Nancy, 11-24-2016 Nancy James in the 1950s, pencil drawing on paper towel

Nancy in 2016 and in a drawing from the 1950s

Nancy Ann James

Nancy is trying to leave assisted living. Why? When I asked her on Monday, she came up blank. The Nancy talking to me does not remember trying to leave, why she wanted to leave, where she would go if she did get out, and what was the goal. Today she says she wants to go see Martin. I explain again that Martin is dead, that he died eight years ago. She's pondering this.

Today, here's my answer: because her web of life, her relationships, is torn, broken, and brain-damaged. She's trying to reweave a web, her social support system.

Thinking back to our last rational conversation about going into homes (rehab, assisted, memory, or nursing). That was before her accident, hospitalization, operation, and admission into a series of homes. I said that the reason I could not tolerate being in one is that food is so important to me. I could not bear to eat the food they serve. She heartily agreed. "Yes", she exclaimed. "That's how I feel!" And yet she was eating many meals in restaurants, most of which were not organic. That might be a concern, but not her main desperation.

What home is she seeking? Reading has always be a mainstay. But she has books, light, glasses, everything she might need to read. Why isn't reading enough?

With each life challenge, Nancy has always taken on new life challenges. Leaving home as a teenager, she got married. At college she left that marriage for the intellectual challenger of her life: Robert Pirsig. When they became parents, she left journalism to be a housewife. When Pirsig went mad, she taught his college class and finally established a successful career as a manager. When her children had trouble at school, she helped found an alternative school. When she came to Zen Buddhism, she helped found the Minnesota Zen Center. When she and Pirsig divorced, she found Martin Duffy, her life love. When he moved to Florida, she came too. With Zen on hold, she became a political activist, helping to start the South Walton Community Council and shaping some of the conservation features of south Walton County. She also was key in forming political, women's, social and other associations. When Duffy died, meditation has been her latest preoccupation. She helped start the Emerald Coast Meditation Society and held several small book club group meetings.

So why isn't meditation enough? Certainly she could meditate anywhere. Friends come, groups come, and we have taken her to ECMS meetings for meditation. I propose that Nancy's main life mover is her web of relationships. The number of people she talked about and the depth of their relationships is staggering. Her calendar was always overflowing with times and dates of her meetings. Usually there were events morning, noon, and night. Once in a blue moon she would marvel at a day with nothing written on the calendar. That probably was filled with a knock on her door, several emails and telephone calls, and writing past due letters to her many, diverse pen pals.

Today I won't write of how the web was destroyed. I need to chronicle my relationship with Nancy.

1952 I entered the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and found the publication hive in the basement of the School of Journalism building. I had worked on my high school newspaper and done the illustrations for our yearbook. The people there became my home away from home at college. Parties were usual and often at Nancy's apartment, which she shared with other women.

1953 is the year Nancy remembers that we met. I remember she and Bob Pirsig started the Ivory Tower, a magazine in addition to the Daily newspaper and the annual Gopher yearbook (that was my connection). She graduated.

1953-1955 I went to Europe and when returned became Assistant Editor of the 1954 Gopher. The previous Assistant Editor, George Resch and I became close. He would often take me to Bob and Nancy's apartment. Bob would talk. Nancy would cook. We spent hours together. One night Bob proposed we take peyote. I doubt if it were anything but a suggestion, but we did stay up all night.

1956-1960 I graduated and went on into grad school at the UofM, getting my MFA in 1960. Bob and Nancy had moved to the country near Bethel, MN. A group of the J school friends had followed Richard Margolis to New York City, including George Resch and Wally Hansen. I continued to visit Pirsigs although I didn't drive, Bob came to Minneapolis as a technical writing consultant. He would bring me back and forth. I would stay the weekend usually. Bob had become a couch guru holding us all fascinated with his mental powers and narratives. Imagine him describing how the puffed wheat cereal of General Mills, which was a writing job of his, were really shot from guns. Or telling what it was like to go to Breck, a private high school for boys, so vividly, I can still picture him sitting forlorn on the school bus, feeling like an outsider. India, we virtually were transported to Bob's experiences abroad, from there to Korea. Then from philosophy to journalism. In 1957, when I dropped out of school (because my idol Van Gogh would not have stayed in academia), I went to San Francisco, settled on the hill overlooking Fisherman's Wharf in North Beach. Became friends with Richard Brautigan, read books by beat poets. Most importantly I found Suzuki's Zen Buddhism and went to the Zen Center. I sat. So I could sit still but didn't get meditation. It was the art of Zen ink painting that captivated me. I returned to the UofM and began to work on my thesis, "The first Zen Buddhist Painters". They were Chinese. Pirsig's had some Zen friends. From these roots, we all eventually followed differing Zen-related paths.

1961 I had married and had a child that I put up for adoption. I did not get a college teaching job although I interviewed. I had no future. Pirsig's had bought my painting, a Path Through Weeds, and taken it to Montana where Bob was teaching. Nancy offered to pay my bus fare to visit them. We played chess which she always won. A magical memory is coming home from some party high in the mountains with views through magnificent drifting clouds of the moon. Somehow a Zen moon over inner pools resulting in many ink paintings and on into oil painting. I don't remember the particulars of Bob's nervous breakdown at the time. Later in 1974, he told me that whenever I showed up, he would get mentally ill. I think it was because of the life of my imagination and natural spiritual paganism, triggering his inner conflict between Reason (that he got from his dad, Dean of the Law School) and Romanticism (alienated part of Bob, the liberated outsider). I couldn't let my baby go after all and retrieved Leo John Geary before adoption.

1962 Somewhere in here I had reconnected with my love, the father of my child that I had divorced. For a few days we visited Bob and Nancy in Chicago, Ill. where Bob was now teaching. Bob had an episode and was hospitalized. Nancy taught his class while I babysat. More vaguely, it had to be this year that Mel had moved to New York and convinced me to follow. I called Nancy, now back in Minnesota, and asked her to save my artwork that I had abandoned. She did get oil paintings, sculptures, boxes of drawings and ink paintings. She saved them until years later.

1963 I had finally separated again, living with my son in a tiny walk-up apartment on E 10th Street. Nancy took her two-week vacation visiting me. When I wasn't working we were tourists in all of New York that I had never seen. Art, restaurants, exploring. Vivid memory of walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. This page will have to get illustrated with photos. She bought me beautiful Balinese earrings that I never stop lamenting losing in some moment of folly.

1965 Can't remember details of Nancy coming to NY. I had lost weight. We went to visit Dick Margolis somewhere. Later a memory of driving in NY, Diane Margolis at the wheel, and taking them all to visit Mel Geary in his loft. Later Nancy said she was so angry with Mel for all the derogatory disrespectful comments he made to me, of which I had no memory.

Years go by in which Nancy and I exchanged long letters. Once she remarked, admiring something in my letter, that I could have been a writer as well as an artist. I always loved her views of me, but that struck me as very funny. It probably contributed to my wanting to keep in touch with her. I wonder if I kept any of her letters?

1970 I had moved to CA ( '66-68) and then back east to Staten Island, NY. Nancy came to Manhattan to the original Margaret Sanger Planned Parenthood. I picked her up there after her abortion. She had brought a heavy ceramic weed pot by Dale Eldred, that I had abandoned back in Minneapolis. Lugging it, we took the subway, ferry, and taxi to my apartment overlooking the water. She stayed in bed for a few days. It was the first time I was serving her, after all she had done for me.

1972 My parents sponsored a plane trip to California. On the way back, a side trip to Minnesota to see my son, who lived with his father during the school year. Nancy was working but I spent an afternoon with Bob in their home next to Phyllis and Allen Downs. Bob was working on a book. He showed me a shoe-box of notes, which were in narrative order according to how the item would appear in the book. He pulled one out, reading the text and explaining that the question was where it belonged, before or after, in sequence, in time on a motorcycle trip in space and time. To me, an artist that had analogous visual creative project about how to organize my visions in a hemispherical space, this was like old times. This was ideas, my favorite thing.

1975 Should I include Bob in this story? Indulge me, just a bit. Bob showed up one afternoon. I had stored my dome, decided to buy a house in CA and was sleeping on a pad in Charlie Applen's basement in Rio Grande on the Russian River under giant redwoods. Bob had come on a trip with his son Ted in a camper truck to check on a boat he was having built. He proposed a party and brought liquor. My sister, Charlie and our kids were there. Bob had sent me Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in 1974. Now he was famous and thought highly of, both by book lovers and himself. I had promised to design a poster for a local event, important to me. Later I found out that Charlie was a recovering alcoholic and that party set him back for many months. My sister had built a kayak and I was to help launch it upstream in Healdsburg. Bob had no concern with how he impacted our lives.

He had an idea that with his newfound prestige, he could influence Walker Art Center (where I had a one-woman show in 1961) to show my stained glass dome. Unfortunately he couldn't see it, since it was dismantled. We did hike up over the hill to where I had lived in Bump and built Wholeo. We sat on the site and meditated for Bob's Zen practice of 40 minutes. Walking back, Bob was happy that he hadn't blown it. Do not remember what achievement that was. Maybe that he had visited me without a nervous breakdown. He said he had always loved me and Nancy knew that. He said he could now buy an island in Lake Superior where I could live and do artwork to my heart's content. He would be able to visit by boat because he intended to sail up there. Writing that now, suddenly thinking that this unreal fantasy thinking was a form of schizophrenia. Me too. Maybe he resonated to my latent split personalities. He was married to Nancy. How could he propose such a preposterous idea. Well Walker didn't listen to him. He divorced Nancy and went on to Wendy. End of story. He died this year.

1977 After I moved to CA from NY, first to Berkeley, then to Monte Rio, Nancy visited me. She had left Bob and was taking up with one of his fans. I was offended that she considered him more important than me. Surprised years later that she said she had taken cocaine with the group, so as to join in, even though it did nothing for her. That was a brief association. In Monte Rio she sat in the stained glass dome I had built. I don't remember her attaching any importance to it. That was the first year that I had a car. I drove her to San Rafael to continue her visiting in CA.

I have a memory of sitting in a restaurant with Nancy and her son Christopher Pirsig and someone else, maybe others. I was enchanted with his natural candor, awareness, and ease of conversing with middle aged women.

1979 I get a call from Gerry Jobes, Nancy's younger sister, that Chris Pirsig has been murdered. She invited me to the memorial service. I had massive plans with visionary artists for a trip to Mt. Shasta. I just did not, could not break the commitment, so I missed the service for Chris. I had many intense visions during this time which I might have written somewhere. November 19 I think. Later Nancy said my visions had greatly helped her at that time. In Mt. Shasta one morning I heard a Zen bell gong ringing. Feeling so connected to my Zen friends at Green Gulch and at the SF Zen Center.

More years go by. I go to Peru. I learn electronics. I become a tech writer in Silicon Valley.

1992 My son dies in a sporting accident. A month later, Nancy stops in the Bay area on her way to visit Ted in Hawaii. She drives a rental car to my condo in Mountain View, Silicon Valley. Her visit helped my grief so much. She knew in her bones what it was like to lose a promising beloved young man, a son. I think it was on this visit that we also drove to Berkeley to visit our old friend Edie Wright. Edie and I were both watching calories so we gave our extra bread to Nancy, marveling at how she could pack in the carbs and remain so beautifully slender. Nancy had brought albums of photos of her life in Florida. That part is boring, I couldn't relate.

1995 Nancy was again visiting me for a whole weekend. I was working and could use a break. I thought we should do something other than just sit and talk for the whole time. I had no photo albums that I want to share. I found a great and relevant event. It was the Hiking and Haiku retreat at Green Gulch. Read about it here. It was wonderful on so many levels. Nancy had never seen the grave site built for Chris Pirsig. Reb organized an impromptu ceremony. Nancy wrote great haiku. Being outdoors there? Priceless. One of my very favorite memories. Probably enriched by my study of where Chris was murdered, right around the corner from where I had lived in the 60s, where my son had been hit by a car and had a broken leg. I had psychically gone on many adventures with Chris. Also Nancy visited me at work at Silicon Graphics where she saw what it was like in R&D where the internet browser and web pages and interactive TV were born.

2001 Summer I had returned to Minneapolis for the second time, staying with my cousin for a couple of weeks. My daughter also came from NY to see where I grew up, visit those roots. Coincidently it was Martin Duffy's 80th birthday which he and Nancy are celebrating with a big party at his son Martin Duffy's bar. What fun to see so many old friends from J school days and meet Nancy's beloved partner.

In December 2001 a lot had changed, was changing and would change for me. On September 11, the twin World Trade Center towers were exploded about three blocks from the loft where my daughter and her husband lived on William St. Since retiring in 1996, I had been looking for a place closer to nature to relocate. This event told me that I needed to move to the east, to be closer to my daughter. Yet I needed to move away from cities. I put my condo up for sale and started looking in earnest. I looked in Oregon and NJ and couldn't find it. I asked Nancy about where she lived. It sounded very attractive, not only for the sea, the lakes and the forest but for the air and the cheap housing. In theory, it looked promising. I was invited to south Florida to visit my son-in-law's family for Christmas. From there I took a Greyhound Bus up to visit Nancy for 10 days over the solstice. We house-hunted and I found my place. In February, 2002 I was living one mile east of Nancy in Seagrove Beach, FL.

I want to go into detail about our contingent lives here because it tells so much about Nancy, why she is so loved by so many. Skip to almost four months after Nancy's fall.

2017, June 6 Email from her son Ted Pirsig: "The news yesterday evening is that Grand Blvd. wants her out ASAP, they said there were more 'escape attempts' over the weekend. So her relatives are today down checking out places. There's one about a mile away that looks good." I have to take her to a hospital for ultrasound and CT tests today. This story is not so good now. Not at all.

2017, June 13 I packed up, drove, and moved Nancy to Brookdale, a Memory Care facility. She said, "You can't drive me here and leave." But I had to and did. I understand that it is typical of residents to want to go "home", which is not a real location, but a happy state. Nancy's dimensia is a result of falling and brain surgery. But she now lives with all kinds of mentally impaired elders.

Nancy Ann James - Han Shan and Shih Te

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