THESE THINGS MATTER

Ever come across a passage in a novel that you can’t wait to share with one friend or another? When I first read the following passage from Mink River by Brian Doyle, I immediately thought of Julie Larios. I was sure she would like it. She lives the flanneur life and has a poet’s attention to detail. I reached for the phone.

Then I remembered my turn at this blog was fast approaching. I put down the phone and started typing. I expect not just Julie, but most of our BooksAroundTheTable readers will eat it up. It’s the entire chapter 30 of Mink River, all in one paragraph and worth reading aloud:

30.

These things matter to me, Daniel, says the man with six days to live. They are sitting on the porch in the last light. These things matter to me, son. The way hawks huddle their shoulders angrily against hissing snow. Wrens whirring in the bare bones of bushes in winter. The way swallows and swifts veer and whirl and swim and slice and carve and curve and swerve. The way that frozen dew outlines every blade of grass. Salmonberries thimbleberries cloudberries snowberries elderberries gooseberries. My children learning to read. My wife’s voice velvet in my ear at night in the dark under the covers. Her hair in my nose as we slept curled like spoons. The sinuous pace of rivers and minks and cats. Rubber bands. Fresh bread with too much butter. My children’s hands when they cup my face in their hands. Toys. Exuberance. Mowing the lawn. Tiny wrenches and screwdrivers. Tears of sorrow, which are the salt sea of the heart. Sleep in every form from doze to bone-weary. Pay stubs. Trains. The shivering ache of a saxophone and the yearning of a soprano. Folding laundry hot from the dryer. A spotless kitchen floor. The sound of bagpipes. The way horses smell in spring. Red wines. Furnaces. Stone walls. Sweat. Postcards on which the sender has written so much that he or she can barely squeeze in a signature. Opera on the radio. Bathrobes, backrubs. Potatoes. Mink oil on boots. The bands at wedding receptions. Box-elder bugs. The postman’s grin. Linen table napkins. Tent flaps. The green sifting powdery snow of cedar pollen on my porch every year. Raccoons. The way a heron labors through the sky with such vast elderly dignity. The cheerful ears of dogs. Smoked fish and the smokehouses where fish are smoked. The way barbers sweep up circles of hair after a haircut. Handkerchiefs. Poems read aloud by poets. Cigar-scissors. Book marginalia written with the lightest possible pencil as if the reader is whispering to the writer. People who keep dead languages alive. Fresh-mown lawns. First-baseman’s mitts. Dishracks. My wife’s breasts. Lumber. Newspapers folded under arms. Hats. The way my children smelled after their baths when they were little. Sneakers. The way my father’s face shone right after he shaved. Pants that fit. Soap half gone. Weeds forcing their way through sidewalks. Worms. The sound of ice shaken in drinks. Nutcrackers. Boxing matches. Diapers. Rain in every form from mist to sluice. The sound of my daughters typing their papers for school. My wife’s eyes, as blue and green and grey as the sea. The sea, as blue and green and grey as her eyes. Her eyes. Her.

• • • • • •

That’s it. A list of what matters to this man who has six days to live. I love it for its specificity – Book marginalia written with the lightest possible pencil as if the reader is whispering to the writer. – and for its cadences – Red wines. Furnaces, Stone walls, Sweat. I love it because it is both universal – The way a heron labors through the sky with such a vast elderly dignity. – and personal – My children’s hands when they cup my face in their hands. It spans the natural world and the manmade world, the pedestrian and extraordinary, quotidian and eternal. I love the accumulation of it. How all the images and items add up to yearning. And the voice. It is a look over life, sifting through seasons for what matters. It is necessarily nostalgic but not schmaltzy.

What a wondrous list!

Though I hope I have more than six days to live, I thought I should get started on a list of things that matter to me: My husband singing in the kitchen. The way garlic sprouts poke through leaf mulch. The smell of oak duff on a California hillside. Moonlight. Ukulele. Good pruners. Pears…

Hey Julie Larios – what would be on your list of what matters? Anyone else want to play?

10 responses to “THESE THINGS MATTER

  1. Lovely list. Full of life and love.

  2. It’s a wonder of a post here at the end of the year, the time for reflection even in the busy flurry of the holidays. These things matter because they ‘are’ our lives, aren’t they? Thanks for sharing.

  3. I’m struck, not only by the gorgeous words, but by how deeply the author knows his character. I imagine all of our characters could benefit from us writing such a list. And what fun it would be, too.

  4. Some of my favorite things are illustrations by Maira Kalman which make me see the world through her eyes. Her new book My Favorite Things is an illustrated version of a list like this. Check it out!

  5. I love this! Brian is a master. I am currently working on producing a stage version of his book Up to Low and I am reminded every day of the glory in his simplicity. How can he make the world so huge and remarkable in just a few well chosen words?
    Thank you for this. I think we’ll do a reading of it by the fire, with a glass of Christmas cheer.

  6. Oh, my gosh, Laura – what a beautiful passage. And Brian Doyle is the author of another favorite piece of mine called Joyas Voladores (“flying jewels”), an essay about the hearts of hummingbirds and other animals (including people.) You can read it here: https://theamericanscholar.org/joyas-volardores/#.VI3AUN076rU
    I wonder how long Doyle took to compile that list before he put it into the voice of the man with six days to live? Off the top of my head, I’ll mention a few that matter to me: Salt water washing over pebbles. Corny accordion music. The sound of my kids laughing together. Grown-ups talking in the kitchen late at night when I was a kid falling asleep in bed. Bernini’s “Rape of Persephone.” The smell of cheap rose perfume when I first fell in love. Little espresso spoons. The back of my husband’s neck when he puts on a white shirt. Soft jeans. Nuthatches. Trumpeter swans on the Skagit flats. Bicycle baskets. Bicycle bells. The first ripe raspberry every year. My grandmother’s gravestone. The smell of eucalyptus and bay leaves on a warm day in San Francisco. A high-school marching band. Cast iron frying pans. Photos of strangers having picnics. Wooden oars. Old flashlights. The way my father used to towel dry my hair after a bath. Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante singing “La Negra Noche.” Warm marionberry pie. Music teachers. Swimming to a raft. The poetry of Seamus Heaney. A blue sky in Rome just before twilight. Dill pickles….
    (once you start, it’s hard to stop, isn’t it?)

  7. I love it, too, but Amanda this isn’t our Brian Doyle but, interestingly, another poet of a fiction writer; this is first novel. Impressive.

  8. Favorite things!!! What a wonderfully cadenced list.Thinking of our own favorites, making mental lists, would be the best way to occupy the mind while waiting….on hold on the phone, in the PO line, in the dentists waiting room. You could fill your mind with joy and not impatience. I am going to put “Mink River” on reserve at the Bookmobile….so I can read more of what Brian Doyle has written.

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