tobias crabtree

defining lines; drawing and writing

Tag: poetry

Rarely Wise

I guess we don’t have to know one another for me to call you friend. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna try and hug you, I’ll just share these few things with ya. If I remember that you’re my friend, I feel quieter and sweeter, it keeps me off of my soapbox and closer to the heart. Yes, your heart. Maybe grab a cup of tea or coffee and I’ll send you some scrabblings from where I sit.

I woke this morning and walked into the dark of my brother’s driveway here in Colorado. There was a cold wind and the cottonwoods were clacking branches together. A cottontail was at the fence and I saw little puffs of steam coming from her nose. She was eating grass in the cold. Before I went back into my little Dolphin RV I heard a bird call in the tree behind me. I had never noticed a Spotted Towee before this, I had to look him up. I pshh-pshhhed him a couple times and he cocked his head. Two hops from that branch closer. A wing flutter and he was on the fence with one eye toward me. He was looking at me with that fiery red eye and I was looking back. Two hearts beating and four lungs breathing and the attention between.

I put an interview on the radio when I climbed back in my rig. Leonard Cohen was talking about words, his wonderful voice low and humming. It seemed everything he said was pulled up from the deepest parts of the sea, down down in the secret trenches full of the indigo-blue dotted with glowing plankton. He was a couple weeks from dying in that interview but his thoughts were rolling and lovely, lightning over the horizon. I wonder if he did not die into a river of poetry, carried out and set loose into the stars. Leonard Cohen could have written beautiful words for another thousand years if his body hadn’t given out on him.

Every so often, I’ll be aware enough to know that I’m right here, in my skin. I feel that way right now. It ain’t because I have some cool insight into satori. I am not a shaman. I am rarely wise. But I am here because of the sun that is shining through the back window of my rickety old camper. Also, I’m here because of the Spotted Towee who’s song is still bouncing in my ears. I am here because of the Red-boned hound dog in the next yard, Tara, who is a bit overweight but has amber eyes and whose bark is so soulful as to evoke the ghosts of all hounds in all the woods of the world, causing racoons to stop washing their tiny black hands and squirrels to launch across space between the oaks and mountain lions to squint and read the future with their nose to the wind.

There used to be a tree at the bottom of the hill by my brothers house. It was a huge cottonwood. From one of the highest branches someone had hung a swing. I like swings and especially like swings that have been done in open space. Whoever hung that one had to work at it. I still climb trees a good bit and I was impressed at the difficult placement of the chain, some 50 feet off the deck. Now there are town homes going in down there where the swing used to be. The willows are bulldozed and I doubt the muskrat is still whiskering around in the swirling creek. I am sad about this stuff. I just am. But I love this world and I am working on believing in my ability to change things. I think that change in both directions is natural. I can’t make everyone see from my angles, but I’m not giving up on the dreams that are born at the edge of the creek. Maybe I’ll go hang a swing from the high branch of a cottonwood today, in some spot that is protected from bulldozers and townhomes. In a spot where the wind will pull the memories up out of your past and make you laugh like you did when you were a kid.

Breathe in some air. Drink a glass of water. Listen to a songbird. Smile and be kind. 

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.”

a little lost

I lost my phone again, what’s new?

it’s a funny feeling, knowing that’s a thing.

not that i’m that important, i don’t think that.

but, you understand how one feels.

what if mama calls, and needs something

or what if it’s a pretty girl,

from some time before.

but i did lose my phone, again.

and when i find it, it’ll be the same.

not that it’s important, i don’t think that.

i kinda like to misplace stuff

especially if it’s too heavy,

from some time before.

The ancients didn’t need a phone.

Instead they watched the stars

because it was important, for life.

and i think i’ll follow the ancients

and sleep in the caves,

like some time before.

blind fortune from a woman on the streets of Santiago

it don’t happen all the time, of course,

if it did, things would be different.

some old, dark gravity, with wild feet

will find me in the night.

who’s been digging in my ashes, man?

i have no fuel for dying embers.

leave ’em lie

i can’t tend them.

just outside the library

where the gypsies dance

in the exhaust

of Santiago,

some old voodoo woman

with clouds inside her eyes

and her bag of stones and bones

and her missing teeth,

wagged her finger

when i asked about love,

and laughing without seeing

waved me on.

and here, in the dark

i think of another time

and the candle that was burning

in the window of your house.

mama’s tea

out the back door of my parent’s house

at the bottom of the stairs,

where the ghosts of the dogs of my childhood

gather with lolling tongues,

there is a world.

that yard is smaller, less steps to the side gate.

time made it shrink.

the old bikes are mostly gone, those that remain

are quiet on flat and rotting tires.

they lean in repose, remembering.

down the hill is the creek in it’s sandy bed,

ancient races of crawfish, shellshod and blue-eyed,

hunker down into muddy holes.

this same creek that watered comanche horses

before england and spain came.

the hill home is steep on a single speed.

banana seat and coaster breaks.

mama bakes in the kitchen while pa studies

the words of the prophets.

the smell of tea and coffee.

in between the words birth and death

there lies a distance.

our eyes collect the colors and our ears

hear the clunking heart that will tell us

when we are going home.

inside the heart of a junkman


Nothing for sale, here. Not one thing.

So move along.

You can walk the aisles, maybe check the rooms whose doors ain’t blocked,

there’s things you might could use.

Just take ’em, th’ain’t for sale.

There’s nothin’ new.

It’s all been used.

Nothing for sale here, so get what you need

and move along.

the bug and Dr Jolliff



it’s been 10 years since i decided to build the bug.  i’m sure it started off as something that i knew would lead to me being able to play more; most of my endeavors are linked to me finding a good excuse to play. Marcus Jolliff loves to play, he’s my friend. he’s like a mix of Dr Frankenstein and the mad-hatter.  ol’ marcus had a kind of a bug already built and he trounced around in it causing all kinds of havoc. i thought it would be fun to team up and cause double the trouble. so i built my version of the bug. i built it out of other peoples’ trash; i had a buddy help me with the skeleton structure, made from aluminum, and the welding it involved. the design was pretty good as far as looks, but i wasn’t sure if it would work. you see, it’s a set of stilts with hind legs and front legs. essentially, i’m walking on all fours only i’m 10 feet above the ground. the hind legs have a built-in shock system that allows me to stay in the costume for longer. the entire get-up weighs about 45 pounds and is really kind of a pain in the ass. these stilts are made so you must walk bent legged, so that the leg looks like an animal’s leg, and so they are a different learning process and, unlike most stilts, the balance is under the knee instead of the foot. once i’m up and in the costume, it takes on a look that is really quite strange.

marcus and i talked it over some. mostly we just laughed at our own ideas. since he’s much smarter than me, i just listened to what he thought was good and then applied it. in the early days, we often got together to brainstorm, but that really meant that we got together to laugh at one another. we still do. once we went down to venice beach and stopped traffic on the main drag. cars stopped and people climbed out to take photos of the two weird creatures in the street. some people locked their doors. the bugs are quite famous when they’re tramping around. oh yeah, man, we bugged. and we still go bugging.  and, always, we laugh. good job, marcus.  you crazy fool.

i don’t speak with my mouth while i’m the bug, it’s better that way. talking verbally takes up time and most stuff can be said without speaking anyway. it’s all body language. when people ask a question and then realize i don’t talk, i see their intelligence flare up. it’s wonderful to communicate through the movements and expressions that are in us but have been long unused. they are inside us, dusty and buried. we use our phones these days to express ourselves. (what do they call those stupid things? emoticons? umm, i hope it don’t offend, but i like real life smiles, thanks.)  there are long, clacking tubes attached to the arms and they sound like something an insect might do to give a warning. the face is long with the eyes mounted on a helmet that i wear on my head. my face is in direct view but few people look me in the face, they stare above me. i realized soon after i started running around as the bug that i am perceived as a new entity, i’m still myself in these stilts way above the crowd but i’m the bug to everyone else.

as you might imagine, children love it but are also terrified of it. since most of what i do is for the kids (because, duh, they are the ones most likely to change the world. and because they already love whales and hummingbirds and so they don’t have to be convinced that these wild things are more important than jobs or money. and because they are honest even in their lies and so i love them and relate to their transparency. and a lot of other reasons, but i don’t wanna list them here, but yeah, i love the kids) i needed to find a way to keep them from being too terrified. after all, a 10 foot, black insect is both wonderful and daunting. for the same reason that movie about the kid who trains his own dragon is popular, i am popular. if i win the children over, they become my allies. i see the wonder in their eyes. as i walk with long, sideways strides, and as i move up toward the tiny ones, i use the body language i’ve discovered works the best. the distance is important; too close, they run away; too far, they don’t connect. i find the space and begin to interact. if ever i can get them to reach out and touch the weird, spiky foot, i’ve won them over.

and so i walk around with squealing children at my feet. i, in my world, they, in theirs. two worlds not so far apart. the main difference is the 40 years of separation between when we came into this world. the kids haven’t had to face the conflicting decisions of what we adult humans are supposed to be. the children are so ready to wonder, they are so down! they are tiny collectors of dreams. they are little geniuses searching for discovery. they are intrigued by their own fears and not afraid to let the tears roll. they are the little, untainted versions of ourselves. i can cope as long there are kids to teach and love. i’m learning too, while i dance and crawl across the desert, 10 feet above the stones, just under a wild, blue sky.

i am the bug.

and dancing and playing

and not using words

the children all laughing 

and singing like birds

and dancing and playing 

i can hear the notes play

till i stumble…

               and stumble…

                                 and stumble away.

after the song is over

sometimes the only evidence of passing is the dust that hangs in the air.

it is the stirring up and moving and then the leaving.

i’ve seen this in life, with lives. those who went before me and who let me know which way to go by following the subtleties; indicators.

these people are the ones that swim across the dark water to reach the other side. and the water has lurking beasts and swirling dangers but no matter. there are those that swim across and lead and they show others that dangers do not keep us from the important stuff.

and thick hands that swing from sore elbows.

and the cowboy hat pulled low and tight so the wind won’t take it.

and the dark tattoos that speak of past wonders and hidden spaces.

and the biceps that held the fists that gripped the rope on bulls and broncs.

and the movement that is indicative of something wild.

and coffee and words.

and a time when i was younger and trying to understand my heart’s direction so i looked around me for a sign, some kind of stone, the heavier pull of something important. and in the seeking there is a foresight that shines through all the doubt. because doubt is dark and heavy. and so it is and so it was then, that i was looking for things through the doubt. this is where i look for someone who has gone before. i look for the dust hanging in the air that was kicked up by old boots, or the phosphorescence in the dark water that peels off of the fins of the swimmer as we pushed toward the blinking lights of land, or the light on the side of a hill across the canyon that told me someone was waiting on the other side.

these are the signs i look for.  still, i look for them.  i know certain ones will always have left proof of passage, for me to find my way.

so it is with stan, who went before me and then left just enough sign for me to follow. and when i came up out of the surf, he was smiling and knowing that i had tried with all my might. across time and miles we are friends and fellow tribesmen. our joints are sore and used. now, both our eyes are creased with wrinkles. our tattoos have stories that are not so very different, because we shared bits and pieces of a path that isn’t common.

Lt Colonel Stan Austin, you are one of the ones. i saw you from the start. thanks, amigo.

(have you ever listened to a song and understood every word? and when the song was over and the music was all played out, the song continued in your head? so as you move, the words and meaning of the song move with you, as if you were made for the song itself, like the living example. this feeling is true of certain kinds of poetry and song, the ones that are created from the fire of life. this is also true for me with some people, i live with the knowledge that i am sharing the same sun as them and it gives me impetus. there is power in simply being. we have only to listen to the song that is ringing in our ears long after the instruments have been laid down and the singers are quiet.)

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.

what, and the stars

there’s an answer for everything:

the cynics will tell you to stop dreaming.

the realists will tell you that it is what it is.

the pessimists will hand you a helmet and a gas mask and tell you not to breed.

the religions will tell you to follow, to believe.

the doctors will prescribe you some little white pills in different shapes and sizes.

the yogis will tell you to breathe.

the bankers will tell you to save.

the lawman will tell you to conform.

the anarchist will tell you to light it on fire and spit through your teeth.

the scientists will tell you the cold hard facts.

the philosophers will offer you thoughts.

the mean ones will give you a black-hearted look.

the lover will give you sweet love.

the singers; a song.

the drunkards; a nod.

but the stars, will say nothing…at all.

~~and those stars that are hanging over your head and have been there since you took your first breath, they will never tell you to look at them or to listen to them. they won’t ask if you think they are pretty and they won’t say something that might make you need to google it to see if they are right or not. they won’t talk about how their light has traveled across an impossible distance since before we ever were and is full of the truth from a universe that includes us despite our arrogance and ridiculous pompousness, because they…

they are stars,

wild wonders that live on both sides of our dreams.~~