empty vessels

A few years ago, I started collecting bowls.

I started with a footed, bamboo, tobacco-stained bowl. Free of lacquer, its deep red surface mimics velvet to the eye. Graceful, steep sides beckon to be cradled by two hands, and its feather weight always surprises.

There’s a low, wide piece rescued from a going-out-of-business sale. The sturdy, utile shape is formed of rusted metal bracketed by bright, heavy brass handles.

There’s a flat aluminum bowl with flowers and foliage forged into its rim. I once left it filled with salt that pitted and stained its surface in a way that has left it worthless to the marketplace but priceless to my eye.

I have an earthenware crock that started terracotta, then was white and now is black with chips and divots that lay its past bare. There’s a rim set inside the lip that must have once held a lid. My mother salvaged it from the crumbling log cabin that was my family’s first home on this farm when they arrived 110 years ago and it is made from clay that looks suspiciously like the “Temple Hill Clay” that is the soil in this area.

I have one friend who understands this little collection and has added to it with treasures from her travels: carved stone bowls from the Rocky Mountains. A small rounded wooden square lined with pearly shell from the East coast. A beautifully simple small black wooden bowl from her exploration of a museum I work near but have never visited.

I have shelves and walls and cupboards full of vessels. Empty vessels.

My family doesn’t know about it. One or two truly trusted friends know about it. And I like it that way. It’s not just any bowl that calls to me.

In my everyday life, I have little use for massive bowls, or tiny decorative ones. But as I prepare to take food to a family gathering, or make ready to have guests in my home, one of my favorite things is to stand in the middle of my living room and look around for the perfect bowl for the occasion.

You see, my bowls aren’t about collecting so much as they are about preparing. Forethought. Welcome and hospitality. I have been raised in a family where the competition at the holidays isn’t about who gets the best gift, but who gives the best gift.

My empty vessels await being filled in service to the people I love.

And they look pretty, too.

This is Shelley, 35, looking for something to put in this bowl in Iowa.