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How We Wrestle Is Who We Are

Recently I have had the great fortune of connecting with two of my favorite writers, Robert Michael Pyle and Brian Doyle, for lunch, conversation, and inspiration.

Last week Bob blew into Laurelwood Brewery on a pouring-rain-day, took off his oiled hat and handed me a fresh cottonwood twig, heavy with sticky red buds. New cottonwoods present one of my favorite smells on Earth. If I could bottle it I’d soak my hair in that scent every night. I’ve been smelling them down by the rivers here for the last couple of weeks, and they always remind me of living in Missoula and walking over the Clark Fork bridges on spring nights, on the way home from writing workshops. I first met Bob when he was a visiting writing professor for the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies Program. It was one of my favorite classes. Ever. Bob looks like Santa meets Jerry Garcia. He is an astute naturalist, a world-famous lepidopderist, a fellow lover of otters, a fine writer and teacher, and a kind mentor and friend. He has this infectious zest for life. He also used to wear a utility kilt, dance to Van Morrison, routinely stay up until 3 am, and enjoy drinking pints and eating fine English cheeses. And he wrote a book about Bigfoot. I visited him  and his dear wife Thea at their Gray’s River, Washington home a few years ago, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. I recommend any of his many books. Besides the cottonwood, Bob also gave me a copy of High Desert Journal containing his sweet little poem:

The Girl With The Cockleburs In Her Hair 

We were talking about how children don’t
get out any more. She showed me
her daughter on her telephone:
big pout, and four big burs
caught up in her hair.
That girl, I said, is
going to be
okay.
~ ~ ~

And yesterday I finally met the delightful Mr. Doyle after years of corresponding, trading jokes, and occasionally poking fun at one another. Brian is the editor of Portland Magazine and author of many a fine book and essay. He seems to encounter everything with admirable wit, good humor, reverence, and wonder, and there is a palpable brightness and shiny-eyedness about him. The kind of thing you hope will rub off on you just a little. We talked about books and the hearts of whales and hummingbirds and watching kids watch giant sturgeon and soccer and police blotters and Hemmingway and writing and how-to-find-a-job and religion and Mt. Hood. Our lunch breathed some new excitement and energy and inspiration into me.
For this I am very grateful.

It got me thinking about writing. And about thinking. . . about how our questions define us, about why searching, why longing, why wondering, matters. Why it is worth the heartache. It got me thinking about how if we don’t stand in our own way, we just may be dazzled by what kind of creatures we are so patently and brilliantly and utterly and wholly and holy capable of becoming…We are capable of anything. And that is really freaking exciting. . .

It also reminded me of one of my favorite little essays, which I shall now share with you.
Brian is a master of the short form essay, and this one is truly worth the read:

How We Wrestle Is Who We Are
By Brian Doyle

from the January/February 2005 issue of Orion magazine

MY SON LIAM was born ten years ago. He looked like a cucumber on steroids. He was fat and bald and round as a cucumber on steroids. He looked healthy as a horse. He wasn’t. He was missing a chamber in his heart. You need four rooms in your heart for smooth conduct through this vale of fears and tears, and he only had three, so pretty soon doctors cut him open and iced down his heart and shut it down for an hour while they made repairs, and then when he was about eighteen months old he had another surgery, during which they did more tinkering, and all this slicing and dicing worked, and now he’s ten, and the other day as he and I were having a burping contest he suddenly said, “Explain to me my heart stuff,” which I tried to do, in my usual Boring Dad way, and soon enough he wandered off, I think to beat up his brother, but I sat there remembering.

I remember pacing hospital and house and hills, and thinking that his operations would either work or not and he would either live or die. There was a certain clarity there; I used to crawl into that clarity at night to sleep. But nothing else was clear. I used to think, in those sleepless days and nights, what if they don’t fix him all the way and he’s a cripple all his life, a pale thin kid in a wheelchair who has Crises? What if his brain gets bent? What if he ends up alive but without his mind at all? What then? Who would he be? Would he always be what he might have been? Would I love him still? What if I couldn’t love him? What if he was so damaged that I prayed for him to die? Would those prayers be good or evil?

I don’t have anything sweet or wise to say about those thoughts. I can’t report that God gave me strength to face my fears, or that my wife’s love saved me, or anything cool and poetic like that. I just tell you that I had those thoughts, and they haunt me still. I can’t even push them across the page here and have them sit between you and me unattached to either of us, for they are bound to me always, like the dark fibers of my heart. For our hearts are not pure; our hearts are filled with need and greed as much as with love and grace; and we wrestle with our hearts all the time. The wrestling is who we are. How we wrestle is who we are. What we want to be is never what we are. Not yet. Maybe that’s why we have these relentless engines in our chests, driving us forward toward what we might be.

Eventually my son will need a new heart, a transplant when he’s thirty or forty or so, though Liam said airily the other day that he’s decided to grow a new one from the old one, which I wouldn’t bet against him doing eventually, him being a really remarkable kid. But that made me think: if we could grow new hearts out of old ones, what might we be then? What might we be if we rise and evolve, if we come further down from the brooding trees and out onto the smiling plain, if we unclench the fist and drop the dagger, if we emerge blinking from the fort and the stockade and the prison, if we smash away the steel from around our hearts, if we peel the scales from our eyes, if we do what we say we will do, if we act as if our words really matter, if our words become muscled mercy, if we grow a fifth chamber in our hearts and a seventh and a ninth, and become as if new creatures arisen from our shucked skins, the creatures we are so patently and brilliantly and utterly and wholly and holy capable of becoming…
What then?