Breach

The shallows of our lives flicker with danger and bursts of quivering light.

We work and work to rise from the deep, shake water from our wings,

congregate and take flight.

Strange Names

“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare penned this question in Romeo and Juliet, and Rodney Dangerfield used it for one of his earliest comedy bits. No matter how strange or ordinary your name might be, it’s good to keep a sense of humor about it. Believe me, I know. I have a strange name. One of those names that inspires folks to think such thoughts as “boy, his parents must have had some really good drugs” or, in current English vernacular, “seriously?” Or, if texting, “wtf!”

My strange name is River Curls, and I’ve witnessed every conceivable reaction a person could have to it, from drunk islanders to urban hipsters, from eight-fingered redneck shop teachers to nonplussed X-generationers whose names are even weirder than mine, thanks to their hippied-out parents (i.e. Freedom, Rainbow, or Freekus Polikus).

In grade school there were the chuckles during roll call, and the rejection from certain groups based on “name-weirdness”: the everyday cruel behavior we all possess and sometimes demonstrate early on. This caused me to begin my development of two things at once – a thick skin, and a profound hatred of anything that drew attention to names: name tags, roll calls, chalkboard lists. If any of the other kids despised their names, they were no match for me. I felt singled out by the wide gap my name drew between me and all the Johns, Jeffs, Adams and Rogers.

High school was no gift either. My name prevented any and all hope of fitting in, being thought of as normal, or, way more importantly, being cool. Though I likely would have excelled in sports, I veered away from them so I wouldn’t ever again have to hear a coach misspeak my name as they always seemed to do (“get back in there, Rivers!”) or use my last name while reprimanding me with the zest of a drill sergeant (“Goddamnit, Curls!”) I retreated more and more into books, movies, and music. With one really close friend, I discovered how to comfortably exist beyond the margins of every defined social group. Together we bonded with our English Lit teacher, diving into poetry, Shakespeare, and creative writing.

The name River isn’t all that unusual, but its pairing with the name Curls pushes it into strange territory. And as with every name, the two words each have their own backstory. Curles (with an e) is a variation on the Anglo-Saxon name “Curl”, or “Corliss”. Families bearing the name Curles can be found primarily in Wales and England, but there are a few in Scotland as well. In the United States the name is mostly found in Georgia, where my grandfather on my dad’s side is originally from. According to my grandfather “some old bastard decided to drop the letter e”, leaving my bald family with a spelling that – in a cruel twist of fate – conjures up images of hair and hairdressers.

My mom named me after the Kilchis river, near Tillamook: a town on the Oregon coast. The shack where I was born sat close to the river’s edge. It’s gone now, but the river is still there, flowing from the Coast Range down into the Pacific.

And then there’s my middle name, but that’s another story.

 

Discovering The Beatles

The first time I remember noticing the Beatles in a substantial way was in 1990.  I was sixteen, in the car with my step-dad Paul. My mother was fast-approaching the losing side of a battle against breast cancer, and on one of many two-hour drives from the Oregon coast mountains to a hospital in Portland, Paul slid a cassette tape into the deck. It turned out to be Abbey Road, and my imagination blasted off on a musical trip as the music and lyrics filled the car, evergreen forests rolling by on both sides, the foothills of the coast range eventually falling behind as we descended into the Willamette Valley.

I was aware of the Beatles at that point, and I suppose technically I must have heard them prior to this memory, but oddly enough – considering my hippie upbringing – I hadn’t actually experienced them yet. My mom’s record collection had consisted mostly of folk, jazz, and softer rock such as Fleetwood Mac.

Later, I would discover the song “Imagine” by John Lennon, and recall hearing those phenomenal lyrics as a child. And after high school I’d attend a gathering of the Rainbow Family in Mt. Shasta, California, where “Give Peace A Chance” was sung in unison by hundreds of people, the voices floating upward into the summer sky in a harmonic spiral.

With the passing of my mother, my late teens were an intensely emotional time. I went to live with my paternal father in Portland, and suddenly the Beatles were everywhere. Hipsters wore Beatles t-shirts, department stores played dorky instrumental versions of Beatles songs.

I began to learn guitar from my dad, who had a Beatles songbook and showed me some chords. It wasn’t long before I was playing “Let It Be” and “The Fool on the Hill”, my hand moving awkwardly over the steel strings of his old beater acoustic. My dad played their albums while he shaved for work. And when they came on the radio, his hand reached out and turned the volume dial. I began watching Saturday Night Live, and there was Paul McCartney in a skit with Chris Farley.

And, while walking an hour home from a girlfriend’s house in the middle of an August night, I took my first unforgettable journey into The White Album on my headphones, the timelessness of the Beatles’ prolific creative streak propelling me onward through a warm and empty world, among moon-shadows and the perfume of sleeping summer flowers.

Many Brothers

Connection erases age, weakens constraints, strengthens the bond of brotherhood.

I have crossed many valleys. I have loved many brothers.

Treetops creak and bang the way the screen door did in my own lost boyhood.

A wind has risen.  Dying leaves pray for us all as they descend, knowing how to honor their own wisdom.

A final stretch of weather will come, driving me into the finger-shaped lake, but today is bitter enough to invite stillness.  Today is northern tundra, Canadian coastline.

I puff and snort the way my grandfather once did, hiding an empty wine bottle among indifferent stones.

Fantasia

Use those opposable thumbs for eye-rubbing, my child, so you may drift away from such structured compositions and be led to the discovery of yourself.

Then you can sit quietly, as a stone in the valley would, a fisherman on the riverbank, a coyote.

Soon, the fantasia of all creation shall nourish your nerves, itch between your toes and at the base of your fingers.

The language of living, the dialect of days and nights passing will reinvent you, reshape you, while raindrops rebound off your skin – skittering up and away as musical notes – in muddy organic euphoric medicinal reverence.

 

Song Lines

Listen. A voice inside you is singing. You are following your song lines, you are singing the world and the land into being as you walk upon it.

We are surrounded by teachers: the path we take, the wind, the people on the street, the people in our lives, the one who makes us crazy, the one we admire, the one we envy, the one we pity, our peaceful feeling, our desperation, the goldenrod, the baby’s breath.

There are times when the sky is so blue and the clouds so soft at their frayed edges, that it all hardly seems real. Sometimes the magic of the sun shining on water makes us wonder how we’ll ever leave this place. Sometimes it’s “how will I do this, how will this work, this can’t be happening, I can’t do this anymore, I’m so tired, this is my life”. Meanwhile the sun rises, incredibly, and moves across the sky. The wind blows, incredibly. A bird sings, incredibly.

If your eyes shift to the rearview mirror for too long, you risk crashing into what’s in front of you. Time to go on walkabout again. Time to return to the song lines. Time to just be, time to remember every step is taken on a frail sheet of glass. Everything we do, we do while standing on a falling snowflake. Every time we give up is a new beginning.

So you arrive, from your long and arduous climb, at the platform where your voice has been waiting for you, and you know the sound of it. You know the lines of the song you are following. You are an instrument, the music of the land moving through you as you sing it into being. Alone as you are, you shall be with all the world.

 

Ceramics

You never know when you might see yourself in the mirror – not glance, not look, but see – and what once seemed solid appears translucent.  What once looked like perfect strength, by common definition, now strikes you as fragile.

The cup you are drinking from slips out of your hand, deconstructing at your feet.  Not bothering to collect the broom and dustpan, you pack the car.  You pack the car lightly and go.

You take everything they thought they knew about you, and you take every last little scrap of how they think you should be, of who they think you should be, and you just burn it.

Holding the gray-white tresses of ash in the cradle of your upturned palm, you blow.

Window down, foot on the pedal.