took me forever (accurate) to center a single blob (technical term) of clay. When I did manage to achieve this basic preamble, I’d find other ways to poop the proverbial bed. I’d let the clay get too dry and it would peel off-center, stuck to my hands. The bat would become too wet, sending the clay flying and meeting its sloppy demise in my lap. When the stars briefly aligned and I managed to center and pull a passable vessel, I found myself unable to stop messing with it until it too was ruined.

Come the end of the session, I found myself stunned and exhausted, my splash pan awash in swampy goo, my soul in the effluvium of failure.

Did I remember to give myself the kind words I’d offered my son, about novelty and inexperience and it’s like that for everyone at first and try, try again? No. Did I want to huck my stupid clods of clay across the room like my kid had with his wheelies? Yes. Yes, I did.

I did not throw any clay (anywhere other than on the wheel, I mean), and I did try, try again. And ultimately, I emerged with a little more humility and a lot more empathy for my son, and the way the world must seem to him, almost every day, almost all the time. A den of challenge and frustration and occasional triumph.

I also emerged with a single, malformed piece. Neither bowl nor plate, but some strange hybrid of the two.

Come to think of it, it would make an excellent ashtray.

A Pushcart Prize nominee, Shannon Kelley’s work has appeared in Elle, The Washington Post, Vogue, Aeon, and others. When not busy momming or working her day job at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, she can be found cooking, reading, or putting the finishing touches on her debut novel. She writes about books very irregularly at

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