I have a confession. On my very best days, I consider myself agnostic. Most days I throw my hat in with the atheists. But when my mentor and friend recommended I read Doyle’s A Book of Uncommon Prayer, I was beside myself, already in a quandary. Do I tell her? The title alone would have turned me away. Worse, it then became required reading for her class. How could I look her in the eye ever again if I didn’t read the book? I dreamed for weeks of a different set of circumstances where the book had been given to me as a gift, from someone who didn’t know me well. I would politely thank the giver and recycle it at my local used book store, spine un-cracked, ready to be filed under “Religion.”
The problem is, the spine is now cracked, the pages dog-eared, and there is simply too much marginalia to distance myself from the text and to resell it politely. I have not been converted, but Doyle reminds me that prayer is another word for things I think I already know the words for: appreciation, wonder, awe. Also, micro-essay, lyric essay, perhaps even epistolary essay. As a writer, he comes to the page with humility and humor. These are no ordinary “prayers” of intercession or supplication. Each micro-essay is its own tide pool of an encapsulated world through his grateful eyes.
Doyle’s book focuses on the “uncommon” aspects of the things we experience in our daily lives that perhaps we do not often think of gratefully. In “Prayer for Opossums, You Poor Ugly Disdained Perfect Creatures,” Doyle asks who we are “to get snotty about appearance?” (p.55) while using this question as a meditation of the beauty of all things as well as a reminder to not get “sucked in” to understanding only one kind of beauty. As we continue in an already-bitter presidential election cycle, suffice it to say that “Desperate Prayer for Patience with Politicians with Excellent Suits and Shoes and Meticulous Hair and Gobs of Television Makeup Who have Utterly Forgotten That Their Jobs Are Finally About Feeding and Clothing and Protecting and Schooling Children” is required reading. In fact, the title is itself an essay.
These tide-pool essays stay small, but fully populated with characters, situations, and locations that are all meaningful to Doyle. Collectively, they form something as wondrous as the shores of La Jolla Beach, California, where we are invited to walk among and around these essays, collecting fragments like shells to put in our pockets. Doyle’s gratitude knows nothing too minute. There is gratitude for standing in the cold with other fathers watching their sons struggle at Pee Wee football. Gratitude for the long-ago history teacher who taught him that history is comprised of stories. Awe and wonder for the dragonfly, the nostalgic properties of suntan lotion, and the construction workers who show up every day rain or shine to direct traffic even while being almost-run over and/or splashed with copious amounts of water.
Yes, Doyle has political beliefs that are informed by his religious beliefs. Perhaps his most challenging essays deal with the man outside a clinic holding a cross and, separately, the women who have had to make difficult decisions. Even though the reader understands Doyle’s beliefs and may disagree, he is able to ask for the moment we all want: “to edge out of our political fortresses, our armed camps, our rock-ribbed convictions, and tiptoe toward shaky common ground” (p. 82). I come away from these essays with just one thought: a man, like all of us, struggling to make sense of a world that is diverse, complex, and in some ways, unknowable.
Doyle makes the case for a sort of “grand awe” in our daily lives. I could not help but feel giddy in his descriptions of the everyday, the mundane, the unexplainable and the currently incomprehensible. Doyle brought to life the best things I loved about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” There is still a sense of discovery and wonder and celebration in simply waking up every day, being able to see also this beauty in the world around us, and to love ourselves for who we are, large honking noses, misunderstandings and all. I think of recent works such as Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude—the breathless joy, wonder, and gratitude is found in both Gay’s title poem and Doyle’s 100 essays. Here’s to appreciating others who remind us that we are grateful that we woke up this morning. That we comprehend these words on the page. That people share their thoughts with us through these words on the page. That sometimes, we recognize ourselves in others. That sometimes, we remember to look at “little flying dinosaurs we call dragonflies.” And so: thank you, Brian Doyle.
Stacy Murison is completing her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Northern Arizona University under the guidance of Nicole Walker. When she’s not reading and writing essays and teaching English composition, she spends hours contemplating the movement of ants across the expanse of her backyard and watches too many zombie movies. You can read her work at McSweeney’s, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and Flash Fiction Magazine. Follow her @caseystay.