tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: Mary Oliver

Bind the Cynic to the Post

Rumi tells me to be a ladder or a lantern or a lifeboat and the cynic in me jumps up and says that ladders break and lanterns burn lifeboats.

Hafiz tells me that God and I are fat men on a small raft, laughing and bumping into one another. But my cynical  heart cracks off some comment about God and war and skinny men on sinking rafts.

Mary Oliver tells me that love is wild and untamable. And I cannot look her in the eye because I am sneering and clenching my  teeth, “if love is so wild, then why must she call from behind my ribs? and why is she dressed so silly in human skin? and why doesn’t she leave us behind, we who stare into our i-things so we can be less profound?”

And the cynic in me is full of rage. He is big-mouthed and quick to fight. He is long-winded and dark-hearted. My cynic stomps around with big shoes and laughs at the ones that think they can fly. And the cynic is alone. The cynic doesn’t know the mysteries nor does he see the turning of the world.   Closed ears can’t pick out the difference between the call of the nuthatch and the canyon wren. The clenched jaw will cause the ears to ring. Fists do not cup water from high mountain streams. The heart of the cynic is weak and sad and full of fear.

Here’s the catch — I am the cynic, but only when I put my love away. When I’ve put away love, I am weak and angry. So I read Rumi and I tell the cynic to sit in the corner. Because “I am a part of the load not rightly balanced. I drop off in the grass like the old Cave-sleepers, to browse wherever I fall.”(Rumi — I am part of the load)

Oh, I know how to furrow my extra-heavy brow. I know how to cast dreadful glances. I can cuss a black streak in the presence of saints. But what good do these things do? Instead, I look to the Ones with the fire inside. And I feel my inner dark begin to break and peel away, and maybe I hear the fluttering laugh of a small child, and maybe I remember the soft voice of my lover, and maybe I am the crying child in my bunkbed, afraid from a dream, and my mother is touching my forehead and kissing my face, and maybe I am listening to my father sing a song to a dying cowboy in a hospital bed, his boots on the floor. These are the things that tend to my soul, and my soul needs some tending. At some point in my life I decided that bitterness and cynicism tend to put callouses on my heart. They are tendencies I suppress because they make me blind to anything wonderful. And man, I sure do like to wonder.

I wrote last night until late. I came to a point in writing this where I wondered if it was even worth writing about. The weather was steady, rain and wind against the big window in Fosters’s living room. Finally I put the computer down and went out to my RV, my dolphin, to find some sleep. Dreams are never that far away and I depend on my nights to settle my monkey brain. Somewhere in my dreams I was in a cove where the waves were breaking against the cliffs. The salt spray smelled of sometime in my past. I remember seeing colorful seashells. And I worked my way down to the foot of the cliffs in a spot that sheltered me from the brunt of the thundering waves. There was an emerald green pool and I looked into it as if it was a looking glass, and I could see to the bottom of the ocean. Everything was magnified and clear — Long eels with spotted faces, nurse sharks and hammerheads curling about, red-backed crabs with blue claw dances,  shrimp with transparent shells that revealed all their inner, Cambrian workings and clickings (and what if we were transparent in this way, so the world could see our heart pick up pace as we look past ourselves and into the guts of one another? would we be less judgmental and more forgiving to see the ravaged lungs of some vietnam vet? would we be quicker to understand frailties and insecurities if we could watch pulsing blood and nervous limbs? there is something sad about seeing the inside of something that is living, it feels invasive. As if i’m stealing secrets from the very heart of the creature that hovers in the light.) , a tan and brown sturgeon with scales that are from the age of dinosaurs, snuffling along the belly of the sea, anchovies spinning and flying in schools that form shapes like the clouds do, like the birds do. This was in my dream. I took a deep inhalation and swam down and I looked at my watch, it was 3:o5 in the afternoon. Somewhere down there in the under I began to struggle for breath, and I walked along the bottom back to where I had entered. The surface above me was raging and frothy but I could see where I had entered and I walked to that spot. Just as before, when I entered the sea, this looking-glass pool was clear to the world above. I could see flying pelicans and skittering animals. There were people looking down from the tops of the cliffs, children pointing. There was a long-tailed otter slipping quietly beneath the noticing world, mustelid tendencies in tow. But I was desperate for the air that feeds my brain and I couldn’t wait any longer, so I climbed out of the drink and so, out of my dream, even out of my sleep. I must have been holding my breath in my sleep as well because I heard myself suck air — don’t know if I like that part.

I know I’ve wandered from the start of this essay until now, and maybe that’s just my writing style; the kind you just can’t quite follow. I do think these things tie together, albeit loosely, because if I didn’t have the glorious, natural world, I would fall under the weight of my nasty cynicism. I am made lighter by the blurry grey horizon at dawn down by the ocean. The tone of a calling loon seems so sad to me that I’m forced to let go of my own sorrows. Heartbreaking beauty…that’s what I call it. How a hound dog lays her nose against my leg and drags in all the data from my DNA and can smell the old Choctaw blood, and maybe even hear the barking dogs that ran beside those old tribes as they were forced to walk out of Mississippi, and maybe smell the tears that dropped on the rocks beneath leathered feet. Every single time I see a red-eared slider on a log between the cattails, I am reminded of my job here. I am reminded to love the beauty of the heart of things. Even the heavy things. And I’m reminded to check the knots that bind the Cynic to the post.

I will end with a quote by the late Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are.

” I wish you all good things,  live your life,  live your life,  live your life.”

ol’ Steinbeck whispers

When I was a kid, growing up meant getting old. Now that I’m not a kid, growing up is realizing that I need to listen more, talk less and understand that I will eventually die. It’s easy to write these words, but living by them is difficult for me. I struggle. My mouth flaps, my ears close and death is a thing that happens to everyone else.

A while back I found a baby rattlesnake with a broken back. It had been cracked in a door at a campground and was wedged there waiting for life to pass. I pulled it out thinking it might not be hurt, when I set it down it could only move its front half. First I walked away. Then I thought about starving to death and I went back and killed it with a rock. It was just a little tiny thing. Real pretty.

When I was a kid I thought I needed to have things. Snakes, turtles, mice, crawdads, bluegills, hawks, raccoons, sparrows, trout, foxes, rabbits and squirrels…I brought them home. My mother would look at the beast and check it’s condition and decide if it’s chances were better in the wild or in my handsy little clutches. Some I raised and set free. Some I lost in the house. Some died in ways that make me shutter to think about all these years later. I thought that by having these things I might be closer to them. It’s the opposite. Having them steals the connection. There’s a kind of deadness that happens  when wild things are taken away from the wilderness. I saw a big Dorado dragged onto a boat once and the most cosmic colors I’ve ever seen where pulsing through it’s skin, like it was translucent and the insides were glowing. As it died, the colors bled out and slipped back into the sea. The fish became flat dusky gray and I couldn’t help but think that maybe we’re gonna pay for the things we do. I ain’t against killing to eat, I just don’t think we should do it mindlessly. We are mostly mindless these days, just look next to you on the freeway. Look one car over. Look around you in the lines and crowds. All is not lost, but it’s going in that direction.

Did you know the moon pulls the sea? Have you ever walked with your feet in a tide-pool (and if you haven’t , you might need to and you might need to go slow and take a day and give it to that and only that…and you might hear old Steinbeck himself whispering soft as a summer breeze cool stuff in your ear about secret places all along the edges of that big old sea) where the miniature oceans have tiny monsters? There are caves along the ocean where the little crabs are wedged sideways with clockwork hearts and trilling gills along the walls and under the stones that are stacked by older oceans and waves pushed under Mesozoic tail fins. Did you know that some birds migrate across the oceans and follow the stars. Some fly off the push of the sea and rarely flap their wings, the sweet Mother carries her babies aloft. Some of those same birds, like the Sooty Shearwater can dive more than a hundred feet down into the sea, down among the sharks, for food. Their journeys are like some wild dream, a life of endurance. Some of their kind live for 50 years. What wonders! Little wings. Forever hearts. And the tides of the ocean that are pulled and pushed by the moon live in the forests and the deserts and mountains as well. Everything with fluid is pulled and pushed by that moon, affected by her swooning passage. You and I. We aren’t apart. Within our riverine blood vessels flows that salty red stuff, that old connection to the start and the path to the finish. And while plants push up to meet the heavy full moon, so do the roots find the sliver of silver that floats up and down with Venus. The word Cosmic comes to mind, and the Cosmos goes as far inside as it does out. I’ve come to love the not knowing of it all. Oh my, this little heart of mine, it’s only here for these few billion heart beats if I make it to be old manish — the fortune is easy and sweet and I certainly don’t need to prove it. It’s cool that I am. Cool that we are. After that, it’s all guesswork.

While the majority of our kind fumbles with cell phones that record our every moment, there are herds of whales migrating under antarctic stars and they are singing songs passed down from the beginning. They are rolling their massive tongues and they are smiling at the calves that are learning to soul speak and they are swimming and swimming to the places that have feelings and the stars know all this and so does the moon and even the tricky little penguins with their chattery snouts and golden ears and so on and so on it all goes…with or without us. I reckon any one of us can tap into it, the wise ones say it’s there, just like air, all we gotta do is breathe. So if Hafiz can shine from out of yesterday, and if Mary Oliver can glue broken hearts with ten sad lines, and if a dude named Maurice Sendak can scratch lovely stories from the prettiest of minds so that kids can smile in their pj’s when the lights turn out…well, if all that can be then I think I could maybe find a way to find my way. Here I go. Breathing happens. Heartbeats happen. I just so happen as well.

fire makers


i lean towards dramatic. i find it pretty easy to believe that, quite possibly, my heart is aching worse than anyone in the history of life. sometimes i think the dark cloud over my head is the darkest of them all, with it’s deadly lightnings and it’s howling winds. oh my, i can imagine myself being the loneliest man. let’s face it, depression is a jealous mistress and she doesn’t allow for distraction. it’s easy to drop into the maelstrom and hear the groanings of the world, the splitting firmament, the crumbling foundation. dramatic.

but then today happens. all of a sudden, without any discussion, a new day forms and my angle of thought has changed. the light of the sun is just right. the canyon wren sings her perfect descending song. the orb weaver sits in the center of her stranded masterpiece. a cricket warms up his chirping wings in plain view under the porch swing. the pretty tattooed lady at the bakery in san francisco tells me the chocolate croissant is “on the house”…and her smile is real. all these things and i notice that life is breathable again. of course, there is no averting sadnesses; they belong here in my heart along with the grand and the average.

i’m not completely under the thumb of my emotions. i’ll admit i’ve given in to the onslaught brought on by new love, when fiery passion storms the castle gates and breaks down the best laid defenses. all the personal promises out the window. heart raging. curling smiles. day long bedroom events. eventually the fire drops down from these events and we can see through the flame…very similar to coming up from the depths of depression and swimming for the light of the surface, lungs burning, holding on for a gulp of sweet ok-ness. dramatic.

but see, i admit it. i know i go in all the way. i see my penchant for burning and drowning. and so i’m learning; i mean, i am learning, right? don’t we all struggle like this? maybe some are born just a little further along the path of understanding but, even so, we all struggle. few people have ever shown me a more transparent soul than Mary Oliver. there is a way in which i think of people like her. i’ll explain.

i have spent years, most of my life, living and sleeping outside. when i was a kid i went with a number of different burly dudes on week long trips down into canyons and across big expanses for various reasons, sometimes fishing, sometimes exploring and looking for bones and artifacts. drinking from the high mountain creeks and hunkering down for the night in some enormous aspen stand was a huge portion of the road that formed me. on those bitter cold mornings when the water in the canvas bags was frozen solid i would lay in my sleeping bag and watch with wonder as a thick-necked, bearded man built the fire in his shirtsleeves. i learned, in time, that someone must build the fire, i mean, it don’t get built on it’s own. i realized the importance of being the one who is willing to roll out in the cold, crack the sticks, scratch the match, and put on the coffee (oh my god, yes, the coffee). i live my life roaming around with a cusp group of people who are willing to start the fire. i know they will because they do, and so do i. it’s important.

when i was in my infancy and learning the way (i’m still learning), Mary Oliver, was out there in the middle of bitter cold heartbreak…and she was starting the fire. and as i’ve lived and walked through life’s mountains and fallen down in life’s deep, shoe-stealing marshes of depression, the Mary Olivers of this world were building fires so that i might see them in the dark. so that i might find my way. so that we all can come in from the cold and be together by the flame.

here is a poem by Mary Oliver:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

by Mary Oliver


painting by tobias

painting by tobias


my brother, my blood, my dear-heart

when my brother, josh, was born, i was 9. i asked my mom when he would start talking. to me, there was a lot of value in holding a conversation with someone, even if it was just talking about how mean my older sisters were or how fun summer was. so, you know, i really didn’t have much use for him until he could speak…like, words, none of this ga ga ga bullshit.

when josh was kicked out of his second high school for fighting i was home from college. i talked with him and then i went in front of his school board and asked them to give my kid brother another chance. they gave it to him. he stayed out of trouble and finished. i got josh hired on a concrete crew and we worked together. he was only 16 and tough and skinny as a rattlesnake. one of the lead men on the crew started picking on josh because  he was young, i punched the guy in the mouth. we were promptly fired.

josh has never needed me to defend him. he’s always been a scrapper. he’s always been loyal to the ones he loves. tough, quiet, lean and honest–that’s josh. and then my kid brother met a lady and they were married and then a little boy and then another and wrinkles and years and losses and birthdays and life. years later, when i finished my time in the marine corps, he hired me. i worked for him as a carpenter. he watched out for me and helped me learn the trade. he became my teacher. i didn’t stay, i never do. i left the country for a year and when i came back he was there, with his family, to feed me. josh never forgets.

his boys love me. i’m that uncle; covered in tattoos, smelly from wood fires, cussing too much, secret bags of tools for making all kinds of things, drawings and pencils, bones, rocks and the color of the sun.  they would take me to school for show-and-tell if they could. they are my little brother again. i look at them and i fill up. when i think of harm coming to them my heart pinches off and my head swims.

i was so cocky when i had less years. so damn arrogant. i spouted on about my grand schemes. i shouted at the government and i shouted at the preachers. i ran away to the woods and stared into fires at the very farthest ends of the roads. i ate what came along and was gaunt in the belly and long haired and fiery as hell. “let the world burn,” i would say, and tip back the bourbon bottle, “let it burn.” funny (not really funny) things happened to me.

a dear friend died. and then another. and then another. and i fell in love and i had my  heart broken. i lost and lost and lost.

when i fell way down–and, oh man, i did fall down–i realized that this was not something new. i was having life happen to me. a friend sent me a poem by Rumi called The Guest House. i read it. oh my, it said some things and i had to listen. it is so easy to be lost in self pity; it’s a dark and tricky forest with trails that circle back on themselves. i read Mary Oliver. i called my brother. he said, “come home, dude.” of course he said that…of course he did.

i am not a guru. i am not even a philosopher. i’m not a wise-guy or a doctor, nor do i have “cum laude” after any title i’ve ever held (and have i ever held a title? hmm, i did win this thing once where you have to hold your breath and…ah, nevermind.) i do, however, have this view on life. it’s pretty simple. life is what we have. that’s it. it’s everything. it’s laughing with your mama. it’s playing pranks on your lover. it’s stopping by a friend’s house and remembering with them after they think everyone has forgotten. it’s staring at the stars and allowing tears because it’s so good. it’s crying 10 years later…hell, it’s crying 50 years later. it’s smiling at a pretty girl and having her smile back. it’s back pain. it’s the sound of sirens too close to your house as you drive home from work and say to yourself, “don’t let it be, don’t let it be.” it’s a healthy baby. it’s a healthy baby crying all night. it’s the tone in the doctors voice when he says he’d like you to stop by his office to talk about the tests. it’s that old guy with the one, white, teary eye and his cup that he holds every morning as people walk past him for their five dollar latte. it’s a perfect sun in the perfect blue on a perfect day in february.

all this. fill up, man. we may have only this one chance, who’s to say?  take what there is and call it wonderful. as for me, i’d give all i got to that kid brother of mine…if he’d take it. he wouldn’t i’m sure, he’d probably tell me to save a little for myself and play with the kids.