#14: Brian Doyle 2012
Stories are Food, June 9, 2017
Brian Doyle was a prolific writer in all genres and, as he described himself, a “collector of small, true stories.” Here he takes the audience on a rollicking ride through stories of police logs, potato costumes, little boys in bathrooms, and a couple who held hands and leapt together. Doyle urges us all to pay ferocious attention to the world and to witness by telling stories that advance the universe a millimeter toward mercy and kindness. Most of all, Doyle invited his audiences and readers into raucous, holy laughter. Brian Doyle died in 2017, and this episode is presented in loving memory. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and essayist Patrick Madden.
- Brian Doyle,
- “The Smear of Squirrel”
- “The Woman in the Vast Blue Coat”
- Mink River
- Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:02] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockerel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host.
This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we've celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode, you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
Today's episode of Rewrite Radio features Brian Doyle, talking about the power of bearing witness via the stories we tell, at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing. This is a particularly poignant episode for us, as Brian passed away from complications related to a brain tumor on May 27, 2017— less than two weeks ago, as we sit in the studio today. Just sixty years old at the time of his death, Brian was a prolific writer, producing more than two dozen books of fiction, non-fiction, essays, poems, and prayers, all while editing Portland Magazine for over two decades. His many awards included three Pushcart Prizes, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing, and a Leslie Bradshaw Award for Young Adult Literature. Seven of his essays appeared in the Best American Essays anthologies.
To help me introduce this session, I called up Brian's good friend and fellow speaker at the 2012 Festival, essayist Patrick Madden. Patrick's work has been published in journals including The Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, and Hotel America, as well as in the Best Creative Nonfiction and Best American Spiritual Writing anthologies. His own books include two collections of essays, Sublime Physic and Quotidiana, and a co-edited volume, After Montaigne: Contemporary Essayists Cover the Essays .
Lisa: [00:02:04] Hello Patrick. Patrick Madden, thanks so much for joining us to talk about Brian Doyle. Where did we catch you today?
Patrick Madden: I'm in Copenhagen, Denmark. I just arrived today, and I've been traveling for the last week and a half. I was in Reykjavik, Iceland for the Nonfiction Now Conference, and I brought my family with me so we could extend it and spend a little time in Scandinavia afterward, too.
Lisa: How are the kids enjoying Scandinavia so far?
Patrick: They love it, but they're tired. We made them walk a whole lot today.
Lisa:[laughter] So, we're going to listen to Brian Doyle's session from the 2012 Festival of Faith & Writing, in which he talked about what he called, quote: "ferocious attention." The session was really funny, as you expect, and kind of rollicking in a Brian Doyle way. But it starts off in this way that's very poignant. As you and I are talking here, Brian died just a little over a week ago, I think. And the session actually starts with him talking about what he would want on his gravestone, and he says, "Not a bad dad," [laughter] as what he would want. Five words or less was the framework. It seems like fatherhood, both in relationship to his own kids but also to other kinds of students and to friends, was a really important aspect of how he understood himself in the world.
Patrick: Yeah, he also would say, when he listed his responsibilities or when people asked, "What do you do?" We usually respond with our occupation, whatever we're paid for. He always listed: husband, father, father, father, and then editor, writer, etc. He always placed family first. And with his biological family the only sense I ever got—I never met his family—was that he was a very involved and loving dad. Not perfect, but willing to admit his mistakes and work with his children. He's written quite a bit about his experiences raising his children, and that was his deepest pride and deepest sense of responsibility. As you say, he was a father-figure for many people. I don't know where he got the time. I wonder if he needed much less sleep than the rest of us.
Lisa: [laughter] It seems like it.
Patrick: Yeah, he was always very energetic. So, maybe he was just always on and could recharge very quickly. Certainly, to me he was, I would say, a mentor but in a deeper, more loving way. It was not a professional relationship; it was a loving relationship. I asked him for many letters of recommendation. You know, the sort of typical thing you do with a mentor. He always came through and I think, on the basis of his recommendation, sometimes more than on my own merits, he helped me get some of these accolades and awards.
Lisa: Well, I'm sure your own merits were involved [laughter] significantly.
Patrick: A little bit, but it doesn't hurt to have a man like that in your corner.
Lisa: That's certainly true. He tells a story in the session about his mother-in-law, who at that time, in 2012, had recently passed. He tells a kind of funny story about her, and it elicits laughter from the audience, of course. And he loops that back to how, for him, each story, every time you tell a story, the world becomes just a millimeter better. Do you agree with that assessment, that every time a story is told the world gets just a little bit better?
Patrick: I suppose it depends on the story.
Lisa: [laughter] Fair enough, fair enough.
Patrick: But, he certainly told the kinds of stories that did make the world better. You can hear it in the audience response. I was there at the conference, and I know that people were abuzz with the things Brian Doyle was saying. Not just in a passive way: people wanted to do things better in their lives, they wanted to be better parents, and siblings, and children, and so forth.
And that's, like I said before, he truly inspired me, not just in a writing way, because writing can sometimes be a little bit separate from the rest of our lives, but in a full, whole life way he inspired me to want to be a better person: a better father, more patient, more loving, more kind; and a better neighbor, and a better friend, a better stranger, even. And, to try to pay attention as he did, to honor others with my attention. He always noted that, too, whenever he would do a presentation. He always thanked the audience, usually the first thing, for their attention. He felt that attention was a form of prayer
Lisa: Ah, that's wonderful. About that story, the story about his mother-in-law, you know, elicits this sort of collective laughter, and he goes on to say that he thinks this sort of collective laughter about a story like this one about his mother-in-law was, he called it, "a really cool, roaring prayer for my mother-in-law," which I just loved. And I think that as people listen to this session and finds themselves laughing [laughter] at Brian and the stories that he tells that they will think of that as a very cool, roaring prayer for Brian.
Patrick: Right, and it lives on. And I think that's another of the powers of stories, that not just beyond death but geographically and temporally beyond the experience of the happening itself, the story lives again and grows and it implants in another mind so that it becomes a new thing there, at a great distance from the original point.
Lisa: No, I think that's exactly right. Well, thank you so much for taking the time out of your Scandinavian holiday to talk about Brian Doyle. I know that it's been really tough on a lot of people to have him pass, and we appreciate you spending this time kind of thinking about his life and legacy.
Patrick: It is, but I think if we take it in the right spirit, remembering his love and his laughter, then he doesn't die. Brian left behind a whole lot of work that we can turn to, read, listen to, and appreciate.
Lisa: [00:09:09] And now, Brian Doyle on "paying ferocious attention," at the 2012 Festival of Faith and Writing.
Brian Doyle: Lately, I just want to be introduced as, "Brian Doyle is a dad, a dad, a dad, a husband, a friend, son, brother, citizen, editor, and writer," in that order. My friends and I have a basketball team reunion every year in Cape Cod, and we were in our cups and we decided to figure out "What will you write on your gravestone?" You can have four or five words on your gravestone and it can't say, "Brian Doyle 1956-2012." It has to say something for real, what mattered about your life. It's curiously harder than you think. I should assign it as an exercise, come to think of it. But, it was curiously hard, and I ended up with "Not a bad dad."
[00:10:04] I thought, that's the greatest ambition I have in life: to not be a bad dad. One of my sons the other day said to me...We have twin sons. Not my fault, okay! One of my sons said, "The only reason you wanted to be a dad is so you can be mean to me." [audience laughter] First of all, I laughed, which is the exact wrong response, right? And I said, "Let me get this straight. There's three billion women in the world, and I sought out your mother, and against all evidence and sense she married me, so that we could magically have you, so that I could get off on being mean to you. Is that right?" "Yeah!" he says. And I was like, "Oh, you are so going to a Jesuit university, son." [audience laughter]
You know, too bad he's not smart enough to go to a Catholic university, haha. Anyway, so you see this is going right off the rails. One thing I've learned to do before I do any kind of reading or talk or anything, I'm not a speaker and I'm not a performer and I'm not good at this, you know, so I only do this under duress, and in this case because Gail said she would beat me up if I didn't do it. But I've learned to start in the proper way: with respect. You don't know me from a hole in the wall, and I don't know you, and chances are good that our roads are not going to cross much in the years to come. So, before I do anything else, I say thank you for your attentiveness. It's the greatest of gifts. The woman who married me, the little, tiny woman—[laughter] I got down on my knees like you're supposed to when you propose, right? You learn at "husband school" that you're supposed to get down on your knees to propose. So, she's standing and I was kneeling, so we're eye to eye, right? And she says, "Look, lust and romance are great, but the great story in life is witness."
Witness, to see each other clearly, to pay attention with your naked, holy eyeballs and your wild open ears, to dig each other, even if it's just for a minute. To really get it is the greatest of gifts. So, thank you. You know, I haven't earned it, and you're already doing it. How crazy on your part. I do want to talk about attentiveness and witness and the way that all stories begin. I want to talk about how powerful stories are. Stories are food. Stories are food. If we don't have stories, we've got nothing. We starve without stories. This is the great cruelty of Alzheimer's: it sucks all the stories out and leaves nothing but a shell. How cruel that is, how cruel to have no stories, you know? So, that's what I want to talk about, but I want to do it in a sort of a sidelong way [laughter] by first trying to make you laugh, and second, just reading some stories and telling some stories, okay? I kind of want to do a sermon or a homily, God forbid, I'm a good Catholic boy in a nice chapel, [laughter] you know.
First, can I try to make you laugh? I think laughter is a great deflector, right? If we all laugh together, then that is a great, holy thing. Also, it kind of reduces everybody's dignity, which I think is probably healthy. [laughter] And it totally blows up the whole "I'm up here in my cool green shirt and you're not." [laughter] You know, like, "Oh, Brian Doyle." No, it's not like that. My kids think I'm an idiot.
So, let me read you this just to make you laugh, out of sheer respect. Bear with me; do not be offended. This was pinned up in our bathroom when my kids were little. The Coherent Mercy, as Barry Lopez says, gave us, my lovely bride and I, three children. We have the world's coolest daughter, now twenty. At age sixteen, she was the biggest pill in the history of the world, but she made a roaring comeback. [audience laughter] Nice kid...now. We also have twin sons. We were also given twin sons in "skin boats from the sea of the stars." One of them is now recovering from being the biggest pill in the history of the world, but the other one has been such a nice kid all the way through. He's seventeen now, and so my lovely bride is really worried that he's going to be a total bonehead next year. [laughs]
Anyway, when they were little, now they’re seventeen and they’re big boys. But when they were little this was pinned up in our bathroom. One of the reasons I love to read this is that I swore and promised to my sons that I would never read this in public. So I read it all the time. [laughter] When you're Catholic, you can do these things. [reading bathroom note] "Rules for small twin boys in the bathroom. Rule number one: POINT IT DOWN. Rule number two: KEEP POINTING IT DOWN. Rule number three: dad does all wiping. Rule number four: keeping pointing it down even if you're absolutely sure you're done. Rule number five, the most important rule of your whole life, boys. Listen to me: each boy points his own pointer."
[Impersonating son] "Can I help my brother?" [Doyle’s response] "No! You cannot help your brother. Keep your hands to yourself. Put your hands where I can see them." [audience laughter] [Reading from bathroom note] "Number six: if spilling occurs, tell dad. Number seven: no washing hands without dad. Number eight: no washing anything without dad! Number nine: no, you can't pee in the bathtub. Number ten: yes, you can pee in the bushes outside. This is Oregon for heaven's sake. [audience laughter] Number eleven: no, you cannot pee in the car, even if it's parked near the bushes outside." [laughter] This is where the boys get into "if/then" statements, right? If we can pee outside and the car's outside, then we can pee in the car? No, wrong. One time I was sitting on my front lawn with a friend, drinking beer, and we walk around the corner of my house. There's the car out there, and there's my three-year-old son to be unnamed but one of the twins, stark naked, trying to pee into the gas tank of the car. [audience laughter]
[00:15:48] Think about this for a minute. He's not real tall, so he's squinched up onto the side of the car to try to get a good angle on it, right. And so my friend, there's a long silence as my friend and I try to contemplate this interesting sight, and my friend says, memorably, a line I'll never forget: "I believe your son is trying to mate with your car." [laughter] Anyway, [reading from bathroom note] "Number twelve: yes, dad has a pointer. Number thirteen: no, mom does not have a pointer. Number fourteen: no, I don't know where mom's pointer went. [audience laughter] Number fifteen: no, I don't know if God has a pointer. Number sixteen: yes, God would POINT IT DOWN if He had a pointer. Number seventeen: yes, God could point it down without using His hands." That's when the boys believed in God for the first time. [Reading from bathroom note] "Number eighteen and last: no, I don't know who wipes God. Ask your mother." Which is the cowardly refuge of all husbands, you know: I don't know, ask your mother. [laughter]
In the same vein, just to make you laugh for a second, so we can get all our masks a little bit off. Sometimes I feel, like we were talking, Pat Madden and I, the great essayist Pat Madden and I were talking this morning about how sometimes you get trapped in the prison of your dignity. You know, we spend so much time in building persona and strapping on our dignity. It's like you have to put it on in the morning. And then, sometimes I think it's really healthy to have it knocked off. It's going to get knocked off one way or another by life, right?
But sometimes you should take it off just for fun. Laughter does that. Laughter is such a great deflector. You can't keep your heat shields up with laughter, you know? Another one of my great ideas recently, go ahead and take it and write a book if you want, I suddenly realized that all of the greatest spiritual, energetic, visionary people I've met in this lifetime, I mean I've met the Dalai Lama, there's only the one: the Dalai Lama; I've met Desmond Tutu and Annie Dillard, and they're all laughing. They're all liable to laughter. Whereas the great, famous murderers of history: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Osama Bin Laden, who murdered three of my friends, not one of them, can you imagine any of them laughing? Except at some cool new way to murder people. They're the most humorless bunch of people, stuffed shirts, you ever saw in your life. And I suddenly thought: laughter is even cooler than I thought it was. Laughter is wicked holy. Yes! Winner! [laughter]
So, to make you laugh, see this is all an act of prayer I feel. In my town, as in yours I'm sure, the greatest literature that comes every week is the police log in the small-town paper. Just to make you laugh, here are some highlights of the police log in my small town: "Man at the bank on State Street reported that a woman in a red jacket asked him if he thought that money was important. Police searched the area, but could not locate the woman." [laughter] "Woman, quote, spent twenty minutes talking dirty on the telephone before she realized the caller was not her boyfriend, unquote. She contacted police to report the incident." [laughter] "Man, aged forty-one, reports that his mother has taken his car keys and refuses to give them back." "Complainer claims grass on neighbor's lawn too tall. Responding officer measures the grass: 36 inches." [laughter] "Squirrel attacks golfer at ninth hole on Wednesday at the public course. Staff at the course report seeing the squirrel, quote/unquote, 'acting strange.' Again on Thursday, an officer was sent to the scene but made no arrests, unquote." [laughter] I always imagine the poor squirrel with his hands behind his back, you know, "Up against the wall, rodent." "Woman reports that someone has stolen her bank card and is making deposits to her account." [audience laughter]
My son Joey said to me the other day, they saw a video of me doing something, and my son Joe said, "No offense." Did you ever notice that when somebody says "No offense," that means "I'm about to offend you." My son Joey says, "No offense, Dad, but you know, in all the stuff that my brother and sister have seen you do in public, you laugh a lot more than the other people. What's up with that?" I was like, "Go to your room." [audience laughter]
"Man seen near junior high school wearing a large sandwich-board on which he has printed, ‘Trust Jesus or Go to Hell.’" "Police issue a warning to three juveniles to stop posing plastic reindeer in mating poses." [audience laughter] I read that one out loud to my lovely bride, who looked up and said, "We have three juveniles. Where were they last night?" "Teenage boy seen vomiting on State Street. Police determine that the boy and his friend had been engaged in a milk drinking contest." [laughter] "Large golden retriever stole a sandwich from police officer. Dog last seen headed north." [audience laughter] Last one: "Squirrel reported intoxicated on Cornell Street. Not same squirrel as golf course." [audience laughter] I love stuff like this. I do.
I just committed a big, honking novel. It took forever. There's a scene it. There's a guy all through the book, there's a guy who's going to die. And all through the book his impending death is a timekeeper. The man with thirteen days to live, the man with eleven days to live. Down to the end, he has like three days left to go, he knows the moment of his death coming ahead of him. A young guy says to him, "Can I ask you a question? Not to be rude, can I ask you a question? What mattered in your life? What mattered to you?"
[00:21:50] And the old man says, "Hawks huddled, disgruntled against hissing snow; wrens in winter thickets; swallows carving and slicing fat-grinning summer air; salmonberries, blackberries, thimbleberries, raspberries, cloudberries; my children learning to read; the sinuous liquid flow of rivers and minks and cats; fresh bread with way too much butter; my children's hands when they cup my ancient, grizzled face in their hands; exuberance and ebullience; tears of sorrow, which in the salt seas of the heart; sleep in every form, from doze to bone-weary; the shivering ache of a saxophone and the yearning of an oboe; folding laundry hot from the dryer; cobblers and tailors; spotless kitchen floors; the way horses smell in spring; postcards on which the sender has written so much that he or she can barely squeeze a signature; opera on the radio; toothbrushes; the postman's grin; the green, sifting powdery snow of cedar pawn on the porch every year; the way herons labor through the sky with such vast, elderly dignity; people who care about hubcaps; the cheerful ears of dogs; all photographs of every sort; tip jars, wine glasses; the way barbers sweep up circles of hair after haircuts; handkerchiefs; libraries; poems read aloud by older poets on the radio; fedora hats; excellent knives; the very idea of albatrosses and thesauruses; the tiny screws that hold your spectacles together; book marginalia done with the lightest possible pencil, as if the reader is whispering to the writer; wooden rulers, fresh mowed lawns, first baseman's mitts, dish racks; the way my sons smell after their baths; the moons of Jupiter, especially Io; all manner of boats; the fact that our species produced Edmund Burke; naps of every size; junior policeman badges; walruses; cassock surpluses; the orphan caps of long-lost pens; welcome mats; ice cream trucks; all manner of bees, cabbages, and kings; eulogy and elegy and puppetry; fingernail clippers; the rigging of sailing ships; ironing boards; hoes and scythes; the mysterious clips that girls wear in their hair; bodhisattvas and beauticians, porters and portmanteaus, bass and bluefish, trout and grout; peach pies of every size; the sprawling porches of old hotels and the old men who sprawl upon them; the snoring of children; the burble of owls; the sound of my daughter typing her papers for school in the other room; the sound of my sons wrangling and wrestling and howling and yowling; all sounds of whatever tone or tenor issued from my children; my children in all of the forms of coupled pain and joy, which is to say everything alive, which is to say all prayers, which is what I just did. Amen."
I read that piece recently at a grade school. A girl, it's always a girl. Why is it always a girl who asks me the smart question, why is that? The girl raises her hand. I said, "Yes." "Mr. Boyle," she says, like so much for fame. [audience laughter] "Mr. Boyle, you say that that's fiction but that's really all about you, isn't it?" And I was like, "guilty." [laughter] Here, let me read you, see I want to read you stories but all these stories are pointing in the same direction, I hope.
[00:25:15] You know, in a funny way, I'm not telling you anything you don't know. I'm only telling you what you do know. You know that stories are food. You know that they're holy. You know that they're prayers. You know that if we don't have any stories, we don't have any muscles. You know that some stories are nonsense and lies, and some stories are bone and sinew and substance.
This is the great foul joke of politics: so much of it is a lie, a performance act. Everybody knows it and it drives me nuts. You know, more and more little things like that that are not little drive me insane. Family values, everybody wraps that phrase around them like a flag. Oh, family values, like really, who's against that? Oh, I'm against family values. [audience laughter]
That's just stupid, but every time I hear that it sets off some little buzzer in my head, saying, "Oh really, family values? Is that why there's a hundred thousand kids in my state who can't eat today? Is that why there's a whole bunch of kids in my state who don't have a place to live? Is that why there are kids in my state who get beaten? Is that why there are kids in my state who don't have a bed to sleep in? Family values, bring it! Come on, politics, bring it on!" You know, it's like, come on, I can't stand it. Maybe it's only after being a father that any kind of thing where kids get hurt or frightened or battered or lies about kids drive me nuts. You know, it drives me nuts. So all these stories, I'm only reminding you of what you know. Stories are huge! They're so important, man. You know, we've got to tell stories with bone. I'm not talking fiction or nonfiction.
[00:26:48] The very best fiction is true. You know what I mean. If we had enough time, I could go around the room and say, "Talk to me. Tell me the stories that matter to you." Whether they're fiction or not, they're the ones that shivered your heart, that gave you the willies, you know, where you identified with it and you thought, "that is real, that is true." Whether it's fiction or not. Everybody here read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, right? Oh my God, oh my God, is that a true book or what? You know, fiction bologna. She's not here, is she? [audience laughter]
Anyway, another thing whenever I do readings and talks, I always think, you should read something that no one can read. You know, you should read stuff that's fresh out of the bakery. Plus, I saw my mother-in-law die recently. It was just a few days ago. That poor thing. Ninety, I mean, she had a good, long life. But, they thought that she was dead. She was in a coma for a long time, like three or four days, and they thought she was dead.
And my lovely bride, the youngest and prettiest of the sisters, she's sleeping with her mother in her last days. She wants to be there as her mother changes form, and so she's sleeping there next to her mom on the floor. At one point, her mom suddenly wakes up, and says, "Oh, Mary? Mary? Mary?" And bang, my lovely wife is right there holding her hand, saying, "I'm right here, Mom. I'm right here." And her mother says, "Am I dying?" And my lovely bride says, "Yeah mom, yeah. You haven't eaten for two months, so yes, mom, you are, you're dying." "Am I dead yet? Did you kill me?" [audience laughter]
So, a story like that, you know, then she fell back into her coma and they thought she was dead this time but she was in a coma for another thirty hours. And so, everybody thought she was just going to stop, and that was that. So, at one point all the sisters are gathered around at the foot of the bed, going through family photographs for some reason. I don't know. Suddenly my mother-in-law, bless her soul, snaps awake again and says, "Isn't anybody here going to pay attention to me?" [audience laughter]
See, now I think that this kind of collective laughter about a story like that is actually a really cool, roaring prayer for my mother-in-law. I think it's actually a great thing, you know, so here's a little thing I write for my mother-in-law. I was so haunted by her vanishing. She changed forms. I went and soaked myself in the King James Bible, bless its soul. I love the King James. Catholic friends of mine, priests, will say, "It's not the Catholic Bible, Brian." But it's a better Bible, I feel. It's got that thorny, prickly language, you know.
And I was struck by the Psalms and the word "Selah" in the Psalms. [Reading] Psalm in which they come for the body. They are coming for the body. A nurse certifies that who she is is no longer resident in what she was. Selah. They turn out to be a slight girl name Haline. Selah. She eases what was a woman onto a gurney. One of the daughters assists her. Selah. Would you like your mother to be facing up or down, says Haline. Up please. Selah. Haline zips the bag. She did believe, yes she did. Selah. She received the glories of the Lord each and every day with her eyes, which remained hawk-eyed until her final breath. Is that so, says Haline. Selah. Transplant candidates, those eyes, certainly. Sign here and here. I will drive very carefully, absolutely, I promise. His mercy upon her soul. Selah. She trusted in thee. Refuge she will discover in thee, in her husband's arm and her mother's kiss. And all calamities are passed. Selah. And housekeeping will come for the sheets. Amen and then again amen. In the lobby, a father is reading the sports section while his child gulps the biggest soda I have ever seen on this blessed, wild, and weary Earth. Amen and then again amen. Selah. Selah.
[00:30:49] Well, let's immediately, in the Irish-Catholic way, break a moment of great emotional power with a joke. [audience laughter] There were these three rabbis in a canoe. I want to take up smoking. I was visiting a class the other day and a kid said, "Well, have you travelled outside the United States?" I said, "I've been on a book tour in Australia." And I thought, I have to take up smoking so I can say that properly. "I was on a book tour [pretends to drag from a cigarette] in Australia." [audience laughter] Anyway, here's something that will make you laugh and I'll tell you a story after it. Lines on the tiny, ubiquitous tattoo that every young woman these days appears to have on her lower spine. Not that I'm looking or anything, but there it is time and time and time again.
And I find myself wondering, "Did they all go to the same tattoo guy or what? And where was the meeting at which all young ladies in America decided to get tattooed?" And while we're on the subject, why are young women not as beautiful as women at age fifty or so? How could a young woman be essentially a perfect and extraordinary example of female beauty, but somehow it's the woman aged fifty with that look in her eye that just totally nails you to the floor. Why is that?
I mean, all the explanations we could summon up would be variations on seasoning and experience and grace under duress and courage against pain. And how facing a lot of things makes you deeper and cooler and more merciful. And so, somehow, in ways I don't understand at all, your average older woman, and of course I have one particular example in mind, is wild, stunning, beautiful, her waters deeper, her soul hammered into a kind of sword that’s just riveting to watch. You almost wish there was a secret mark or sign that older women would tattoo in their eyelids, as a sign of turbulent and enticing water ahead. But I suppose one of the coolest, most lovely things about older women is that there's no map to them at all, no wisdom that applies. You're utterly on your own in their wild water. All best wishes. [laughter]
Well, I read this out loud to my lovely bride, thinking it was a pretty cool and subtle love letter. How wrong I was! [audience laughter] I read this out loud, thinking I'd be getting a kiss out of this one, and she looks at me with that look of laser death, laser death stare. She says, "Why are you staring at the lower spines of young women?" I was like, "Mary, I don't think we're quite on the same page here." What time, well, oh geez, I've burned half my time. Well, can I stop and tell you two stories for a minute. "Absolutely not, Mr. Doyle." [laughter]
I want to do more readings and pieces like that, but I also want you to have fun. I want you laugh and have fun and think about stories and attentiveness and witness. And stories are the trail, the spore of witness, right? Paying attention is the great duty, the great responsibility, the great gift. You would not be here if you didn't have an attentiveness antenna. If you were not an attentiveness junkie, you wouldn't be in the room.
To me, this is like a big story-AA meeting. "Hi, my name is Brian." [audience laughter] We're all story junkies. You have the thing. You have the gift. You have the urge. You have the itch. Use it! Okay, use it. My father used to say, bless his soul, he's a fine man my dad, ninety-one and still smoking. My father says, "Look, if God gives you a gift and you don't use it, that's a sin." That's a sin.
This happened to me. Of course, your children always blow smoke on you, right? This happened to me after September 11. Indeed, three of my friends were murdered on September 11: Tommy Crowder, Farah Lynch, Shawn Lynch. Good boys. Tells you about Irish-Catholic New York. And so, I was so enraged and horrified and furious and helpless and speechless, you know. I didn't know what to do. All you could do was pray, but even prayer seemed empty and shallow. I was so horrified, man. And so I go home, and one day I was at work and the magazine called me and said, "We've scrapped our editorial calendar like all other magazines in the world and we're going to do a special issue on September 11. You know, we'd like you to contribute."
[00:35:09] And I said, no, no, no. I will not. There's nothing to say. I'm not adding to the ocean of witless commentary and vengeful prose. You know, I'm going to bow and shut my mouth and pray silently, which is the only eloquent thing to do, as Saint Francis says. You know, "Go down and preach the Gospel. If necessary, use words," says Francis. So, I said no. There's nothing to do. So, I'm explaining this at home, in the kitchen I'm explaining this to my poor wife, you know, about ye high. I said no, Mary. So, I said no because blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
Our daughter was standing there and was probably nine. And she goes, "Well, what are you going to do, then?" I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "Well dad, you're always saying, no offense, you're always saying that if God gives you a tool and you don't use your tool, then that's a sin. So, you know, dad, no offense, but you only have one tool. [audience laughter] You say so yourself. You're only good at catching and sharing stories, so if you're not going to catch and share any stories, isn't that a sin?" I'm like, "Go to your room." [laughter] But she was right. She was right.
So, I ended up writing three stories for my friends. One about the couple who leaped from the tower holding hands. You know that story? There's no video. There's no film. There's no photograph. There were only fourteen people who saw with their naked, holy eyeballs that a man reached for a woman and a woman reached for a man. At the lip of hell, they reached for each other. No one knows who they were. No one knows if they were lovers, friends, colleagues, companions, or if they just met each other there at the abyss, at the edge of the abyss. But they reach for each other. People saw with their eyes. They saw a man and a woman stick out each hand, and grab each other's hands, and then jump out. You know, they fell so fast they would have blacked out on the way, thank God, before they hit the ground.
The mayor reported, as you remember, the mayor reported that bodies hit the ground so hard that there was a pink mist in the air. But I choose to remember not the idiocy of a man who would murder my friends and who would murder children. We forget that there were little children who were murdered that day. I choose to remember that a man reached for a woman and that a woman reached for a man. I choose to remember that there was a guy who carried a lady down FIFTY FLOORS in her wheelchair. FIFTY FLOORS in her wheelchair. Then he turned around, went back in, and didn't come back out.
I choose to remember the teacher on the corner of Liberty Street. Liberty Street, I love my country. Liberty Street: there was a little kindergarten, pre-K there, right? A little boy looked up, and as the first people were jumping off the towers, the little boy said to his teacher: "Look, teacher, the birds are on fire." And that teacher picked up that boy and ran down the street as the gathering, powerful cloud of ash came for them. She saved that little boy.
You can choose to do what you want with stories, and you can use stories as weapons, you can fight back with stories, you know, you can fight back with stories. Somebody said to me once, "If you were standing next to Osama Bin Laden, what would you do?" And I thought, well, I'm an American. I'm an Irish-American male from New York City, so 99.9% of me would want to rip out his kidneys, and you know, kill him on the spot. But, you know, then what? Isn't this kind of the story of human beings? We've been doing this for a really long time.
My father, bless his soul, says Osama Bin Laden's biggest problem was stupidity. He was not a very good student of history. To try to convert people to your belief by killing them is not an efficient recruitment program. [audience laughter] If he'd read his history, he would have known that the Catholics tried that. It didn't work for us and it won't work for him, says my father. And you know, hey, my father fought not one but two wars, so I ain't arguing with the old man. Anyway, you can tell stories.
And my answer to the kid who said, "Well, what would you do if you were standing next to Osama Bin Laden," I thought: after I get over the violent urge, I would probably first say, "Okay, first of all, I'll tell you a story, bonehead. I'll tell you a story. You want to hear a story? I'll tell you a story about the couple that held hands. I'll tell you a story about the firemen who ran up, knowing that they would never come back down. You got something that's bigger than that story, old man? Bring it on!" You know, bring it on!
There were firemen who ran up those stairs. I called a friend of mine who was a fireman that day. How come those guys went up those stairs, knowing they wouldn't come back down? How come they did that? There's no way you're going to put out a fire on the 108th floor. That's ridiculous. I said, "What? Then why did they go up there?" He said, "We don't have words for that, do we? All the words you could use are duty and honor and responsibility, and they're all weak." Why would somebody do that?
[00:40:08] As Springsteen says, those guys must have seen the faces of their wives and children hanging in the air, in the smoke, knowing they would never see them again in this form. Why would you run up there? Why? You know, and there's no answer for it except to tell a story. There's no answer for that. We don't have words or categories for so much in life, and the only way that you can tip-toe towards the glory and the courage of those things is to tell a story. You know, sometimes I feel more and more as I get older that I've been writing for a long time. I feel like so many of the times I don't have any words that fit the thing I want to say. All you can do is tell a story. A story is a country where you can both stand for a little while without labels, right?
You know, if I tell you the story of the couple that held hands, it's just something powerful and amazing about what human beings can do. We can do these things. You know, why is it the story of human beings that so much of our greatness only comes under great duress? Why is that? Why does it have to be that way? You know, why is it that we adopt so many masks as we grow up, and then, we have to have them kicked off by life before we realize that life's short, man. Be naked now. You know, be naked now. Amen, sister! [laughter]
I just did a reading and a lady came up to me and said, "So, you're Catholic?" [audience laughter] I said, "Yeah." It was at a Catholic university. I said, "Yeah, we just spent a whole hour talking about Catholicism and forgiveness and mercy and grace. I thought I made it pretty clear." And she goes, "Uh huh, 'cause you have a future in the Evangelical church." [audience laughter]
You know, I was going to laugh, but I could feel my mother behind me, getting ready to smack me in the head, you know. I was telling somebody this morning that I have a dear friend who's an Episcopalian pastor in Seattle. Really great guy. I call him up every once in a while. He's one of those great guys who answers his one phone, you know: "Ring...Reverend Bill Harper..." And my voice comes on the other end of the phone: "Come back, come back to the mothership." [audience laughter] "What are you protesting against? What is the point of being Protestant? What does that mean? Come back. We don't own the world anymore. We punted! We're again just a small, revolutionary cult. Come back!" [laughter] And his response is always: "I know it's you, Brian!" [audience laughter]
So, anyway, let me tell you a couple stories, and then I can do some more reading, and then we can do questions and stuff if you want. I know we have to be out of here at like 4:34 on the button because the chapel, Deb's chapel thing is coming. But anyway, two quick stories just to make you laugh again.
I was talking to my dad the other day. Ninety-one! My mother's ninety and my father's ninety-one. It's a May-December romance, says my father. Every morning my father gets out of bed, and you know, you have to kind of hoist yourself out of bed at ninety-one. He gets a good running start, gets out of bed, and turns to my mother and says, "Another world and Olympic record for longest-lived Doyle male." My father used to say to us all the time when we were growing up, puffing away at his cigar: "Ah, the Doyles, we die young but we never lose our hair." [audience laughter] I'm like, “Pop, that's not a good calculation,” you know. Anyway, I was talking to my dad the other day, and we were talking about the seventh circle of Hell, called the holiday elementary school pageant. I had just had one inflicted upon me. I was fomenting, and he told me two stories that I had forgotten that he reminded me of, so I want to tell you them real quick.
A: My brother, Tommy, we had a large Catholic family. Six brothers, right? Yep, seven boys. I have to count. And one girl. So, my brother Tommy is the last one, so my Mom's really not sure of his name. She calls him "Eight" sometimes just to annoy him. Anyway, my brother Tommy is in kindergarten. It's the night before the Christmas pageant. He says to my mother, "Oh, I'm in a production tomorrow and I need a costume."
And for some reason, the schtick of this production was local flora and fauna, so he was supposed to be a potato. [audience laughter] I don't know why. So, there's like potatoes and hemlocks trees. It was very strange. So, there's a whole line, all the kindergarten kids were supposed to be potatoes at the front of the stage. So, my mother with eight kids, right, she was a smoker, too, come to think of it. My mother had all these kids, so she didn't have time for all of this. So, she said to my poor sister, "Hey, Tommy needs a costume tomorrow. He's supposed to be a potato. [Makes smoking noise] Take care of it." [audience laughter]
[00:44:54] So, my sister, bless her soul, goes to the closet and pulls out a really ratty, old brown raincoat and drapes it over my brother Tommy and says, "You're a freakin' potato. [audience laughter] And if you complain to Mom I'll snap your fingers." So there's Tommy the next day in the production. There's a whole line of these potatoes, right? Beautifully sewn costumes that the people had, and there's Tommy in his little, soiled brown raincoat. He looks like a little flasher. [audience laughter] I can't believe I'm telling this in a chapel! So, the thing is: each child is supposed to, like, step forth into the spotlight and say, like, "Hosanna in the highest," or whatever. So, my brother Tommy completely forgets his line, but he's a self-possessed child. The spotlight hits him, and he steps into the spotlight in the soiled, brown raincoat, and says, "When you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer!" [audience laughter]
And there's a gasp of horror in the whole auditorium, except the Doyles. We're weeping with laughter over there. [audience laughter] So that's bad enough, okay, but then my father says, "And you forgot the story about Peter." My brother Peter was in the Easter Pageant. He's like third grade, I think. In his case he was supposed to be an egg. It was the same nun, who was the theater director, so she used the same format. In his case, the little kids were these cardboard eggs. So, each child's supposed to pop out of his egg and say, again, I think Peter's line was "Hosanna in the highest" or, you know. And Peter pops out of his egg and says, "Jesus Christ, it's hot in there!" [audience laughter]
And the same thing happens. There's a gasp of horror. Except, this time it's enlivened by the nun cursing in Gaelic into the microphone. [audience laughter] We were laughing so hard. My father said, in his inimitable Jim Doyle fashion, "I thought I was going to urinate in my underwear." [audience laughter] My mother still talks about this story. My mother says, "Thank God we were sitting under a statue of the Madonna." [audience laughter] So, anyway, I needed to get those stories off my chest, okay? So, let's go back to the reading part.
Let's see. Let me read you another. I wanted to read this to you. Let me read a couple little things, and then, you want to do questions and stuff or should I just keep reading and talking? You want to do questions? We can do questions later. What questions can I possibly answer, anyway? You know, if God is all powerful, can he make a rock so heavy that not even He can lift? I don't know.
Listen, a lot of what great stories are, Pat Madden and I were talking about this this morning, a lot of what great writing is is that it's not about the writer. You know, it was a huge shock to me at age twenty-eight to suddenly realize: "Huh, it's not all about me." What a bummer. Because it was all about me for the first twenty-eight years. It was a huge shock, but it made me a much better man and a much, much, much better writer to realize it's not about me. Everybody else is more interesting.
And, one of the things I want you to remember is: witness, witness, witness. The more you catch and share other peoples' stories, the better world it is. Two inches we go. Two inches we go. Every good story told advances the universe another millimeter away from violence and revenge and murder and greed. Those are easy and stupid. You know, the greatest line ever written in my state was written by William Stafford, the great poet, who wrote: "Violence is a failure of the imagination." "Violence is a failure of the imagination." What a line! What a line!
There's a country beyond this country, not the one that we're in. This is a great country. A verb, the United States of America. It's a verb, dang it, not a noun. It's not a noun. It's a continuous activity of brave, shaggy; sometimes violent, cruel, stupid; but, we're still in the game, we're still in the game. Beyond where we see what this world is, there's another world beyond. And I'm not talking about Heaven. I'm talking about the world that will come if we tell enough good stories, if we hold hands against the dark, if we laugh, if we give despair and darkness the finger, if we say to people like Bin Laden, "Hello? Anybody home, you idiot? You know, what's the matter with you? Stupid! Get a grip. Put a seatbelt on and put your hands where I can see them.
Anyway, the more good stories we tell, the more the universe advances. If we do our work, and part of your work is to be here. You wouldn't have come to this festival if you weren't addled by story and riveted by what stories can do. You know, don't forget. Think of this as a team meeting. This has nothing to do with Brian Doyle and everything to do with us. This is a team meeting of people who know that stories are wicked strong, and powerful, and momentous.
And if we do our work right, day after day after day, if you sit your butt in a chair and tell good stories, and listen to other people, and dig their stories, and write them down and share them, there will come a world where no child weeps for fear, where everybody has something to eat. Or, as a friend of mine, a colonel in the army, a young guy, thirty-three years old, this guy. I said to him, "Paul, what is the point? What is the point in the work? Why are you career Army? What in God's name are you trying to do? What's the point?"
[00:50:43] And he said to me, "My job is to put my job out of business. My job is to make a world where a kid goes and visits war in the museum. My job is to make a world where, someday, a four-year-old will say, "Grandpa, what does the word 'gun' mean? That's the world I'm working for, Mr. Doyle." I was like, "Okay! Okay!" Okay, another stupid question and a superb answer. But witness, witness, witness, witness, okay? Is what? All legs and curiosity. On the shore of the sea of the bubbling, battling, lanky kids dipping their toes into the ocean of college for the first time, there were also, of course, a raft of outwardly calm but inwardly rattled parents of every gender.
And I got to talking to a tiny mother, and as soon as she started talking about her daughter, she burst into tears right there by the women's bathroom. But she recovered fast, and she started talking faster. And I think you should hear what she said: "This is the greatest moment and the worst moment of my life," she said, "I was just changing her diapers a minute ago. Now, she's all legs and curiosity. I can't believe she's not coming home tonight. I'll get ready to send her a text message at midnight: 'Where are you? Come home now.' And she won't come home tonight. She'll be here with you. I love that and I can't bear that. Her father can't stop crying. He's out in the truck, you know. Everybody thinks he's a tough guy and he's out there sobbing in the truck. These were our babies, all these tall babies. Will you take care of her?" This lady was about four-foot-nothing and she's pointing up at me: "Will you take care of her?" I was like, "Yes, please don't hit me by the women's bathroom."
"These are our babies, our tall babies. Will you take care of her? Will you know if she's sad and scared? She's scared more than she admits. She brought her baby blanket, you know, in the bottom of her luggage. She doesn't think I know, but I know. I held it against my face last night when I packed her bag, and it smelled like her, and I cried and cried. I hope you know how great she is. She's the greatest kid in the history of the world. She wanted to come here so badly that the day the letter came from you she danced right out the front door, and across the grass, and around the neighborhood, waving that letter at the neighbors, and everyone was laughing and pouring out of their houses to give her a hug. Because everybody loves her. You'll love her, too. You'll see. You better take care of her! She didn't want to go anywhere else. She knew you would know what she wanted more than anything. She never wears socks. She'll get sick twice this year, mark my words, [in] October and February. Are you writing this down?"
I was like, "Yeah!" "Can you tell the nurses here? She wants to be a nurse, you know. Her grandmother was a nurse, my husband's mother. He's still out in the truck crying. He says he'll be fine by dinner. He will not be fine by dinner. He used to carry her on his back all the time when she was little. They would climb mountains that way, with her whispering in his ears. He makes fish just the way she likes it. He says he's got to go talk to your chefs here about how to cook their fish. She'll be the best nurse there ever was. She has the biggest heart of anyone God ever made in a million years. I can't stand it that she's not coming home tonight. She's not coming home as a kid ever again, is she? Will you take the best care of her that you can? Do you swear? Because I spent every minute of every day since she was born thanking God for the gift of that kid. And even when she was bad, she was the best kid there ever was. You promise me that you'll take care of her. I can't stand this. You'll know her: she's tall, with long hair and blue jeans and a smile like the sun."
I was like, great, that reduces it to about 2,000 candidates. [audience laughter] "You'll know who she is. Trust me, once you meet her you'll never forget her for the rest of your life. Trust me."
I was like, “Oh man, somebody tells you a story like that, you get your butt to the keyboard as fast as possible, and write that down, you know.” In your packet, in your homework handout, there's a piece like this called "Boots" that I love to read, but I won't read it because you have it. So, but I want you to read, there's three pieces, I think, in your handout. I feel like a professor. [Professor impersonation] Let's refer to the handout. There's "Boots," which is a piece about listening to a twenty-seven-year-old woman who just got back from the belly of the beast. Don't read it now.
Then, there's a piece called "The Smear of Squirrel," which, I think, is probably the most pithy thing I ever wrote. It's a little boy, I saw a little boy zooming along on his bicycle. He stopped by using the heels of his sneakers. I wanted to go out and say, "Don't you know your father bought those sneakers!" [laughter] But, he [braking noise] skids to a halt. I thought, what is he doing? And he gets down, and there's a mud puddle, and he sticks his hands in the mud puddle, and pulls up a broken, deceased squirrel. And then he very carefully carries it over to a little ravine and gives it back to the water from which it came, you know. And I was like, oh my God in heaven, I think I just saw the explanation of the word eucharist. You know, I mean, the reverence. Reverence and community, you know. I was so knocked out by it. And the third piece, I can't remember. What's the third piece.
Audience member: [00:55:45] "The Woman in the Vast Blue Coat."
Brian: Oh, "The Woman in the Vast Blue Coat." That's a piece, too, about witness, about just paying attention. Also, can I just point out: it doesn't have to be recently. A lot of stuff you just need a little clue, right? Often it's a piece of music, or in Proust, poor Proust, he smelled a cookie and then he committed seven volumes. [audience laughter] But he was French, so. [laughter] A friend of mine read the first two volumes of Proust's great seven-volume set and said, "Geez the wheeze, get out of bed, you pervert!" [laughter] Which I thought was very funny.
Well, let me read you one last piece. What time is it? Do I have any time? Who has a watch? I have twenty? [surprised]
Audience member: Ten minutes.
Brian: Ah, she said twenty! [playful taunting sounds] Well, let me read you one last piece, and then if there's any time you can say, "Is that your real nose?" A kid just asked me that. [audience laughter] You know, I said, "Any questions?" And again a girl. What is the matter with you people? Again a girl raises her hand and says, "Mr. Doyle, I have a question. Is that your real nose?" I said, "Pardon me?" She goes, "Well..." I said, "Well, it's been busted several times." I had a bunch of brothers, you know, so I think I broke it three times. One time, my father put it back into place by simply wrenching it back into place. I said, "Can we got go to the doctor?" [He said] "No!" And foolish me, I said to my lovely bride, "That's the worst pain imaginable." [audience laughter] She goes, "Really?" [audience laughter] I was like, "Oh...no..."
I was just at another school, see here we go, right off. I was just at another school and the kid said to me, "Have you ever seen any miracles? You know, you're going on and on about miracles, the miracle of the moment, the pregnancy of every moment with holiness and miracle and story. You're going on and on, flapping your old gums. Have you ever seen any miracles?" I said, "First of all, take a breath. Okay, take another one. That's two. You ever see a sparrow up close? That's three. You really want to talk about miracles? I saw people come out of my wife, okay. [audience laughter] I mean, it was truly horrifying. [more audience laughter] You saw the movie The Alien? It's like that."
I think it was a fourth grade class, so all the kids are like [awestruck sound]. And then, God knows why I did this: I saw, first of all, there were people living inside the woman I married, okay. There were people living by her spleen. That's just disturbing. Nobody knew who they were. [audience laughter] They didn't pay rent. All they did in there was kick, as far as I can tell. It was bad enough the first time, you know, the doctor roots around. And my poor woman I married is a little, tiny thing. So, when she was pregnant, one time I went and bought a pup-tent and said, "You know, you could wear this." [audience laughter] She didn't think that was funny. So, it was bad enough. She had a cesarean, the poor thing. The doctor hauls out our daughter, and why doctors think this is funny is a mystery to me. He looks at me, and he holds up our daughter and says, "Boy or girl?"
And the umbilical cord is hanging right down the middle, and I was like, oh, ew, that's a girl with a major problem. [audience laughter] Or that is a boy who's going to have to have a wheelbarrow in front of him for the rest of his life. [laughter] I kept saying, "Can we speed this up?" Like my poor, the woman who married, was in labor for like thirty hours. I was like, “God, I'm really tired. Could we move along?” [audience laughter] So, then we have twins, and it was unbelievable. They take them out one after another, and it's like, how many more are there? I'm really tired! Anyway, it was horrifying. I was really horrified.
Anyway, let me read you one last piece. I got a note from a magazine in Australia, saying, "We're doing an issue in which the theme is 'how to be good.' Would you like to contribute?" And I laughed so hard I think I sprained my kidney. [audience laughter] I was like, you want me to contribute to an issue on how to be good? I'm sorry, have you never read anything that I've written? Do you know anything about me? I've never been arrested, but it's been awful close. But, then I kept thinking: well, it'd be kind of fun to swing the idea sideways and see what happens. So, we'll try.
[01:00:22] I've never read this before, so we'll see if it works. "How to Be Good": First, PICK UP THAT WET TOWEL IN THE BATHROOM, and at least, for heaven's sake, hang it up to dry, and wipe the sink after you shave. The sink doesn't have to be shiny and spotless. That would be fussy. But at least don't leave those little mounds of neck hairs like dead insects for me to find. At least do that. It's the little things. They're not little. You knew that, I'm just reminding you. Like the dead sparrow that the old lady across the street picked up from where it fell, broken and almost unrecognizable as a holy being. And she gently dug it into her garden of fading flowers. A little act, but it wasn't little. It sang quietly of respect and reverence for what had been alive and this was holy behind our understanding, or calculation, or imagination. Or, in the morning when you rush into the shop for coffee, at least say "thank you" to the harried girl with the tattoo of the eye between her original two eyes. [audience laughter]
At least look her in the first and second eyes [audience laughter] and be gentle. There is holiness in her. And the policeman who pulls you over for texting while driving. Yes, you're angry, and yes, he should be chasing down murderers. But be kind. Remove the bile from your tongue. For one thing, it actually was your fault. You should have checked the basketball scores later. And for another holiness liveth in that man. Also, in the grumpy imam, and in the surly teenager, and in the raving man at the train station, and the foul-mouthed man at the football game, and in the cousin you detest with a deep and abiding detestation, and have detested ever since you were tiny mammals fresh from the wombs of your mothers. When he calls to ask you airily to help him lug that awful, vulgar, elephantine, stupid couch to yet another of his shabby apartments, do not roar and use vulgar and vituperative language, even though you have excellent cause to do so, but holiness liveth in him.
Speak hard words into your closet, and cast them thus into oblivion. Help him with the couch for the ninth time, and do not credit yourself with good work, for you too are a package of small sins and large cowardices, and the way to be good is not to join the little sisters of the poor in Calcutta but to be half an ounce better a man today than you were yesterday. Do not consider tomorrow. Consider the next moment after you read this essay. Do the dishes. Call your mother. Coach the boys' basketball team. Purge that closet of the clothes you will never wear in this lifetime and give them away. Sell the old machinery. Turn it into food for those who are starving. Express your gratitude. Offer a quiet prayer for broken and terrified children. Write your congressman and ask him to actually do the job he was elected to do, which is to care for the bruised among us, not to preen on television.
Pray quietly by singing. We do not know how prayers matter, but we know that they do. Do not concern yourself with measuring and calculating, but bring your kindness and humor like swords against the squirm of despair. Holiness liveth in you. Remember that. Use the tools the maker gave you and only you to bring what light you can. You know this. I am only reminding you. Work with all your grace. Reach out. Do not rest. There will be time and time enough for rest. Care for what you have been given. Give away that which you treasure most. The food of the spirit is love-given and granted. Savor that and disperse that which is not important. Use less. Slow down. Write small notes with your own hand. All the way to heaven is heaven, said a saint I know. And who are we to gainsay her? Remember that witness is a glorious and muscular weapon. What you see with your holy eyeballs and report with the holy twist of your tongue has weight and substance.
[01:04:09] If you see cruelty, call it by its true name. If you hear a lie, call it out into the open. Try to forgive that which is unforgivable. That is the way forward for us. I don't know how that can be, but it is. You and I know that. I'm only reminding us. Be who you are: only you. Rise to what you can dream. Don't cease dreaming. Do not despair, even though pain comes hand-in-hand with joy. That is the nature of the gift. It is a most amazing and extraordinary, confusing and complicated gift. Don't take it for granted, not for an instant, not for a seventh of a second. The price for it is your attentiveness, and your generosity and kindness and mercy.
Also, humor: humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies, wailing into the darkness. What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you. It advances the universe. If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep, and war is a memory, and violence is a joke no one remembers, having forgotten the words. You and I know this is possible. I am only reminding us. Love well, not only the people you know but every idiot, and liar, and thief, and blowhard, and even your cousin with that damn couch. [audience laughter] I do not know how we can do this with much grace, but I know we must, and so do you. Let us begin again, you and me, this afternoon. Are you ready? Hold my hand and let's go. Amen.
Lisa: [01:06:20] Many thanks to Patrick Madden. You can learn more about his work and the art of the essay at Quotidiana.org. And to Brian Doyle, you will be missed. We are sure, as the last prayer you wrote said, that "no one has ever laughed more at the ocean of hilarious things in this world, or gaped more in astonishment at the wealth of miracles everywhere, every moment." Thank you for making us laugh and teaching us to pay attention.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College, and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Jon Brown, Sadie Burgher, Donald Hettinga, Lew Klatt, Scott Hoezee, Jennifer Holberg, Bob Hudson, Annake Kapteyn, Carolyn Muyskens, Deb Rienstra, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart. You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu and, if you’re into the social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I’m Lisa Ann Cockrel. Back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.