Too many funerals this year, he says, as he eyes the locomotive of his own old age steaming down the tracks: first, Lea Wait, of course, then a well-loved friend and colleague of Anne’s at the New Hampshire school where she used to teach, and most recently, the husband of a friend: a Colby professor from the years when we attended that institution. What struck me most at the memorials for these very accomplished and much-honored people was that, despite their prizes, the public recognition, the external successes, without exception what the survivors remembered most was relationships, the support these people had given them, the many intangible gifts of love, companionship, mentorship, the pleasures of meals shared, conversations, and merely presence
I’m probably as greedy as any of my writing peers for publication, honors, awards, recognition of the work that I do, that like all writers, is performed out of sight and away from anyone admiring our discipline and efforts. But it does seem to me, after listening to the memories both friends and family shared, that in the unlikely event I do go, I would rather be remembered for the quality of my friendship, the welcome I gave to people, the meals we shared, and the relationships, than anything else I’ve done.
I recently rediscovered an Oregon writer, Brian Doyle. Dead from a brain tumor at the young age of sixty, he was a writer of as beautiful and delicate essays as I can imagine. He focused on writing about the small moments of our lives, the beautiful words of his young children, the pain and pleasures of family, the trials of faith and spirit in a world unfriendly to the notion of either. His writing was sui generis, focused on daily life, the human, the pleasures of grace and kindness. Here he is at the ocean as a young boy, the first intimations of adulthood coming to him:
We were perhaps eight and ten, my brother and I, both invited to a house by the ocean, and that first night, after lots of hullabaloo, we were ladled into old summer camp cots that hadn’t been used since Lincoln’s time, and I remember, as if it was just last week, that we both felt something grim in the sea for the first time—a cold careless mastery. I still can’t articulate this very well. We lay there listening to the infinitesimally tiny increase in wavelet volume as the tide came in, rustling acres of mussel shells and old boats and horseshoe crabs and the pots that jailed uncountable families of lobsters, and the scents sliding through the windows were loud, dense, lurid, something to smell gingerly and back away from. I was scared more than I would ever admit to my brother.
What smaller moment could you choose to write about than the night-fear of a young child and yet how large a lesson Doyle teaches us of humanity, of shared experience.
I suppose my point is that Brian Doyle is the essence of a local writer—I’ve never met anyone on the East Coast who knows of his work, despite his having written six novels, two books of stories, six poetry collections, and fourteen books of essays. He was editor of Portland Magazine, the award-winning University of Portland publication, for more than twenty-five years. But he lived and worked in a small community of love and respect, and by his own words, that was enough for him.
The awards, the publications, the recognition are all very satisfying in the moment, but the honor that endures, I believe, is how you are remembered. And so, in this moment, right now, cherish your accomplishments, but cherish more your friends, your family, the people who make you whole. You need nothing more.