News & Observer


The best use of her time
Author: Mary E. Miller; Staff Writer
March 9, 2003

HILLSBOROUGH–Most children learn to read a clock face before they learn to read the simplest sentence. Telling time is as easy as writing your name. But knowing time — how much we have and what we want to do with it — takes a lot longer to master.

No matter how fast the hands spin, we always think we’ve got time in spades. Plenty more to get around to do this, to become that. Have the baby at 40. Start the new career at 55. Do it later. Sure, sure, just as soon as I finish Po Bronson’s best seller, “What Should I Do With My Life?”

I didn’t even think to ask Vera Shanley if she’d read the book when I visited her last week. She doesn’t need to read it. Here is a woman who has realized that figuring out who you are and what you should do takes exactly as long as you live, right down to the last second and last heartbeat. What matters is the awareness that you can’t spend all your time on maybe thoughts and someday plans. Or, she might say, work the clay while it’s wet.

Shanley is 48 years old, a pediatric anesthesiologist turned potter. She grew up on a farm near Monroe, outside Charlotte, started college with plans to become a nurse and became a doctor instead. Three years ago, she closed her lucrative private medical practice in Atlanta and moved to a 36-acre farm in Hillsborough with her husband, Jim, an executive with Bank of America in Charlotte. She felt she had to change her life. Not that her life was bad; she had a busy practice, good friends, love — the stuff we’re all wired to pursue. But she was working 60 to 80 hours a week and wondering what other passions she might have that she didn’t even know about.

So in the thick of her life, the questions and yearnings that haunt most of us — Is this all my life is going to be about? What else can I offer the world? What else can I offer myself? — became even greater than another drive that’s wired into us from a young age: achieve, succeed and maintain. Shanley’s answers changed her life.

Now she travels the world as a volunteer with Interplast, a nonprofit group of medical professionals who perform free facial reconstructive surgeries on people in Third World countries. She makes about three trips a year to such far-flung places as Burma, Nepal, Tibet, Bolivia and Peru. Then she comes home and channels the experiences from her travels into her pottery, most of which are simple utilitarian pieces to be used every day. Her farm and her business, she named Second Wind.

“Maybe it was a little bit of a midlife crisis,” she says, laughing. But it was like what Thoreau said — I didn’t want to get to the end of my life and find out that I hadn’t really lived.”

With her slim, athletic build and long dark hair, she looks girlish, much younger than her age. She wasn’t jet-lagged when I visited her Tuesday at her farm, although she was just one full day back from spending two weeks in Vietnam with Interplast. You get the idea that Shanley is rarely at rest. Even when she’s not making pottery, her hands are in constant motion, knitting socks, crocheting, sewing, petting her beloved Shelties, Maggie and Jesse.

Her home is all light and books, beautiful wood and pieces of pottery, windows to afford sweeping views of the rolling pastures. Yellow sticky notes with Spanish words decorate every surface. She is teaching herself the language, something else she always wanted to do.

We talked a lot about how much deeper her life feels from working on the Interplast trips, and from exploring her more creative side. On her most recent trip, the Interplast team treated about 140 patients, mostly children with cleft palates and lips, with ptosis (droopy eye), and also lots of women and men with burns. They operated from sunup until late in the evening. It is a humbling experience, she says, to see how little others have, and yet how much they make of their lives.

In the few hours when the teams aren’t working, Shanley photographs people. And she goes looking for local pottery. Both serve as inspiration. In her studio, she keeps an arresting photo of an 8-year-old girl she saw in Nepal. Next to it, one of her teapots.

At home, she works several hours every day, and on Saturday mornings she sells her work at the Hillsborough Farmers Market. Her pieces reflect simplicity and function — teapots, bowls, casseroles, pitchers, mugs, plates — and sell for about $20 to more than $50 for a large casserole. Part of her studio is a gallery that operates on the honor system.

Customers can drop by and leave payment in a bowl. It is her way to give back from what she gets from her life, she says.

She acknowledged that having a well-paying job and a spouse with one affords opportunities not everyone can take. But that didn’t mean changing her life was an easy thing to do, or a decision she made quickly. The truth is, she and Jim spent at least five years asking themselves if they had enough money to make the change. And she spent one whole year worrying about how others would react to her when she was no longer “Dr. Shanley” first and foremost.

“I spent so much time worrying over that, then pretty quickly discovered that people are generally so involved in their own lives that they couldn’t care less what you’re actually doing for a living,” she says.
And what she is doing now is exactly what she wants to be doing — for now.

“I’ve been haunted my whole life about the reason I am here,” she says. “I did the medical school thing, I became a doctor, and I loved it, and I still love that — but I couldn’t help but think that there was more to me than the ability to make money. I love what I do now, but that’s not to say I’ll be doing it 10 years from now.”

She doesn’t think she’ll ever not have that drive to seek possibilities. She calls it, laughingly, a curse. I call it a blessing.

“It is what it is,” she says, “just the way I’m wired. I guess there are lots of other people wired that way, too.”
I think so. Not all of us can say we have enough to make a giant life change. And not all of us require that level of change. But one thing everybody has at least some of is time. Maybe the beginning of seeking the answer is as simple as reading the books you’ve always wanted to. Or taking a class.

The point is, we really can’t afford not to ask the question: What else can we offer ourselves — and the world?