Remembering My Friend Bob Isaacson

He was the best of us, the heart of us, our story catcher and poet, and much has already been said about him since his passing on September 25. Perhaps one day we shall be, in his words,

at peace,
knowing that all

that could
have been said

has been so
nearly said.

But I’m not done, and I’ve been away, and this is the first chance I’ve had to focus on him in a manner more thorough and worthy of the man.

I met Bob Isaacson in 1994, when I was a new teacher at Vista de Las Cruces school in Gaviota.  He came into my classroom one day and suggested that we start a writers’ group. He did this with a child-like kind of enthusiasm I would soon come to recognize as characteristic of him. It was a little like one of those old Mickey Rooney movies from the 1930s: “Hey! Let’s put on a show…let’s fix up that old barn and put up a stage”….except that for Bob it was never about the show, but the authentic experience, and the sharing, and the joy.

So of course I said okay. (Who wouldn’t?!) We posted a flyer in the school library, and a few stray souls showed up, and for the next sixteen years or so, we were the Gaviota Writers, often meeting in Bob’s meadow at El Chorro, having bounced up the hill in the back of a truck in broad-brimmed hats and baseball caps, carrying some impromptu portable feast, strong coffee in a thermos, and our stories and poems to share. Then we read to each other, a small raft of friends adrift on a sunlit sea of golden grass, or laughing in the morning mist. We knew how blessed we were to be here.

That’s the thing about Bob. He knew how blessed he was to be here, and he fully inhabited life. If my phone rang before 8 a.m., it was likely Bob, usually from his horse, with a thought he wanted to share. I grew up in Brooklyn: you can’t imagine how intrigued I was by the very notion of getting phone calls from someone on a horse, especially someone as exuberant and interesting as Bob.

Bob could discuss native grasses or Hereford cattle with seamless references to Horace, Whitman, or Eliot. He could be teacherly but never condescending, mischievous, but never mean; he perceived what was unique and beautiful in people, sensed their poetry, transcribed their stories, and kept them alive on the page. He was astonished by the wonder and implausibility of life, the whole grand procession of it, and he wrote it out…gorgeously.

It’s all there for us: gunpowder explosions, slow dances with unspeaking girls, old men in their fedora hats, Kafka for breakfast or raspberry tarts. He wrote about Dublin streets, the shrine in the back of the Thai food place in Lompoc, clover burrs in ruts of dusty roads, and:

that incredible light that pours forever,
down off the coast range
and then howls west, scouring the great white-capped channel
like the golden breath of gods.

In  At Pedernales Village, he wrote of a visit to a Chumash site on Sudden Flats near Point Arguello; I was among those with him that day, but as far as I know, nobody else managed to turn it into poetry. Heck, Bob even wrote a poem about proctoring an exam in human sexuality, and it’s brilliant. He found poems in coffee shops and classrooms, in leaf smoke and the soft snores of his grandmother, in brandings and birthings, and walking home with his beloved wife Sally, arm in arm:

laughing loudly
        into the blackness,
the moonless night.

Above us,
     a billion winter stars.
Frost is forming.
     A weary heifer
licks her curled calf dry.

I was lucky to hear Bob read his poems and stories  as he fine-tuned them in the context of our writing group, and later at a poetry reading or two, but you can still go to his blog for a wonderful sampling, and if you manage to come upon a copy of his book of poems, Unconsecrated Ground, you should buy it; it’s a treasure. (Maybe they are still available at the Book Loft in Solvang.) He also created another book, The Muleshoe Cattle Company: An Anthology of Memories on an Arizona Cattle Ranch 1906-1928, with Sally, about his colorful family history.

“This makes meaning of the past,” Bob said of his work. “It’s not just chronicling. People explore through writing their own dreams and fantasies. I hope others find a way to leave something for their children and their friends.”

I knew Bob primarily as a writer, but any meaningful remembrance of him must include recognition of his life as a rancher and his love of the land. A third-generation cattleman, he and Sally managed a beef cattle operation at El Chorro Ranch, off Highway 1, the very place where he had spent his childhood. He respected those who had come before him, heard their stories, wrote them down. He cared passionately about oak trees and grasses and the fate of this part of the world that is still so heartbreakingly beautiful. He was proud when he and his brothers placed the ranch into an agricultural easement with the California Rangeland Trust. He knew this:

Be deep-rooted, 
    even in shallow soil,
Roots will find.
     You have given me to know
as you know
    what now will suffice–
Be nourished.
    Dig deep.
Then deeper.
    Be nourished, at last,
by the dark soil
   of a lost forest.
 

I was also connected to Bob as a colleague through UCSB’s South Coast Writing Project (SCWriP), an organization of educators and writers in which we were both Fellows, he since 1985.  Having taught for 32 years at Allan Hancock College before retiring, Bob was a legendary teacher and a shining example of the professional values SCWriP espouses.

“Oddly, I cannot recall a ‘bad teaching’ day,” he wrote. “I think back over time and remember running to class or booting up my computer, excited about the day’s lesson and, always, in my head, puzzling over the many possible options with which to best involve students in ‘deep’ learning, learning that transcends bureaucratic objectivist measurements and explores the daily human responsibility of negotiating complex intellectual growth experiences.”

A few years ago, in appreciation for Bob’s service, the English department at Allan Hancock set up a scholarship for English majors in his name.  (Contributions may be sent to the Allan Hancock Foundation with a notation that the donation is for the Bob Isaacson Scholarship Fund. The address is: PO Box 5170,  Santa Maria, CA 93456-5170.  Contact Dr. Karin Kappen at kkappen@hancockcollege.edu for more information.)

Bob retired from teaching because of his “formidable health concerns” but having cancer also increased his motivation to write. He finished Unconsecrated Ground and The Muleshoe Cattle Company while enduring chemo, radiation therapy, drugs, blood transfusions, and surgery.  Through it all, he maintained his remarkable optimism and good humor, even joking about exploring the various levels of hell, watching it unfold with what seemed at times to be a kind of bewildered curiosity. He mused about things.

Stone set firm upon stone,
The mind is a temple
Where monks cross the mountains;
Their bells ring in moonlight.

Bells rang in moonlight. Ideas for writing sometimes came into his head as he rested, but then they flew away, and he couldn’t recall them afterwards. I know because he told me this, but he didn’t say it sadly; I think he was ready to let them go unwritten. He was conserving his energy, focusing it all on the precious present, paying full attention, being here.

Wild Iris Meadow, Mount Pinos, Late July:

Quick, now, go. You must see them.
They bloom for you.
Tomorrow? Don’t bother.

He savored life more than ever, and his priorities were clear. He opted to spend as much time as possible with the people he loved, most especially Sally and Katie, of course, and he streamlined his commitments, doing the things he wanted to do, the things that mattered to him.  He described his Locus Amoenus: roping at old friends’ brandings, trail riding, walks and good food with Katie and Sally, talk of summer holiday in France segueing to a snooze on the sofa. He was a happy man.

The last time I saw Bob was a random and unlikely encounter this past summer, in a supermarket parking lot, of all places. Somehow we got on the subject of Buddhism, which, no offense to any Buddhists, he thought put a somewhat bleak spin on things. He felt more connected to old familiar stories and was very much inclined towards prospects of hereafter, some spiritual ongoing-ness. Bob’s religion was possibility, I think.

When I mentioned that I’d been looking into Buddhism, he said, “Well, don’t get so zen-like that you lose your own true voice. It’ll ruin your writing.”

Actually, he said not to lose my own neurotic voice, but I knew what he meant, and I treasure it.

And maybe for all of us, that’s really good advice. Let’s never get so zen-like, so distracted, so discouraged, or so sad, that we lose our voices and true selves. The way to honor Bob…our full-hearted, filled-with-light, loved-forever Bob…is to remember what matters, and be real, and fully present.

___________

And so now, as for
the rest of us, as for you and for me, let us now
take that long walk, the walk we have talked
of all these years, up the hill, and then off,
off into that far distance, the distance beyond
the first hill, into those many hills, together.

The wind is howling, sounding forlorn, rustling the leaves and rippling through the grass, scouring the white-capped channel.

 

 

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6 Responses to Remembering My Friend Bob Isaacson

  1. Larry Spanne says:

    It’s beautiful Cynthia.

  2. David daholden says:

    Thanks ever so much for this, Cynthia. You did him proud, and brought back wonderful memories of shared times together.
    David

  3. Jim Brady says:

    Welcome back home, Cynthia. Your words soar like the winds on the outer channel, and dig deep like the roots Bob spoke of. When shall we meet for a writer’s gathering?

  4. Denize Cain says:

    Ah Cynthia~ such reverence in your prose….so beautifully written. If anyone besides Bob could pen “so nearly said”, it is clearly you. Thanks for letting us share in your appreciation of him…and yes, the information is the same for the scholarship. Mary Oliver advises, “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things…love what is mortal, hold it against your bones as if your whole life depended on it, and when the time comes to let it go, let it go.” We can thank the muses that Bob’s words keep us tethered for just a little while longer…and thank you for posting them.
    Denize

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