Next to a popup canopy under which colorfully glazed bowls, coffee cups, flowerpots and other pieces of clay pottery are scattered on tables, a gray-haired man sits hunched over a pottery wheel.
The tanned knees sticking out of his shorts provide elbow rests for hands that are covered in clay, dry and a lighter color around his wrists but dark, thick and wet on the fingers he uses to draw the lump of clay up and out as the wheel spins.
"Coffee cups are like jewelry," he says as the clay takes shape. Beauty and functionality are in the eye of the beholder.
"Some people want to have a handle for one finger; some want a handle big enough for two fingers. In fact, one guy wanted to put three fingers into the handle. I made it, but it looked like a pot with a handle."
Bowls of benevolence
The potter who has set up shop on Beach Boulevard, in front of the Casino, at the Gulfport Tuesday Fresh Market is 74-year-old McCabe Coolidge, a longtime part-time Gulfport resident who recently took up permanent residence.
"These are like babies," he says as he makes a cup. "You have to pay attention to these things."
The deliberateness of his clay molding both reflects and belies the long and winding road down which life has taken him since he was born outside Battle Creek, Mich.
Its divergent path is not unlike the clay that continually changes shape in his fingers. But the constant in his life, like the spinning wheel on which he works, has always been humanitarianism, most recently helping out Pinellas County Habitat for Humanity.
He makes functional, high-fired stoneware bowls, food-, dishwasher-, oven- and microwave-safe, to give as housewarming gifts to every member of every family that moves into a Habitat home in Pinellas. He started in March and has already made and given about 65 bowls to Habitat families.
"All bowls are glazed differently and I also include small bowls for children in the family," he said.
"I am part of the food chain with my pottery — in a good way.
"The best part is when I have kids watch me who stare and ask questions. I don't want the whole world to lose track of how to do things. These are one of the few things that are still done with hands."
Losing a child
Before using his hands to make beautiful pieces of clay, he used his hands to tap and pat the chest of his daughter, Robin, who was born with cystic fibrosis, a progressive, genetic disease that causes a thick buildup of mucus in the lungs that makes it hard to breathe. Gentle patting on the chest and back for 10 minutes four times a day — "percussion therapy" — helped clear Robin's airways to make it easier for her to breathe in her short life.
She died in 1976 at age 6. Coolidge was devastated.
"It's horrendous to lose a child at age 6," he said. "There was no place to go for solace."
Forty years later, he still sees his life in two stages: life before Robin died and life after.
It was a good friend of the family who recognized Coolidge's need to do something with his hands after they were no longer needed to ease his daughter's pain.
She suggested pottery. She was taking a class herself. He agreed to go. He wasn't very good at first, he said, but he learned to be patient, that mistakes are natural.
That pottery class was the beginning of Coolidge readjusting his place in the world, his role in life.
"I no longer needed security. My role was no longer my career," he said.
What he needed were solitude and peace.
He found that peace by helping others, a vocation he had turned to during other troubling periods in his life.
A life of learning
During the Vietnam War, McCabe was in the Peace Corps. He was sent to Bolivia, where he lived in a Roman Catholic monastery with nuns and brothers.
"We prayed every day; that sustained me. It was chaotic outside; I needed inner peace."
Upon his return, he decided he wanted to continue in the church but as an Episcopal minster not a Catholic priest. He studied at the Virginia Theological Seminary while remaining active in the peace movement.
By this time, he and his wife, Cathy, had two daughters, both severely handicapped. Robin was born in 1970 with cystic fibrosis. Molly was born a year later with cerebral palsy and mental retardation. They moved to North Carolina, where Coolidge attended Duke Divinity School and moonlighted as a marketing manager with a life insurance company.
After getting his theology degree in 1973, he got a job at an Episcopal church in Chapel Hill, N.C. It was three years later, when Coolidge was working at a church in Cary, N.C., that Robin died — and his world collapsed.
He was like a rudderless ship looking for solid ground.
He kept his ties to the church, working part time, as he and his wife restored and rebuilt an abandoned farmhouse in Chatham County, N.C.
From there, they began buying, fixing up and repurposing tobacco barns into homes.
To help other parents who had lost children, they created the Recompense Retreat Center. They created a community farm. He worked as a chaplain for families of handicapped children. The couple adopted a third child, Angie, in 1978.
And yet, inner peace continued to elude him.
He took a sabbatical from the church and built a wooden sailboat in Beaufort, N.C.
He took another sabbatical to attend the Harvard Summer School of Dance, where he studied improvisational dance.
He took his love of dancing home, finding a dance space for workshops. It was relatively smooth sailing for a while. Molly moved into a group home. Angie went to college.
And then, another storm surge. In 1993, the year his dad died, the Coolidges' marriage ended.
"The divorce rate for parents of handicapped children is 90 percent," he said.
"It was a call to the wild. I had to get away from everything."
And so, he packed up and moved to Chicago, where he lived and worked with the homeless and those dying of AIDS.
But dance remained a bright spot in his life, and it was at a dance conference that he met his second wife, Karen. They moved back to North Carolina — "I love that state" — and, in 1995, bought an old Victorian house in Asheville for homeless people who were HIV positive. They formed a dance troupe and did improvisational dance workshops.
A few years later, they lived on a sailboat in Alameda, Calif., while Karen got her degree to be a Unitarian Universalist minister from the University of California, Berkeley. Coolidge worked at a day center for the homeless and took writing classes.
They returned to Greenville, N.C., in 2001 when Karen took a job with the Unitarian Universalist Church.
Finally, joy, then . . .
In 2006, they moved to Floyd, Va., which is near Roanoke. Karen continued her work with the church, but pottery took center stage in their lives. They opened a gallery-studio at a local arts center. They sold the pottery they both enjoyed making and taught classes in clay and creativity.
They continued their work to eradicate hunger. They raised money through the Empty Bowls Project, in which people paid $15 for a bowl of soup in a handmade ceramic bowl they got to keep. They donated the proceeds to the Backpack Project, in which they filled backpacks with food for kids to take home. They co-founded an organization called Plenty! to provide access to fresh, healthy food to poor families in Appalachia.
In the midst of helping others, Coolidge was struck by a tragedy of his own. He got Lyme disease from a tick bite.
If treated early enough, the symptoms of the disease — fatigue, pain and joint and muscle aches — often go away. However, in Coolidge's case, they didn't, likely because his 2006 bite went undiagnosed for a year. His joint pain continues. He said he sometimes loses his cognitive ability. That's because untreated or undertreated symptoms of the disease can make the bacteria associated with it go into hiding in different parts of the body only to reappear later, according to lymedisease.org, a nonprofit that advocates for education, research and treatment of tick-borne diseases.
Coolidge said he has had six more infections since being diagnosed. The flareups, his doctor told him in 2015, were not helped by the cold temperatures in the mountains of Virginia. He needed to live somewhere warm.
And, that's how McCabe Coolidge's winding life path brought him here permanently, continuing a lifetime of altruism, making bowls for new owners of Habitat for Humanity homes.
Contact Patti Ewald at [email protected]
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The organization McCabe Coolidge and his wife, Karen, co-founded is called Plenty!