Back to School, the signs say. My kids have never gone to school, but this year the signs are for me.

Our long Labor day weekend at the lake — with my grandma, parents, husband and kids — was, as always, the last gasp of summer. Cooler nights have made the lake too chilly for swimming, but we swam anyway, before pulling in the rafts and docks and rolling up the awnings. We can still go up and visit, enjoy the fall color and do some kayaking, gather nuts and make a fire in the fireplace, but summer is done. The boats and skiers circling the lake were mostly cottage people, giving it one last run before closing up for the season.

Ever since I was a little kid, I have felt sad about Labor day at the lake. The geese are making practice flights — already? When did the fireflies disappear? Did I bring a sweater? Summer meant freedom, trees to climb and bikes to ride. The end of it had a sense of gravity… time to get back to work. 

In my studio at home, I’m glazing shelves full of bisque, but with a sense of obligation and no real joy, as if the pots to come have already made these less interesting. I moved my wheels from the covered porch back indoors, setting up for private wheel students who will start next week. I’m also sorting boxes of tools, packing up duplicated for the studio at EMU, putting my indispensable ones in a tool box to haul from here, to the guild, to school and back. 

Three MFA students will share a nice big room in Sill hall, around the corner from the rest of the clay studio. We’ll work and learn and hang out in the main studio, where the action is, taking advantage of all that good cross-pollination. But we’ll also have our own room, our own shelves, work tables and coffee pots for “personal space”. It’s a pretty sweet deal.

I keep thinking about that room. Reem started working over the summer, and Patrick moved in a week ago and already has rows of pots drying on his shelves, but I don’t start until Monday night. So I am mostly planning, still.

I thought a lot about what makes a good space, for me. Good lighting is one. The room has no windows, and high institutional flourescents give me kind of a tinny headache after a while, even if they don’t whine. Good air is another biggie, as I get asthmatic in winter months… and a cool breeze, as I am apparently entering the era of the hot flash. Clean space is nice, and keeps the dust down as well.

So I picked up a cheap little tower air filter that blows clean air at face-level… a couple of the plants my library book says are very good for air quality… a plant light, and a daylight-lamp… a white board and a cork board. 

I was on campus last Friday for grad assistant orientation. Then this morning, since I had to drop off my  I-9 tax form at the grad school, I made another trip to Ypsi.

We went right after breakfast, the three kids and I. My house is more and more like that automated house in one of Ray Bradbury’s short stories. The reading lights over my kids’ beds are on timers, and go on just before bedtime, snapping themselves off right at ten.  Then they go back on at eight, to wake everyone up for the day. A timer starts the coffee, a timer has the oatmeal ready in a crock pot, and after a summer (ok, more like a decade) of sleeping until we felt like getting up, the house is now running on schedule. Tyler jokes that it’s like military school, but I guessed that at West Point, they probably would frown on his coming to class barefoot, in pajamas, with a cup of milk-with-coffee, and his shaggy red hair standing up in a wild assortment of cowlicks. And that for sure his brother would not be allowed to come to breakfast with a pet rat in the hood of his sweater, or take his math outside to do it in the treehouse.

Anyway, this morning they packed their homeschool stuff into book bags, filled water bottles, and loaded themselves into the van. It’s 45 miles exactly from my driveway to Eastern Michigan University’s campus, but Michigan highways post a 70 mph speed limit, so it goes quickly. It’s not especially scenic, though the goldenrod fringes the ditches, and the corn, wheat and beans are going golden.

My kids are skilled at spotting hawks, at intervals, and know the landmarks along the way… Cabela’s, with the cool taxidermy.. the Milan penitentiary, full of dark stories, and ringed with guard towers and razor wire… besides that, it’s mostly a changing array of bloated roadkill raccoons, and the thrown treads of semi truck tires like black alligators sunning on the gravel shoulder.

Both boys were done with the book part of their homeschooling before we got to EMU (leaving computer stuff, piano/sax practice and Tae Kwon Do practice for the afternoon.) My Molly, though, has her mother’s infinite distractability, and spent more time looking at cloud shapes, losing and finding her pencils, and asking random questions that seem to come from nowhere. What do the lyrics mean in “Uncle John’s Band”? Is the sugar alcohol in this gum the same kind that makes people drunk? Why don’t school busses have seat belts? Why do turkey vulture wing tips look like fingers?

We pulled into a campus parking lot near the absurdly phallic EMU water tower, which I alternatively think of as a silo or a big thermos. I love that the first building I see on campus is the old Normal Training School, a teachers college founded in the late 1800s. My father’s mother lied about her age and started school there at 16, in 1916, on her way to teaching at a country school in Petersburg, Michgan. I have her old dorm regulations book around here, somewhere… as I recall, extreme hairdressing and use of face powder was grounds for dismissal from the university, back then. I am not sure what they would have made of piercings, tattoos, and that visible expanse of skin between shirt bottoms and jeans-tops.

We beeped our support at the striking profs along the road, looking for Diana Pancioli among them. The kids know her, as she sat at my kitchen table last spring and critiqued the pots I kept bringing from my cupboards and studio… and then months later invited them for lunch at her house when she helped me photograph my work for submission.

I know that a large percentage of EMU students are “non-traditional”, but you sure wouldn’t know by walking across campus. It has been 20 years since I started my last degree, and I had forgotten that odd world where everybody seems to be in their 20s. No babies, no old people, no families. One student saw our little parade, laughed and asked my kids what they were majoring in…

Once my paperwork was turned in at the grad school, we dropped off some homemade elderberry jam and peach fruit leather on Diana’s doorstep, and went to Sill Hall to my new studio space. The kids helped me carry my stuff — the air filter, lights, mop and plants — and I used my brand new key to open the door.

Nobody else was around. We were there for maybe an hour. Tyler set to unpackaging the gadgets, reading instructions and assembling parts, while Molly set to work on the wide, canvas topped table with a fat wet sponge. We soaked and scrubbed up a layer of slip and then squeegeed it off with a borrowed metal yardstick, several times, until it looked pretty clean. They took turns mopping, and argued over the sponges to wipe down drawer fronts and shelves.

Meanwhile I hung a plant over my space and a plant light above that, and set up the lamp and air filter in a corner of the table. (It was 80F in there, so the breeze was delicious for my hardworking crew.) I put some of Connor’s artwork on the cork board — a sketch of one of my teapots — and stuck a copy of my schedule up for anyone who might want to find me.

And that — so far — is it. No ceramics monthly posters, not yet, anyway. It’s a blank slate, a place for ideas to form. I did have one odd thing in my bag that I left on the shelf to think about later. It’s something I came across in a cluttered, odd-smelling little Asian food store — a glass jar of tiny silver fish, maybe half an inch long, packed in perfect rows against the glass. I have no idea why I went back to buy it, except that I had seen it on the shelf a month ago and had thought about it several times since. Some things just seem to volunteer themselves to your attention, like odd dreams, and ask to be thought about. So there it waits, for me to have a block of time set aside just for thinking about pattern, and shape, tessilation and repetition.

I am determined to come to my MFA with an empty cup to be filled, and avoid the tempation to declare who I am and where I am too quickly, or trot out my best tricks like I am auditioning. I’ve already been accepted into the program, and what will happen next seems more important to me than what is happening now. The bisque on the shelves in my studio is fine, and competent, and somebody will buy it… but making the commitment to spend two years stretching my boundaries means I plan to start from scratch, and not haul a lot of baggage behind me. Including concerns about whether someone will buy it.

That’s a little scary, though.  Patrick, Reem and I sat in the silence of the big empty studio the friday before classes began, talking about new territory.

Reem has been doing sculptural raku work in Libya. Now she’s in a new country, with new clay, new materials, new firing temps and a whole new language and culture.

Patrick is a big old soft-spoken southerner, accustomed to country living and ^10 gas kilns… now he’s in for Michigan winters, and a whole new approach to firing.

I am a backyard potter who, after a decade of tinkering, has finally started to come up with a workable palette of ^6 glazes for my electric kilns. Again, not on the menu at EMU.

All three of us are looking at a brand new box of unfamiliar tools. Terra cotta. Maiolica. ^6 reduction. Wood. And the new salt/soda kiln we built over the summer, and have — as yet — no idea how to fire.

But I am proud of us, already. It takes some courage to leave the place where you feel competent and familiar, and set out on a new adventure knowing you’ll be –at best — an awkward tourist, for a while. But Diana is smart, and we are hungry, and this whole journey just can’t begin soon enough to suit me.

If all goes as planned, and the strike is settled, and “lord willing, and the creek don’t rise” — I’ll be making my first batch of clay next Monday. 

For now, though, my task is to get the household running like a well oiled machine, meals planned and lessons planned, chores charted and schedules laid out so that whether they’re with mom, dad, or grandma, my kids can continue to homeschool and play sports, gather with friends, eat healthy meals, play their music and get lots of fresh air andexercise. I am willing to give up a lot of things for the two years I’ve carved out for this MFA, but only if the people I love most are doing OK.

It’s probably good timing. My kids are pretty independent, and there are a lot of areas where I should maybe step back and let them be. I have tried hard not to be the stereotypical homeschooling “hover mother”, but it’s tough. It’s like when they were little, and I’d realize I was tying a kid’s shoes out of habit, when he knew how to tie his own.  They grow up at such a dizzying pace, it’s hard for a mom to keep track of all the ways her assistance has become superfluous.

Today, anyway, they had a nice day. At dinner, they told their dad all about their adventures in the world of college, and their lunch at a little campus sub shop, and how they got me all set up in my studio space. When I am not here, for a few dinners, and one overnight a week, they will know where I am, and can imagine what I am doing there. It helps to have a phone in my purse. I am sure I will be glad for it when my kids are driving, and dating, and otherwise making me a nervous wreck.

Now, though, I am up past my scheduled bedtime, and my new fancy simulated-dawn alarm clock will be waking me at 8 am with bird songs and bright light. The plan is to fool my inner rhythms into thinking it’s still summer, and ward off seasonal blues. Deep down I suspect those ten minutes of light bulb and canned tweeting in the morning won’t win over dark mornings and grey, sleety days… but I’m an optimist. And late for bed.