Monday, December 3, 2007

The brave music of the distant drum

Bob, at his 88th birthday party
“O the brave music of the distant drum!” —Omar Khayyam

When my husband and I began care-taking the property we live on in Big Sur (ten years ago this Spring) we were given a curious, extra responsibility.

Due to turn 90 on February 18, 2008, Bob Nash has lived in his particular spot, a tiny, bare-bones shack on the edge of the forest, since the early ‘70s. He actually arrived in Big Sur in 1951 and spent some years (as we say, served his time) living extremely simply, in shacks, tents, and under the redwoods, before landing on this piece of property.

He was friendly with famous ridge resident Henry Miller, often dining with him and observing the intellectual, bohemian world that Miller enjoyed. During this time Bob became inspired to become an artist.

He was a handyman/caretaker on Partington Ridge, while his wife Rosa (a former nun from a teaching order, the Immaculate Heart of Mary) was a tutor to several local children, now adults with children of their own. Bob tended roses in his small garden, removed rattlesnakes at the property owner’s request, made pottery and created thousands of his unique and mysterious “line drawings.”

Henry Miller wrote of Bob’s visual poems in his essay, “Journey to an Antique Land” and you can see more of Bob’s work on his very own web-site. He must be part of a very small subset of nonagenarians on the web, one of the few of his vintage who know how to use "google" as a verb.

Bob recalls seeing Henry Miller for the first time while sitting on a bench in the state park. Henry drove past him in his green Cadillac and someone said, reverentially, “that’s Henry Miller.” He eventually met Henry via Wynn Bullock, who he met because he was courting a woman named Virginia, who worked for Bullock.

In Miller’s Partington Ridge home in the ‘50s the talk around the table was of current events and philosophy. While others talked about themselves, Miller did not. A very personable man, in Bob’s view.

Bob’s background is pure Americana — his father was an Episcopal reverend in the Wyoming wilderness, where Bob was born. One of his favorite stories is of how, as a young boy, he met a bishop of the Episcopal Church, who told a story of Chief Joseph.

“I was born in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 1918. When I was four years old, my mother heard of a retired Episcopal Bishop of the Territory of Wyoming (prior to statehood in 1890) who would conduct a sermon in Kelly, a small town ten or fifteen miles north of Jackson Hole.

We went, and I remember nothing of the service, but afterwards there were maybe a dozen people standing around and I was introduced to the old gentleman. What a wonderful face he had! He must have been in his late 80’s, close to my age now, come to think of it.

A woman behind me, who I never did see, with great awe in her voice, asked, ‘Bishop, did you know Chief Joseph?’ The old man’s face lit up with a wonderful smile, he threw up his hands and laughed. O yes, he said, I knew Chief Joseph for more than 30 years. He was the holiest man I ever met, and I could not convert him.’

That scene has been with me for over 80 years. I take it as reminder that there are many roads to the ultimate mystery of life.”

There you have it, straight from the genuine, accept-no-substitutes Old Man on the Mountain!

Bob's home is decorated in an eclectic mishmash of wooden tables, dust-covered books, piles of clothes and Christmas lights, up all year. His desk, also his dining table, has a stack of music in the corner next to the radio, a few photos of friends, bills, silverware, the random jar of maraschino cherries next to the peanut butter.

As I’ve fussed with the clutter over the years, dusting, hanging pictures and paper lanterns, finding him bright-colored cozy bed linens since he’s now spending more time reclining, I’ve noticed the emergence of the color pink in Bob’s home. Bright pink, sometimes fuschia, sometimes scarlet, appears in the cards we’ve tacked to the walls, a newspaper ad for a movie with a large picture of a beautiful actress wearing pink lipstick, a purple feather boa held by a ceramic hand, a photograph of him wearing a coral-colored plastic lei.

Like many older people, Bob loves young children, especially feisty little girls. Twenty some years ago he was surrogate uncle to a brilliant child who grew up on this property. Photos of this little person are on Bob’s desk and walls, all smiles. She’s not that different now!

For years, I’ve been reading Bob children’s stories (some of the world’s best literature, in my opinion) alternating with science-for-the-layperson texts. Right now we’re reading The Golden Compass, an adventure story incorporating physics and a sweet, savvy little girl.

A decade ago Bob developed macular degeneration. His wife Rosa had passed away and he was alone. He gave up driving right away (a good thing considering the perils of Highway One.) He has managed extremely well, though, still living on his own at 89, with a little help from his friends.

Bob says that the key to his success as an elder is having younger friends with "flexible" minds, who can share new ideas with him and help keep him flexible, too. A steady flow of pilgrims make their way to his door, where he dispenses wisdom, or at least listens gently to their tales.

What I think is Bob’s secret, aside from being made of incredibly sturdy stuff, both physically and psychologically (who else could live in an un-insulated shack with just a radio and visitors for 30+ years?) is that he FEELS. He is engaged in the world in his unique way, and finds people fascinating (especially those of the female variety.)

Living for so long and still having empathy, feeling both the pulse of the world (he's a Winner's Circle KUSP donor) and of the people around him that he loves, seems a great triumph to me.

When we're young, we feel we're immortal, nothing can wound us permanently, or stop our momentum. In the middle years, we begin to get a glimmer of our mortality. In antiquity (as Bob calls it), even the magical modern medicines can only take you so far.

Bob is now at the stage where his death holds him close, watches over him, embodied in the trembling hands and wheezing breath that are a kind of curtain call. To see this is terrifying and awe-inspiring. To live with it as he does is unimaginable to me.

He is also still devotedly marketing his artwork. Did I mention you can purchase Bob's drawings on the web?

This evening, Bob says, let me tell you what my mentor told me: Then he draws a complete blank, stares off into space, seated in front of the wood-burning stove (the man never has brain blips.)

His face is priceless, stuck, amused at himself. We laugh uproariously.

As I’m leaving he calls me back, he’s remembered!

“She is the brightest and the best
That Time and Fate in their vintage have pressed

And her name is

— Omar Khayyam

The funniest part of this is that Bob has plucked this verse out of his brain, doubtless several decades after hearing and using it. I, on the other hand, have to call him when I get home (a walk of about 5 minutes) to double-check the wording. More evidence that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.”

The sunset tonight was incredible, bright orange fire at the horizon, high cloud cover of slate blue, turning into a flood of magenta. Bob has spent so much of his life right here, watching this over and over again. I asked him about all his sunset watching, and he acknowledged this luxury with a nod of his head. "And the mornings," he added, in a solemn tone.

Another piece of Bob's secret is the ability to do nothing, to simply be. This skill is so odd nowadays it's practically subversive. I tell him, "No one does this anymore, Bob, unless you're a monk in a temple," and he responds, "I am."

“The thoughtful soul to solitude retires” —Omar Khayyam

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