Pay close attention to the small things. Like the crystals on the light fixture you see here. This is the light that was hanging in the corner of a hotel room in Portland, Oregon, where I happened to be when I got the news about the death of Brian Doyle. Like most fixtures in hotel rooms, it was easy to overlook once you’d seen it – aglow in the corner, unobtrusively emanating light through simple pieces of glass.
I never met Brian Doyle — the American writer, not the Canadian one (or the baseball player) — in person. But I know now how prolific his writing was. And I’m just the next in a long line of people writing about him after his death last month.
I never met him face-to-face, but I first met his writing in a short essay called “The Slather,” which was published in Orion magazine some years ago. The essay is about a father and his small child in a park on a random afternoon. I have that essay tacked up in my cubicle at work. I tacked it there as a reminder to regularly reflect on the wonders to be found in the small things of the world. For that’s what Mr. Doyle wrote so beautifully about – the small wonders to be found in the world, with all its mayhem and mystery, flecked with humor and depth and, yes, grace.
I looked for that essay online just now, so that you too could share in the delight of reading it, but I can’t find it. Still, there are many of his short essays posted in cyberspace, like this one or this one.
I never met the man one-on-one, but I was once in the same room as he, during a reading he did at the college where I work. Well, it wasn’t really a reading, but more a “telling” as he didn’t read from his work but created it spontaneously, conjuring stories from the very air before him. His presentation that evening was spectacular precisely because of the conjuring. It was the morning of that conjuring when I finally connected the dots between the essay tacked to my wall and the man unleashing his glorious stories upon us that evening.
But I didn’t meet Mr. Doyle then either, although I could have. After the presentation, he was swarmed by audience members and I had to get on home. But I did buy a couple of his novels – his first, Mink River, and its sequel The Plover. I am still reeling from the human (and animal) beauty described in those pages.
And like the many others now recording their memories of him, I am still reeling from his death.
As I said, I never met the man in person, but I did introduce myself via email last fall, when the word came to campus that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Because of my work editing neurosurgical articles, some about the type of tumor he had, I knew too well that Mr. Doyle’s conjuring would end too soon. Once again, cancer stole the heart and words of another one of us. Mr. Doyle had himself written about its heavy impact, among his hundreds of essays, having lost a brother to the illness as well.
So I met him at last through that email, compelled to tell him of the effect that his first essay had upon me, neither asking for nor expecting a response. The treatment for that particular cancer can be especially debilitating, and I knew there were many others more worthy of his attention than I. But he answered, in a single and solitary statement: “Julie, how kind, thank you.”
As it turned out, I was in Portland, where he lived, the weekend of his death. A friend informed me through an email, which I read while sitting on the couch in that hotel room. I spent much of the evening contemplating the sad news, as I contemplated the crystals on the light fixture in the corner. Like his words, the crystals were mesmerizing – strings of dazzling transparency, revealing and enlarging the light within.
Pay close attention to the small things, he said, for they have a story to tell. That is the singular, powerful effect Brian Doyle’s words have had on me – revealing and enlarging the inner light in all of us, bound up together as we are.
Godspeed, Mr. Doyle.