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.
I’m clearing the decks. Here’s another essay nobody will publish. JimS.
Ah, gratitude: a simple way to honor the place in which you find yourself, an emotion that encompasses the breadth of a life and lights the sometimes stony path ahead.
I am grateful for the friendships that grace my life, the most profound of which is my friendship with the amazing woman who decided to spend her life with me. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by without my contemplative boundless appreciation. My blushing bride probably hasn’t blushed in quite some time—after all, she has seen everything, pretty much, there is to see during the lifetime she’s chosen to put up with me. Maybe part of it is her pioneer stoicism, or maybe she’s just waiting for me to surprise her again, like the time we stayed up all night and wound up on the beach at sunrise digging clams with our hands. Still, she embraces our union with steadfast humor and understanding, making me the luckiest man in the history of men.
I am grateful for the realization that we humans are not the crown of creation. We are but one jewel of many in that fancy headgear. Is our spatial recognition any better than a spider’s? Does our hearing translate at all to that of a bat? Or a dolphin? Even a dog? Our eyesight is hopelessly nearsighted compared to a sharp-shinned hawk. What we call stink is a rich encyclopedia for dogs. And animals feel much like we do. They know joy, grief, anger, and fear. We are just learning how to quantify this. Part of the reason understanding has taken so long is our arrogance and unwillingness to recognize that animals have a right equal to ours when it comes abiding on this shared waterlogged oblate spheroid. Yes, Nature is uncomprehendingly brutal, but are we the only creatures capable of kindness? What about killer whales gently leading small wayward boats to a safe shore in dense fog? This has been documented more than once. And when a dog tried to follow his person’s boat out into Puget Sound and exhausted himself, resident orcas nudged him several miles back to the beach, not letting him drown.Kindness. What else could it be? What about a mother allowing a different species to suckle and survive? Happens on every continent in every age. There is immense power in the natural world. We would do well to recognize it, brutality and all. In the big picture, it will save us if we are to be saved. Do animals feel gratitude? I would not be the slightest bit surprised.
I am grateful for the gift of music. I’ve known I am a musician since the age of four when I would haul a kitchen chair to the living room, drag it between the big speakers my dad built, clamber up, and emotionally conduct the 1812 Overture; the recording with the cannons. Stereo was a new thing, and I instinctively became part of the music. It washed over me and through me and held me in its vast gnarled hand to give me my first inklings of grace. I knew every nuance and was endlessly fascinated by how all that sound could have come out of Tchaikovsky’s head and heart. I was deeply amazed. Still am. As I grew into my gift, I was captivated by the never-endingness of practice and performance, the cosmic bonding with other musicians and audiences of all kinds. I remember coming out of an extended guitar solo to discover the other people onstage and in the audience were all balls of light, glowing like stars, pulsing and thriving. Scared me briefly until I was infused with a warmth I can only explain as the breath of God. There are really no words for how it was and is. I tell this story and people smile knowingly and ask: “What were you on?” I just smile back and say, “Music.”
What kind of father would I be if I didn’t express gratitude for my children? Recalcitrant at best. Those independent caring funny blindingly smart offspring units are nearly the only people on this planet I’ve met in person who are biologically related to me. That adds a powerful aspect to the gratitude I feel for the woman who mothered them and brought them forth into this crazy world. I’ve probably learned more from them than they have ever learned from me. My amazing daughter has taught me about honoring commitments and forthright attention to detail, among many other things. My amazing son has taught me much about staying calm when I want to fly off the handle and bludgeon stupidity in its many forms. We also share dialog about patience that makes the women in our lives roll their eyes. In addition to nurturing the family unit, we all have become fast friends with stories to tell and more stories to catch. I would be lost without them. My dad hat is proudly worn. A tad battered, perhaps, but I will have it at hand for as long as I am of corporeal form and maybe after. Who knows?
Of course I must express gratitude for my parents, the people who raised me from a skinny orphan baby to a robust headlong emotional human whose occasional brilliance is punctuated by dumber-than-a-rock moments, but who loves life with an all-consuming passion. I would not have arrived at such a special place without them. My father never really understood my compulsively expressive character. He just didn’t get it. I might as well have been from Mars as far as he was concerned. But he stuck with me and did his best not to judge who I was. It must have been extraordinarily difficult for him, sometimes, to tolerate my mere presence. My mother thought I was a genius and was not shy about telling people, much to my chagrin. But she did convince me there was absolutely nothing I could think of that I couldn’t accomplish if I set my mind to it. They were married for seventy-two years. They blessed me as parents for sixty-two years; fifty-eight years for my little sister. They are still together on a green hillside where the breeze blows across an ornamental pond and curls the leaves on the trees standing sentinel. Without them, there is no telling where I might be. I have no concept of anything big enough with which to compare my gratitude. Well, perhaps the Universe. And maybe that’s the point I’m trying to make. You know?
Back to friendships for a bit. I am blessed with a large extended family of choice. Some of this astonishing family are musical, some are companions who love the outdoors and revel in every opportunity to experience the broad natural panoply our Oregon home provides, some are writerly, some are laughing partners who enjoy an adult refreshment and make my life an intricate tapestry of shared stories, bringing an appreciation of time and place home to roost. A few are all of these things. They know who they are. The beauty is that I can tell stories that don’t always have me in them, other than as narrator. Like my children, I would be lost without them, both the people and the stories.
Finally (yes, I am winding down), there are the animals with whom I’ve had the extreme pleasure of codependence. When I was young and still living with my parents, our dog Snap forgave me for everything. She camped by my bed in the night, at least until I fell asleep. After that, who knows? But if she needed to go out in the middle of the night, she would always come wake me up, trusting my opposable thumbs to work the mystery of the door. Most times, she’d do her business and be right back. Sometimes, though, she would take her own ineffably sweet time, knowing I would not abandon her. In winter, she’d come back covered in snow and grin at me as I toweled her off at three in the morning. I gave her my whole heart. When she passed, it was my first lesson in dealing with inexhaustible grief. There were also two cats, Gracie and Rama, who came through my life after I was grown and on my own. They blessed my marriage, both for close to twenty years each. Being cats, they still visit from time to time, their spirits passing through to say hello. Every once in a while, Rama sits on my chest and licks my nose as he always did. This almost wakes me as I feel him walk the length of the bed next to my leg as he leaves. Gracie and Rama never met, but they share a holy place in my heart. And I cannot leave out Toulouse, a mottled Catahoula Leopard Dog who’s become the model for one of the heroes in the novels I write. He is my daughter’s boy but is staying with us while she lives on the east coast. He’s curled up in the hallway as I write this, making sure I’m doing my best. I’m convinced he’s the best dog in the history of dogs.
Gratitude is prayer. Without it, we are just going through the motions and missing the whole point of what it means to be here, living inside our skin and feeling the world flow around us—through us. It provides a cornerstone for humility and calls more of what we’re grateful for into our lives. It gives us a path to tread when we are lost in the wilderness of self-importance and doubt where words fail and thought becomes the Ouroboros, leaving us to choke on our scaly selves. Gratitude does not need words—it only needs depth of heart. We are not rational beings with emotions; we are emotional beings with a gift of reason.
In the doorway, Toulouse just yawned and stretched, hoping this is the last sentence. And so it is.
I’m posting this here because I am very tired of rejection notes telling me it doesn’t really fit in <insert publication>. Yes, I understand it’s an ongoing process, but with this piece, which I really like, I’m just absolutely sick of rejection. I wrote it in Portland, Oregon before we moved back to the beach, so it’s been several years of trying to find it a home. So, now, it has a home. ~JimS; Gearhart, Oregon.
My wife and I were coming home from a local watering hole late one moonless evening. Portland, Oregon is an urban setting with several patches of woods scattered across the metro area. We lived in one of them. I turned off the main drag to wind up toward our house. As I swept around the first bend past Marshall Park, a coyote loped through my headlight beams and into the woods on my left. I stopped the car in the middle of the road and buzzed my window down.
“Hey girl, what’re you doing?”
After she’d passed out of my headlights, I had no idea if she was even close. Coyotes cover a lot of ground very quickly, but a few seconds later I saw her poke her head up from the tall grass at the edge of the trees. Had we been in ranch country, she would never have done that. But this wasn’t ranch country and, apparently, she really didn’t worry about me causing her any harm.
I kept my voice calm, a low modulation I used to use when talking to musicians, children, and horses. “Howdy, good lookin,’ you come here often?” At this point my wife just sighed. I didn’t see her shake her head, but I knew she did. It’s an old joke.
The coyote cocked her head. If we’d been cartoons, a question mark would have appeared above her. Keeping low, protecting her throat, she took two small steps out of the tall grass and sat, head now cocked the other way. She regarded me openly.
“My, aren’t you pretty,” I said.
Like most sensible females, she didn’t respond to my flirting. But she didn’t look bored, either. She seemed at least as curious as I was.
“Have you tired of the taste of cat? Is that ‘possum on your breath? No wonder you’re looking so glossy and good. You’re just a well-fed, wild little show dog.”
We stared at each other for a while, until she yawned, turned, and vanished into the darkness. I drove the rest of the way home feeling pretty good about intersecting with my broader all-inclusive community. I wondered if my wild roaming creature was genetically bent like the wolves who, in theory, evolved into dogs. Without dogs, I don’t think humans could have become what we are. The relationship became a symbiosis of mutual protection, a way of mitigating our journey through harm’s way. Theories of canine evolution are evolving constantly themselves and the truth is probably a stranger story than we currently imagine. Maybe she was part of the beginning of a line that would challenge, again, the division of species. After I crawled into bed, I lay a long time searching the ceiling for answers. How had she known I meant her no harm?
Ceilings are seldom forthcoming, but they are almost always interesting, metaphorically, at least. I like it when they vanish and you find yourself somewhere between the Milky Way and a dream. Connections appear and shift, disolve and reform. If you pay attention without really paying attention, sometime you awaken to a new mindset. Often, it’s too subtle to quantify, almost a quantum shift in how the imagination works. Some people might call it prayer. Some people might scoff and roll their eyes. My eyes may roll on occasion, but I have learned not to scoff.
A few nights later, I was sitting on my front porch enjoying that transition from dusk to dark when a coyote, bold as a bus, came trotting along my twisty road and stopped at the top of my driveway.
Could it be? Of course I decided it was the same coyote. She looked familiar. I recognized her in that way we humans have been taught to ignore, some kind of invisible recognition machinery still present in our senses from when we were also wild.
At the sound of my voice, she took a few steps down the driveway and sat. Her head had a familiar tilt and she looked younger than she had in the full dark. I watched her with wonder. She’d found me. I had no other way of looking at it. If she was, indeed, the same coyote, she’d followed her nose to me, specifically. My excitement was tempered with concern. I didn’t think it was in her best interests to become so familiar with a human, even me, the kindest man in my shoes. It would probably cause her more grief than she deserved. The notion about her genetics now seemed quite a stretch.
“Girl, what are you doing? It’s nice to see you again. I’m honored and flattered, but…” I smiled to myself. “…we have to stop meeting like this.”
With that, I exploded out of my chair. (My son would have said “lurched,” but he’s not writing this.) I sprinted right at her. She came to all fours and skittered a bit, not believing what she was seeing. I was ten steps up the driveway before she gathered herself and ran off the way she’d come. After twenty yards, she stopped and looked over her shoulder. Did I want to play? Is that what this was about?
I never slowed. I just kept running right at her doing my best impersonation of a freight train. Her ears snapped up and the question mark from a few nights before reappeared. This time, she took off running in earnest, not pausing to look back. She did sneak a glance at me when she turned right and scampered up my neighbor’s steep driveway.
When I got to the bottom of the driveway where she’d disappeared, I stopped, doing my best to ignore the iron bands tightening around my heaving chest. I briefly wondered about falling on my face under an ironic headline: “Man’s Heart Explodes Chasing Coyote.” But I was still busy, still intrigued. I ducked into a little copse of trees at the bottom of that driveway. Coyotes are very curious creatures, almost as curious as humans. It helps them, I think, adapt as well as they do. They may come second, right behind us, in the warm-blooded adaptive skills contest, so I kept myself hidden until I saw her poke her head around the corner where the driveway curved into its circular path. I stepped out. We locked eyes across the hundred feet separating us.
Her head vanished and she was gone. I walked back to my house, chest still heaving, hoping that I’d somehow taught her a lesson. I was sad that I’d quashed the opportunity for a unique and, perhaps, special friendship. We modern humans cannot be trusted. She needed to know that in her bones and she needed to teach that to her future pups. I think our respective communities will be better served by a respectful distance between us. The evolution of both species will proceed at its own patient pace and I will continue to query the ceiling for answers.
I’m staying with the Brian theme one more time.–jrs
Writers write, but authors have to do other stuff as well. Some of that stuff involves traveling around, reading some of what you’ve written, and discussing the sometimes mysterious differences between being a writer and being an author. I think in the previous sentence you can often substitute ‘traveling’ with ‘wandering.’
Okay. The most important prerequisite of being an author is being a writer. Duh. But if something gets published and, pay attention here, somebody actually reads it, a writer crosses the line and becomes an author. If enough people read it, the author just might be asked to show up somewhere and talk about it. This can produce an odd kind of terror that is mitigated by waves of gratitude. It the gratitude is sincere enough, the terror will usually recede to simple abject fear. After a couple forays into dealing with this fear, many authors discover that they actually enjoy a nice bunch of folks who cared enough to show up. A few authors carry this enjoyment to an expertise that generates a profound wow factor for an audience. That’s the author who becomes known for entertaining. Brian Doyle was that guy. He regularly blew the doors off of rooms where he’d been invited to talk. He was honest, completely sincere, he laughed, wept, raged, giggled and, perhaps most importantly, welcomed his audience to cradle his very soul. That kind of impact gets around and he was very much in demand.
I appeared at a Cedar Mill Writers meeting, a monthly affair held upstairs at the Cedar Mill Library, to promote my debut novel Ochoco Reach. Stealing what I could from having watched Brian work a room, we had fun and the group asked me back to talk about editing poetry. During my time , I mentioned Brian as a gold standard for writing honestly, passionately, and with deep and genuine humility. A hand went up.
“Do you know Brian?”
“We have a friendly acquaintance.”
“He’s appearing here. At our next meeting.”
“Well. Tell all your members and friends because it’ll be an afternoon you won’t soon forget.”
This seemed to please everyone and my time went on to its conclusion as smooth as a lake at first light. I sent Brian an email that evening, commenting that it was a nice group of people he would probably have a good time with when he showed up and did his thing.
He got back to me: “Hey that’s great man — it is the experience, James — the connecting — the jazz of people reading what you wrote, and of talking books and stories, and of the substance of stories…”
So—I showed up on the appointed day and sat with the others in the room awaiting Mr. Doyle wanting, like everybody else, to be thrilled and inspired. At ten ‘til, the organizers started watching the clock. At straight up we all started looking nervously at each other. At five after, Brian was officially late.
“Maybe he’s lost,” Sheila said.
“Jim, you know him,” said Jean. “Maybe you could go downstairs and see if he’s in the library trying to find us?”
I went downstairs. I was walking by the front doors when I saw Brian drive by, looking for a place to park. Outside I went. Watching Brian get out of the car and walk was a study in bravery and pain management. He saw me and broke into a tired grin.
“Went to the wrong damn library.”
“I did the same thing the first time I came here.”
He nodded as I held the door for him.
Inside he turned and waggled a question mark. I pointed to the far corner. He nodded and we headed that way.
“It’s a room upstairs.”
Concern ruffled his beard.
“Stairs? I don’t do stairs. Is there an elevator?”
“Let’s find out. If not, I’ll have to give you a piggy-back ride.”
The look he shot me could’ve fused metal. Relief was sweet when we both saw the elevator.
“You sure about the piggy-back?”
End of discussion. We were both smiling when the elevator doors snicked shut.
It went on to be a nice afternoon. Brian worked his magic and I could almost hear the group’s self-esteem and hope grow as he acknowledged and framed our worth as writers and storytellers. His humility was never false and it permeated the room, his passion was overwhelming, offering permission for everyone to feel like we were on the right path as storytellers. It was a humbling gift, given freely and sincerely. We were, and are, all richer for it.
This uses the form Brian invented for his Book of Uncommon Prayer and is used here out of deep profound respect–jrs
Who never met but I would offer a few years off my life to watch them measure each other. Brian James Patrick Doyle would have used his stark raving intellect and profound sense of grace as his stick, while Toulouse would have used his nose, mostly. That boy can smell peace and curiosity and kindness and humor like most people can taste a jalapeño potato chip. Brian’s corporal form has been chased off by a “big honkin’ brain tumor” and he is probably trying to figure out how to come back as an otter, but Toulouse, aka Dogboy, Mr. T., Bebe’, or Bubba, is still here at fourteen, which is ninety-eight in dog years. Ninety-eight! I think he might be debunking that whole “dog years” thing because he can still be such a puppy. But his eyesight and hearing aren’t what they used to be, so maybe it is true. Given his seniority, it’s conceivable they could meet somewhere in the ethers when Toulouse says goodbye and lopes off into the sunrise. I’m glad he’s shown no interest in that, so far. But what do I know? Brian was a lifelong believer in Heaven and the Breath, the Creator, the Whole Reason for Christianity, the Holy Endeavor, all the stuff he carried in his beloved Catholicism backpack of a heart. I don’t suppose Mr. T thinks about that stuff a whole lot. He believes in a good belly rub, a bowlful of food, and a long walk at a pace that allows all the sniffing he wants. But this is my prayer and I am giving thanks for them both and asking that they do meet when an opportunity presents itself. Those two together having fun would profoundly brighten the universe. But it might have to happen before Brian comes back as an otter, the most playful wild creature ever. So, yes: amen.
I’m supposed to be finishing a novel but I’m not. It’s a
murky late summer day with an uncertain sky and a directionally challenged
breeze smelling of salt and fir, marsh and cedar. My characters are all
hovering around the keyboard here staring balefully with their arms folded on
their chests. But they sense my mood and say nothing. Even the young Apache
girl who occupies much of my recalcitrant story is silent. That worries me
some. She’s the one I most want to follow, she and the dog. But she is waiting for
me to lead and we are in trouble.
The fur-and-blood dog, who helped me make the dog in the
story, just got up and left the room. He’s usually content to lie next to the
desk and find some kind of comfort in the erratic tippity-tap of my fingers. He
knows a heck of a lot more than anybody thinks he does. I think he’s worried
too. He can probably smell my angst, my uncertainty, my fear, my exasperation.
Obviously, he’s more comfortable on the couch down the hall.
But wait. He just came back to lie in the doorway. I’m
guessing, though, that this is now about maybe an early meal. Oh, I say, it’s
all about you, now, is it? He puts his head on his paws and watches silently,
like my characters. If he whines, I’ll know it’s about food.
My problem with the novel is that I have not found a way to
get my characters into the situation they need to be in for me to tell the
story I want to tell. I’ve written up to the predicament; started the
post-predicament. I haven’t written the predicament solution because, I’m telling
myself, I can’t get them into trouble by any means worthy of my reader. My
instincts tell me to take one of the crummy scenarios I’ve discarded and write
it anyway, hoping the muse will gift me the plot to get them in dire straits
and I can rewrite it when it’s there. But I have resisted this and I don’t know
why. Sheer laziness? I’m not sure.
And I’m not sure how the mystery that opens the novel will
serve the bigger story I want to tell. That initial action is still throbbing
out there like an injured limb. So here I am, typing away, hoping for epiphany
and a lovely comfortable muse to take me into her arms and fondly caress me to
Gad, what a fantasy life. Perhaps, as did Paul Zarzyski, I
need to conjure up more of a dominatrix muse, who snaps the whip and
flagellates all excuses. I certainly flog the originator of the excuses, but
that’s just cruel self-indulgence and does no good, only harm. I wish Brian
Doyle was here to explain the catholic-ness of that predilection. He’d probably
find himself in that heady state between horror and amusement.
So where do we go now? I’ve been dying to talk to myself
like this, in a fundamentally honest way while maintaining some kind of
quasi-entertainment value, kind of like a journal entry, but less scribbley. Another
fantasy is that someone might want to read this, compelled to carefully tread a
dark staircase in hopes of insight into an all too common writer’s dilemma. I
know other writers go through this disconsolation of mercurial confidence and
ineffectual effort. Maybe I can stumble through to that, now belated, epiphany.
At least I’m sitting here clacking the keys.
This suddenly reminds me of the best writing advice I’ve
ever had. It came from an anecdote about the great poet William Stafford, whose
daily writing practice is legendary. He was asked what he did when the writing
wasn’t going well. He mused a moment and then offered: I just lower my
A young boy, dressed in clean but threadbare jeans and a shirt
that might have once been red, took in my leathers and my road-weary black Harley.
He then shot me a look that was older than he was. “Mister? What’s it like to
ride a motorcycle?”
I decided to tell him the truth. “Kid. It’s so hot your
knuckles fry. It’s so cold you want your fingers to fall off because they hurt
so bad. But it’s wide high freedom with a joy that transcends to something
beyond the howl of the wind and the throb of the motor that becomes so close to
the beating of your heart you can’t separate them. It’s a gratitude beyond the
food in your belly—beyond the roof under which you live; it’s a paroxysm of
elation that sings a song in your heart and you love every note without knowing
how it ends. You just can’t describe it exactly, Kid. You just can’t. But you
want to keep riding, just in case you find the words that might shine a light
on what it’s like so someone else might have a clue. It’s almost a prayer. If I
could really share it with everybody, I surely would.”
He pursed his lips, looking for a moment like the old man he
would someday be. He nodded. “Thanks.” He stopped at the doorway and looked
back at the Harley and me. He nodded again and went inside, probably to look
for his mom.
I stood there in the fitful breeze cinching my denim jacket into its windy shape. Time to throw a leg and go. As the motor kicked over I nursed it to a smooth potato-potato and wondered if I’d ever see that kid again. The story didn’t feel done. I filed my shrug to the we’ll see pile.