One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder by Brian Doyle

During this pandemic, I have not felt up to reading anything new. I have only been rereading two series of mysteries, one by Louise Penny and the other by Faye Kellerman. However, we just got back from a trip to Lynden, WA, and the first day there, I met my sister in Village Books, a wonderful bookstore in downtown Lynden. I saw this book, One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder by Brian Doyle, and remembered I had heard other authors speak glowingly of Brian Doyle, so I bought it.

It is one of the best books I’ve ever read! The book is a collection of Doyle’s essays. Some are only a page or page and a half long, some are several pages. I devoured every one of them. Then I reread them. Then I read them aloud to my husband and daughter. Then I went on Amazon and put every book he wrote into my shopping cart, but went through and marked some “Save for later” because it was too much. I’m trying to limit the number of books in my library, but I keep discovering amazing authors, and I want them around me.

In the foreword, David James Duncan quotes Pico Iyer, who said:

Almost nobody has written with the joy, the galloping energy, the quiet love of conscience and family and what’s best in us, the living optimism.

“Galloping energy” is right. Many times I pictured the words in his sentences galloping and crowding and bumping into each other like beagles running and tripping over their long ears, full of joy, breathless to say what is tumbling out of his mind.

Here is an example from an essay named “Illuminos,” about his 3 children (a daughter and twin boys).

The third child held hands happily all the time, either hand, any hand, my hands, his mother’s hands, his brother’s hands, his sister’s hands, his friends, aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and teachers, dogs and trees, neighbors and bushes, he would hold hands with any living creature whatsoever, without the slightest trepidation or self-consciousness, and to this day I admire that boy’s open genuine eager unadorned verve. He once held hands with his best friend during an entire soccer game when they were five years old, the two of them running in tandem, or one starting in one direction unbeknownst to the other and down they both went giggling in the sprawl of the grass. It seems to me that angels and bodhisattvas are everywhere available for consultation if only we can see them clear; they are unadorned, and joyous, and patient, and radiant, and luminous, and not disguised or hidden or filtered in any way whatsoever, so that if you see them clearly, which happens occasionally even to the most blinkered and frightened of us, you realize immediately who they are, beings of great and humble illumination dressed in the skins of new and dewy beings, and you realize, with a catch in your throat, that they are your teachers, and they are agents of an unimaginable love, and they are your cousins and companions in awe, and they are miracles and prayers and songs of inexplicable beauty whom no one can explain and no one own or claim or trammel, and that simply to perceive them is to be blessed beyond the reach of language, and that to be the one appointed to tow them along a beach, or a crowd, or home through the brilliant morning from the muddy hilarious peewee soccer game is to be graced beyond measure or understanding; which is what I was, and I am, and I will be, until the day I die, and change form from this one to another, in ways miraculous and mysterious, never to be plumbed by the mind or measures of man.

(By the way, did you wonder, as I did, what “bodhisattvas” are? According to the interwebs, they are: In Mahayana Buddhism, a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings. That made me laugh, to think of little kids being persons who could reach nirvana but were sticking around to help the rest of us.)

Our modern poet-saint, Mary Oliver, said of Brian Doyle’s essays, “They were all favorites.” True! It makes it hard to write or talk about this book and say why I like it. It makes it hard to decide what to write as an example or read out loud to someone. How can I choose?! Some crack you up, some choke you up, some make you stop, reread and ponder, some make you feel what awe feels like. The subtitle is “Notes on Wonder.” I think wonder includes all of these — the laughter, the tears, the pause, the awe.

One of the essays that cracked me up is named “20 Things the Dog Ate.” I wish I could quote all 20 for you, but I have chosen two.

1. Ancient Squashed Dried Round of Flat Shard of Beaver

Sweet mother of the mewling baby Jesus! You wouldn’t think a creature that likes to watch Peter O’Toole movies would be such an omnivorous gobbling machine, but he has eaten everything from wasps to the back half of a raccoon. And let us not ignore the beaver. Speculation is that beaver was washed up onto road when overflowing lake blew its dam, was squashed by a truck, got flattened ten thousand times more, then summer dried it out hard and flat as a manhole cover, and the dog somehow pried it up, leaving only beaver oil on the road, and ate it. Sure, he barfed later. Wouldn’t you?

4. Yellow Jacket Wasps

Every summer. Even though he gets stung again and again in the nether reaches of his mouth and throat and jumps up whirling around in such a manner that we laugh so hard we have to pee. He cannot resist snapping them out of the air as if they were bright bits of candy, then making high plaintive sounds like a country singer on laughing gas. I have to pee.

I could go on and on. My heart and soul have been lifted by this book. It’s become trite to say that something is perfect “for these strange times we are in.” Still, I do think this book is a good one for this coronatide, with the pandemic on top of the huge reckoning we are going through regarding our racial relations. This book touches you and takes you deep, but it’s a pick-up-and-put-down-er-of-a-book. The essays are short, so it’s easy to read one or two and come back to it later.

I am so sorry that I never got to see or hear Brian Doyle in person. He died in 2016 of complications from a brain tumor. He was a devout Catholic who also, according to his friend David James Duncan, “sometimes audaciously, challenged his tradition.” Like the Jesuits teach, and my Reformed doctrine emphasizes, he personifies seeing God in everything, recognizing that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine! ‘“ (Abraham Kuyper). But there is not even a tiny echo of preaching. He hardly mentions the word God (although there is one essay called “God Again,” where he writes about a US Post Office clerk, “God was manning the counter from one to five, as he does every blessed day. He actually says every blessed day and he means it. You never saw a more patient being.”)

I have read often that many of us are in a meaning crisis, unable to figure out a purpose in life. I will end with an excerpt from “The Final Frontier.” May we all reach it — “humility, the final frontier.”

Of course you do your absolute best to find and hone and wield your divine gifts against the dark. You do your best to reach out tenderly to touch and elevate as many people as you can reach. You bring your naked love and defiant courage and salty grace to bear as much as you can, with all the attentiveness and humor you can muster. This life after all a miracle and we ought to pay fierce attention every moment, as much as possible.

But you can not control anything. You cannot order or command everything. You cannot fix and repair everything. You cannot protect your children from pain and loss and tragedy and illness. You cannot be sure you will always be married, let alone happily married. You cannot be sure you will always be employed, or healthy, or relatively sane.

All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference. Humility does not mean self-abnegation, lassitude, detachment; it’s more calm recognition that you must trust in that which does not make sense, that which is unreasonable, illogical, silly, ridiculous, crazy by the measure of most of our culture. You must trust the you being the best possible you matters somehow. That trying to be an honest and tender parent will echo for centuries through your tribe. That doing your chosen work with creativity and diligence will shiver people far beyond your ken. That being an attentive and generous friend and citizen will prevent a thread or two of the social fabric from unraveling. And you must do all of this with the certain knowledge that you will never get proper credit for it, and in fact the vast majority of things you do right will go utterly unremarked. Humility, the final frontier, as my brother Kevin used to say. When we are young we build a self, a persona, a story in which to reside, or several selves in succession, or several at once, sometimes; when we are older we take on other roles and personas, other masks and duties; and you and I both know men and women who become trapped in the selves they worked so hard to build, so desperately imprisoned that sometimes they smash their lives simply to escape who they no longer wish to be; but finally, I think, if we are lucky, if we read the book of pain and loss with humility, we realize that we are all broken and small and brief, that none amongst us is ultimately more vulnerable or rich or famous or beautiful that another; and then, perhaps, we begin to understand something deep and true about humility.

That is what I know: that the small is huge, that the tiny is vast, that pain is part and parcel of the gift of joy, and that this is love, and then there is everything else. You either walk toward love or away from it with every breath you draw. Humility is the road to love. Humility, maybe, is love. That could be. I wouldn’t know; I’m a muddle and a conundrum shuffling slowly along the road, gaping in wonder, trying to see and say what is, trying to leave shreds and shards of ego along the road like wisps of litter and chaff.

“All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference.” As Brian would say, And so: Amen.

Originally published at



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Mavis Moon

About 25 years in Information Technology, love to read & write. I write several blogs. Deeply interested in faith and religion.