Joy of the Ordinary


The review of One Long River of Song by Brian Doyle was more of a notice than a review,  but it was enough for me. I immediately ordered it, and since I have read and re-read and pondered Doyle’s joy. Until this encounter I had never heard of Doyle, a prolific writer who shares the wonder and beauty in what he experiences. Doyle, who died of brain cancer way too soon, shares life’s joys found 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 show the joy.

One Long River of Song is a needed read today. Published one year before the COVID-19 pandemic, Doyle tells us how to manage this unknown time we face. In 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.” Are there any better words telling us how to be in May 2020? I don’t know any.

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 that “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.”

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 on the field 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 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, …”

The long quotation above from Illuminos is not as much as I want to quote, but it is  important, especially in our climate today, to read Brian Doyle and live the joy he shares 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.”

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