tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: loss

the Edge

He first noticed something in his gate, not so much a clumsiness, but a lack of fluidity. It’s not like he’d ever been a long strider anyway. No one ever confused him with a person of graceful movement. At five foot, eight inches and 145 lbs, you are what you are, and that’s not long and smooth. Since he was old enough to have some kind of self perception, he had always pictured himself as a weasel, maybe a mink. A stone-hopper. A rubble-scrambler. He was not a gazelle nor a horse, not even an elk. Amongst the hooved, he might be some form of sheep. Not that he ever thought about it, well, actually he did.

So maybe because of his self-consciousness he noticed that he was shuffling more than before. When he first started this trek, he had more spring in his step. It’s been some time. He’s been through shoes. Until now, he’d just blamed the changes on aging, that and weariness. Now he’s not sure. It might be something else altogether. Too many days alone will have an affect on you; peeling away the layers, opening those hatches and latches that a busy mind would purposefully ignore. When you’re alone for long enough, you’ll eventually find yourself staring down into the dark basement of your mind. And the basement is not just a room, it’s a world of itself where graves are shallow and beasts prowl with broken limbs, a dreamland of banished thoughts where bristling memories scurry from the light and peer back at you with a strange and familiar fury.

He had avoided his reflection. No streams. No puddles. Now he sat staring at himself in the warped tin on the bottom of his thermos. Something different there. Something distant. He began to hum the way his Mama used to hum when he would rub her back. Another way of sliding out from under the thumb of reality. And humming, he walked. How many days since the last city? A season’s worth of walking since the last voice that wasn’t his own. And what about that last person full of sarcasm at the why of his journey? He made it a point to change his explanation after that. Why tell anyone that he is following some internal compass to somewhere that will present itself in a fashion that he will know but remain dumb to explain?  It’s crazy. He remembers the words of the Mad Farmer’s Manifesto, “as soon as the generals and politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it….” And so he did. He had, most definitely lost his mind. And somewhere in the losing of it, he began to change. First it was inward, he could feel it in the night while the fire burned. His body became cavernous and the needle-toothed bats swarmed the ceilings of his mind, the naked mole-rats dug blindly through the dark green-black guano of his guts, and from the center of his world there were groans from sources that aren’t listed in taxonomical records; beasts and beings exiled from creation, but existent nonetheless. Then came the first outward, physical change. His hair. Long, wiry, black and silver hair. First it grew from the tops of his fingers and toes, then it spread to his hands. Now, in the reflective tin, he could see the hair coming off the tops of his ears, off his cheekbones and even a couple off his nose. He noticed a change in his amble. His legs and feet constantly ached. All the walking and fasting made his body become the machine that it was supposed to be. Humans are deemed to walk. We are old pathmakers, all of us. He looked down at his strange feet and grunted. “Animal.” He said it aloud to himself, but also, to the world.

Now and then, he would feel dizzy. This he blamed on lack of food and poor nutrition. Once he woke up and realized he had passed out while walking down the side of a steep hill. He must have tumbled a bit, his knuckles were bloody and it took a minute to realize what had happened. He read once that a pig was the fastest animal to go from domestic to feral. Supposedly long black hair sprouted from their backs within months of running free. How long for humans to go feral?  Probably depends on the person. Two ravens circled and croaked. He stood and swayed and hobbled down the rest of the hill, a raggedy man in a play with no audience, acting in clothes that no longer fit. Crossing an open field, he stopped and looked at the trees that lined the horizon, he could see them breathing under the sky. Of course they were breathing, fuck, listening too. Across and into the woods. His direction was determined by the lay of the land and the angle of the sun. At night he followed the stars, all familiar and twinkling, especially the polestar. Venus was the brightest, coldest light in the sky when he stopped moving. He roasted chicory and drank the bitter tea and slept inside his blankets where dreams wriggled from their holdings like quicksilver from a broken pot. This night he dreamt he awoke among the floatwood at the strandline of the sea, his body was half emerged from a casing like those casings laid by dogfish. He flailed and gasped and stared, wide-eyed, at the retreating tide. He was something between man and eel and his mouth gaped and gulped. He could hear the fluting of the frigate birds descending with their scissor tails and razor beaks. The sand covered his eyes. The sea and the birds and the fear of death caused him to wake. He was calling. And there wasn’t anyone, just the night. He remembered the words of Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer — “Listen to the carrion, put your ear close and hear the faint chattering of things to come….”

Mountains marched the horizon, dragging the trees. The sky was some color between grey and the blue between there and black, and there was a wind that matched the colors. His feet had changed to the point that he no longer doubted that something was off. His legs bowed out. His arms were thinner than they had ever been in his adult life. The land was wild and rough. The trees that lived here were wind worried and twisted, the product of gravity and pushing forces. Mystery lives unblemished on the edges of the earth. For the last week, the stars haunted the daytime skies and the moon seemed broken and hollow, maybe not real. He heard voices and sometimes called out to them, but they would only pause and then begin anew. After a while he allowed them to speak without disruption, a constant unintelligible uttering. Something was going on with his back, his shoulder blades felt dislocated and the arc of his spine limited his movement. Nothing was left. No packs. No clothes. No pen to draw and no paper to bear the lines as witness. No comforts. The basics were his way of living in those days before he came to the Edge. At first he thought maybe it was a canyon, something he might circumnavigate, but after some deliberation he realized it was simply, the Edge. He spent some hours looking out. More thoughts of the Mad Farmer, “Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn’t go.” The gulf was all of the space of the present moment and he was at the Edge. When he stood to move, something broke free in his back, like a bone long out of place that moves to it’s intended spot. Transformation is essential to growth but from growth there is no return, all is progression. He was past being surprised by his changes, so the wings that broke from his back, quaking and shivering, gave him little pause. And they rose with a mind of their own, unfettered, furious and ranting, like horses held back from the race. His wings, harbingers of flight. All that ever was became a perfect presentness. And he lost his mind and tipped into the star-flung sky buried below him while his wings took him into spaces that would not have ever been found had he never ventured. There is eternity in the blink of an eye. And spinning and fleeting, the cosmos, disregarding past and future, swallowed him entire.

Dark the night,

Dark the sea,

Dark these churning guts

in me.

I cry to muscle,

and beg to bone,

lift this heart and take

me home.  — TLC

We are all children of the universe and eventually we will all return to our source; some screaming and clawing like naughty teens, some solemn, and some with a wild and adventurous heart and gleaming teeth. The last was my buddy and compadre, Chris Pilaro, who went on before me, to light fires in the dark so that I might find my way. Carry on, Chris, you fucking stud! This writing is for you as is today’s adventure and tonight’s whiskey from a tin cup. See you in the big whatever else, brother.  Love.   Tobias

Falling off my Rocker

(or, An Eel in the Muck)

I go through these stages of loss. Like my phone. Or keys. Sometimes important documents. It’s always been a part of me — these losses. I guess that’s a kind of irony, that losses are a part of me. But, man, they are tiring. Luckily my losses go unseen unless I decide to be dramatic, and then I tell my friends so I can feel them feel sorry for me. That doesn’t change the fact that I lost the shit, but I can at least feel some kind of sympathy. Today I bought a new phone. Some folks buy one phone that costs a couple hundy, I like to buy several that cost $50.00 and that way I can brag about how cheap they were several times a year. My new phone is better because I can actually hear out of it. My last one sucked and I could hear no one as they tried to tell me things, so I might’a lost it from not caring about leaving it wherever it was whenever it was there. I’m an idiot with phones. I might just be an idiot, period. I rode out to buy bread for tomorrow’s breakfast and then I stopped and had a couple of drinks. That was the plan all along but I pretended it was an accident that I ended up at the bar. Buck is the bartender and I like him. The guy next to me at the bar I failed to like. I left after a beer and a whiskey. Two skinny armed people were making out in the alley and I struggled with bitterness about the entire situation. Come on, tobias, just come on. So I pedaled the bike harder and returned to the forge where the lights were off and the night was in full progress. I have books and bread and a fairly open mind. I’ll admit to my meannessess. I will eat toast and have some cheese and I will lay down and read about stuff that smart people say. Then, at some point in the lateness, I will sleep. The fellas next door have more work to do, I can hear them grinding on metal. They are making cars look cool for people with lotsa cashola. There is a train in the distance and it is blasting it’s horn and rolling on rails that are steel and that go on and on all the way to L.A.  On the train, there are people who are looking out the windows and wondering about their future, maybe fretting about their past. Here I am, hacking away at the present like a monk that fell off his rocker. I am here, right here, and the rest of things are there. Quite fitting, actually, as I slip through reality like an eel in the muck.

12 bar blues

my mind clocked in at about 4:49 this morning. it does this, my crazy monkey mind. overhead a lone raven was flying out on some mission, and as she flew she issued tiny croaks. she woke me. it’s raining in the desert and a cloak of clouds is touching the tops of the joshua trees. there’s a glow from the moon that’s allowing me to see through the dark.

what if we were born with our ingredients listed on us, you know, like a box of cereal. i always picture how funny that would be; a list of the parts that make the whole; a summation of sorts. some would make us proud and others we would want to erase, but you gotta list them all. don’t lie on your ingredients list.

i need to tell you about j.p. palmer. his ingredients list was extensive. he was no easy make. i knew him in his mid sixties when he lived in a commercial flat in balboa, california. he knew many folks but his good friends were on a real short list. i imagine j.p.’s ingredients to go something like this: painter, mechanic, veteran, music connoisseur, psychedelic traveler, photographer, writer/poet, master of cooking on a hot-plate, strong coffee proponent, salsa maker/deliveryman,  lover of women, personal guide through matters of the heart. he was a cross between lawrence of arabia and edgar mitchell (my favorite astronaut, yeah, i have a favorite astronaut, he’s the one who looked back on earth and gave one of the most beautiful soliloquies about our lovely blue world that i’ve ever heard. he’s an old man now, but back then he looked like a strong-jawed stunt-man, his voice was a cello and his message was something that should make us all fall on our knees and weep for our planet.)

j.p. called his flat the tree house. i was still a marine when i met him. i went up to his place every chance i had and i listened to him as he spoke about the mysteries of the universe while making toast and pasta. he told me my frustrations were a good thing. he told me that women were the wonders of this earth. he told me that i would have a life-time friend named jeff shotwell, the guy they call noodle, who is a big wave surfer and who was trapped on a building in indonesia watching the  country fall to pieces. he told me to relax and think about the stars. he lived outside of the time of google and smarty phones. his posts and updates were written on his bathroom wall. oh my, what a wonder his bathroom was! pictures and clippings and writings on every square inch, all across the ceiling and even on the floor. it was such a pleasure to use his restroom. i spent time in there and walked out both relieved and rescued. sometimes, j.p. held court. he would rant at times and his stern jaw would flex while he gesticulated furiously over some worrisome matter. he called down the fire of the gods and was discourteous to divinity. when he was done he always settled, like a skinny brown buddha, into some small task like watering his cactus or choosing a blues record. he used pot as medication. he baked it into little 1×1 inch, square brownies. sometimes, like a doctor, he would hand me a square and say, “take this and drink some coffee, we need to talk.” i never thought twice, it seemed better than a real doctor when they would send me to the drug place with a chit of paper and tell me to check back in a week.

he mighta weighed 115 pounds in those days. his bed was built off the deck near a sky-light where he coaxed the ravens in with bread. we sat up there on the roof and the big, black soul-birds would hop and scratch to within a foot or two. they barked and danced and we laughed at their bossiness. me, j.p., the ravens, the forever sky. we both turned dark as mud in the california sun.

one night, after i had graduated from some school in the marine corps, i went to j.p.’s and it was 4 a.m.  i was in a turmoil about my life. my compass had begun to spin and i wondered about whether i would ever find a horizon that might stop my heart from spreading out so thin. i knocked on the big metal garage door. a pause. a voice. it’s tobias, i said. the buzz of a garage door opener and the lifting of the door. at about 4 feet the door stopped, i peeked under and j.p. was standing in a yellow light with not a stitch on.  he was covered in flecks of color with a paint-brush in his hand. “let me find my drawers, tobias, no need for you to see all these wrinkles. come on in.” he had a big ol’ canvas laid out on the floor and there was sea-weed and driftwood colored in greens and blues and yellows. he looked at me and saw the hollowness of my heart. “do you know the 12 bar blues, tobias?”

that night he put on his blues records and counted through the bars for me until the repeat. 12 bars. the blues. it was wonderful. he said that life was like the blues, that’s why he loved them both. sometimes it looks like you’re lost but if you hang in there, you’ll find a kind of re-birth. as the blues played, each bar moving off from the original and then finding it’s way back after the twelfth bar finished, i saw my life in a similar fashion. and a curly smile at the corner of the old man’s mouth as he saw me see what he was showing. and we danced the jig at 5 a.m. and i smiled from deep and he knew i had ahold of the line.

in the wind of patagonia i found my way to a little cafe. i walked in and sat down at a computer. it had been 2 years since that night in the tree house with ol’ man palmer. i saw an email from a person i didn’t recognize. i opened it up and it was a girl from the coffee shop where j.p. and i met. she explained that he had died. she also said she found my information at his pad and knew how close we were, so she thought i should know. she also mentioned a letter, addressed to me, that was found on his body. she said that it was stamped and had been confiscated by the police even though she tried to get it to me. i felt something leaking out of my soul when i read those words. it had been a rough year for me in terms of loss of life. i worked my way back to the states in a typical no money fashion; buses and hitching and trains and cheap, late-night flights. i got to california and went to the cop station. i signed a paper or two and they handed me the letter that had been unceremoniously ripped open and then taped back shut. “suicide,” the cop had said.  i went to the coffee shop and sat where he and i usually sat. i opened the letter and read with the whirlwind of thoughts that came with the words from a man in the grave. his writing was familiar on his signature yellow paper. he told me what he was doing in the moment. inoperable brain cancer. he had known for a while, probably since i first met him. pot brownies no longer did the trick, he refused heavier treatment. he explained the options. as he wrote he was sitting in a circle of tea-candles inside the garage with his faithful ol’ van running. he was breathing exhaust as he wrote. soon his letters began to be loose and loopy. he said he felt like a teenage boy at the prom just before he kissed a girl. in his last bit of writing, as the carbon monoxide did what it does, he said that he was sorry he couldn’t see me in the flesh one last time. “you, my good friend, are a golden eagle that is searching some great distance. i am an old raven that knows where he’s been. think of me when you here them barking from the wind…you never know, it might be me. what a break that we met!” not so coincidentally, a raven did happen to be in the palm tree above the outdoor table at which i sat. and, believe me or not, it did happen to be croaking and clucking. i tossed a chip on the ground and he carefully picked it up and walked around the corner of the fence. i looked at the return address on the outside of the envelope, there in letters of the man, it said, “in transit.”

post script: i happen to disagree with j.p. on something. i don’t believe i’m a golden eagle. they are far too wondrous and powerful. i am, perhaps more appropriately, suited to be a rolley polley, you know, like a pill bug. i am a dirt lover and i roll up under a hard little shell when i’m afraid. i did meet jeff shotwell, who has become a great influence and wonderful friend. i still love the blues. and i still say hello to the ravens every time we cross paths…even at 4:49 a.m. in the rain. this one is for you j.p., i hope you are dancing with your pants off.


there was that once when your love for me was dying.

we heard about the gray whale who had wandered up the river.

so we drove to see her as she swam in sad patterns

beneath the bridge.

not talking, holding hands.

there were scientists with their scopes and dials and data,

there were tribesman, the yurok, saying prayers,

we all stood and watched her grayness beneath us.

you were cold, it was august.

and then, after some time, for no known reason,

the whale died.

i drove over the bridge when you were done with me

and i saw the heap she was buried beneath,

and stones and time and fog help things go away.

it was late december.

how to be a sap: a commentary

when i was twenty two, when i heard someone talk about how they heard a story or something and it made them cry, i would laugh to myself. oh yeah, i had cried, like when my gramps died, but that’s different. it’s alright to cry over someone dying, like if you know them. i mean, that’s natural…just don’t carry on for too long.

20 plus years of living and i will admit that i have changed. i have been changed by life. oh my, i’ve seen some strong men die. my dear friend on that one night in september, you know the one, and if you don’t, i do. and then that one time at christmas when the rangers from yosemite called, “do you know joe crowe?”…yeah, i remember.

sorrow has no favorite. there are broken hearts all around us. they are lying at the feet of the masses as they hustle to tweet to text to live. we’re a strange animal. we really are, and i’m not just saying that. how can we dodge this mess? how can we live with it?

i have turned into a sap. i’m a former marine. i have hated and hurt. now i drive my mother’s car and listen to npr. i listen to a story of an 80 old woman from utah who captured a fawn when she was a child. against her father’s advice, she kept it and made it a pet and put it in the town christmas play. everyone loved it. the deer was a town mascot and the pride of this lady when she was young.

the deer turned into a buck and soon began to wander. the lady and her sisters would put a bright red scarf on the buck, and a bell, so that he wouldn’t be killed in hunting season. in his first year free he was shot by a local 19 year old fella. he knew it was a pet but he shot it anyway just a few miles from the house of the family that raised it.

so, i wasn’t surprised about the young punk shooting the deer. i also understood the father saying, “that’s what happens when you mess with mother nature.”  but as i drove down the street and heard that hard old woman, still living on the land in the woods of her father, cry for that deer that was shot 70 years ago…well, damn it, that makes me sad. i guess it’s because i realize how long and how much the heart can feel. it’s so wonderful and terrible. that old lady didn’t sob, she only cried…and she said, “don’t tell your audience about the deer getting shot.” she said it was too sad and the kids shouldn’t hear that kind of thing at christmas time. she was just a tough ol’ gal and her heart was still hurting from a little deer she should’a left in the woods of her youth.

so there i was, driving and fighting tears over a story from the radio, and wondering whatever happened to me. i’m a sap. if you need directions on how to get to where i am, just ask. i’m pretty sure i remember how i got here.

treading water with a heavy heart

there are mornings when i wake before dawn, when the world is still dark and the birds haven’t begun to sing…these are the hours most precious to me. this is when i visit my sorrows and fears, mostly because the distractions i use as my escape vehicle are not available. if i stay in bed with these visitors, i begin to sink, and sinking is not so good.

and so i move in the direction of those things that will swallow me up; sometimes the sea, sometimes the desert, sometimes the rivers that carve out granite canyons. i go to the sources. they wait for us, you know? the sources wait. they will always take us back. they have witnessed the dawn of humanity and they will witness our end. it is this ambivalence that draws me in…and i take all my soul’s trappings with.

we all get broken. and so i can say this without sounding pathetic, but i seek out insignificance when melancholy is in control. it seems easier to be.

so there are mornings, before the sun, when i run down to the ocean. i swim out through its thumping waves and into the dark. out there, swallowed in the darkness, teeth chattering, i tread water with my heavy ol’ heart. maybe it’s because the ocean is full of beasts that have enormous souls (souls way bigger than mine, and older, and far more secretive), or maybe because it is so close to something eternal (and are not our souls drawn to all things eternal? is this not where belief is born, in these moments of wonder…) , or maybe because it is the embodiment of all life and death, but when i swim to shore, i am as human as i get. i’m pretty sure this is life.


little beginnings

this is my attempt to explain the actions of my hands. they are busy, rarely idle. when my mind is going in circles, my hands are off on their own, doing things. they draw and write and sew and search and tap and scratch and spread butter on toast. most importantly, they express whatever it is that i am. they describe me as human. in terms of favorites, they are second only to my feet (it’s just that my feet aren’t as dextrous). with my hands, i write to paint pictures with words and i draw to make words out of pictures. the purpose of this blog is to document the going-on’s of these two hands with their eight fingers and two thumbs, respectively. none of this will be the most interesting thing you’ve ever read, but it will be mostly honest, sometimes funny, and completely human.  beyond these things, there are no guarantees. i’ll be posting pictures of drawings as well as bits of writing on a daily…maybe weekly basis. we’ll see how it all goes. this is it! the beginning! oh man, it’s like genesis when in the beginning god created the heavens and the earth…except not as epic. Image