Beep Beep (Or, Sam Elliott Please Read This)

The state trooper walked so slowly up to my driver’s side window, it had to have been deliberate.  Either that, or he was trying to mimic what he’d seen in all those Looney Tunes cartoons he’d watched as a boy.

The only sounds were those of July cicadas, one other passing car, and the trooper’s boots munching on gravel as if it were potato chips.  The gravel had a clean look, and must have just recently been laid over the red clay by road workers along the shoulder of that country highway’s blacktop ribbon.

“What brings you to Georgia?” he asked, after an illuminating discussion about how fast I’d been going.  Having noted my Florida plates, followed by my New York driver’s license, this was naturally his next question.  He didn’t sound much like Mel Blanc.  Kind of looked like him though.

I must have sounded a mite confusing in my long-winded answering of that simple question, as I tried to explain how my uncle had passed away, and that my father had left me my uncle’s car, and how I’d flown to Florida to pick it up, and now I was driving it back to New York, and I had decided to stop and visit my grandfather on the way.

“Who’s yer grandpa?”  He asked this question in such a way that made it clear he wouldn’t give me a ticket if he knew who my grandfather was.  So I told him who my grandfather was, and the name of the road he lived on.

The trooper took the rim of his hat stiffly between thumb and forefinger, adjusting it while I held my breath.  He ten-mile stared down the road from behind his aviator sunglasses for a long slow southern moment, back in the direction of Moultrie.  You had to watch closely to see him shake his head no.

“Welp”, he said, “sit tight.  I’ll be right back.”

That money has long since been paid to the state of Georgia, but it’s still funny to think back on how – all the while I was pulled over and waiting for him to look me up, write the ticket, and have a conversation – a fat black film canister containing no less than nineteen joints lay beneath the driver’s seat, its existence (and, more important, its whereabouts) unbeknownst to me until two days later when I stopped at a Virginia gas station to write something down, and dropped my pen down the crack between the seat and the center console.

In hindsight I reckon this makes him the coyote, and me the road runner.

But you know how it is, sitting on piles of undiscovered treasure, or sometimes potential hornet’s nests, that – for long stretches of time – you never even know are there.  You just carry on, keep going, twenty miles over the speed limit.

Some days you forget to check your rear-view mirror, some days you look back a little more often, and still other days you catch yourself staring.  But always you hope, against hope itself, that one day you might learn to use your head for something besides a hat rack.

Of course, let’s not be so eager to smile about it that we forget this crucial point: I wouldn’t have had to part with one red cent, had Georgia law enforcement been acquainted with my grandfather.  That trooper would’ve smiled, tipped his hat, clapped his hand twice against the roof of the car, and said “Well, you have yourself a nice day.”

 

A Short Interview

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A brief interview about poetry with Homebound Publications:

HB: Why did you start writing poetry?

CMR: I’m not sure which is more true: if I began writing poetry, or if poetry began writing me. All I know is, at some point, it became a necessary creative way for me to understand the world, my own experience of life in it, and to express whatever needs to be expressed.

HB: What inspired your first poetry collection?

CMR: I’ve been creating a body of work for several years, and have multiple collections I fiddle around with when I succeed in making the time and having the energy. I make amalgams of old poems and new poems that seem to have something in common thematically, trying different combinations. So it feels like cheating to say my first collection is “inspired” by something (though certainly the conception of each poem began with an inspiration, epiphany, reflection, or observation). It feels more like finally hitting a home run after striking out several times.

HB: Do you have a favorite poem from the collection?

CMR: No. Maybe if I were a woodworker I’d have a favorite table or something.
I might be a little too working-class for that notion. Just keep trying to make yourself available to the muse, you know? Roll up your sleeves and get in there and do your art.

HB: What poets have inspired you over the years?

CMR: So many. Basho, Kay Ryan, Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Tony Hoagland, Whitman, Frost, Louise Gluck, Rumi, Wendell Berry, W.S. Merwin, the Beat Generation…..the list is endless.

HB: What are you working on next?

CMR: More poetry, and a prose poem collection.

Nine Machetes and an Earring

When I was a boy, one of the things I loved most was a collection of 45-records, passed on to my Grandma Ruth from her dad’s jukebox and pinball machine business Keystone Amusement based in Silverton, a small Oregon town in the Willamette valley an hour’s drive south of Portland.  In the 1950’s and 60’s, Grandma Ruth would “ride the route” from customer to customer (taverns, arcades, diners, roller skating rinks), changing out records in jukeboxes and replacing broken flippers in the pinball machines, or delivering new machines and hauling away damaged ones, returning them to my great grandfather’s shop to be fixed by “mechanics”.  That was years before I was born, but those records would become an important part of my childhood, creating memories that became tangled up with meeting my grandfather for the first time.

I was drawn to music and storytelling from the beginning.  Growing up as an only child with a mother who refused to own a television, I learned to love reading, and read piles of books on rainy gray Oregon days, of which there are plenty.  My love of stories and characters merged with the thrilling discovery of my grandma’s vast 45 record collection.  A few were old jazz and disco, but the vast majority were outlaw songs, trucker songs, and story songs from the 60′s and 70′s, both popular and obscure.  Often the songs would depict bad guys as heroes, involving cowboys, outlaws, gold prospectors, trains, truckers, knives, guns, booze, and women.  To quote Rodgers and Hammerstein – ‘these are a few of my favorite things’.

The summer I turned eleven, my dad came and whisked me away on a summer vacation to meet his dad – a retired shrimper named Buddy – in Florida.  “Get ready to meet Grandpa Buddy,” my dad told me.  “He’ll tell you that ‘you gotta be tough’, and that ‘gettin’ old ain’t for sissies’.”  For a country boy from Oregon who’d never really been anywhere, it was a big adventure. Flying across America, I stared down in amazement at the Rockies, the circles, squares, and rectangles of the Midwest, the silver ribbons of rivers, the palms and cypress trees of Florida, all the while doted upon by stewardesses.

What kind of name is ‘Buddy’ anyway, I thought as I bounced around in the car, my dad navigating a sandy old pothole-riddled road that plunged us deeper into the tropical forest around the Withalacoochee River.

To my delight, grandpa Buddy turned out to be a retired version of one of those characters in the songs I loved so much.  He’d lived an adventurous life as the captain of his own shrimp boat; he’d lived out a slice of the Americana I idolized, though I was much too young to understand that.  And so I came to idolize him, practically overnight.  He had enough stories to fill not just a book, but an entire shelf, and he embellished them with the chops of a master storyteller.  My dad and I would sit for hours listening to the syrupy accent of his deep Johnny Cash-like voice, going on about Key West, the Gulf of Mexico, Campeche, Veracruz, Matamoros.  He talked about a different world then the one I knew, but I identified it as the same world being sung about on the old 45’s: heroes, outlaws, tough guys, sailors, pirates, thieves, swashbuckling heartbreakers and unknown legends.

“You gotta be tough,” Buddy would say again and again.  It was the takeaway, his mantra, the moral of every story he told.  He continued to say it into his nineties until he passed away.  He loved to lie back in his chair, clasp his hands behind his head, and think about all the different lives he had lived, all the chapters of his story.  “Watching the re-runs”, as he called it.

In my overactive boy’s imagination, he was the coolest, toughest guy I’d ever seen. He lived in the Florida jungle on a river full of alligators and snakes. He made shrimp nets and hammocks by hand out in his workshop, where an industrial fan – so large it looked like it should be in an airplane hangar – hummed.  There was a hand carved out of wood in the window by the front door, giving all visitors the finger.  He had tattoos, a topless jeep, nine machetes and an earring. Okay, it was probably more like two or three machetes, but in my kid-mind it was definitely nine.

It turned out that my Grandpa’s real name was Marvin, a name he never liked. He quit school as a young boy and worked as a helper on fishing and shrimping boats. The fishermen would say “Hey buddy, do this or that for me”, or “Thanks buddy”, and the name stuck through the years until he had his own shrimp boat and was known as Captain Buddy.

After that trip, I returned to my familiar quiet life with my mom in our little house in rural Oregon.  I stayed in bed all the next day, heartbroken, unable to stop the tears.  My mom kept asking me what was wrong, and I kept telling her I wanted to go back to grandpa Buddy’s house and live with him in Florida.  I was just a kid with an overactive imagination and a shortage of male role models in my life; I didn’t understand that he was just a man, just a vulnerable person with fears and desires like anyone else. In my head and my heart, he was way larger than life.

I spent the rest of the summer loathing myself; I suspected I wasn’t tough by anyone’s standards – least of all, Buddy’s.  And I figured that – when it came down to it – I probably never would be.  But I had also learned something of immense value that I would carry with me from then on, though I wouldn’t identify it clearly for many years to come: through my grandfather, who I barely knew, a light had switched on inside me, a light that shined inside my mind.  It was the light that comes from the magic of storytelling, sparked by all the books I’d read, kindled by the old 45’s, and fueled by the power of character – fiction or non.

Bobcats and Big Sur

Reckoning appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Stonecoast Review (University of Southern Maine).  This poem came about as an amalgam of a few different things that came together in my mind to create a snapshot of a character.

The first was from a visit to Yosemite National Park, when three friends and I were walking near the village and saw a bobcat.  This wasn’t a “sighting”, it was realizing a bobcat stood six feet away.  It behaved just as I’ve described it in the poem, having almost no reaction to its close proximity with us, affording us a great close-up look before it walked away.

The second came out of camping in Big Sur and experiencing the infamous stretch of highway there.  This combined with my affection for big moustaches, heroes and villains both fictional and real, pirates, desperados, bikers, hippies, unknown legends and lovers who sweep through town with a devil-may-care attitude.  This combined even further with a contemplation of the connection that exists between the Big Sur/Monterey area, American literature (Steinbeck, Henry Miller, Robert Louis Stevenson), poetry (Robinson Jeffers) and the Beats (Kerouac).

The final image in the poem is “the temple of well-fed lions”.  It’s become a recurring phrase in my poetry; I’ve used it three or four times, and now it threatens over-use, so I should probably leave it alone for a good long while.  It came about one morning after a solid night of sound sleep, when I felt so deeply rested I thought about how lions look, lazing about after a feast and sleeping away the majority of the hours in a 24-hour time cycle.  That same morning I happened to be looking at Maxfield Parrish’s “Daybreak”, and the temple image merged with the sleeping lion image in a moment of inspiration.

Reckoning

Picking my way along a path

passing through mountains,

I suddenly came upon a bobcat.

It yawned, barely acknowledged me,

sauntered past, six feet away.

As I watched it evaporate into the forest,

moving as if to say the world is mine,

I was struck by an overwhelming desire

to grow a hedgerow moustache,

covering the expanse of my upper lip

like Mark Twain, Sam Elliot,

or a rugged musclebound hippie biker

who wears a rolled-up yoga mat

slung across his back

where you’d think

a double-barreled shotgun would be,

hugging the curves

of Highway One through Big Sur

on his sweet, sweet chopper,

all at once a sage, recluse,

iconoclast, beatnik, mountain man,

swashbuckling heart-throb

and unknown legend,

inviting you to join him

at the temple of well-fed lions

in order to empty your spleen

of accumulated dreams.

C.M. Rivers

Fritter in the Bookshop

Just because we’re sentimental about a household object that used to belong to a grandparent, doesn’t mean the dog won’t eat it while left at home alone all day.  To him, a coaster with the Notre-Dame cathedral painted on it is – while not the preferred afternoon snack – quite suitable to chew on.

“To think of all the grand plans you once had”, he says, smiling up at me one day as we walked through the park, with an expression indicating that he is at once a wise sage and a mischevious trickster.  “You were trying to be more than you are.” 

He’s right of course.  I am only a wanderer, like the kind you see sketched on a Chinese scroll, small and off to one side.  I am the reader in a chair, in the corner of the bookshop with tea and an apple fritter.

There’s just something about a hot cup of tea and a warm apple fritter, when you’re perched on the shore of the Milky Way, fiddling with the margins that exist only in your mind.

 

 

Changing Stones to Feathers

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that before you can get down to the nitty-gritty business of saving the world, you must tackle yourself, tend to yourself, save yourself, overcome yourself – so you can get out of your own way and just be yourself.  Not the you anyone else wants or needs you to be.  Just the true you – simple, clear, free.

Sometimes you travel back in time, inside, and you search for something lost, and you get caught there.  Part of you wants to stay there, to escape having to confront your fears in the present.

Whatever you hold, carry, store: roll in it, study it, get closer to it, embrace it, absorb it, accept it, celebrate it.  And finally, love it.  If you love it instead of trying to reject it, it’s power over you will be diminished, broken like a spell, and you won’t have to carry it in the same way after that.  The stone will become a feather.

Watch it evaporate, dissipate.  Give it all away to everyone, free.  Soften your grip on the balloon string, open your hand, open your heart.  Watch it float away, up into the sky, and fade into the ether.

Zen

Daylight passes over the garden.

Wild green things grow thick

‘round the entranceway.

Spotted fawns have come by,

their mother not far behind.

Cat sits and watches.

 

 

Starlight Stay

Here’s a link to my poem Starlight Stay, currently appearing in The Adirondack Review.

I wrote this in the middle of the night, up late writing, reading, listening to music, feeling vividly awake and energized.  It’s pretty out of character for me to stay up into the wee hours, though, and I remember longing for the magic dust of sleep, and dreams.

 


A Path Into Yoga: Part Three

Western medicine couldn’t heal my body. The realization of that, along with my acceptance of it, slowly sunk into my bones. A couple of months after my last cortisone injection, I tried a “medical yoga” class, a synthesis of restorative yoga and physical therapy intended for people with injuries. It was taught by a nurse from the local hospital. I went once or twice a week for a month and had a small taste of the therapeutic benefits of restorative yoga. My intuition and my body both whispered yes, this. Give yourself more of this and some healing could be possible.

I was still hanging on to a few preconceived notions and false misperceptions about classes at yoga studios: too much dogma / I don’t want to be the only man in the room / don’t you need to be flexible? My ex-wife pushed me to try it, insisting I would benefit from it. She was right, and I’ll always be beyond grateful to her for that. There’s a twist here, though: the practice of yoga eventually led to transformational shifts in my psychological and emotional states, and was a profound part of my decision to end our marriage. In addition to the strain of chronic illness, our marriage had become sticky with other complications too. I began to see that I no longer had the capacity for it.

I was on the threshold of turning forty when I began practicing Kripalu yoga at a local studio in New York. My primary teacher, Steven, was an older man who had once been an auto mechanic, sustained serious injuries, and eventually rehabilitated and transformed his body through yoga – a perfect teacher for me. This was just what I needed, not a giraffe-like twenty-something who didn’t know how it felt to be in an overweight, injured, middle-aged man’s body. It was plain to me that I was now taking a big step down a healing path and was thrilled to have found what I would come to think of as “my medicine”. So what if I had to modify most of the poses? I found peace of mind, a rested heart, and profound physical therapy there on the hardwood floors of that second-story yoga studio, daylight streaming in over the plants, near the windows overlooking the street. I acknowledged myself in a way I never had before. I surrendered to the discomfort and the ease of the poses, and to myself. It was cathartic to stop fighting, to stop resisting against the painful parts of my life. I’d never related to life that way before.  I’d always fought, always resisted.

In the course of my two years with Steven I lost thirty pounds, my carpal tunnel healed completely, my other injuries healed almost completely, and my knee healed by about seventy-five percent. (I think it’s important to note here that the purpose of yoga is not to “get in shape”, though that often inherently occurs as a side-effect.) Now, five years in, I feel stronger than ever.

Joel Kramer has described yoga as “a psychophysical approach to life and to self-understanding”. Kripalu Yoga, much like the Insight Yoga developed by Sarah Powers, is often described as “meditation in motion”, and focuses on restoring your connection with yourself through movement and stillness, offering clarity and calm. You linger in each pose, staying in the discomfort and the comfort, and observe what comes up for you, escalating the act of self-inquiry, allowing insights to compost and bubble up to the surface. Practicing repeatedly lays the groundwork for healing to be possible, bringing a sense of wholeness and a sense of gathering the scattered pieces of yourself.

At the same time, it lays a foundation for self-acceptance that brings with it the possibility for change. You become a scientist whose project is your own behavior, habits, motivations. One of the central points of practicing yoga is simply to ask the question: what do I spend all my time doing, and why? This willingness to self-inquire is your base-camp: to meet whatever you find with a tender acceptance and soft attention. From there, you just continue working with yourself, in much the same way a kindly grandmother might lovingly knead dough and patiently bake bread, day after day. You don’t embrace or reject, you simply make loaf after loaf with love and discipline, becoming a little more skilled each time.

For me personally, yoga (along with meditation) has calmed the extremity of my highs and lows, connecting me to a much more anchored center in which to be with myself, and from which to carry myself in the world. It helps me appreciate and make sense of the losses I’ve endured, and inspires me to call into question how we define gain and loss, success and failure, in American society. It helps me make contact with my heart and the ground of my being, which gives me welcome relief from the self-identity my mind is always subconsciously working so hard to maintain, in order to be seen in the ways it desires to be seen.

We all have a lot to learn about how and why we see ourselves the ways that we do, and why we relate to other people, and the rest of life, in the ways that we do. Yoga has the potential to assist us hugely in that endeavor. In the same way that your body learns to soften its rigidity and surrender to the discomfort of an asana pose, your ego-mind begins to loosen its grip on its own constructs and beliefs. One begins to lean in the direction of experiencing life from a place of curiosity rather than emotional reactivity.

As you continue, the process continues: old parts of you long to be identified and released to make space for new roots, new directions, new dimensions to be brought to the surface, acknowledged, realized. You’re left with a sense of steadiness, an evenness, that eventually stays with you whether or not you’re on a thin rectangular mat.

Steady breath, steady practice, and maybe even a little steadiness in life.

 

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