In Gratitude to Brian Doyle–Prayers for Ordinary Things

Brian Doyle, who penned two of my all-time favorite essays, Joyas Voladorousa tribute to the beating heart, and Leap, died at the end of May. I love Brian’s writing, especially his essays–they are exuberant and joyful and magnanimous and funny and thoughtful and always probing into the workings of what it means to be human in a world both bewildering and beautiful.

Brian Doyle wrote about being Catholic in a way that made me glad to be Catholic. His writing helps me appreciate both the mess and the glory of the church, makes me glad for the sacraments and the ritual, prods me to hold more than one truth in my trembling hands.

Brian Doyle wrote so many things in his way-too-short life–essays, fiction, poems, and prayers–oh how dearly I love his prayers. In fact, since his death, I have taken to carrying around a small but powerful book, A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle & Muddle of the Ordinary. This little book, published in 2014, is a miracle in itself–a reminder to cultivate gratitude. The titles of the small prayers are reason enough to pick it up. Here are a few:

Prayer in Thanks for Decent Shoes

Prayers for Cashiers and Checkout-Counter Folks

Prayer for Women Named Ethel and men Named Elmer, for We Wiill Not See Their Likes Again

Prayer of Thanks for Hoes & Scythes & Spatulas & Toothbrushes & Binoculars & the Myriad Other Tools & Instruments That Fit Our Hands So Gracefully & Allow Us to Work with a Semblance of Deftitude

Prayer of Bemused Appreciation for Handheld Mobile Devices

Prayer of Thanks for Suntan Lotion

***

Last Wednesday I visited my good friend and walking and writing partner, Julie, in New Harmony, Indiana where she was attending the West of the Moon Creative Retreat led by the equally fantastic Terry Price and Dave DeGolyer (known in literary circles as Lafayette Wattles). If you haven’t visited New Harmony, you are missing out. Lucky for me, I live an hour up the road, so when Julie invited me to visit, I said, “Hells Yes!”

I arrived in New Harmony in time for the West of the Moon Reading at Sara’s Harmony Way. The abundance of talent, spirit, and soul in that room blew me away. I love readings and the chance to hear original poetry, fiction, and essays in a small venue. Dave and Terry have created something spirited and soul-tending in their creative retreat.

After the reading, Julie and I got a bite to eat, and then we went back to the hotel where we started pulling books out of our bags, and guess what–we were both carrying the little book of prayers by Brian Doyle. It shouldn’t have surprised me as this sort of thing happens all the time with Julie–we are forever reading the same book at the same time without knowing it. We often have the same books in our to-read piles. Just two weeks ago, Julie sent me a book I had been wanting to read but had yet to buy.

We laughed sitting there in the small room holding the same small book in our hands.

The next morning, as we drank coffee and tea back at Sara’s Harmony Way, we decided to write our own little odes to Brian Doyle’s uncommon prayers. I thought I would share the exercise and our prayers here. It’s fun. If you give it a try and would like me to post your prayers, I would be delighted. I plan to write a few more myself.

Here are the instructions for writing Prayers in Thanks of Ordinary Objects:

  1. Set your timer for five minutes jot down a list of ordinary objects.
  2. Look over your list and choose one.
  3. Set your timer for ten minutes or as long as you like and write a prayer of thanks.

 

Here are the prayers we wrote that morning:

A Prayer of Gratitude for Cloth Napkins by Julie Stewart

Thank you for cloth napkins, the washed softness of them on my cheek when I wipe away the errant dab of mayo. For providing a home for my daughter’s outgrown calico dresses, so that each time I pick you up from your place at the table, I touch her childhood again, what she was wearing when we sat outside on a blanket sharing a bowl of popcorn and a grape popsicle, the meal that consoled us earlier that day I had thrown a sippy cup at the wall and popped off the top and spilled grape juice, staining the white wall purple. Thank you for being small enough that I could salvage the section of fabric that remained unstained. Thank you for folding yourself up, crisply ironed, so that each time I retrieve you, it is like starting again, a new day, a change to nourish myself and clean my face of any messes I leave behind. Thank you for nestling the knife and spoon, waiting to meet the fork that stands guard on the left. Thank you for being square, for having sharp edges and straight lines, when so much of life is complicated, for being able to be folded in half once and then again to make a neat rectangle, but when life gets fancy, for being able to become a flower or fan, for being both beautiful and useful, the true measure of thing’s value. Thank you for coming back to the table again and again, never letting yourself be tossed away because life got a little messy.

A Prayer in Thanks of Spoons by me

Thank you for spoons, for their slightly ovally cupping. For their perfection in soup and sauces, for the way they make tasting easy, the way they hold liquids aloft and towards your lips, for their scooping and stirring and scraping. For big spoons and wooden spoons and plastic spoons, for those tiny spoons covered in a soft material that changes colors when the food is too hot—imagine a chubby baby without a spoon in his little curled up fist–eyes poked out, food not eaten if there were no spoons. Wait, imagine ice cream, yogurt, creamy tomato soup, oatmeal, milk shakes, banana pudding without a spoon, imagine iced tea in need of a little sweetening without a long handled spoon. Think of hot gravy, steaming in its boat on Thanksgiving without a sweet ladle to puddle it onto mashed potatoes and corn. Oh good glory to spoons and the way they feed us. The way we take their image into our beds, the way we shape our bodies in their likeness to hold each other close. Oh spoons.

 

 

 

 

 

A Ruin

Thursday morning I wake to the sound of rain falling on the yet to bloom hydrangea bushes outside my bedroom window. Birds are singing songs I wish I knew. I lie here for a long time. Every once in a while a car swooshes down the wet street and even though I’m not looking, I can see the water spray out from turning wheels and settle back into the ruts and potholes that keep our sleepy street sleepy.

Finally, because I have been writing in my head for three days, I get up and pour a cup of the still-hot coffee my husband made early before he went to work, grab my computer off the desk in the kitchen, and return to my rumpled sheets-only bed. Two fans are churning the air–one hanging from the ceiling and one to my left so that every once in a while air catches the edge of my sheet and billows it over my legs. I set the computer in a strategic position on my lap where its open screen beckons me to write this damned blog.

I write for over two hours. I write about laziness and artistic intention and summer’s long, loose days. I write about my lack of ambition and how I don’t have a job other than being a writer and a mother and a keeper of the house we all live in. But I’m not happy with it. Maybe this is a blog post for the future when I figure out how Keats’ idea of negative capability figures into my dueling theories that work is both bedrock and overblown.

My stomach’s in knots. I have words flying through my head, skittering across the screen as I try again and again to write my way willy nilly into this blog. When I’ve written for two hours and still have nothing, it’s time to chuck it. I push the computer from my lap as if it’s a misbehaving pug and go to the kitchen to smash an avocado and spread it on some toast.

***

An hour later, I’m dressed and on the front porch. The rain’s gone, and the birds continue to mock me with songs I don’t know while diving down to the wet grass for worms. A few years ago, I read somewhere that worms come to the surface to avoid drowning in the drenched soil, but that isn’t the truth. Worms surface because it’s a better way to travel. When the ground is wet, they slide along its surface instead of trudging through the thick clay.

Right now I count two robins doing their strange run a few steps and stop dance and three blackbirds walking like chickens in the front yard. So far, not one has  yanked a worm from its migration. It’s a good time to get back to the blog, before one of those birds commits worm murder.

What should I write?

I go back through my blog posts, thinking I might do an update of sorts:

√ No tassel yet. I haven’t done a thorough cleaning of the room, but I still suspect that our big pug had something to do with its disappearance.  He tilts his head in that cute and quizzical pug way when I stare him down.

√ No letter of apology from the oft-quoted and brilliant Annie Dillard who doesn’t read women authors although the legendary Gay Talese did get a thumping for his public admission that he couldn’t name a single woman author who inspired him.

√ My dad saw Peanut’s new tattoo, and he grimaced a little bit and shook his head in that sad and confused way I probably do when Peanut tells me she thinks she’d like a tragus piercing–WTF is a tragus?

My new bras are working overtime in this hot sultry weather and are standing up to the increasingly difficult challenge of keeping my breasts where they belong.

√ I continue, behind closed doors, to engage in humor that might be considered offensive. Case in point. Last night, Eric and I were joking around when he reached down beside the bed, grabbed his iPad and pulled up a picture of an old-timey baseball manager whose balls were clearly defined in his khaki pants. According to Eric this is called a moose knuckle. Who knew? I was both appalled and unable to look away. We laughed so hard I couldn’t fall asleep for another hour–or maybe I was just haunted–how could pants do that?

√ I went to hear Lee Martin (who is definitely a man, darnit) read from his new book last week in Lawrenceville, IL. He killed it, and still I can’t read Late One Night until January 1 because of the damned New Year’s Resolution I am going to keep because I haven’t kept the one about copying a poem every day although I’m trying which may or may not be the truth but is more hopeful than saying the effort is kaput.

Type 1 Diabetes still sucks. Last week, I took Peanut to the doctor in St. Louis for her three-month check-up. Her last appointment, three months ago, was one of bells and whistles and lots of cheering. Her A1C (this is a number that gives us a pretty good idea of what her blood sugar has averaged the past three months) was spectacularly good. Peanut (and I) received congratulations and huge smiles from the doctor, the dietician, the nurses, and the receptionists. The whole place was balloons and smiles and stellar numbers.

In Type 1 Diabetes, the numbers tell the story of blood sugar control; however, they do not tell the story of day to day life with the perverse permutations of this ill-willed opponent.  Blood sugar is a mighty hard thing to control, especially for teenagers whose activity, sleep patterns, and eating habits fluctuate on an hourly basis. I knew this three months ago when that A1C was good, and still I felt ridiculously proud. Proud of Peanut, and damned proud of myself too. If she was doing something right, then by God, I was doing something right too.

It’s a long way down when the numbers tell the story of blood sugar run amok.

We sat in the office, and Peanut’s doctor pored over the new numbers, trying to figure out what had happened to make a 7.1 go up to an 8.6, and the blood drained from my beautiful girl’s face. She sat beside me still and pale, her hands crossed in her lap while she watched her doctor puzzle through her records.

We expected the underwhelming report, we did. In the past three months, Peanut had changed insulin therapies three times with the requisite blood sugar highs that come along with insulin adjustment. This A1C hike wasn’t a surprise, but it feels like failure to Peanut who strives for control over numbers that are elusive and plain mean. And I can’t do shit. I am both embarrassed by my own failure and aggravated by my embarrassment. It’s a disease, for God’s sake.

√ Falling, failing, falling, failing–I fall every day. The sun has taken a liking to the faint scars from my overdone facial resurfacing. I don’t mind it too much.

And then there’s this–ruined might be a pretty good place to beginfrom that very first blog post on February 4th.

Did you know that the archaic definition of “ruin” is “a falling down?”

I have been writing about “ruin” this entire time, and I didn’t even know it.