Maw Shein Win: In Praise of the Vase

Vase created by artist Vince Montague:

Every Saturday  morning, my husband Tom goes to Trader Joe’s in El Cerrito Plaza for our groceries: brown rice, granola, strawberries, blue cheese, mandarins, wine, and flowers. Bundles of nasturtiums, sunflowers, lilies. Or blazing red chrysanthemums and baby’s breath.

He buys two bouquets, one for the vase on our dining room table and the other for two more vases, one on the console and the other for the countertop. For the flowers that still have life in them from the past week, I trim the ends and place them in a small vase on the coffee table.

I’ve always kept vases wherever I’ve lived. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, Tokyo. Cheap glass vases from the Dollar Store to one-of-a-kind ceramic vessels artfully made by local potters. In our IKEA case are two shelves dedicated to clay cups and pots.

When Tom returns from the shopping run, my task is to take care of the flowers. I slit the packaging and the band around the stems. I carefully carry the vase, heavy with dank water and lilting blooms, to the sink. The act of holding the vase, feeling its low ridges and Wabi Sabi indentations, feels sacred. I carry with intention and focus.

As a full-time teacher, I plant myself at our dining room table in our condo near the Del Norte BART. Surrounded by books, files, piles of papers, a cup of coffee and a glass of water. I face a window from our second floor and see an orange tabby dash across the street, a masked teenager on roller skates, and ravens perched on rooftops.

One constant in my vision is a handmade vase filled with a bouquet that rests on the right side of my dining room table desk. It is bulbous-shaped in the bottom half with the upper half gently smoothed to its rounded opening. Thin black painted streaks interspersed with pale yellow swaths and a deep orange glaze in the middle. Smooth to the touch but deceptively heavy in weight.

I gaze at this vase with its blooms throughout the day, the week, the months. This vase was made by my longtime friend, poet and potter Vince Montague. He lives in Cloverdale, California in a tidy cabin filled with books and clay pots. His home rests on the top of a high hill. Nearby is a small winery and the surrounding land is dotted with silver sage and wandflowers, coral drops and manzanita trees. Two kilns sit like mighty lionesses next to his studio. Each holds a clay llama that serves as a kiln god for the firings. The vase is a connection of not only our friendship but our creative lives.

The vase is an everyday blessing. Utility and beauty. A counterpoint to the digital. An open container of life.


Maw Shein Win

Maw Shein Win’s poetry chapbooks are Ruins of a glittering palace (SPA/Commonwealth Projects) and Score and Bone (Nomadic Press). Invisible Gifts: Poems was published by Manic D Press in 2018. Win is the first poet laureate of El Cerrito, California (2016 - 2018). Her full-length poetry collection Storage Unit for the Spirit House  (Omnidawn) was longlisted for the 2021 PEN America Open Book Award and nominated for a Northern California Book Award for Poetry. She often collaborates with visual artists, musicians, and other writers and was a Spring 2021 ARC Poetry Fellow at UC Berkeley.

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