One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder
by Brian Doyle
Little, Brown and Company, Dec 3, 2019
272 Pages, $13.99
The review I read of One Long River of Song by Brian Doyle was more of a notice in my mind than a review, but it was enough for me. I immediately ordered the book, and since its arrival I have read and re-read and pondered Doyle’s shared wonder expressed in this collection of essays. Until my encounter with this book, I had never heard of Doyle, a prolific writer who shares the amazing, yet everyday beauty in what he experiences. Doyle, who died of brain cancer way too soon, shares life’s blessings that he finds in a Memorial Day parade, a youth soccer game, birds, pants, Jones Beach, a song for nurses, his first kiss, a bullet, and more experiences that we all know and have experienced. That is the beauty of his book: he takes us inside ourselves through the common experiences we all share and peels back the worry and anxiety to reveal the joy.
One Long River of Song is a needed read today. Published in December 2019, one year before the COVID-19 pandemic, Doyle somehow tells us how to manage this unknown time we face. In the essay, “A Song for Nurses,” he writes:
“And let us pray not only for the extraordinary smiling armies of nurses among us; let us pray to be like them, sinewy and tender, gracious and honest, avatars of love.”
If there are any better words telling us how to manage in May 2020, I don’t know them. In the essay, “Memorial Day,” he remembers a Memorial Day parade from his youth and how his father, a veteran of WW II, always “declines politely every year when he is asked” to walk in the parade wearing his uniform. Doyle goes on to write that his father says: “uniforms can easily confer false authority and encourage hollow bravado.” Like General Lee, Doyle’s father knew the horror of war and knew to put the uniform away after it had been worn “because the job had to be done,” so it was time to put all that away.
Any parent who has stood on the sidelines of a youth soccer game, watching the herd of five-year-old children move along like gazing gazelles with the slowly moving ball, will identify with “The Praying Mantis Moment.” Doyle shares how during a game in which his six-year-old twins were playing on a golden October afternoon, all the three-foot-tall players formed a circle on the field. The ball rolled away; the teenage referee and some parents hurried to the circle for fear of an injury. But the crowd of players began walking with a girl who, while holding a praying mantis in her hands, escorted the insect to a safer place. Doyle writes of this October moment as one of the most genuine he had ever experienced in watching sports.
In “Illuminos,” Doyle writes:
“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 …”
This long quotation is not as much as I want to quote, but it is important, especially in our climate today, because in it, Brian Doyle shows the joy in so much of the ordinary we live each day. When we refuse to look and hear the glory of God’s world, we become one of the “blinkered and frightened” that Doyle writes about. Read the words of one man, who knew sorrow personally, but chose not to be blinkered or frightened by what he had to cross. Read this book and “be blessed beyond the reach of language.”