Archive for June 26th, 2017

Award-winning essayist, editor Brian Doyle, 1956-2017: “Something is opening in me, some new eye.”

Monday, June 26th, 2017
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I heard recently of the death of writer Brian Doyle. I didn’t know him. I didn’t think I knew him. But someone later mentioned that he had been editor of the estimable Portland Magazine, and a memory came back. Someone had suggested years ago that I contact him. I think it was to propose some sort of article about Nobel poet Czesław Miłosz. Earlier this month, I retrieved the exchange of emails from my oldest email account and reread them. We corresponded in 2005, and had a phone conversation. Nothing came of it, and I can’t remember why. I wish something had. He died in May at the age of 60, from complications related to brain cancer.

Under his leadership. the magazine was consistently been ranked among the best university magazines in the country and in 2005 received Newsweek’s Sibley Award as the top university magazine in America. He was nominated for the Oregon Book Award nine times, and finally won last October for his novel, Martin Marten.

“Naked as a baby…”

He learned last November that he had a brain tumor. When people asked how they could “help,” he replied, “”Be tender to each other. Be more tender than you were yesterday.” Then he underwent surgery for what he referred to as “a big honkin’ brain tumor”.

In an email sent to faculty and staff announcing his death,  University President Mark Poorman wrote: “He was a man filled with a sense of humanity and wonder, who was interested in everyone’s story and who saw everyone’s potential. His warmth, humor, and passion of life will be deeply missed and his loss will be acutely felt here and beyond The Bluff.”

From a writer at The Beacon, this time a student, Rachel Rippetoe:

Sometimes I think we all relate to each other like characters in a TV show with no stakes, wandering around a living room set with no fear that the floor might fall through. Every once in awhile, you meet someone who shakes you by the shoulders and reminds you that we’re all standing on a precipice, bits of rock slowly eroding underneath the sneakers we bought at Macy’s for half price.

He had these eyes that curved around his cheeks, issuing an earnest and acute plea for humanity upon anyone who meets them. His voice cracked and crooned and he swayed on the balls of his feet, all the while those hands stayed in his pockets, only unleashed when his most abundant and resounding message was hurled at an audience that couldn’t have been anything but enthralled by him.

The essayist Dinty Moore posted this quote from him on Facebook: “You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable 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.”

Now here’s the thing. I was cleaning out the garage today, always a major undertaking, and throwing out boxes and boxes of papers and magazine, and then the magazine pictured at right fell out of a pile in a box that had been untouched for over a decade. Brian had sent it to me in 2005, during those discussions for an article that never happened. And inside the front cover was his short editor’s essay called “Word Less,” on silence. It concludes:

“I rise earlier and earlier in these years. I don’t know why. Age, sadness, a willingness to epiphany. Something is opening in me, some new eye. I talk less and listen more. Stories wash over me all day like tides. I walk through the bright wet streets and every moment a story comes to me, people hold them out to me like sweet children, and I hold them squirming and holy in my arms, and they enter my heart for a while, and season and salt and sweeten that old engine, and teach me humility and mercy, the only lessons that matter, the language I most wish to learn; a tongue best spoken wordlessly, with your hands clasped in prayer and your heart as naked as a baby.”

Oddly, I hadn’t read the mini-essay or the article he wrote for that particular issue. The moment of our connection passed, and I went on to other things. But I will, now.