You believed that everything is a form of prayer, including laughter, including tears. Yes, you were a reverential man, but you weren’t stiff or boring or preachy or dour. Your essays were both concise — often just a page in length — and lush, your sentences as intricate and twisty as plants in a terrarium. You combined prose and poem (and prayer, you said) to bear witness to the miracles around us. One of your twenty books consisted entirely of prayers in which you praise (or try to praise) admirable and not-so-admirable things: loud recycling trucks; editors; cats (alas, not your favorite creature); a girl singing at a bus stop; the doctor who saved your son’s life; little brown birds; decent shoes; firemen and firewomen; wicked hot showers. Of your twenty books at least three are explicitly organized around the theme of epiphanies, that literary term with religious roots. You were firm in your Catholic faith even as you criticized the Church’s nefarious deeds and small-minded tendencies. Your stories, like those of the “skinny Jewish guy who wandered around Judea some centuries ago,” spoke of courage and humility and grace. Yet one need only a heart — no religious beliefs at all — to be stirred by your insistence that “we are called to compassion, and not to judgment.”
You grew up in a boisterous Irish Catholic family in New York City with six brothers and one sister (now a Buddhist nun), who called you “congenitally optimistic.” Your dad was a newspaper reporter and editor; your mom, a teacher. “No man ever had a happier childhood,” you wrote, “and I was that rare guy who not only loved but liked his parents.” You fell for a woman you met at a Bruce Cockburn concert, married her, and had a daughter and twin boys. You lived for many years in Oregon, where you were the longtime editor of a magazine and a diligent writer dedicated to spreading the good news that everything is connected: family, stranger, child, enemy, animal, planet, universe. Day and night; the light and the dark.
When you talked to audiences and read your work aloud, you roamed about, using funny voices, sometimes shouting, sometimes pleading, and often weeping. You were naked up there, or at least your emotions were, cajoling the world to wake up. You persuaded one audience to sing the first verse of “Amazing Grace,” and then you asked them to sing it again but louder, and they did. You told a humorous story about arguing with the Dalai Lama about sports. You cried while reading your essay about the shame you felt after shouting at your son and making him cower. You cried when talking about the couple who held hands and jumped from the burning World Trade Center. You cried about the firefighters who raced up the stairs knowing they might never come back down. You weren’t ashamed to cry in public. You said that “tears are the salt seas of the heart.”
You strummed the English language like a guitar, plucked it like a harp, banged it like a drum. Some of your sentences go on for days. The comma is rare and elusive; the adverb is close to extinct; and the adjectives are abundant, often piled high. For example: “This sweet wild silly glorious selfish violent brave nation of ours.” For example: “Such extraordinary ordinary succinct ancient naked stunning perfect simple ferocious love.” Nine adjectives for love may seem excessive, but maybe not.
Your writing tells us that the little things are not little. That miracles surround us. That suffering is ubiquitous. Let’s laugh more; let’s laugh our brains out. We can give darkness the middle finger. We are better than we think: remember those New York City firefighters running to their death. We can reach for each other and jump into the abyss. We can take off our masks or, if we can’t do that, we can squawk through the holes in them. A squawk is better than nothing. Your voice squawks and growls and roars and sings. We ought to listen to other people’s stories; we ought to appreciate all the creatures in the seas and trees and life’s big mysteries. There is grace in the most awful circumstances. We are better than we think.
In May 2017 you died of a brain tumor. You were sixty years old. You said that your writing is not about you but about us. “Please,” you implored, “reach for each other. Drop the masks. Don’t be cool.”
You published nearly forty pieces in The Sun. These are a few of our favorites.
— Carol Ann Fitzgerald
Dawn And Mary
Early one morning several teachers and staffers at a Connecticut grade school were in a meeting. The meeting had been underway for about five minutes when they heard a chilling sound in the hallway. (We heard pop-pop-pop, said one of the staffers later.)
Most of them dove under the table. That is the reasonable thing to do, what they were trained to do, and that is what they did.
But two of the staffers jumped, or leapt, or lunged out of their chairs and ran toward the sound of bullets. Which word you use depends on which news account of that morning you read, but the words all point in the same direction — toward the bullets.
One of the staffers was the principal. Her name was Dawn. She had two daughters. Her husband had proposed to her five times before she’d finally said yes, and they had been married for ten years. They had a vacation house on a lake. She liked to get down on her knees to paint with the littlest kids in her school.
The other staffer was a school psychologist named Mary. She had two daughters. She was a football fan. She had been married for more than thirty years. She and her husband had a cabin on a lake. She loved to go to the theater. She was due to retire in one year. She liked to get down on her knees to work in her garden.
Dawn the principal told the teachers and the staffers to lock the door behind them, and the teachers and the staffers did so after Dawn and Mary ran out into the hall.
You and I have been in that hallway. We spent seven years of our childhood in that hallway. It’s friendly and echoing, and when someone opens the doors at the end, a wind comes and flutters all the paintings and posters on the walls.
Dawn and Mary jumped, or leapt, or lunged toward the sound of bullets. Every fiber of their bodies — bodies descended from millions of years of bodies that had leapt away from danger — must have wanted to dive under the table. That’s what they’d been trained to do. That’s how you live to see another day. That’s how you stay alive to paint with the littlest kids and work in the garden and hug your daughters and drive off laughing to your cabin on the lake.
But they leapt for the door, and Dawn said, Lock the door after us, and they lunged right at the boy with the rifle.
The next time someone says the word hero to you, you say this: There once were two women. One was named Dawn, and the other was named Mary. They both had two daughters. They both loved to kneel down to care for small beings. They leapt from their chairs and ran right at the boy with the rifle, and if we ever forget their names, if we ever forget the wind in that hallway, if we ever forget what they did, if we ever forget that there is something in us beyond sense and reason that snarls at death and runs roaring at it to defend children, if we ever forget that all children are our children, then we are fools who have allowed memory to be murdered, too, and what good are we then? What good are we then?
Did we punch and hammer and jab each other as children, thrashing and rambling, a large family in a small house filled with brothers and one older sister with bony fists and no reluctance to use them?
Did we use implements like long whippy maple branches and Mom’s bamboo garden poles and Dad’s old sagging tennis rackets and redolent pieces of oozy lumber stolen from the new house going up down the block and brick chips and sharp-edged asbestos shingles torn off the garage roof as ammunition and weaponry with which to battle and joust with brothers and occasionally the Murphy boys next door, each one burlier and angrier and Irisher than the next?
Did we occasionally use snowballs, meticulously packed as tight as possible and then placed carefully in the freezer for days, as stony ammunition despite the cold hard fact that said snowballs should have been registered with the United Nations, especially when one of us saved a few until June and hammered the Murphy boys in the most lopsided and glorious victory of all time on our street?
Did our mother actually say more than once, You’ll put your eye out! until finally we bought individual glass eyes at a yard sale from an ophthalmologist and faked a terrific raucous brawl so that our mother came running only to find her sons roaring about their lost eyes, which were bouncing and rolling freely on the linoleum floor, which caused our blessed mother to shriek, which caused our calm muscular father to come running, which caused his sons to spend many hours in penitential labor and the mastermind to go to confession?
Did we play football so hard in the yard that more than once a helmet went flying and more than once a finger was broken and one time tempers flared such that a picket from the old red fence was used for assault and battery?
Did we play basketball so intently and furiously that a nose was broken and eyeglasses were broken and teeth were chipped and skin was abraded and fouls were delivered with violent intent, which was repaid in full in the fullness of time?
Did we many times wrestle our oldest and tallest brother to the ground, often using our youngest brother as a missile aimed at his feet to knock him off balance, and once the tree was toppled, jump upon him with cheerful violent alacrity, and pile on with as much emphasis as humanly possible, sometimes leaping off the couch to cannonball down upon him, while ignoring the plaintive murmur of our youngest brother trapped at the bottom of the pile, mewling like a kitten?
Did we occasionally reach or lunge across the table during meals to commit crimes upon the bodies of our brothers, even though Dad had said, and he meant it, too, that the next boy who reached across the table would lose a finger?
We did all these things and more, and you would think the accumulated violence would have bred dislike or bitterness or vengeful urges, but I report with amazement that it did not. Yes, the trundle of years and the fading of memory are at play. Yes, we are all much older and slower and have lost the language of pummel and lash. Yes, we have all witnessed and endured pain and loss in such doses that the wounds of our brotherly years seem minor now compared to the larger darkness.
But there is something else here. Maybe, in some strange way I don’t understand, we used our hands to say the things we didn’t have the words to say. That is what I have tried to do with my hands and my words this morning, brothers. Remember the crash of bodies, and the grapple in the grass, and the laughing pile on the rug, for that was the thrum of our love.
So let us now arise, and haul our youngest brother out from the bottom of the pile by his thin flailing legs, and restore him to a semblance of his usual shape, and proceed to the dinner table, chaffing and shouldering, and it will always be this moment somehow, brothers, just before we eat, just before the tide of time rises, in the instant of silence just before Dad says grace.
To The Beach
One time for no reason at all my kid brother and I decided to ride our bicycles from our small brick house all the way to Jones Beach. We got maps out of the family car and pored over them and concluded that it was about four miles to the shore. He was twelve and I was thirteen. We could cut through a few neighborhoods before we had to thrash along in the grass on the shoulder of the highway. Riding the shoulder would be a problem because twice the highway crossed bridges over the tidal flats and we would have to dismount and balance our bikes on the six-inch curb by the rail. We figured we would worry about this when we came to it. We supplied ourselves with one can of soda, two sandwiches, and one beach towel each. We debated about the surfboard. What if it was windy out on the highway and the board caught a gust and one of us was obliterated by a truck? Mom would be mad and the surviving son would be sent to his room for life and never again see the light of day and wither away, pale and disconsolate. But we tested the wind with our fingers and it didn’t seem too bad, so we brought the board, which was five feet long and fatter than it should have been. We’d worked on that board every day during the summer with wax and affection and dreams of glory. The board was obstreperous, however, and no matter what we did, it was too much for just one of us to manage on his bike. So we decided to carry it between us, and in this ungainly manner we set off for the beach.
For a while all was well except for the amazed looks of passersby and their occasional ostensibly witty remarks. Why people try to be witty when the only available audience is the very people they are trying unsuccessfully to be witty about is a mystery to me. Finally we climbed the embankment up to the highway and headed south to the beach. Just then my brother reminded me that we would have to pass through the tollbooth constructed so that city planner Robert Moses could recoup the tax dollars he had spent providing Jones Beach as a gift to the people of New York State. Our older brother worked there as a toll collector, but he wasn’t the sort of brother you might casually ask a favor of while he was on the job, and there was no way around the toll unless you could swim with your bike on your back. We decided we would worry about this when we came to it.
We soon grew weary, and the surfboard was incredibly heavy, so we stopped and ate a sandwich as the cars whizzed by, and one car threw a beer can at us for no reason we could tell. Because we were both reading the Hardy Boys books at that time and wanted to be detectives, we got the license-plate number and my kid brother, who had a ferocious memory, memorized it and also wrote it in the sand just in case. We proceeded on. Now there were flies and mosquitoes but also rabbits at the foot of the dense bushes beside the shoulder. We came to the first bridge and after a brief discussion decided that we would walk our bicycles one by one along the curb and then come back for the surfboard. A guy slowed down to help us (or rob us) as we were walking the surfboard over but we waved him on impatiently, using the glowering faces we admired on construction workers and our older brother who worked at the tollbooth up ahead. We used the same plan at the second bridge, although this time a gust of wind did come up and we were almost blown into the highway just as a truck roared past and we were nearly obliterated and we made a deep and secret pact never ever to tell our parents about this incident, a pact I am reluctant to break even now. This experience made us hungry, so we ate our other sandwiches and drank our sodas and buried the cans in the sand for archaeologists to find in the twenty-seventh century. We proceeded on. The highway led inevitably to the tollbooth and, as expected, there was no way around without being seen from the state-police office; Robert Moses was no fool. As our mother said, you had to admire the devious energy of the man, even though he was an arrogant tyrant who should be in prison for destroying a thousand neighborhoods and their vibrant cultural fabric.
By now we were exhausted and hot and thirsty and both of us would have cried if the other hadn’t been there. We sat for a few moments reconnoitering and then my kid brother, to my amazement, walked right up to the tollbooth and knocked on our older brother’s window and our older brother took a break and drove over in a battered gray state truck and put us and our bicycles and our surfboard in the truck and took us to West End 2, which was and probably still is the best beach in New York for surfing, and we surfed there for the rest of the afternoon, not very well, until the end of our older brother’s shift, at which point he came to get us in his Ford Falcon and carried us home. On the way we were so tired that we both fell asleep together in the narrow back seat. We were so tired that we stayed asleep even after we got home and our older brother quietly unloaded our bicycles and the surfboard. I did wake groggily when he closed the trunk of the Falcon, and I saw him with one hand on each bicycle and the surfboard under his arm as he walked to the garage to put them away. Even today, all these years later, when I think of our older brother, that’s one of the first things I remember. You’d think I would remember him in his tuxedo on the day he was married, or in his flowing academic robe on the day he earned his doctorate, or hoisting up his kids delightedly like tiny loaves of bread on the days that they were born, or even gaunt and grinning in the weeks before he died. But, no, it is him tall and thin and silent as he walked our bicycles and our surfboard back to the garage at dusk that I remember the most — a slight thing, by the measurement of the world, yet to me not slight at all but huge and crucial and holy.
We are at a parade. It is Memorial Day. I am sitting on the curb in front of the church with my brother, reserving our family’s spot. The rest of the family is coming along slowly, our father carrying the baby, but my brother and I have run ahead because we don’t want to miss a single soldier in uniform or girl twirling a baton or bespectacled beaming cherubic man wearing a fez. We might see an elephant. We will see horses and firetrucks. We will see politicians in convertibles. We will see men older than our dad wearing their Army uniforms. Army is green and the others are blue. Our dad will not walk in the parade wearing his uniform. He declines politely every year when he is asked. He says he no longer has his uniform. He says he does not know where it went, although we think he does know where it went. He says he wore it only because the job had to be done, and now that the war is over, there is no reason to have a uniform. He says uniforms are dangerous statements, if you think about it. He says uniforms can easily confer false authority, and encourage hollow bravado, and augment unfortunate inclinations, and exacerbate violent predilections. This is how he talks. He says uniforms are public pronouncements, like parades, and we should be careful about what we say in public. He says we should be leery of men marching in uniforms. He says no one has more respect for members of the armed forces than he does, but that it would be a better world if no one ever had to take up arms, and that is a fact. He says in his experience it is the man who has been in a war who understands that war is cruel and foolish and sinful, and anyone who defends war as natural to the human condition is a person of stunted imagination. He says a study of history shows not only that we are a savage species but that we are a species capable of extraordinary imaginative leaps. He says that someday we might devise ways to outwit violence, as Mr. Mohandas Gandhi tried to do. He says most wars, maybe all wars, are about money in the end, and that when we hear the beating of war drums, we should suspect that it is really a call for market expansion. He says war is a virus and imagination is the cure.
Our father does not have his uniform anymore, but he does have a wooden box in a drawer in his bureau at home. There are medals and service bars and ribbons in the box. We have secretly opened the box, my brother and I, and handled its contents, and put them back exactly the way we found them, so that he would not know, but he knows. His photographs are in another drawer. In them he is tall and thin and shockingly young. He is a private, a sergeant, a lieutenant. He is on Bougainville Island in the South Pacific. Then he is in the Philippines. He is preparing for the invasion of Japan. He is preparing to die.
Today he is standing next to us at the Memorial Day parade as the soldiers and sailors pass by. Some men in the crowd salute, but he does not. He keeps his eyes locked on the soldiers, though, even as we are pulling at his hands and pant legs and the baby is crying and wriggling. The one time he hands off the baby and applauds quietly is when the firemen pass by in their trucks. After the firemen come the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and the Little League baseball players, and the Knights of Columbus, and the Rotary Club, and finally a visiting fife-and-drum corps from Ireland, and then we walk home, our dad carrying the baby, who fell asleep just after the Girl Scouts walked by.
Recently a man took up residence on my town’s football field, sleeping in a small tent in the northwestern corner, near the copse of cedars. He had been a terrific football player some years ago for our high school, and then had played in college, and then a couple of years in the nether reaches of the professional ranks, where a man might get paid a hundred bucks a game plus bonuses for touchdowns and sacks. Then he had entered into several business ventures, but these had not gone so well, and he had married and had children, but that had not gone so well either, and finally he’d taken up residence on the football field, because, he said, that was where things had gone well, and he sort of needed to get balanced again, and there was something about the field that was working for him, as far as he could tell. So, with all due respect to people who thought he was a nut case, he decided he would stay there until someone made him leave. He had already spoken with the cops, and it was a mark of the general decency of our town that he was told he could stay as long as he didn’t interfere with use of the field, which of course he would never think of doing, and it was summer, anyway, so the field wasn’t in use much.
He had been nicknamed the Hawk when he was a player, for his habit of lurking around almost lazily on defense and then making a stunning strike, and he still speaks the way he played, quietly but then amazingly. When we sat on the visiting team’s bench the other day, he said some quietly amazing things, which I think you should hear:
The reporter from the paper came by, he said. She wanted to write a story about the failure of the American dream and the collapse of the social contract, and she was just melting to use football as a metaphor for something or other, and I know she was just trying to do her job, but I kept telling her things that didn’t fit what she wanted, like that people come by and leave me cookies and sandwiches, and the kids who play lacrosse at night set up a screen so my tent won’t get peppered by stray shots, and the cops drift by at night to make sure no one’s giving me grief. Everyone gets nailed at some point, so we understand someone getting nailed and trying to get back up on his feet again. I am not a drunk, and there’s no politicians to blame. I just lost my balance. People are good to me. You try to get lined up again. I keep the field clean. Mostly it’s discarded water bottles. Lost cellphones I hang in a plastic bag by the gate. I walk the perimeter a lot. I saw some coyote pups the other day. I don’t have anything smart to say. I don’t know what things mean. Things just are what they are. I never sat on the visitors’ bench before, did you? Someone leaves coffee for me every morning by the gate. The other day a lady came by with twin infants, and she let me hold one while we talked about football. That baby weighed about half of nothing. You couldn’t believe a human being could be so tiny — and there were two of him. That reporter, she kept asking me what I had learned, what I would say to her readers if there was only one thing I could say, and I told her, What could possibly be better than standing on a football field, holding a brand-new human being the size of a coffee cup? You know what I mean? Everything else is sort of a footnote.