No living being is without interior liquid motion. We all churn inside.- Brian Doyle
The ring feels forced, as if it is stretching and pushing its way across five thousand miles of ocean and rocky mountain hillsides.
“Hello?” She says, uncertainly.
“It’s Lizzie.” I say. “I had to call, I just saw.”
In my hand is my still-lit phone, a Facebook post, “Celebrated Oregon Author Brian Doyle Dies at 60.” Above the post, Molly’s one word: NO.
“I just wanted to call.” I say. Now that I have her on the line, I’m not sure what to say. It is her 28th birthday. Our favorite author has just died. The day before two men were stabbed and killed on a MAX Line we both ride because they defended two Muslim teenagers.
“I know,” She says. “It is so sad.” I start to cry, and so does she. I am crying because if life can take a man like Brian Doyle, what does that mean for me? A spark, a half lit match. I am crying because the most alive human I’ve ever know is now dead.
“It is a hard few days in Portland.” She says.
My last year at the University of Oregon, I was in a year-long specialized fiction writing course called The Kidd Tutorial. It was a pre-MFA, workshop style class that met twice a week. We read, we wrote, and we edited.
I was a lost kid at 21. I was spending a lot of time at Rennies, the local bar, drinking pitchers of bright gold Ninkasi IPA. I was chasing a boy who wouldn’t love me. I was skipping my classes to sit by the river and smoke cigarettes, even though I hated tobacco and wanted to swim. I never wrote. College felt like I was wearing a turtle neck in two sizes too small.
Then I met Molly. Molly was one of the other three students in my class. She was tall like me, redheaded like me, but effortlessly cooler with double nose rings and bigger tattoos than I could commit too. Molly loved to write like I did. Molly loved to read like I did. Molly loved people like I did. We were matched and fated by our lankiness and our obsessions.
When Molly and I loved a short-story, which was often, we would bring the text to class underlined and circled and highlighted and trembling in our grateful hands. Did you read this line? We would gasp breathily at each other, amazed at the creation. Our love for it sometimes embarrassed us, bringing us to fits of giggles around the big square table when one of us went on an impassioned soliloquy.
We are taught in writing workshops that sentimentality is to be avoided. Show, don’t tell. Lead readers to the trough, but don’t drown them in it. This was challenging for two young girls marveling at the sharp blade of life. All Molly and I had were our feelings. They consumed us, drove us mad, made us write 20-page short stories about death and carnage and love and things we hoped one day to understand.
Then we read Brian Doyle. Joyas Voladoras.
“You can brick up your heart as stout and tight… as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.”
He was sentimental. He wrote without remorse about those moments in life that tremble with emotion, with long-winded phrases pock-marked with commas, that threatened to bring you to your knees if you weren’t careful. His lyricism was magnetic. He was an Oregonian. He lived in Portland, worked at the University of Portland. He was a practicing Catholic. We could meet our hero.
We saw him read at the Eugene Public Library on an over cast Wednesday night. We sat in the front row, shaking with excitement, my clammy hands staining the copy of Joyas Voladoras I had brought with me, hoping he would sign. We were the only women over the age of 7 and under the age of 50. Then, he walked in. Brian Doyle was short, with brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, a graying beard, and bright eyes that roamed the room. He read a short story called, “What if God was an Otter in Ottawa?” The 7-year olds swooned. He talked about God like an old friend, like a wise-man at a bar. He read a short story about a mother dropping her daughter off at college, how she implored him to take care of her little girl. His voice swam through the words, cracking when he hit a particularly emotional part. He cried while he read. “All legs and curiosity” he wrote about the college-aged daughter. Molly and I were overcome.
We saw him again after the Newtown Massacre, at McMenamins in Southeast Portland and he read, to a rapt-audience, a prayer for the parents and the children who had died. Again he cried. Again, we all cried. His presence felt like pure light: a man who wrote so honestly and openly that he brought you into his circle too. You could stand and marvel with him.
His writing was against everything I had been taught: how beauty is created when you allow yourself to be cracked open, to let words pour out of you like a stream, to weep openly at how fragile and tragic and incomprehensible life is. To write train-car sentences if they capture a feeling. To read half-finished pieces.
Joyas Voladoras has become my prayer. When I crashed my car in 2015, I sat in the wreckage, waiting for the EMTs and repeated, out loud, “You can brick up your heart as stout and tight as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant.”
When my friend died of a terminal illness, I escaped to a back garden in Otavalo, Ecuador, stared at the hummingbirds, thinking: “It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.”
When I walked across the stage to accept my Masters Degree, a hundred shining faces of people I loved staring back at me I thought, “So much held in a heart in a lifetime.”
So today, to honor a man I met but did not know, but whose words pierced me and became the soundtrack to my life, I will walk to the park. I will stare at the towering eucalyptus and the panoramic views of Quito. I will be in awe. I will marvel. I will cry on the phone to a friend I wish I lived closer to. I will let myself be overcome.
When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall.