I can sit on my motorcycle, rumbling down Coast Highway 101, following my front tire to Seaside. As long as there is road, sometimes it isn’t possible to discover a reason to stop.
Clustered memories can explode into other years and other roads, where I didn’t know what the horizon was hiding. Each revealed plain offered a new mystery to unravel, a different place to wonder about.
It’s all about the seeking when the finding leads to more seeking, building an atlas of memory that will sustain the stories that help define my life. I can see from 101 to Burns, from Burns to Elko, from Elko to Whitefish, from Whitefish to Revelstoke, from Revelstoke to Port Angeles, place to place all over western North America.
These are selfish memories. It’s just me on the iron magic carpet. The thunder on which I ride is a mantra that frees my heart to love the world. The gratitude runs through me, buoys me, and renders me a comet of hope burning across the heavens of my everyday routine.
Coast Highway gets me where I need to be, where I used to perform my due diligence so my family would have shelter, warmth, food, and peace. The gratitude for that more than equals the wild freedom I’ve enjoyed and keeps me snug and free of having to master urban camping.
I remember not knowing where dinner was. I knew it was somewhere until it became breakfast, then lunch, and then dinner again. Going to sleep hungry, even during my direst youthful economics, was not terribly common for me, but it happened. For many in our community here in Oregon, it is still a daily travail. I’m glad I no longer have to experience that. My situation allows me the ease of knowing where dinner is, AND breakfast, AND lunch. I’m awake. I’m intelligent. I’m lucky.
My motorcycle is a luxury. To more than eighty percent of the humans on our planet, I live a luxurious life. When I go to Mexico I am perceived as a wealthy gringo. If I travel to La Jolla, my collar is perceived as blue. Sometimes, it’s like my very skin is the only disguise I need. It offers me the white privilege of being fairly safe most anywhere I go. Money in my pocket has nothing to do with it. But even mostly blending in, humans will still label me. It’s a leftover survival mechanism. People of color, in neighborhoods where they are the exception rather than the rule, know this very well.
It’s all relative, isn’t it? I am staunchly middle-middle class here in America. To a starving Somali family or a homeless person anywhere, I am rich beyond comprehension. I become the stereotypical ugly American. Do I deserve that? Depends on who’s looking. In my own mind I am a kind man who cares greatly for the vibrant cultures all over the world. But that caring is not universally perceived. At the bottom line, I really can’t alter the perceptions that follow me wherever I go. All I can do is accept them, try to understand them, and move through my own life, sharing positive energy as best I can. Sometimes, that will be with a rumbling wind in my face.
Hmm…Poetry 365 nominated me for a Liebster Award. I’m stunned. Thank you, Nathan. Did I say I’m stunned? https://Poetry-365.com is a wonderful blog, full of thought, emotion, and humor (American spelling :-)), and yeah, poetry.
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The Poet’s Questions(My Answers)
1. Are you a cat, dog, mouse, or fish person? (Explain why…)
I am a dog person. I enjoy cats, too, but I like the perpetual honesty of a dog. They can be goofy and are, for me, wonderful company.
2. What was your first music album / CD? (What was your last? Damn you, Spotify!!)
My first record was 16 Tons, by Tennessee Ernie Ford. The last album I got is Ghosts of West Virginia, by Steve Earle.
3. Which is your favourite Beatle and why?
Tough question. Initially, I loved all of them. As the years passed, I settled on George. He was always discovering himself as a musician and songwriter. I think he wrote the deepest material.
4. If you could be any character from fiction or movie, who and why?
I’d love to be Jasper Cronk, a character in my novel Ochoco Reach. He lives on a beach outside of San Blas, Mexico, surfs most every day, has a lovely daughter, and knows enough to keep smiling and being the best friend he can be to the people who love him. I aspire.
5. What was your most disastrous date night? Tell all the gory details!
Hmm. Never dated much. Probably when I took a girl to the drag races and discovered she didn’t like cars OR noise. It was a short evening. What really tore it was me offering the filters from my cigarettes as ear plugs.
6. No regrets. But, what is your biggest regret? (No politics)
I wish I’d been kinder when I was young. I was directly responsible for a couple broken hearts. I probably could have made it easier.
7. What was your scariest weather moment?
A sou’wester here on the north Oregon coast. It blew over 80 MPH for eight hours. I lay in bed and felt the old house twist like you’d wring out a wash cloth. There were two 40-foot ancient fruit trees in the front yard, a plum and an apple. Somehow, they survived it. So did we.
8. What is your favourite city? Explain why?
Trick question. I don’t really like cities. Not my comfort zone. But I’d say it’s a toss-up between Portland, Oregon and San Diego, California. Portland because of it’s quirky attitudes and scenic beauty. San Diego because it has the best weather on the planet. Also, the ocean frames it beautifully.
9. What did you want to be when you were growing up?
A musician. A writer. Oddly enough, that’s who I turned out to be.
10. If you could make a mixtape (OK? or, a spotify playlist), which are the first 5 tracks?
John Prine: Blue Umbrella; Lyle Lovett: If I Had a Boat; Steve Earle: Copperhead Road; Little Feat: Dixie Chicken; Dire Straits: Calling Elvis. This list would be different tomorrow.
11. You have the luxury of writing your own epitaph. Please tell us all? (and make us cry…)
He was a lazy man who followed the flow of his life in his boat of music and literature. He never asked much of others, but he demanded much from himself. He was kind and loved with his entire being. His greatest assets were his family and friends.
Don’t breathe on me! I am deeply flawed and your breath could carry me to a far shore where my friends won’t find me. Your cavalier ignorance defies kindness and care. Your harm is wanton. Do you miss home that badly? We are only visitors here. We are here to learn. You show me respect by wearing a mask. We will all go home soon enough.
(Another essay tired of languishing without a home. ~JimS)
As far as mysteries go, birth is the only event I can think of that rivals death in its head-scratching miraculous reality. Humans make a big deal of it. I don’t know what animals think about giving birth. They don’t tell us. Or if they do we have forgotten how to listen. Perhaps mammals are the most nurturing parents although birds are right up there with us in that regard. Family units are, mostly, tightly knit and ongoing. Mammalian and avian parents are deeply invested in making sure their offspring survive and flourish. There are exceptions, of course; there are always exceptions. Isn’t that right?
If this story were being written by a female of the species, it would be a whole different animal. Pardon the questionable idiom, but it’s true. I am a male of the species so my take on birth is from mind-blown incredulous awed observation, not direct participation. There are no words sufficient to explain the terrifying emotional bloody joyousness of it. All I can do is report on how it was in my relatively detached role as the only guy in those rooms who wasn’t a medical professional.
Our first-born decided to start knocking on the door while we were bowling in the Gearhart Sunday Night Mixed league. The first game passed without incident. My amazing lovely spousal unit was a joy to watch balancing the bowling ball in various juxtapositions with her very pregnant self. The second game, however, became more of a challenge when she came back from the restroom and told me quite matter-of-factly: “labor is upon us.” After smoothing my eyebrows down out of my hair I asked her if we needed to get to the hospital. “No, let’s finish the game and see what happens.” She went on to roll a 206. Best game ever. Through some kind of mysterious human osmosis it wasn’t long before everyone in the bowling alley knew she was beginning the last stage of having a child. During her approaches near the end of the game, the whole place held its breath as she released the ball.
We did get to the hospital but were sent home after a quick examination. “Nope,” said the nurse. “Two-point-five centimeters is too early. Go home and rest.” So we did. I fell asleep as I was rubbing her back and counting the minutes between contractions. That’s how useful I was. She woke me later and just said “let’s go.” I needed no second urging.
One of the beauties of living in a small town is that we knew everybody in the delivery room. It was comfortable. For me anyway. There’s my male side of things showing. The rest of my recollection is fuzzy until our daughter showed up. She slid out of there in a bloody wad and scrunched up immediately from the dramatic temperature drop. Her faced clenched and a howl impossible from such a small creature filled the room. Deft hands wiped most of the goo from her, cut the umbilical, and gently put her into a handy tub of warm water. The howl ceased. Her face relaxed. Her eyes opened wide. They were deep blue and as dark as the morning outside. To say she was beautiful is like saying the universe is big. I was incapable of speech but heard an immense choir singing a chord in gazillion-part harmony.
My recollection here goes fuzzy again. I remember Doctor Larry sewing up what needed to be sewn. I took some photos. I held my wife’s hand as our daughter was lifted from the warm water, loosely swaddled and placed on her chest amid much tearful cooing. There was so much I wanted to say but there were no words. I was awash in a flood of joyful resolve and fear and uncertainty. Parenthood was upon us. I laid my trembling hands on our little miracle and felt her tiny trip-hammer heart marking its time. She smelled of ocean. I felt my mate’s heart, her kick drum in time with the small one’s high-hat cymbal, and understood our separate lives in our separate skins all bound together forever.
Fast-forward a few years; another baby on the way. A happily amorous and practical plan came together and fruition was apparent. My bride was resting in the bedroom and I decided I needed a walk. “Don’t go far,” she admonished. I only made it a few hundred yards when as sure as a light switch being thrown I knew it was time to go back. Yep. I got back to the house and it was time to go. We bundled young Jessica into the car, dropped her off with her aunt, and headed to Good Samaritan. Like our first child, we’d opted to leave this new one’s gender unknown until we all actually met. The mothering half of our union didn’t want to know. I was ambivalent about it but supported her wishes wholeheartedly. The delivery room in the big city was different than our rural sojourn six years prior. The only medical person I knew in the delivery room was the doctor who welcomed us with a broad smile. Even though his blue mask covered his nose and mouth his eyes lit up. How did I see his smile? Some kind of imagination that hits a limbic truth button? I guess it’s one of those things you just accept and move on.
The new baby wouldn’t turn properly and shoulders were an issue. My brave bride pushed and gasped and gritted but we approached an impasse. They were beating each other up. At one point the doc looked at me past the rim of his glasses above his blue unsmiling mask and said: “I think we’re about one push away from a C-section.”
At this point I did something I do all too often and said something completely inane: “Should I go out and get pizza?” Something between her displeasure at my unconscious flippancy and the doctor’s pronouncement struck my spouse and with a gut-wrenching cry she delivered that kid like a bloody bomb. A boy. We were all amazed. There was no tub of warm water this time. It was a soft heated pillow. As the nurse put him on the warm pillow and cleaned off his birth mess he fussed and kicked and waved his little arms. Somehow, he managed to grab my left pinky finger and hold on with surprising strength. A life grip. At the same time my wife called my name and my head swiveled. She had her right arm reached out to me. I stretched myself as taut as I could and offered my hand. She gripped my index finger with astonishing force. There I was, my left pinky held by our brand new son and my right index finger completely engulfed in my mate’s fist. I don’t have words for what passed through me from mother to son; the closest I can come is bioelectricity. I was but a wire, a synapse, a medium, a conduit, a fiber optic cable…run through by the holiest lightning ever. It was birth and death and prayer and life all charging across me in a crackling buzz. It was everything and probably lasted two seconds, but it changed my life in ways I’m still trying to identify these many years later.
Two births. Two life changing events in a getting-to-be-long blessed life that is learning to render accomplishment into humility, which turns out to be the only accomplishment worth mentioning, in pleasant company anyway. Isn’t that right?
Birth is an expellation, an arguably violent act. How, then, can it be filled with such profound grace? We are nurtured for months in the ocean of our mother, protected. Sure, there are storms like with any ocean, but we live with no less divinity than any sea creature. We grow whole and are then expelled into the bright cold world of air and light. If we are lucky we survive and thrive. Our first breath is searing. Grace happens as we suddenly acclimate to the new world in which we find ourselves. Somehow, we adhere to our mother and acknowledge our father and find a graceful peace. Miracles collect like rosary beads. We find our way. All I can do is stare at this spectacle and pretend I have words to describe it. But I really don’t. Such is life.
Another essay I want to share. I’d rather have it sit here on narble.blog than hide in my directory structure. ~JimS.
It’s late evening. I’m standing on a front porch in Gearhart, Oregon, on the dune I’ve come to call my own. I see Polaris gleaming above the Japanese Cedar in my front yard. I can make out other stars too, quite a lot of them wheeling around Polaris, but slowly enough that I don’t get dizzy. Here on the North Oregon Coast we are blessed with darkness. On this side of the house the ever-present rumble in my background is the ocean—Pacific here, but it could be Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, I don’t care. I’m partial to the Pacific, because it’s right there; it’s my ocean, and the most misnamed body of water on the planet—placid is a rare state in the Pacific’s thunderous liquid mass of awe-inspiring community. On the other side of the house is the rumble of the Pacific Coast Highway, incessant during the day and intermittent when it’s dark. I am grateful every day it isn’t a freeway.
As a former temporary urbanite, during my sojourn involving a career and the tag-team guiding of two humans from patty-cake to career-make, I have to admit—cities are loud. I don’t miss that at all. Estimates say that everyday city noise varies between seventy and ninety decibels, even louder when a violent event cranks it up a bit. This violence can happen when two or more cars try to occupy the same space or a ridiculous argument erupts in a quiet café or bar. Normal conversation is about sixty-five decibels, but that’s only if the people conversing don’t have to yell at each other because of the silly argument at the table next to them.
So, what is quiet? Does it start at zero decibels? Not really. The way the human ear works, sitting calmly in a recording booth with the door sealed and nothing going on still registers about fifteen decibels. Quiet is very relative, but over the course of our lives we have developed an interesting relationship with quiet.
The sounds we hear have everything to do with our perception of them. Do I sit in my comfortable living room chair and dream about the rush of downtown taxis? No, but I do fantasize about the sound of water moving around the hull of a boat, the rustle of breeze through a stand of aspen on Steens Mountain, the circular spin of the windblown bows of the giant noble fir in my front yard, the quiet sigh my lovely bride makes as she falls asleep, the snort of my grandpuppy when he wants out, the suff of cards being dealt, the holy thrum of guitar strings as they vibrate rosewood and spruce, the gurgle of a tiny human in the crook of my arm, the exasperated sighs of my children when I think I’m being funny, the little grunts of recognition when a poem pries the lid from my heart. These sights and sounds are part of what I call the Quiet.
Back before we invented monotheism, reverence and awe were everyday occurrences. When Western thought gave all of creation to an individual supreme being, we conveniently received dominion over the earth and its creatures. Our reverence went off-planet. We put ourselves in the middle, between Mr. Supreme (gender-specific) and the rest of the Universe. We built a model that still works for multitudes of believers today. It turns out, I think, that we had it almost right. Yes, we are of the One, but we are part of it as it is part of us. And because of the way imagination works, the Supreme is part of the whole deal too and, as it should, the gender-specific thing vanishes. What the Catholics got right was the Mother part when they deified Mary and allowed her to embrace their world as her own spiritual being. The ritual, the miracle of the Eucharist, the kindness, all that, works for those who love the faith of it. But the patriarchic side of it missed the boat on the sin (Original Sin blames the female), the fear, the intrinsic violence, the giving up of the miracles of this life for a golden pie in the sky. (We’ll come back to the mom part in a few minutes.)
When one of our ancestors wasn’t hunting or being hunted, he or she must have found the clear night sky stunning. We still feel the old reverence when we can escape light pollution and look up from, say, the top of Steens Mountain, or better yet, the deck of a sailboat silent running with the wind in a total absence of man-made light. But when we look up to see the galaxy arm we call the Milky Way and know we’re looking at stars, an incredible vastness shrinks us to subatomic particles. When our forebears looked up, they must have been utterly mystified, and the shivers going through them were eventually translated into myth and legend. I wonder what they thought they were looking at. They were pragmatic. They had to be. They were predators, but they were also prey. Deciding how to describe what the night sky or a hair-raising electrical storm made them feel probably contributed to the evolution of our brains. Stories, poetry, and song are as old as we are.
Living in a city removes us from that common, everyday reverence of wilderness. We’ve allowed this to happen. Because ambient light floods our optics, we can’t see what’s really there. We are blind to the wonder still experienced by people living in the relative dark. I’m sure you can step out onto the porch surrounding a Nebraska farmhouse and fall up into the wonder of the galaxy. I know you can do it in the Malheur country of Southeastern Oregon and the broad Mojave of Southern California. If you have the patience, you can also find it here on the Oregon coast. You can find it anyplace where light pollution is at a minimum.
This wildness moves us, but the very nature of wilderness is changing. True wilderness knows no master other than the earth herself. When most people think of wilderness, images come as mountain and forest, as vast plains and desert, as endless seascape. But all of what comes to mind has been, and is being, affected by human activity. Plastic nanoparticles are everywhere in the ocean and, likewise, in us. Climate change, probably a natural cycle but direly exacerbated by humans, is touching what we call wilderness every day. We are even replanting in wilderness areas so that it looks more like we think it should. How can we call that wilderness?
So, what’s different? From breeze on smooth water to the sternum-rattling thunder of a supercell, nature is being perceived as something apart from us. The galaxy for many young people is fast going small instead of vast, but who’s to say inner space is any less huge than outer space? When compared to the natural world, the difference is that this digital space so rapidly absconding with society’s established predilections is completely manufactured. Without humans present, you can’t find the digital world on the Upper Rogue River, or by a tarn reflecting the Eagle Cap in Oregon’s Wallowas. The digital world is brilliant, but we made it. It wasn’t already here for us to wonder about. There is no intrinsic humility. We are its creators, and we created it in our own image.
Instant gratification—constant stimulation—is addictive. Some people feel utterly lost if they’re not connected. “Connected to what” is a question still being answered. The web has become the new Milky Way, but without the reverence. There is no I-am-a-speck-of-dust in an awed moment of stunned self-realization. Maybe we invented religion to make a word for that pervasive awe, to make it accessible through ritual and repetitive reverence, to chant the word over and over to quantify and encapsulate an imperfect snapshot of that feeling there really is no word for, no sentence, no paragraph, no novel. We called it God, capital G.
The digital world probably weakens us in ways we don’t yet understand. How it may strengthen us is also unknown. The connections we forge in the natural world are deeply emotional and personal. We are completed in ways that defy description. We find that place for which there are no words to describe what we’re feeling and experiencing. The connections we make in the digital world, in social media, are all about words, labels, and definitions. They are invisible-person-to-invisible-person. Peaceful contentment and excitement can certainly be found there—community too—but how deep does it go? When we find online photographs of the natural world, we imagine the feel of it, the water, the sun, the rain, the wind, the air, but we are not there. We are seduced by it, perhaps, but what we experience is several times removed. Seduction, in all of its nuances, is what the digital world is about. We do, after all, call it virtual. There is no visceral understanding of the beauty, just as there is no visceral comprehension of the astonishing brutality that is also, undeniably, a part of the natural world. We edit our perception of what we see in a photograph or video, or painting.
Now, back to the mom part. Before we’re born, we spend an average of nine months inside our mother. During the first third of that, cells cluster and begin to pulse, forming our heart; synapses begin to develop; and the spine starts growing from the tailbone to the brainstem. We start stretching, curling, and wiggling digits. During the second trimester, we begin learning to work the mechanics of breathing. Are we aware? Maybe not until the cortex starts to form and grow. That happens throughout the last three months of our water-borne amphibious state. Again, are we aware? We can learn stuff while still in there, nudging the warm soft bulkhead of our amniotic home, so maybe we are in a rudimentary way. I’m guessing we can feel something, some hazy prenatal emotions. If those little emotions get associated with some sort of rudimentary thought, whatever that thought might be can become very powerful.
In a good situation, most of that amniotic ride is pretty peaceful, warm, safe, and we are one with our mother. Mother is the universe. We bob about in the dark. Life is good in the quiet.
Suddenly, our environment develops a catastrophic leak. We are forcibly squeezed through a portal smaller than our head and enter an unbelievably loud place. It is deathly cold and bright. Our skin shrieks. Our eyes explode with light. Our diaphragm pulls a searing volume of air into our wet lungs. Hello, pain.
Do we remember any of this miracle? Does any creature? I remember my daughter’s scrunched-up little face going completely calm when we put her bloody little self into a tub of warm water. Her eyes opened wide, and she relaxed. It’s hard not to put thoughts in that brand-new air-breathing human brain. I have no idea what she saw. But she seemed to say, “Oh, hello. Where the heck am I?”
The trauma of our beginnings must stay with us at some deep level. When we experience something that fills us with awe and reverence, like looking up at a night sky when it’s the brightest thing we see or hiding in the middle of a dozen heart-pausing thunderclaps, does it somehow relate to our memories of the quiet and the dichotomy of being born? Are we reunited with our mother in some way, somehow closing the loops of our memories? Our desire to reconnect with something profound, to find a place where we are one with everything, where we satisfy that longing to bob about in a warm peaceful place, where we are but a drop in a vast, powerful torrent—maybe that’s what reverence is all about.
The Quiet is where gratitude finds us. It’s all about recognizing our place in the world, admitting that our understanding of it will always be incomplete, and being at peace with who we are and who we might be.