The Tumult of Time

 

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Well, the month of June has come and gone without any mention from me, here.

I always swear I am not going to let the days smoosh together unrecognizably, or get caught up in a current of activity that is moving so quickly I am merely carried along, not noticing or marking the unique (and therefore precious) moments along the way. But sometimes it happens anyway.

Summer solstice brought us the longest day; the charcoal grill got uncovered and cleaned and put into action. The weather warmed and the garden has started to grow in earnest. A good portion of my time has been spent there.

So, in truth there have been markers along the way.

The last couple months have been full of the emotional distractions and energy-absorption of canine health issues and crisis that kept our household on edge much of the time. I am familiar with that blur that can happen with the act of caregiving (and the worry and lousy nights’ sleep that accompany it). So I am neither apologizing nor judging — merely noting and now am finally starting to pick up the threads that I had set down a while ago.

My birthday was in there too, somewhere (well-marked by an avalanche of birthday wishes via social media), but that day found me in bed with the flu.

Some years are more celebratory than others.

 

But there is some good news to this story.

I now have renewed energy for the novel-in-progress, thanks to the wise insights, suggestions and genuine enthusiasm from editor and mentor Max Regan. I have started plowing back in, rethinking and reshaping some of the characters, time lines and sequencing. It is an exciting prospect, but I am feeling a little tentative and shy and new about the whole thing, so for now am going to suspend the monthly excerpts here, and focus on the writing itself as I move ever closer to a finished first draft. It hardly seems possible from here!

And short story has been accepted by Spadina Literary Review, to be published online in the fall! So stay tuned.

So okay, it has not been a complete blur, after all.

 

But then at the end of May, Brian Doyle died.

 

Those of us who knew about his cancer diagnosis knew that day would be coming sooner than later, but it was still a shock to the system. One of those shocks that momentarily stop all awareness of the outside world, filling the senses and mind and heart and body with the roaring silence of the Awareness of Absence. Something irrevocable. As certain as it is mysterious. It’s one of those human mortal things that are difficult to explain but as tangible as a metallic taste in the mouth or the hairs rising up on the back of your neck.

A teacher and someone I consider a mentor, Jeffrey Davis, says there are different kinds of mentors: people we encounter live and face-to-face, those we connect with at a distance and online, and those whose writing inspires and informs, our mentors-on-the-page.

Brian Doyle was a prolific writer, compelling storyteller and illuminator of the marvel and grace in life’s smallest moments, but not everyone is able to love his style of writing: He had a deft hand with run-on sentences and had an amazing knack of putting punctuation-less, stream-of-consciousness prose on a page that, if you stopped and thought about it, reflects exactly how the active and curious mind actually thinks. (He told a funny story in an interview once, that after the publication of the novel Mink River his brother sent him a page full of nothing but commas, and an attached note to the effect that he seemed to have lost his supply, so here were some he could use.) For some people this makes for difficult reading. I totally get it. But, if you’re able to settle back and unhinge something in the conscious mind, wade into the stream of his writing and be able to ride its ebb and flow, it can be rich and lush, abundant in the wonders of the world.

I received one of the most gracious and encouraging rejections ever from Brian, in response to a piece I had submitted for consideration to Portland Magazine – the quarterly University of Portland publication of which he was Editor – the turnaround time was next to immediate (which, for any of you who have experience with submitting know this occurrence is on the far side of unlikely and unusual). His explanation was that he respected writers and the courage it took to submit, and he wanted to honor both with a timely response; and besides which, he knew himself well enough to know that if he waited to respond the submission would likely get lost in the vastness of his inbox and he was afraid to lose track and not respond in a timely fashion. I had never felt so respected as a writer.

 Above my desk sits a framed “self-portrait” with the inscription “with laughter and prayers, Brian Doyle.” It was his response when I handed him my notebook open to a blank page to sign; after a wonderful talk about some of his favorite writers and the imperative we should all feel to tell stories (as being the warp and weft and grist of our lives, of where we intersect as human beings), others had thought to bring a copy of one of his books to sign, but I hadn’t had that forethought. So, feeling slightly foolish but sincere, I handed him the blank page to sign. What I received instead, was this: 

Brian Doyle self-portait

It is apparently something he sometimes did – I recently saw one tacked up next to a shelf of his books in a local independent bookstore where he had done a reading in the past – and I was thrilled to have one of my own.

As he was thus autographing my notebook page, I told him of the nephew of a friend of mine who had recently suffered a near-fatal bicycle accident. My friend would sit by his bedside in the hospital while he was still in a coma and read out loud from Mink River, which was one of his favorite books. He later told her he remembered hearing her reading from the book, and how important that was. Brian’s response was to ask for both my friend’s and her nephew’s email address; I don’t know what he wrote but he made a point to write to both of them. That was the kind of person he was.

I want to say we are truly gifted by the richness of his spirit as well as the many stories and “promes” (his word for his particular prose/poems) full of rich language and wonder that remain even in his absence. (If you would like to read more – tributes and reflections as well as some of his words in essay and interview – the links are below.)

So my return to my own creativity, as well as to the desire to live fully into each day, comes in part from this latest reminder of how precious and fleeting is this gift of time we have here on this planet, in this life.

 

Brian Doyle’s essays published in Brevity.com

Brian Doyle’s interview on Brevity podcast

Brian Doyle and Orion Magazine

An open letter from one of Brian Doyle’s students

Brian Doyle’s last poem

 

The Latest Excerpt and an Announcement!

The first of February already – time to post another excerpt from the first draft of One Dish at a Time: A Story of Family, Forgiveness and Finding One’s Place at the Table.

And speaking of first drafts….I have committed to the deadline of March 1 (as in a month from today!) to have a messy first draft in the hands of Max Regan, a mentor and Development Editor who is going to give the manuscript its first full read!  I am nervous and excited and looking forward to his wise words and guidance.

So, I still have a lot of writing to do, which is where you’ll find me for most of this month. For now, here is the latest excerpt to share, a deeper introduction into the story’s protagonist, Bea. I hope you enjoy it.

Night's treasures

The problem with time, Bea thought, leaning back in her chair and looking up at the deep blue-black sky peppered with stars, is that one always thought there would be enough of it. But the opposite seemed to be true: There seemed to never be enough time. How could one ever avoid wanting just one more conversation; one more afternoon sitting in the sun; one more smile and hug from a loved one; one more chance to ask all the questions left burning inside.

Had Bea ever felt like she’d had enough time? Why hadn’t she learned the lesson, but instead continued to be surprised when Time was up, over? Would she end her life with the wide-eyed sense of surprise and her last words be “but I thought there would be more time?”

She took a sip of wine, squinting up into the night, and tried to sketch out the pictures of constellations that her father had shown her when she was only six or seven, standing together in their darkened back yard in small-town Minnesota; kitchen lights off, standing still long enough that the motion-detection spotlight on the garage stood down from its duty. They would stand there at different times of the year, to be able to see the different characters and pictures that arced overhead through the seasons. Bundled in down coats and scarves in the winter, sweaters in spring and fall, or trying to stay cool in shorts and tee shirts in the thick, humid Midwestern summer, when sleep was elusive and they might as well be outside looking at the stars. Cassiopeia, Sagittarius, the dippers both big and little, Ursa both major and minor; Bea couldn’t remember them all, and now she was half a continent away, under a slightly different sky – the lights of the city prohibitively bright. She sighed. When her father had left time had abruptly stopped, then jerkily started again for the three of them, but in an out of sync rhythm like trying to walk with the heel of one shoe broken off. As a child she hadn’t considered an end-point to the time with her father. Thought there would be more time, enough time.

Her mother’s stroke. Another time thief. Bea had thought there would be plenty of time to finish the program at culinary school and then propel herself on a long and satisfying career path. But suddenly that time was suspended – or over, at the time she didn’t know for sure – as she moved back home (alone, without Alice; Bea took a sip of wine to wash the acrid bitterness of that fact off her palate). She had imagined a future time possibly spent in the process of care-taking her mother, but imagined it many years in the future; thought she had more time, enough time, before then. Time for those talks, those holiday visits, those occasional letters and packages in the mail.

But, is there ever “enough?” What is enough and who decides? Don’t we always, like selfish children, want more? Bea had wanted more time with her mother, had tried to squeeze every bit of what was left to them and be achingly present, to somehow store each memory, the sound of her voice (what was left of it), and after that, the feel of her hand, the deep amber color of her eyes. But there was never enough time for it all, for all that Bea imagined she would have.

Then there was an estate to close, a house to sell. Thoughts about moving away somewhere that maybe the clock could be started again and Bea could once again have enough time.

 And then she had met Peter, at the home of a mutual friend. A relaxed evening and quiet dinner of scallops and roasted asparagus, fresh strawberries, creamy farmers cheese and almonds for dessert, and a few bottles of crisp white wine (yes, Bea remembered the meal, as well as the company); and through him time stretched out again – the dream of having enough of it was like a sweet balm of refuge from the ache of time having been snatched away what felt like over and over again.

     They had married that autumn – the day before the first Minnesota snowfall of the season – and for the first year or two she was so happy that she would lay awake at night listening to Peter’s even, peaceful breathing, trying to memorize it, just in case this time would get stolen from her, too. But finally, she relaxed in the rhythm of their days, of their life together. Peter was a constant – like the Northern Star that Bea now found overhead in the night sky – a star so bright that all the artificial lights couldn’t dissipate its brightness. That was Peter, for Bea.

     The years went on and she thought herself happy; was happy, truly. But as she crested the hill of her life and stumbled upon sight of the threshold of forty years around the sun, she felt once again that shadow of impending…something…that kept her awake at night.

     She disliked the idea of a midlife crisis, it seemed so cliché, though menopause was going to be real and upon her, soon enough. Ah. At one point in her life she thought she had time enough to have a child, though was undecided whether or not she wanted one. Peter and she had talked about it with no great enthusiasm or driving need, but no real aversion either. They both danced with their fears and tender memories of family gone awry, enough so that they could push away decision about a child of their own until it either happened or didn’t. Well, the “enough time” for that event was coming closer to an end.  And how did she feel about it? She didn’t know for sure. It was all muddled up with the rest of her emotions about her life, another grain of sand flowing through the hourglass.