Ramah Commanday Remembers

A SUMMER AT BIG CREEK——-When I was a little kid, I saw an amazing cartoon one Saturday morning. In it, all the cartoon characters suddenly realized that they were cartoon characters—and as such, they could do anything they wanted. They flew, they time-traveled, they disappeared, they reappeared. I loved it.

Sitting on the hill at Big Creek at the end of one summer day in 1971, I remembered that cartoon. The McDougals reminded of those liberated characters. Bruce and Marcia seemed to have a remarkable gift of knowing that they could do anything they wanted. And they did it. That was Big Creek, and that was the message to all of us who wanted nothing more–or less–than to be in a beautiful place and make wonderul things out of clay.

I was 19 and this was the summer between my junior and senior years at UC Santa Cruz. It was the summer that we built and fired the Salt Kiln, the summer that we invented Beet Cake (to combat the garden’s overwhelming bumper crop), the summer that we piled into an old green panel truck (or was it a station wagon?) and rumbled out to Tassajara to strip off our clothes and soak in the hotsprings. It was the summer spent kicking an old wooden wheel until I learned to make a set of bowls worth firing. I still have one of those bowls with its Shaner Blue-green glaze and its careful, careful curve. I still have Bruce’s words that ring every time I make a bowl today—describing the beauty of bowls that just “float off the table”, setting a kind of Platonic ideal that reminds my hand, reminds my eye, and guides the shape of the foot and curve of the belly.

There are plenty of experiences that get rosier as we remember them. There are plenty of experiences that would be a lot harsher if we didn’t remember them in this soft focus. But, for me, Big Creek glowed rosy as I lived it for those eight weeks. I knew it then, and, ironically, maybe that’s why I didn’t return there. I didn’t want that one, perfectly contained summer of fog and sunshine, smoke and garden vegetables, sweat and kickwheels, the image of that house with walls colored like Guatamalan weavings– to ever morph into anything else. I wanted to grow up and carry with me this idea that I could do anything, too. This meant that I’d have to find my own way to live in a beautiful place and make wonderful things out of clay.

And forty years on, I find myself, too, living in a beautiful place, making things out of clay—at least as wonderfully as I can.  After forty years, I’ve learned that people, unlike cartoon characters, can’t, in fact, do whatever they want to do. There are all those limits and frailties I didn’t think about then. But if, like Bruce and Marcia, the thing you want is worth doing, and if you pursue it with passion, intelligence and an immensely open spirit, it is amazing what you can get done and how many people you can inspire to take off in the same direction, on their own wings.

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Published in: on March 27, 2011 at 4:11 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Beautiful writing from a beautiful soul. Ramah is like the fine pottery she throws and the cup she once bequeathed to me—rich, timeless and every thing tastes better for having been cocooned in her warmth.

    A loving friend….Nancy Lee Segal

  2. Thanks for the lovely remembrance of those times. Although I was on the periphery of the pottery scene, having only thrown a few pieces under the guidance of mountaineer boat-builder Kim Tucker, I know Ramah from horseback riding (I took a nasty fall) and swimming in a thunderstorm outside of Tanglewood. I last saw her in Berkeley for lunch thirty years ago. It’s great to see that she is still alive and kicking (the wheel).

    Wayne Cartwright
    Quincy, CA


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