The wisdom and grace of Brian Doyle

I draw great comfort from reading and writing, especially during this period of COVID-19 uncertainty. Occasionally I come upon a writer whose work is so powerful, so restorative, I have to tell everyone about him or her. So here goes . . .

Brian Doyle was 60 years old when he died of brain cancer in 2017. He lived in Oregon and was the editor of Portland Magazine for more than 25 years. He also had the energy and talent to write 20 books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction.

I just finished “One Long River of Song” (Little, Brown & Co.), a collection of essays published posthumously, in 2019. I shouldn’t say “finished,” because I keep going back to it, sifting through the pages to savor this man’s insights.

I can’t be the only one around here who knows of Doyle, because it was months before the Onondaga County Library freed up a copy.

Doyle was a regular contributor to The Sun, a smart and edgy literary magazine based in North Carolina.

One of my favorite essays in the new book is “The Hawk,” from 2011, about a former football star whose life doesn’t quite work out as planned. The man takes up residence on the town’s football field, a place where things did go well in his life.

The piece is short, like many things Doyle wrote, but brims with wisdom, power and humanity. I won’t spoil it for you. It’s the last essay in this post in The Sun, but honestly, you might want to start with the tribute to him at the top of the page and work your way there.

There are many, many profound essays in “One Long River of Song.” Last night I thumbed through the book for another example to share. It is difficult to capture the essence of someone’s essay with an excerpt, but I’ll try.

“All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference. . . . You must trust that you being the best possible you matters somehow. That trying to be an honest and tender parent will echo for centuries through your tribe. . . . That being an attentive and generous friend and citizen will prevent a thread or two of the social fabric from unraveling.

“And you must do all of this with the certain knowledge that you will never get proper credit for it, and in fact the vast majority of things you do right will go utterly unremarked. Humility, the final frontier, as my brother Kevin used to say. . . .”

That’s from “The Final Frontier,” first published in Sojourners in January 2016. I wish those who hold power over our lives, especially now, were capable of showing at least a shred of such humility.

Enough of my words. Go read Doyle’s. As an excellent writer friend said after reading some of these essays, “I feel like I’ve never written a good sentence in my life!”

And if you’re looking for a not-for-profit to support with a subscription, consider The Sun. (There is no advertising in the magazine). I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. They’ll even send you a free sample issue.

Semi-retired, thoroughly disgusted progressive grandfather.