Friday, February 22, 2008

A Proper Sendoff

Bob, in Sedona, AZ, 1974

Who will call me "young lady" now? I wonder out loud as we drive to the mortuary in Salinas last Friday to pick up Bob's ashes. Then the elderly gentleman who greeted us said, "Just a moment, young lady." I could feel Bob nudge me, and imagined him saying, "See, not to worry, there are other kind older people in the world."

Mr. Herb Healey of Healey Mortuary got us started on some comic relief that day. When went through the paperwork process, death certificate, sign here, sign there, some practical advice, and voilá! here's the box, we said, "It's Bob in a box!" and we all shared a laugh.

As anyone will tell you whose been given one of those boxes, it's a surreal experience. Heavy duty plastic bag tied in a knot with a plastic strip serving as a lock, brass plate stamped with a number hanging from it. This inside a sturdy plastic box, which, our friend at the mortuary points out, can be used afterwards for storing nuts and bolts. Uh huh.

Traveling with the box, how ceremonious can you be? It's in a green paper bag, and starts off on the floor of the passenger seat. When we stop to buy gas I lay it down carefully on the back seat. A blast of goofiness blows into my being. I step outside the car and point to the box, saying to my husband Toby, "See, Bob's in a box in a bag on the backseat!" Try saying that three times really fast, which of course we can't do and dissolve into giggles, right there at the gas station.

And so it begins. Bob's in Bob's bereavement box in a bag on the back seat, barreling back to Big Sur. A few giddy phone calls to friends later and we've got our tongue twister: "Bob's burnt bits are in Bob's Bento bereavement box in a bag on the back seat blindly barreling back to Big Sur, blanketed with blissful love, don't blow away!"

My friend Felipe spoke with me yesterday about Bob's passing. He said, "Se despidio bien." Somehow the Spanish words are more beautiful to me. He said good-bye well. Yes, he did.

Since everyone's death is a big question mark, it's an honor to participate in a good one. Especially when the dying person sticks to their guns, putting up with discomfort, shutting out the fear, in order to be with loved ones in their own homes. To die with an old-fashioned concept of dignity.

I think Bob knew we would give him a proper send-off; and this past Sunday's "Graduation Party" was exactly that. A proper pagan send-off, that honored Bob, his gifts, his way of looking at the world, and at death. A love fest, and a sweet farewell.

Our vision, created collectively, was to make Bob's freshly swept little cabin a temple to his memory. We displayed his ceramics, and dusted off his eclectic book collection. Neighbor Mary Lu worked with Toby in the front garden, trimming back vinca, lavender, roses, honeysuckle. Bob liked it overgrown, but tidying up improves the view. We filled the house with flowers, of all kinds, many brought by neighbor Cath, who plucked a variety of blooms from Esalen's gardens, where Bob worked in the '60's.

On this cold, foggy spring Sunday, (February 17, originally our date for Bob's 90th birthday party) candles burned solemnly as dozens of Bob's friends streamed through the cabin. Pictures of Bob and his many friends adorned the walls, and filled an album assembled from photos that had been in hiding for years.

Bouquets magically appeared with guests—yellow roses, narcissus, rosemary, aloe, daisies, calendula, daffodils, bright red bottle brush and graceful calla lillies. Dr. Dawn Motkya of KUSP fame (and one of Bob's many crushes) bestowed a crowning touch by scattering orange rose petals throughout.

A slide show of Bob over the years played on our large screen computer, while his wonderful voice filled his home again, telling children's stories about rainbows, revealing mysteries of the Partington forest, and relating some of his WWII adventures. Steve Weintz, designer of Bob's web-site, filmed the whole afternoon for posterity.

In front of the assembled crowd of 40 or so, we buried a small portion of Bob's ashes next to his chair (aka "the enlightenment chair" ) overlooking the Pacific.

Next, friend and former caregiver David Champagne played "Taps" on his trumpet. He followed with this with "As the Saints go Marchin' In" and other tunes, giving a Mardi Gras flavor to our procession to the redwood grove that Bob had chosen last year for his final resting place.

Several people spoke under the redwoods, remembering Bob by sharing stories, some tender, some hilarious. Sarah Nichols read Heidi's Sutton's poignant letter to Bob about the magic of growing up in Big Sur, and 4-year old Camille Gamboa sang a song. Teresa, who grew up with Bob and his wife Rosa on the property here, told us how her family had played in the shade of this particular grove for many summers. It seems Bob was everybody's Grandpa.

Mickey Muennig told of how, 30 some years ago, Bob's frail, elderly neighbor Nick Roosevelt called him up to come see him, "right away." Bob thought he was dying but when he showed up he realized Nick was just lonely, since he invited him in for a glass of wine.

The Big Sur Health Center was represented, with Dr. Sharen Carey appreciating Bob's gentlemanly qualities as a patient. He brought them little gifts on his visits. Kelly O'Brien of KUSP Radio expressed everyone's sadness there to lose such an avid fan and contributor to the station. When the station's repeater, damaged in the last storms, is repaired, they're going to christen it the Bob Nash Memorial KUSP Tower!

From 6 months old to 80+, the full range of life was represented at the memorial. For the younger children it was their first experience of a human death ceremony. After Toby poured the ashes into the moist earth we added daffodils, a photo of Bob, and a dash of champagne. Many of us, including several young children, put handfuls of dirt into the grave, a gesture that looms large in our collective consciousness.

As Toby lifted the bag of ashes high above his head, a shaft of sunlight entered the grove, giving Bob one last kiss of the sun.


A man of mystery,
born of Wyoming
educated in the war

very sensitive
, a little fanatic,
always open
searching for the secret of his own being,
timid, full of confidence --
an enigma, what! January 8, 1959 Henry Miller
Bob Nash was a young man. A young man born under a lucky Western star. He was full of possibility, full of himself, for the whole, long ride of his life. In the decade that we knew him, he was never disillusioned, bitter or even angry; a dreamer and a romantic throughout his 80's.

Yes, he was afflicted with what he called, "Antiquity," but the person we were privileged to know was as youthful as a Spring morning. As fresh and gentle as the Spring morning that he passed away.

Bob humorously accepted the shit of old age and grabbed the brass ring of contentment whenever he could—with peppermint ice cream, his loving cat, the laughter of little girls, conversations with friends old and new.

"I'm not afraid of dying," he said, "I'm just not in any hurry." Bob enriched us by sharing his sense of aliveness with us. He showed us how to slow down, to relish the simpler things in life.

How many times did he say, "Sit with me for a minute," and we would chat about the day, our lives, the world. We'd follow this with a cup of tea and a long read of Sherlock Holmes, or a whimsical story told from a child's point of view.

Bob was a secular man, who believed that the dead are like these fallen leaves around us on the ground. So, instead of a religious text, I'd like to share these words (which Bob enjoyed) from Erich Fromm's "Art of Loving" —
"Whoever is capable of giving of himself is rich. The most important sphere of giving, is not that of material things, but lies in the specifically human realm.

What does one person give to another? He gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life. He gives of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, his humor, his sadness, of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him.

In the act of giving something is born, and both persons involved are grateful for the life that is born for both of them. In this way we see that Love is a power that produces Love."

Like a very young person, Bob was present in each moment, so in a way he almost didn't expect or worry about his death. His last days were sweet, filled with friends, and good care. The evening before he was peaceful, and received a lot of love. He died believing in life, and looking forward to tomorrow.

Let us now, in honor of Bob's epic life and gentle presence,
renew ourselves. Let's renew our devotion to living in the moment, to loving ourselves, and each other, soulfully. And when we really enjoy a sunset, a hug, a dish of ice cream, or anything simple and delicious, let's say, Thanks Bob!
Are you ready? On the count of three: 1, 2, 3, Thanks Bob!

For those of you who persevered to the end of this post, a special treat, which I'm so happy to be able to share:

(memorial photos by Jon Bailiff)

Monday, February 11, 2008

Bob's Graduation

Robert Belknap Nash
February 18, 1918 — February 10, 2008

Bob Nash passed away peacefully in his sleep Sunday morning, February 10, 2008, after spending the preceding day and evening with a small group of loving neighbors. He laughed softly, listened to stories and received gentle touch.

Just a week shy of his 90th birthday, Bob was an artist who dreamed of success with his unique drawings, his "linear poems", until the end. Above all, he wanted to share his wealth with his many friends. He did this by giving to all of us his endless optimism, humor and big, tender heart.

The beauty of his life is startling in today’s world. When asked if he wanted to spend these recent days on Partington Ridge, he replied, "Absolutely." One of the last of Big Sur’s “old guard”, he died as he lived, in his simple shack with his beloved cat Teddy curled up beside him.

Bob had a highly developed love of the feminine, magical side of life. He enjoyed birdsong, flowers, the smell of the morning air and cool breezes on his skin. A true renaissance man, he also understood the deeper scientific workings of the universe.

A toast from Bob: “May your hearts be filled with love, with rainbows, and with fragrant yellow roses.”

Slideshow of Bob's Last Ride*

* you have to have Flickr account (or sign up for one) plus select Slideshow to see Jon and Susie's beautiful pictures.
(original photograph of Bob above by Richard Sonnen)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Voting under the Redwoods

A young man in cowboy hat and plaid jacket, limping dog beside him, opens the door of the Grange Hall kitchen for his pretty little girlfriend and me. The Grange, alongside the Big Sur River and built in the 50's, has an institutional smell: fresh paint plus decades-of-dampness saturating its bones. It's seen years and years of elementary school sing-a-longs, community plays, political pow-wows, AA meetings, yoga, theater, and martial arts classes.

I greet the same smiling ladies in bifocals that process us through the voting paperwork line every election day. Wait, this big ballot won't fit in the one electronic machine (smell the coffee, Linda) so we do it the old fashioned way, the test-taking style of filling in the arrow.

As is often the case, I feel like an idiot looking at the ballot initiatives. What a sorry example of democracy I am, despite the bucolic setting. My own recent personal life too chaotic and chock-full of commitments for me to have taken the time to read the sample ballot, or even to apply my frequent method of referencing the local liberal-ish free paper, voting the "Monterey County Weekly ticket."

So, on what I hope is principled gut-feeling: Indian tribes should have what they want from the capitalistic system, it's the least we can do, why impose value judgments on gambling if presumably it can improve life for the tribes. Term limits are good, yes, yes, so are more government funds for roads and schools. I vote yes on them all.

Then the vote I've been waiting to cast all my life. Growing up female and being told there are no limits, that a woman can be President, I'm damned if I'm not going to vote for one. Especially a viable candidate like Hilary, a tough bird with lots of experience and, it's said, a great laugh. I pensively fill in the arrow. Like acting out many fantasies, afterwards I feel empty and slightly dis-satisfied, not so thrilled. She's a hawk, for heaven's sake, which turns my stomach. But at least she's talking about troop withdrawals.

The next morning though, I have to admit it felt GREAT when I walked into my workplace and my nosy Obama-loving boss guessed out loud how I'd voted, AND Hilary won in California. I punched the air and did a little dance. At last I got to act on my girlhood dream, and see someone of my gender move a little closer to being Leader of the Free World. Hooray Hilary. That's my girl!

World Peace, please.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Our dear ones: The Alexander Family

The evening of my visit with the Alexander family a blanket of fog covers the ocean, tucked neatly up against the cliffs. Cloud cover presses down along the horizon, making the sinking sun look like a scarlet eye of Horus.

Jeannie and Kevin Alexander form one of those couples that make it look “easy.” What this really means is that they work very, very hard at leading a beautiful life: raising their children, managing the property they care-take, contributing to their community, and generally being gracious, kind and fun-loving.

Kevin has lived in Big Sur since he was 4 years old. One of his first memories is walking with his brother and their big German shepherd dog on Palo Colorado road, when he was about five. At six he was caught hitchhiking down Highway One to a birthday party on Partington Ridge. He’s lived and worked on the De Angulo Ranch, (a spot which has its own unique history) with a couple of interruptions, for 28 years.

Jeannie’s first memory of Big Sur was also on Palo Colorado road. As a teenage follower of the Grateful Dead she took a side trip there. Looking up to see the coastal redwoods for the first time while lying in the bed of a pickup truck, she felt like she was flying through the forest. Her destination: a home that was a converted chicken coop.

Kiley and Ryan Alexander are true Big Sur natives, both of them born right here on Partington Ridge, with the help of a team of dedicated doulas and beloved midwife Leslie Drew.

Kiley's earliest memory was of learning how to horseback ride as a toddler. Horsy neighbor Sheila showed her how to saddle up a black pony named Portia. “We got Portia saddled up, and walked her to the top of the hill. I jumped on, but we had forgotten to tighten the saddle girth. Riding her down hill I slid up and over her head, still in the saddle!”

Ryan's first memory is this: “I remember Mom holding me on the quad, it was raining, I was wearing a little rain jacket, with my head hanging over the side.” Ryan was born just after the big El Nino storms of 1998, and his parents would transfer him from truck to all terrain vehicle to get up the ridge road and home. They nicknamed him “Buddy boost.”

For Jeannie, what has sustained her joy in Big Sur is “All of it: the community, a great family life close to nature, alternative education, and the fire brigade. I realize now I’ll always want to be involved in emergency services.” As a trained nurse she serves as medical team leader for the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade.

The BSVFB recognized Jeannie’s work with the Captain’s Award this year. At the awards dinner a small group of us, Kevin and I included, received the fire brigade widows’ prize, a traveling coffee cup with the BSVFB logo. We joked that this was for the massive quantities of coffee we have to drink after we’ve waited up all night for our spouses to come back from an incident.

The Big Sur Charter School supports the life they’ve chosen, providing them with both educational and cultural experiences in the world beyond Big Sur. Kevin chimes in that his education at Pacific Valley school in the 70’s consisted of listening to a teacher read Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” in the mornings, and playing at Sand Dollar Beach in the afternoons. “Not so good,” he says dryly.

Believing that conscious parenting can give them the best of both the alternative and mainstream worlds, Kevin and Jeannie helped start the Big Sur Charter School, which they regard as a satisfying venture. They choose their own curriculum and stay on track with their teacher of record. Currently Ryan and Kiley are studying science, history, and art.

They also incorporate lessons from well-traveled adults—learning about Gandhi from a visitor who lives in India, and about Wales from Toby Rowland-Jones down the road. They recently traveled to San Francisco, where they stayed in a youth hostel, attended a service at Glide Memorial Church and spent a day at the Exploratorium.

“We get to research every decision involving our kids’ educations, and can provide them with a variety of experiences, like showing them the arts scene and cultural diversity of San Francisco and Chicago, or through traveling to the Cayman Islands like we did last year,” Jeannie adds.

And what do you miss most living here? "Chinese take out food," Jeannie and Kiley cry out, Ryan nods in agreement and Kevin smiles from where’s he’s warming himself in front of the wood-burning stove. “But even pizza delivery would be ok,” laughs Jeannie. “Either that or an inexpensive restaurant, like a salad bar, somewhere local.”

I ask what they are most grateful for in Big Sur.
Jeannie responds, “Seeing, hearing, and smelling the ocean every day. We can hear the seals here too. I love the serenity of being in nature every day on my walks.”

Both Kiley and Ryan pause and think quietly before answering. Kiley smiles and says, “Seeing the stars, I miss that in the city,” while Ryan says emphatically, “The forest. And I like the seasons, especially Spring when the Lupin comes out, and sunsets.”

Kevin adds, “This is a totally safe, pristine little world within the world. Coming home after being away traveling really makes this clear to me. As I kid, we lived off the land, and if we had to, we could do it again. It’s hard to live here, but we can make it work.”

The conversation winds down with talk of UFOs (there were lots and lots of sightings here in the 70s’ and 80’s.) Kevin recalls watching one silently light up the entire bowl of the sky above the Partington watershed.

This inspires a ghost story that Ryan wants to share: they were all in their tub one night, shortly after Kevin’s dad, a character by all accounts, had passed away. Suddenly the lights went out, the main door opened and the candle by the bath blew out. We all croon in horror, then laugh at how Grandpa put one over on them, from the Beyond.

Leaving the Alexander family snug in their nest that evening, I admire a perfect ice crystal ring around the waxing moon. Yes, as long as we are willing to work hard, we can be close to the beauty and mystery of life on this ridge.
Mariah Green and Kylie, Kylie & Jeannie, Ryan finds an Easter egg. (Photo of Ryan & Kylie above by local photographer Tom Birmingham.)