Talk about art by artists usually bores me. Perhaps that’s because I’m more interested in what art has to say about life than about art. But with Mary Caroline Richards such distinctions are moot: her art and her life are helplessly, elegantly entwined.

Richards — or M.C., as she is known — is a freelance potter, author, poet, and teacher. I remember my excitement years ago when I discovered her first book, Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and the Person. Here was a practical mystic, a stunningly original thinker who offered us the process of centering clay on a potter’s wheel as a metaphor for centering the opposites in our lives:

“As you go out, you come in, you always come into center, bringing the clay into center; you press down, squeeze up, press one hand into the other, bringing your material into center. . . . We bring our self into a centering function, which brings it into union with all other elements. This is love. This is destruction of ego, in that its partialities are sacrificed to wholeness. Then the miracle happens: when on center, the self feels different: one feels warm . . . , in touch, the power of life a substance like an air in which one lives and has one’s being with all other things, drinking it in and giving it off, at the same time quiet and at rest within it.”

It is an eloquent book, unpredictable and persuasive. Eschewing allegiance to any dogma, Richards is deeply religious without the trappings. To be truly creative, she insists, we must embrace life in all its glorious and painful contradictions. This means being clear-eyed and unsentimental about ourselves. “The transformations that await us cost everything in the way of courage and sacrifice,” she writes. “Let no one be deluded that a knowledge of the path can substitute for putting one foot in front of the other.”

Richards is also the author of The Crossing Point, a collection of her talks and writings, and Toward Wholeness: Rudolf Steiner Education in America. She became interested in Steiner — the Austrian scientist and philosopher who founded the Waldorf schools and inspired innovations in other fields — because of her belief that education shouldn’t sacrifice the imagination or a sense of the sacred.

Today, at seventy-one, Richards lives, teaches, and works at the Camphill Village for the Mentally Handicapped in Kimberton, Pennsylvania, which is based on Steiner’s teachings. She was in North Carolina recently, to give a workshop at Duke University, and we had a chance to talk briefly. Though tired, she endured my questions patiently, her answers thoughtful, her large, graceful hands moving through the air to make a point. What authority in those hands; what wild freedom. When she took my hands in hers, to say goodbye, I felt as embraced as if we had hugged.

— Sy Safransky
(with thanks to R. Haven Bourque)


THE SUN: So many people talk these days of being “centered.” Twenty-five years ago, when you wrote Centering, what did you mean by that term?

RICHARDS: “Centering” has become such jargon, connected with terminal states like “bliss” and “self-realization” and “peace.” People peer at their navels and ask themselves, “Am I centered?” When someone asks if I’m centered, I really don’t know what to say.

I use “centering” as a verb, to mean a continual process of uniting the opposites. Centering, for me, is the discipline of bringing in rather than leaving out; of saying yes to what is most holy as well as to what is most unbearable. The severity of that, as a discipline, is not widely understood; what is more commonly understood by the word “centering” is something much more trendy — something, I think, that addresses only one aspect of reality.

If I have given any originality to the term “centering,” it’s in the image of the potter’s wheel. When you use a wheel, in order to center the clay, you move it both down and up; you widen and narrow; you have both the expanding consciousness and the focus. This is part of its gloriousness and its mystery, too — that it has both of those qualities, of being inward and outward.

In The Crossing Point, I take those opposites and connect them with another image, that of the lemniscate — the geometric form of the figure eight. You have a figure eight which is not a line, but a plane: if you run your finger around the outside of the top loop, then through the crossing point, your finger ends up on the inside of the bottom loop. You have this marvelous law of the continuity of the opposites — the inner and outer — without any break.

I think it’s important for us to know that we are both inward and outward; that we live both in the soul-light within and the sun radiance without; that we are both earthly beings, with our feet on the ground, and beings of inspiration and imagination and weightlessness. We’re both. That’s our genius, and we must not be talked out of it. Of course, in the arts, one can particularly feel that. Anyone in the arts knows how much physical labor is involved and that you don’t actually have the thing until it’s made.

It takes a lot of work to bring dreams into physical expression. That’s what makes the arts such a natural paradigm for what human beings are. We’re artists, and life is an art. This connection between the vision and the practice is what makes it art; through the materials, the vision shines.

Centering, for me, is the discipline of bringing in rather than leaving out; of saying yes to what is most holy as well as to what is most unbearable. The severity of that, as a discipline, is not widely understood.

THE SUN: How have your own ideas about centering evolved?

RICHARDS: I am clearer, I hope, about the relationship of centering to evil. Previously, in describing centering as an embrace, as the discipline of bringing in and moving out, I had taken a sympathetic posture. But what about the antipathy? We also need to know how to resist.

I learned about antipathy through an illness. In the winter of 1975 I was in bed for seven weeks with respiratory problems. I was very weak and I was not getting better. One day, I said aloud, “I have no resistance.” I heard myself say it. It was a turning point.

In my own practice of centering, I had fallen into the error of an exaggerated sympathy, thinking that I should go to bed until I was well, and listen to the message the illness could give me. I was thinking positively, but without any awareness that the illness could be the end of me if I didn’t take some kind of action against it. Then I saw the importance of including in the centering a consciousness of resistance. It’s a process of continually integrating the elements, so that you’re also becoming conscious of the evil — that which is perilous, threatening to life.

THE SUN: A devotion to art, to the inner life, may make sense for the individual. But what does it have to do with larger concerns, with human suffering? How does it apply to us as social beings, as political beings?

RICHARDS: Well, we are political beings. We live in the world; we live in the world of politics. The inner life isn’t separate from that. What is the goal of the creativity one feels — and wishes to develop and help others to develop? Is it just to make more and more pots or take more and more pictures? Is that what it’s all about? I don’t think so. I think that as we become more creative, we move toward a concern with social justice and compassion. That’s the natural movement. We come, maybe through times of loneliness, toward experiencing the reality of another person. As we create, you might say, we are created. We move toward a deepened awareness of reality. Outwardly, we move toward social justice; inwardly we move toward compassion.

THE SUN: There’s a good deal of religious imagery in your work. How would you describe your own spiritual inclinations?

RICHARDS: In some respects, I’ve come to the place where the religious life for me means being attuned to the Earth as a living, breathing being. When you watch the cycles of the year, you see there’s actually an expansion and a contraction, and that there are creative energies of the Earth — and destructive energies.

I now live in an agricultural community, Camphill Village, which is very earth-oriented. Now there’s another community nearby, based on the handcrafts. One might wonder why I didn’t go there instead of doing this farming and gardening. Well, it’s totally different energy. In the handcrafts community there is much more nervous, emotional energy. The rhythms of the agricultural community are quite different, and are what I needed. I knew I had to go where my schooling could be continued. I needed to get my priorities clarified, and now I feel that I am connected in my daily life to the Earth. Unless the Earth can be healed, we won’t have any place to put our art. There won’t be an Earth if we don’t reconnect with its needs. It nourishes us, but it also needs to be nourished. It’s sadly depleted. So I find my religious life isn’t a special thing. I guess an integration has taken place, so that at any given moment there’s a paradox. There’s the paradox of living alone and yet being connected; there’s the paradox of being religious and yet unaffiliated with any institution; there’s the paradox of creating art and yet being aware that there is artistry in everything.

There are moments when I like to drink deeply in ritual. I went recently to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. I was so moved and filled by the music and the service, I asked myself, “Why do I think I can live without this?” It was so marvelous. Then there are times when I don’t need that. I do use images from Christian worship — finding them imaginatively real and moving. For example, I did seven clay low-relief plaques inspired by the imagery of what is known as Christ’s “I Am’s”: “I am the Light of the World,” “I am the Door,” “I am the Vine,” “I am the Living Bread,” “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” The plaques will hang in the Cathedral of St. John after Easter.

In the community where I live, there’s a strong relationship to the spiritual world through the work of Rudolf Steiner. At one time I studied Steiner a lot, and wrote a book about his theories of education. Steiner’s work not only inspired me but enriched my life. I now use color in writing, as a result of visiting the Waldorf schools and observing how children use color from the very beginning. At my workshops, we always work with color, color in relation to itself. To experience color for even ten minutes can be very refreshing. Spiritual awareness comes not through thinking about the angels, necessarily, but through something as basic as color — making some kind of contact with that reality we call color.

Consider words: more and more I have come to understand that words are non-verbal. Try asking yourself where the words are before you speak them. I think we make a mistake in trying to restrict a word into something that we can read about in a dictionary. A word is a being. Writing becomes a more intimate and inspired activity when you see you’re writing out of your substance, out of the mystery.

What is the goal of the creativity one feels — and wishes to develop and help others to develop? Is it just to make more and more pots or take more and more pictures? Is that what it’s all about? I don’t think so.

THE SUN: One of the paradoxes you mentioned earlier was living alone yet also being connected. Are you comfortable being alone?

RICHARDS: Yes, I’m comfortable with that. I liked it better when my life included a partner, so that aloneness was balanced with mutuality and relationship. I think that was more to my liking. But that isn’t the situation in my life at the moment — and it hasn’t been for a while. I decided I would learn to live alone — in the sense of not being intimate with another person, although I’ve always had the warmth of friendships. Then, there came a moment when I needed more community, so I came to live in the country village where I am now.

Life in community suits me very well. We have both privacy and interconnectedness. I don’t know if this is the last form that my life will take. But having lived by myself, and having developed strengths in myself, I come into community very differently now. When I was younger, I lived in two intentional communities, where there was a kind of dependency on what we called community. But when that was shaken, the relationships seemed insecure, and people started leaving. When you leave a community, it can be like being a fair-weather sailor. You feed on it, you are sustained by it, then if it isn’t able to give you what you want, you say, “Oh, this isn’t a good place to be. I think I’ll go somewhere else.”

THE SUN: Do you think that’s why most marriages don’t work?

RICHARDS: Very often. I’d say that was true for me. I didn’t understand that negative feelings between people are OK. I thought that if there was a negative feeling you had to get divorced. I’ve learned a lot about conflict. I like to say that peace is an art of war. It’s OK to be neither victorious nor defeated, to experience the continual energy of difference and conflict, which causes something in oneself to grow. As a potter, I use the image of the vessel. The vessel expands, so it can contain more and more of life and reality. It was T.S. Eliot who said that human beings cannot bear very much reality. At first, that sounded to me like he was putting us down, but that wasn’t really the case. I do think we have different capacities for reality in our lives. It’s a good idea to be honest and in touch with how much clay you have to work with. So when you’re making your vessel and stretching the clay, stretching it and stretching it, you know when you can’t go any further because the vessel will crack and split. You have to honor the potential of the material. Don’t try to push it into a theoretical generosity of which it isn’t capable.

Now, when I come to a community, I’m able to bring more independence into it. I’m able to say, now, that I’m in community wherever I am. I try to offer that to others. If you’re wanting to build a community, you don’t have to wait for some ideal situation. You can do it wherever you are. That’s quite a different constellation of feelings from those I had when I was a lot younger. The aloneness and the connection are more like tides in your sea. You can feel separate tides. Sometimes you need to be by yourself, doing whatever you need to do — whether it’s working on something or just resting or pondering. Sometimes you need to be with others — in the kitchen helping to prepare the meal, in the garden working, or doing an open studio session. The tide flows in; the tide flows out. These needs play back and forth.

THE SUN: Do you have children?

RICHARDS: I was not able to bear children because of a physical condition, though I tried hard. But it wasn’t in the cards.

However, I did enjoy a stepdaughter for five years when I was living and working at Black Mountain College. She and her father left, and I didn’t see her for thirty years. Then there came a point when I didn’t want that estrangement to go on forever. It was important to heal that. I wanted to change my karma, you might say. So I found out where she was, and I wrote to her. We met. Of course I didn’t look that much different: my hair was gray and my face was lined, but I still had the same shape and features. But she had changed from a skinny little twelve-year-old girl to a full-grown matron of forty-two. I just wanted to apologize for being such a lousy mother. But she told me it wasn’t nearly as bad as I feared.

THE SUN: Can you imagine being married again?

RICHARDS: Yes. Oooh, I just had goose pimples all the way down to my ankles. Isn’t that amazing — how one’s body and soul are so connected.

I couldn’t really think of it for many years after the end of my last relationship. That was in 1964, when I decided to break the pattern of dependency and learn to live alone.

THE SUN: So twenty-four years later, you feel ready to try it again?

RICHARDS: Well, I allowed myself to be touched by a person, not so long ago. It gave me a different sense of myself, which I like — I could feel that my heart is not hard or hardened.

It’s strange — I don’t really experience myself as old. I look in the mirror and I see that I look like a senior citizen, yet I don’t feel particularly old. But there are stereotypes about what is suitable in terms of sex and romance. Every once in a while I think, “Oh, maybe I’m too old!” When you have all those wrinkles and white hair, and your body isn’t so beautiful, you think maybe you shouldn’t allow your fantasies to continue. So I have that bit of momentary self-consciousness.

But it was nice to feel that release, to know that whatever needed to heal has healed. So I’m free to do some other foolish thing.

THE SUN: What do you understand differently now about loving another person?

RICHARDS: Your question brings to mind a Zen saying, “Now that I’m enlightened I’m just as miserable as ever.” For one thing, I understand that I still have to struggle with possessiveness, jealousy, and anxiety. And that I mustn’t be embarrassed, horrified, and depressed when I feel fear as well as joy, and think, “Oh, why can’t I just feel the joy!” You see how helpful the centering discipline can be in dealing with the polarities of our nature? I thought I would outgrow my needs for reassurance, and maybe I will — certainly they are not so extreme as in the past. I would really like to have the generosity of love to say, “Yes, my dear, you may do just as you like.” But I’m not quite there yet. In the spirit of centering, I put my arms around the shoulders of my fear and sing my song. [Sings softly.] “Sit with me at table, oh my fear. Sit with me at table, oh my fear. Sit with me at table, oh my fear. Give yourself to me, oh my fear. And I will marry thee.”

I also have a better sense of humor now, which I think makes a big difference. And I have more of an openness for letting the mind play the way it does, in a very wide field, instead of insisting to another person, “But what you said was. . . .” As if the mind had no craziness. I think I’m much more prepared now for what is wild and nameless in a human being, along with what is elegant and proper and aspiring. I like that, even though it’s full of risk.