We are not machines

Illustration by Rajesh Saraswati

I went to a pottery class last week, and we spent most of the time learning how to softly shape the outer edges of the teapot body while supporting the insides with our other hand. My hands felt too big and clumsy, and the teapot kept sinking down because the bottom could not support the weight that I had piled on top.

Then when I was done, the instructor handed us an already flattened clump of clay, set it in the deepest groove of our hands and told us to cut it to fit the opening of our teapot. “That will become the lid,” she said and gave no further direction.

I sat there frozen, holding onto my pottery knife and this round piece of clay. I had made the teapot without even thinking about how big the top had to be. I wondered how the hell I was supposed to cut out a perfect circle to fit the size of the teapot opening. I wondered if there was a stencil. I wondered if I was supposed to hold it over the teapot then try to trace it the best I could. I wondered if I was supposed to get a compass and make a circle.

Then I happened to look over at the instructor. And I saw her carve a circle into her piece of clay. No tools, just a free-hand drawing of a circle-like shape. She didn’t look up from her clay, but in between slicing off certain edges, holding it over the teapot to measure the size, then taking it back to adjust it again, she said, “우리는 기계가 아니에요. 인간이에요. 완벽하지 않아도 괜찮아요.”

We’re not machines. We’re human. It’s okay if it’s not perfect.

It felt like she was talking to me. I silently grabbed my knife and started carving. I keep thinking back to that moment. The assumptions I made about how creation should happen, how mistakes still strike fear in me, and how her words can apply to so many of the situations that I find myself in these days.

* * *

The more I grow, both physically and emotionally, I realize how important that process is and how important creation is. And how our society minimizes these acts because they do not fit into the capitalist goal of maximum production. But we are not machines. Our productivity does not have a steady rate that can be calculated, and we don’t produce more just by spending more hours at a certain task.

We’re more complicated than a simple input (x) —> output (y)
kind of linear function.

We require physical rest, emotional connections, daydreaming, food, laughter, purpose. And all of these things prevent us from fitting neatly into a machine model. I don’t think I really understood how this idea of “productivity” led to my habits of overworking myself, pushing myself too far, not scheduling in breaks — because that’s what always worked and got me to places that others deemed to be “successful.” Now I realize that it was because I had run myself down as if I was not human — as if I were a machine — and that was what they valued.

I think that’s why I’m looking for more opportunities to engage in creative work — like gardening, writing, pottery, music. I am slowly learning how the input of my time, energy, and thoughts never directly lead to a final, marketable product. And how the process of creation is so different each time. The same amount of time, energy, and thoughts might create a completely different “product” on a certain day, for a certain person, in a certain time — or perhaps no complete “product” at all.

Acts of creation are like looking capitalism in the eye and declaring, “I cannot be defined by your standards; I am fundamentally un-quantifiable.” It brings into question the capitalist process of quantifying or commercializing labor. How to put a monetary price tag on food / pottery / art / music / time that do not have set quantifiable labor inputs.

And more importantly, each time I create — kneading the clay and smoothing out its cracks — I feel the energy and warmth radiating from the tips of my fingers, and it shifts my understanding of cost, value, and worth — especially of myself.

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Image description:

Two worn hands are holding a clay teapot. The right hand has a pink bandage on it. The background, which features three teapots and three robot hands, is blue in contrast to the warm tones of the person working with clay.

About Rajesh Saraswati:

Rajesh Saraswati is an illustrator based out of Northern California currently creating comics and apparel. See their art at art-twink.tumblr.com or on Instagram or facebook under the same name.

About Juhee Kwon:

Juhee is a queer diasporic korean from the midwest, currently living in Seoul and pursuing traditional korean medicine.