Saturday, December 22, 2018

Dec 22: Joe Slocum on Brian Doyle

My grocery store has 112 different types of BBQ sauce. I have four Gmail accounts. My phone pings constant reminders to check email, texts, and Twitter. There are events to ignore on my calendar and updates that seem to have no impact on my life whatsoever. Does anyone care that maps or Skype was updated? There are calls to make. Office hours to hold. Who is making dinner? Is this clean? Someone had a baby, cool. It is easy to get distracted. But those moments on the page, like when the late Brian Doyle informs us that we have approximately two billion heart beats to spend, remind me that I have a life to live.
     The fear of missing out is very real in regular life and in life on the page. There is a desire to go faster and get more done. I want to see it all and still find time to write something that matters. Doyle told us that all stories are prayers. He said that story catching and storytelling are the secret to everything. By being good storytellers and good listeners, we can learn the secrets of this life. One of my favorite moments as a reader and a writer is when an essay blooms and reveals one of those secrets. Those moments are sudden and shocking. All of it is so honest, so real it almost feels like my memory. Those lines of text are often met with wonder, frustration, and other complications. How did they do that? I’ve felt the same—why didn’t I write that? Those revelations pull me to write and bring about shame for not having written more. After all, what else could have been so important?
     In a sense, those moments where I receive an “unexpected gift” from an essay are like flashbacks. If you’ve never had the pleasure, a flashback can make you question the invalidity of memory. I had my first at thirty. I was in a dentists’ chair and the magic gas strapped to my face made me lower my guard just long enough for the repressed memory to break free. I was physically in a room in Spokane, but in my mind, I was 8 years old in my bedroom. I could see the green and gold checkerboard carpet and feel the crusty Kool Aid stain I was keeping covered with a toy bin. My mother had a new haircut. There was lemon meringue pie in the oven. My Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were sticky. Pa was home from the hospital. I could feel and see everything. It was scary and exciting and as real as the keyboard under my fingers right now. That memory was locked away out of sight in my mind for twenty-two years waiting to surface when the moment was right.
     A psychologist friend of mine told me that flashbacks are often scary because they happen fast and the memory is so clear. We are not used to “seeing” memories in HD. It happens this way because you haven’t accessed the memory before. The fresh pages of the memory are still warm. They have not yet been creased or underlined.
     When an essay reveals a secret, it can be as shocking as a flashback. They show me that someone feels the same way. They serve as a reminder for something felt and forgotten. The writer, in that moment, found a feeling from somewhere deep and real for me and you. They are the look-at-what-we-can-do moments that I think everyone craves. More intimate than recounting a memory, they are transactions of insight. In “A Mohawk in the House” Doyle chronicles his lacking barber-shop skills that result in one of his sons wearing a mohawk for a day. It’s a small but significant moment of bonding between father and sons. It’s a disaster, but everyone laughs and goes to bed happy at the end. Before this essay, it must have been a decade since I recalled my father buzzing my hair off, much like Doyle, while I was sitting on an unsteady stool in the backyard one summer day. I will always remember the look on my father’s face when he said, “I’ve always wanted to do this” before running the clippers along the top of my head. The essay concludes:
All in all this was a pretty good day, as the non-Mohawk twin said to me sleepily, after I finished telling the boys stories and tucking them in. We saw a thrush, and there was a Mohawk in the house. Even now, all these years later, that last seems like a particularly lovely sentence to me, one that I will always be happy I heard.
     I too am happy I heard that sentence. Without the essay to remind me that feeling would be buried in memory.
     It seems to almost be a rule that revealing a secret on the page must come out of nowhere. Brian Doyle considers the hummingbird, the blue whale, unicellular bacteria and delivers, “We all churn inside.” He has many sentences that I wish were mine, but right now that is the one I want most. As 2018 nears an end, this feels important; we are not so different. Most people would agree with Doyle that you should not spit on a butterfly. Everyone can think back to a fork in the road where sound advice was heard or ignored. We appreciate good story tellers. Bless the good listeners one and all. Everyone likes to get a letter.
     Take a minute to visit the works of Brian Doyle. Churn through the moments he shares with the world. If nothing else read “Letters and Comments on My Writing.” If great works of literature teach us how to live, that essay is a master class on dealing with haters. The work he left behind for all of us has reminded me to slow down and to spend more heartbeats on the page.

Joe Slocum earned his MFA from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers in 2013. In 2011 he won the Patrick F. McManus prize from Eastern Washington University. He teaches and writes in Houghton, MI. You can follow him on Twitter @this_is_flannel.  

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