Brian Doyle: A writer like no other

I had a respite from grading papers and exams last weekend, and the break allowed me to finish reading a book that I can only describe as exquisite.

It was Brian Doyle’s “One Long River of Song,” a collection of short essays published posthumously last year.

Brian died in 2017 from brain cancer at age 60, leaving behind a widow and three adult children, along with a city full of brokenhearted fans of his unique literary voice. He was an Oregon Book Award winner and a virtual writing machine.

Over the years, Brian wrote eight novels, six books of poetry, several nonfiction books, and dozens of essays and op-eds that appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The Oregonian and other publications, all while serving as editor of the University of Portland’s award-winning magazine. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting him and working with him on a submission or two to The Oregonian’s Sunday Opinion section, in the days when it was still a free-standing, broadsheet section of the newspaper.

Brian was a gentleman — smart, funny and self-effacing. And he was beloved by the community of writers and readers in Portland and beyond.

“One Long River of Song” presents this gifted writer at his finest. Fellow author David James Duncan collaborated with Brian’s wife, Mary Miller Doyle, to compile 81 essays and poems in a 241-page volume that captured his sense of awe at the natural world and his musings about love and grace and wonder and kindness.

Brian was born in New York and attended the University of Notre Dame. He had an extraordinary ability to see and appreciate the simple things in life — a simple word or gesture or emotion — and present them in a spiritual framework for a secular audience. Thought he was a devout Irish Catholic, he didn’t push his faith on his readers as much as he invited them to ponder the presence of the divine in the small, ordinary moments of our daily lives.

Those who’ve read Doyle know well that he made the English language his own, with a one-of-a-kind approach toward syntax and punctuation, often turning nouns into verbs or adjectives, or sometimes writing ridiculously long sentences that somehow always held together.

From an essay about his sons, “What Were Once Pebbles Are Now Cliffs.”

“I am standing in the middle pew, far left side, at Mass. We choose this pew when possible for the light pouring and puddling through the stained-glasss windows. The late-morning Mass is best because the sun finally made it over the castlements of the vast hospital up the bill and the sun has a direct irresistable shot at the windows and as my twin sons used to say the sun loooves jumping through the windows and does so with the headlong pleasure of a child.”

From an essay about an eccentric friend, “His Weirdness.”

“A friend of mine is dying in the fast lane, he says, smiling at the image, for no man ever loved as much as he did zooming those long stretches of highway in the West, where there are no speed limits or curves or cops and nothing to kill you but sudden antelopes. But now he can see his exit up ahead, he says, and he has slowed down to enjoy the ride. He’s been pondering the sparrows, who do not sow and neither do they reap, he says, shuffling into his yard armed with fistfuls of seed.”

And this, from an essay about how he, a self-described “meathead,” once laughed at gay people. “Mea Culpa.”

“The first time I saw the quilt I wept. The quilt is the biggest quilt you ever saw. It is more than a million square feet big. It is haunting and beautiful and terrible and lovely and bright and awful. Every panel is someone who died young. Every panel has tears in it. There are more tears in the quilt than there are threads. I started paying attention. I started listening. I stopped sneering and snickering. I began to hear the pummel of blows rained down on people for merely being who they are.”

This book was a year-end gift from my friend Molly Holsapple. I thank her fot it and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet read Brian Doyle.

University of Second Chances

Midpoint of the winter quarter has arrived, bringing with it midterm exams and essays in all three of my classes. It’s a lot of work, to be sure, spilling over into the weekend. But for every mangled sentence I read, there is a beautifully crafted paragraph or a surprising insight that gives me pause, making me appreciate why I love teaching at Portland State University.

It’s not just the diversity of the student body. I’ve grown accustomed to looking out at a sea of black and brown and white faces, knowing many of my international and immigrant students have grown up in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe or Latin America, while others hail from cities, suburbs and rural communities across the United States.

No, it’s more than that. It’s reading their stories and understanding what they have overcome to get here — and often what they continue to deal with in pursuit of their degree – that makes me feel privileged to have a hand in their education.

Many are the first in their family to attend a four-year college. Many attended high schools with less than stellar academic reputations. Many have transferred in from a community college. Some struggled at their first try (a euphemism for dropping out) and now have come back after a few years.

Many are parents – and, yes, there have been instances when a student (it’s always a mom) has brought her young child to class because no one else could take care of them. Some are going through divorce; some are helping take care of an ailing parent; and some (actually many) have learning disabilities requiring alternative learning accommodations.

And rising above all of this? A growing number of students who deal with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

I can’t say I anticipated much of this when I left journalism four years ago to begin a second career as an adjunct instructor teaching a single class at each of two public universities in the Portland area. Yet here I am, with a full teaching load on a one-year contract at PSU that ends in June, and I feel like I’ve been blessed with an opportunity to help students get a foothold in life – or simply just persevere.

***

It dawned on me the other day that while the acronym “USC” is most commonly associated with the prestigious University of Southern California (the expensive, private school often derided as the University of Spoiled Children), I’m teaching at a University of Second Chances. A place where students of all backgrounds come together with a common goal of improving their life through higher education.

Like every one of my colleagues, I do the best I can to offer a challenging course that introduces new concepts, provokes thought, and sparks engagement through wide-ranging class discussions. But, honestly, it is in the hours outside of the classroom where one can make a difference.

Often, this means meeting with a student who’s overwhelmed at home and at school and needs some help putting together an acceptable essay. Other times, it means a long conversation with someone in their mid- to late 20s – the so-called non-traditional student – who is having doubts about their declared major or uncertain career path.

I don’t mean to suggest that every day is marked by some kind of crisis.

In recent weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of doing interviews with really smart, accomplished students who’ve applied to be in my next study-abroad class in July. I’ve written letters of recommendation for former students seeking their first jobs as new graduates. I’ve also been asked to help read through a small stack of applications for a departmental scholarship, knowing we can choose only one candidate among so many deserving candidates.

In the face of so many challenges, what stands out to me are the hopes and dreams, and small victories, of students like these:

R.B.: A just-graduated senior who came to me to ask for a letter of recommendation to graduate school. Raised in poverty, abused by her stepfather, and hampered by a learning disability that wasn’t diagnosed until her teenage years, she barely graduated high school. At PSU, she gained her footing, built her self-confidence and now aspires to work in the nonprofit sector.

Z.G.: A sophomore who was born in Pakistan, grew up in Afghanistan and speaks five languages, only learning English after she came to the U.S. as a teenager. After a year at PSU, her GPA was below 2.0 and she was placed on academic probation. I wrote a letter of support that pointed out she had earned a C in every one of her classes during the fall and was now positioned to improve

I.P.: A senior who participated in my London study-abroad program, he’s taken all four of my classes. He floundered at community college, but found his focus at PSU. Now in his early 30s, he’s just completed an internship at Oregon Health & Science University and asked me for a letter of recommendation to graduate school.

L.D.: Another community college transfer who’s bounced from California to Oregon with a middling GPA. She’s in her mid-20s, a junior majoring in sociology, and in the midst of a remarkable turnaround at PSU. She earned a perfect score on her first essay in a class she’s taking from me now and will be among the students going abroad with me to Germany this summer.

***

Just over a third of U.S. adults have a four-year college degree. In times past, we would celebrate anyone who had attained their bachelor’s. These days among a considerable number of our fellow Americans, a college degree is viewed with resentment, as a token of the elite. Nothing could be more discouraging – or pathetic, frankly – than a view like that.

In my book, these students at PSU are heroes. I look at them and I see tired faces and slumped shoulders from the responsibilities they carry and the expectations they have for themselves. But as graduation nears, I hope those frowns will turn to smiles as they close in on their degree, celebrate their accomplishments, and embark on their post-graduation path, wherever it may lead them.

Lap dog

The Little Peanut: Charlotte

It’s 9:15 on a Saturday morning, utterly silent in the beach house where we’re staying. I’m sitting in a recliner with a hard-cover book and a mug of coffee.

To my left is a view of the ocean, with waves pulsing onto the shore. Straight ahead is a ceiling fan, its three blades soundlessly slicing the air. A black, furry creature has settled onto my outstretched legs, facing away from me and scrunched into a comfortable sleeping position.

It’s Charlotte, of course, and we’re enjoying the peace and quiet before everyone else in the house gets up to start their day.

I’m enjoying this book of spiritual, non-spiritual essays by Brian Doyle, the late Portland writer beloved by so many who embraced his one-of-a-kind approach toward syntax and punctuation, and appreciated his musings about love and grace and wonder and kindness.

I suppose it’s a combination of Doyle’s perspective and the luxury of sitting here alone with my thoughts that prompts me, ironically, to put down the book and let my mind wander.

If I were at home, I’d have opened this laptop and started in grading the latest batch of online homework submitted by my students. But, no, not this time.

This is what I thought of: my lap dog.

On a quiet walk above the water.

From her wet nose to her tucked-in tail, she measures about 18 inches. I can feel the rhythm of her breath as she inhales and exhales, inhales and exhales. My hand glides down her muscular back, from just below her collar to her haunches. I linger for a moment on her ears, soft as rose petals, gently rubbing them between thumb and two fingers.

She woke me up this morning, her chocolate eyes and fist-sized face about four inches from my own and her tail going like a windshield wiper.

We’ve owned five other dogs, but this one has captured my heart like no other. I think it’s because she is a perfectly imperfect dog.

Charlotte has an underbite that means her upper lip doesn’t quite come all the way down on the right side. She has a mouthful of teeth resembling two rows of craggy Chiclets, and a wispy beard that can make her look raggedy or regal, depending on your view. She’s also got a shrill bark that seems more likely to come from a dog ten times her size.

Lil’ Char is a rescue dog whose backstory we’ll never know. She’s a survivor of the streets, for sure, picked up by animal control when she was just a year old, with her puppy alongside her. They were separated at the pet adoption shelter. We got Charlotte, the assertive,  headstrong and surprisingly affectionate mother. Someone else took home her pup. Who knows what they got?

I really should get up and freshen my coffee, I think. I really should get started grading those online assignments. I really should pick up the book again.

But, no, not now. Let me gaze at the ceiling fan for another moment, Let me turn my head to the surf. Let me sit here, just sit, with my perfectly imperfect lap dog.