Brian Doyle Essays On Success

[Editor's note: This article first appeared in our December 2013 issue to commemorate the one year anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting.]

IN THE YEAR since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last Dec. 14, thousands more have died by gun violence, and the NRA seems to stymie sane firearm measures at every turn. How do we stave off despair, hold on to hope, and keep moving forward when the odds feel overwhelming? —The Editors

Bigger Than Politics
What do we say to those who are weary?
       

by Brian Doyle

WHAT WOULD I SAY to those who are weary of assault rifles mowing down children of all ages, every few months, for as long as we can remember now? Oregon Colorado Wisconsin Pennsylvania Connecticut Texas Massachusetts Minnesota Virginia do I need to go on? I would say that this is bigger than politics. I would say this is about money. I would say Isn’t it interesting that we are the biggest weapons exporter on the planet? I would say that we lie when we say children are the most important things in our society. I would say that the next time a tall oily smarmy confident beautifully suited beautifully coiffed glowing candidate for office says the words family values, someone tosses an assault rifle on the stage with a small note attached to it that reads Is this more important than a kindergarten kid?

We all are Dawn and Mary in our hearts and why we wait until hell and horror are in front of us to unleash our glorious wild defiant courage is a mystery to me.

I would also say, quietly, that this is bigger than rage and anger and snarling at idiots who pretend to hide behind the Constitution. I would say this is also about poor twisted lonely lost bent young men no one paid attention to, no one really cared about. And I would say that people like Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Scherlach, who ran right at the bent twisted kid with the rifle in Newtown, are the flash of hope and genius here. Those are the people I will celebrate on Dec. 14. There are a lot of people like Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Scherlach, may they rest in peace. We all are Dawn and Mary in our hearts and why we wait until hell and horror are in front of us to unleash our glorious wild defiant courage is a mystery to me. But it’s there. And there are a lot of days when I think the whole essence of Christianity, the actual real no kidding reason the skinny Jewish man sparked the most stunning possible revolution in history, is to gently insistently relentlessly edge us away from our savagely violent past into a future where Dawn and Mary are who we are, and you visit guns in museums, and war is a joke, and defiant peace is what we say to each other all blessed day long.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland (Oregon) and the author most recently of The Thorny Grace of It, a collection of spiritual essays.

-----

An Insanity of Rationality
This spiritual disease thrives on violence and calls it good.
     

by Joan Chittister, OSB

THERE IS A MADNESS abroad in the land, hiding behind the Constitution, brazenly ignoring the suffering of many who, over the years, have died in its defense, and operating under the banner of rationality. It’s a rare form of spiritual disease that thrives on violence and calls it good.

They want a proper response to violence, they tell us, and, most interesting of all, they insist that only violence can control violence. If “the good guys” have guns, this argument goes, “the bad guys” won’t be able to do any harm.

The hope? The hope lies only in those who refuse to feed this addiction to violence.

This particular insanity of rationality argues that violence is an antidote to violence. Then why do we find scant proof of that anywhere? Why, for instance, hasn’t it worked in Syria, we might ask. And where was the good of it in Iraq, the land of our own misadventures, where the weapons of mass destruction we went to disarm did not even exist and the people who died in the crossfire of that insanity had not harbored bin Laden. So how much peace through violencehave all the good guys on all sides really achieved?

The insanity of rationality says it is only reasonable to arm a population to defend itself against itself. And so, day after day, the level of violence rises around us as hunting rifles and small pistols turn into larger and larger weapons of our private little wars.

Clearly this particular piece of childish logic has yet to quell the gang violence in Chicago. It didn’t even work on an army base in Texas where, we must assume, the place was loaded with legal weapons.

What’s more, it does nothing to save the lives of the good guy’s children, who pick up the good guy’s guns at the age of 2 and 3 and 4 years old and turn them on the good guy fathers who own them.

So the mayhem only increases while white men in business suits insist that their civil rights have been impugned, their right to defend themselves has been taken from them, and more guns, larger guns, insanely damaging guns are the answer. Instead of hiring more police officers, they argue that arming students and teachers themselves, nonprofessionals, will do more to maintain calm and control the damage in situations specifically designed to cause chaos than waiting for security personnel would do.

It is that kind of creeping irrationality that threatens us all.

And in the end, it is a sad commentary on our society. We have now become the most violent country in the world while our industries collapse, our educational system declines, women are denied healthcare, our infrastructure is falling apart, and there’s more money to be made selling drugs in this country than in teaching school. No wonder gun pushers fear for their lives and sell the drug that promises the security it cannot possibly give while the country is becoming more desperate for peace and security by the day.

The hope? The hope lies only in those who refuse to feed this addiction to violence. These are they who remember again that we follow the one who said “Peter, put away your sword” when it was his own life that was at stake.

The hope is you and me. Or not.

Joan Chittister, OSB, a Sojourners contributing editor, is executive director of Benetvision, author of 47 books, and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women.

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On "Dawn and Mary"
Taylor Brorby
4.1

From "Leap"
Steven Harvey
4.1

On "Joyas Voladoras"
J. Drew Lanham
4.1

On "His Last Game"
Patrick Madden
​4.1

On "How We Wrestle is Who We Are"
Ana Maria Spagna
4.1

Brian Doyle's work has affected his readers personally, deeply, with signature style that wields language so skillfully that when you come to the end of an essay like "Leap" or "Dawn and Mary" or "Joyas Voladoras" or "The Greatest Nature Essay Ever" there's not much to do except sit back, exhale, and marvel that there was such a writer who understood the world and its words in this way. Assay has asked friends to write on their favorite Doyle piece, offering the kind of analysis that is unique to them. It's easy to find personal tributes to the wonderful man Brian Doyle was, but as his work continues to light our paths, Assay believes his work deserves deep attention and analysis in addition to appreciation.
And so, we take this opportunity, in this space, to say so out loud. 
"...but then there would suddenly be a sharp sentence where the dagger enters your heart and the essay spins on a dime like a skater, and you are plunged into waaay deeper water, you didn’t see it coming at all, and you actually shiver, your whole body shimmers, and much later, maybe when you are in bed with someone you love and you are trying to evade his or her icy feet, you think, my god, stories do have roaring power, stories are the most crucial and necessary food, how come we never hardly say that out loud?"  
You and I know this story, it’s the story of Sandy Hook Elementary. We know the outline, we know what happened. But what Brian Doyle does in “Dawn and Mary” is not only dazzling, it is deeply moving—he shifts the narrative focus. For many of us, Sandy Hook is a day of terror, and Doyle helps reveal, sentence by sentence something deeply human: courage, too, existed that day. Click here to continue reading.
Following the death of Brian Doyle, Assay asked me to offer a tribute using “The Paragraph of the Week” format that I created for my website The Humble Essayist.  All  of us who knew or met Brian or read his essays are aware that he had a huge heart—but how big was it?  I chose a paragraph from “Leap” which is set against a backdrop of one of the world’s greatest atrocities on 9/11 so that we can take its measure.  The essay is about a couple who held hands as they leapt to their deaths from a burning skyscraper. ​Click here to continue reading.
I bird because I love the idea of flight. I bird because I admire and adore another being’s ability to defy the ties that bind me to the earth.  I bird because the song of a wood thrush drifting through a spring-green rain-wet woodland buoys my spirit. I bird because I wanted once and still yet crave the freedom of wings. As I birded part-time I morphed into an ornithologist because my love bloomed into full time and that unabashed affection for the avian kind spilled over into my work life. I couldn’t compartmentalize. In that love of all things bird I’ve become Avem cupido perserverans; the one who desires birds constantly.  My heart, I think, was made for birds. Click here to continue reading.
Brian Doyle wrote thousands of essays (no exaggeration), which tempers my sorrow a little bit (there will always be more to read), including seven that were discovered and recognized as Best American Essays. I will talk here about the last, the most recent of these, “His Last Game,” which appeared in Notre Dame Magazine in Autumn 2012. Since then, it has been available online, and it now includes a new header about Brian’s death, so I will hope and assume that it will remain available. Please go read the essay now. I’ll wait. Click here to continue reading.
This essay is about a heart, and it also beats like a heart and, at its heart, reveals a truth about life, yes, as all Doyle’s essays do, but also about essay writing. 
 
The essay starts with a story, a plaintive one—a child who almost died—told plainly with characteristic humor.
 
“MY SON LIAM was born ten years ago. He looked like a cucumber on steroids. He was fat and bald and round as a cucumber on steroids. He looked healthy as a horse. He wasn’t. He was missing a chamber in his heart.”
 
There’s no decoration, no toying with readers, making us wonder what happened to the boy. We know by the end of the paragraph that the child lives. The tone of those plain declarative sentences—“He looked…” “He was …” “He looked …” “He wasn’t…” “He was…”— is part Catholic Mass (“He took the bread, broke it, gave it to his disciples…”) and part Joe Friday. Just the facts, Ma’am. Doyle describes the surgery and how his son, as a ten year-old, asks him about it, and from there, we move straight into the excruciating uncertainty of a father waiting to hear if his son will live or die or worse. Click here to continue reading.
  • Home
  • 4.2 (Spring 2018)
    • 4.2 Articles >
      • Megan Brown, "Testimonies, Investigations, and Meditations: ​Telling Tales of Violence in Memoir"
      • Corinna Cook, "Documentation and Myth: On Daniel Janke's How People Got Fire"
      • Michael W. Cox, "Privileging the Sentence: David Foster Wallace’s Writing Process for “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”
      • Sarah Pape, "“Artistically Seeing”: Visual Art & the Gestures of Creative Nonfiction"
      • Annie Penfield, "Moving Towards What is Alive: ​The Power of the Sentence to Transform"
      • Keri Stevenson, "Partnership, Not Dominion: ​Resistance to Decay in the Falconry Memoir"
    • 4.2 Conversations >
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  • Past Issues
    • Journal Index >
    • 1.1 (Fall 2014) >
      • Editor's Note
      • 1.1 Articles >
        • Sarah Heston, "Critical Memoir: A Recovery From Codes" (1.1)
        • Andy Harper, "The Joke's On Me: The Role of Self-Deprecating Humor in Personal Narrative" (1.1)
        • Ned Stuckey-French, "Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing" (1.1)
        • Brian Nerney, "John McCarten’s ‘Irish Sketches’: ​The New Yorker’s ‘Other Ireland’ in the Early Years of the Troubles, 1968-1974" (1.1)
        • Wendy Fontaine, "Where Memory Fails, Writing Prevails: Using Fallacies of Memory to Create Effective Memoir" (1.1)
        • Scott Russell Morris, "The Idle Hours of Charles Doss, or ​The Essay As Freedom and Leisure" (1.1)
      • 1.1 Conversations >
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