Most days, these days, I count to 5 before I read the news. While I’m counting, I ask myself if my time would be better spent reaching out to someone or engaging in joyful pursuit. Or both. Not that I’ve put my head in the sand. Far from it. But I’m interested these days in boundaries that also allow for light. There’s a long, troubling haul ahead culturally, and sustenance for the fight, for me, is going to come from remembering both my impermanence and the importance of celebrating tiny, fierce, joyful things.
I’ve been thinking all week, since my book group meeting, about Brian Doyle.
I first met writer Brian Doyle through the pages of Orion magazine, where his pieces made me giggle and want to read them aloud or memorize them or lean into my husband and whisper them. Delicious series of words that tongue-twist and whirl and leap. “21 Laws of Nature as Interpreted by My Children” reminds we humans not to get too big for our britches: “If you can’t make a new ant, don’t kill an old one,” reads #20. “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever” pokes fun at the preachy earnestness of environmental writing, which so often bludgeons readers with stridency and dire prognostication.
Here’s his last paragraph from that essay:
“And finally the last paragraph. It turns out that the perfect nature essay is quite short, it’s a lean taut thing, an arrow and not a cannon, and here at the end there’s a flash of humor, and a hint or tone or subtext of sadness, a touch of rue, you can’t quite put your finger on it but it’s there, a dark thread in the fabric, and there’s also a shot of espresso hope, hope against all odds and sense, but rivetingly there’s no call to arms, no clarion brassy trumpet blast, no website to which you are directed, no hint that you, yes you, should be ashamed of how much water you use or the car you drive or the fact that you just turned the thermostat up to seventy, or that you actually have not voted in the past two elections despite what you told the kids and the goat.”
Doyle’s writing’s often silly, unwieldy as Faulkner, and this side-door play with language works like a water mark you can see when you hold the artifact up to the light, or a flavor you can taste hours later. That kind of fun with words piques curiosity, keeps you reading.
A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of his novel Mink River, a book I read faster than I wanted to and stayed up late to do it a few nights running, aware that such fast tour through the pages was a disrespect to the writer’s deft ability to make prose read like poetry. Mostly, when I consider Doyle’s work, I think of the word wonder. I don’t know how he does it, but he manages to infuse his characters and their perspectives with an awe about living most of us seem to miss, busy as we are with the big problems, the minutiae, the plans and goals and hiccups.
Time with Doyle always makes me realize that in this short stint of living, I’d be better served to use wonder as my lens. There’s a choice about perspective, after all, and sometimes choice takes both purpose and a bit of work.
I recommended Martin Marten as my book group’s February read. The same friend who sent me Mink River gifted me Martin Marten in early summer as my son was about to leave home for college. It was the perfect gift, and I read it in the hammock in the week before we delivered Owen to his new chapter. Doyle’s story was a reminder that sending a kid out into the world is a new chapter for parents, too; when anyone you love peels off on his own path, he’s both inextricably bound to the place from where he’s come and forever separate in a new way. Both joy and sadness can set up shop next to each other in one’s heart, and that’s the vital rub of living.
Martin Marten, about a boy called Dave, his family, and the colorful collection of characters in their small Mt. Hood town of Zig Zag, Oregon (a town below where I’ve spent some time skulking about in the woods, a magical place), is another testament to Doyle’s wondrous outlook, to his fine ear and artful craft, to his bedrock sense that the world is a brief, glorious journey, and that the people along for the ride with us are full of wonder, too, even if they are also simultaneously curmudgeonly, or afraid, or confused. The novel unspools the twin coming-of-age of Dave, the boy, and Martin, the pine marten, and their stories weave and flirt together and apart as they’re both tossed and turned in life and love.
Dave’s younger sister is as precocious as any child you’ll meet in fiction. But I didn’t mind her ability to so candidly talk about feelings or her spatially gifted genius. Her words to her brother – the same words that ring long after the story is over – are to “be tender.”
Could there be any better words to adopt as your theme song? Especially now, when most days it feels like tenderness is a fleeting impulse, with so much hateful rage and fear on the wind.
A few years ago Brian and I both had stories published in the same journal, and I ginned up the courage to email him and tell him what a fan I was. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he emailed me back within a few hours with genuine enthusiasm and his signature silly swirl of language. Neither too important nor too busy to respond, despite his much more impressive publications. His swift, embracing tone of collegiality is something I’ll remember always and work to pay forward, too.
Our book group meetings always involve a writer review, and a friend came this week prepared to share Doyle’s accomplishments in fiction and essays, his background and family story, and his working life as editor of Portland Magazine. This story isn’t all about joy: I didn’t know until this week that Doyle was diagnosed with a brain tumor in November. He had surgery a few weeks ago and is recovering in the hospital after a complicated procedure that’s made post-surgery complicated, too, not to mention survival.
In Martin Marten, Dave spends a good bit of time exploring the “Daveness” of being Dave. In a note to his readers in the days before surgery, The “Doyleness” of Doyle sounds an awful lot like the character he built for us, so full of light:
“stories are holy and nutritious and crucial. Stories change lives; stories save lives. … They crack open hearts, they open minds…It’s more important than ever before to hold hands and catch and share stories of substance and grace and defiant courage and irrepressible humor…The alternative is to ‘allow nothing in our lives but sales pitches and lies.’”
“We could change the world if we told the right story,” Doyle said.
I hope, Brian, that you can feel me hugging you from here with defiant tenderness. That you can hear my stories rising up with the stories of so many others.
What a gorgeous tribute to an incredible author. “Be tender” is indeed a most perfect mantra. Thank you for sharing this gorgeous review and the heartbreaking news that he is so ill. What a light he is.