Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series
February 2nd, 2020
I slid under the covers and my comforter last night, waiting to slip into sleep. I had just finished a perfect book—a posthumous compilation of essays by American writer Brian Doyle, titled One Long River of Song. After first reading about it in the New York Times, I went looking for it online, where it was unavailable.
It seems now that booksellers had underestimated demand for this title, or that the timing of things was off, and demand had shown up a little before supply. Because the author was unknown to me, and because he was described, here and there, as a “Catholic writer” (I still don’t understand why anyone bothered to make that distinction), I let things go for several weeks, thinking that maybe it wasn’t for me. But it niggled at the back of my mind and so, shortly thereafter, I tried again to order it, and was happy to learn that it was now stocked all over the place.
I want you to know that for me, One Long River of Song is a perfect book; and by that I mean that it found its way into my hands at precisely the moment in my life when I needed it the most, when I was most ready to absorb its lessons and its copious amounts of joy and elevation, poignancy, honesty and wisdom.
Brian Doyle died four years ago, at the age of 60, of brain cancer and so, as I read the many dozens of short essays in the book that Doyle’s colleagues and family worked very hard at collating and bringing together under one cover, I knew that the flowing, passionate, exuberant, funny, earnest, hopeful, occasionally wrathful and chastising, soulful and startlingly honest voice speaking inside my head as I read each essay was, in fact, no longer here on this earth. But of course, it is, by virtue of the writing this glorious human being left behind. As often happens when a book discovered randomly turns out to be a treasure, I read through it very quickly, in less than a week, and even managed, during those few days, to re-read many of the essays that reached deepest into me. And I had the shocking thought: I have lived longer than he did.
I know, now, that I will keep it on my night table—close by. Always. And I know that it will help me through the harsh episodes that surely lie ahead (as they do for all of us except that with stage 4 cancer, they loom; they are adamant).
Once I finished the last pages of the book last night, which included four pages of acknowledgements ( ! ), I lay in bed holding it close, passing my hand over its smooth cover, finding it difficult to separate from it. As I write this last phrase, I know it sounds strange, but what can I say? It is filled with thoughts, feelings and a spirituality based on joy and humility—not humbleness, Doyle was effusive and forceful—that are helpful to me and resonant. They feel very close to sacred. There is an energy emanating from Doyle’s words that speaks on a frequency that I need to remain connected to.
I think that he may have known, in a whispering premonitory way, that he would die quite young (though his parents lived long enough to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary!), as one of his older brothers did, at the age of 64. It is woven through everything he wrote—this sense that life is glorious and bristling and swift. His life and his writing were one long prayer of gratitude.
* * *
Among the many dimensions of my life that preoccupy me more since my diagnosis (or maybe it’s just that I have more quiet time to stop, consider, meditate), is spirituality, and I wonder if anyone reaches the end of their life with beliefs and a sense of the transcendent that have remained unchanged through the decades. It seems unlikely, even near impossible, but of course I look at current events and see so many communities that have become more rigid, dogmatic and even calcified in their systems of belief, that I don’t know where I fit in and am not sure that I want to belong anywhere.
Like Brian Doyle, I was raised a Catholic. As time passed, it became clear to me that the faith of my parents was no longer mine. For a very long time now, it has seemed crucial to me that my spirituality should be fluid enough to be able to embrace and integrate the discoveries of modern cosmology and science; that it should also be attuned to the voices of the mystics of the past and those among us, all of whom are able to distill life’s truths, retaining and sharing only that which is essential; that it should draw from Nature; and that it should be universal and unifying. After so many years teaching students from all over the world, with such a wide variety of cultures, languages and systems of belief, I’ve come to understand that there is always a core spirituality that binds us, that is expressed through love and joy and light… How we give, how we laugh together, how we see.
But where does that leave me, in times of weakness, fear and suffering? I can no longer speak to a personal Deity, the way I did when I was young, speaking to God the Creator, or the Spirit, or the personal Jesus…My understanding of the universe, thanks, in part, to the writings of people like Alan Lightman and the philosopher physicists, astrophysicists and quantum physicists of the 20th and 21st centuries, has opened me up to the notion of noetic experiences, but even more simply, to the necessity of a different language to talk about matters of the spirit, of the soul. And yet, the need to pray and to reach out to a force beyond me is still there, though personal entreaty never did feel right: there was always that feeling inside me, even as a young child, that so many people other than me deserved the ear of a listening God.
Since my cancer diagnosis, especially when the sun has set and the day is winding down, and I am more aware of my solitude, I do find myself speaking silently to the vastness, sending messages out that begin with “Dear Universe…”. Sometimes, the repetition of prayers learned in childhood such as the “Hail Mary” and the “Our Father” serve the same function as any mantra (it was lovely to discover recently that sometimes, Simon does the same thing, over in his bedroom). I wonder if I might feel comfortable sitting in a circle among Quakers, in shared silence.
Since my cancer diagnosis, I have felt a great need to reach out beyond myself to tap into the energy, the source of Love—that love that is all around me and lifts my spirits and brings me a deep sense of connection to others. It has made itself felt most pressingly when I’ve experienced feelings of bone deep, heart swelling gratitude.