Saturday, January 8, 2011


WATER AS SOUL: Water droplets on grass blades
Photo by Jean-Paul Nacivet of Getty Images
I am proud to say that an essay of mine appears in the Winter, 2010 issue of Portland, The University of Portland Magazine.

Not so much for the essay, though I'm proud of that, too (it's a reflection on the Yousaf Karsh photo of Mother Teresa), but because Portland is such a fine magazine.

The main reason for this is its long-time editor, Brian Doyle. And by fine editor, I don't just mean the way he treats your work, I mean the way he treats you, the writer, which is to say as a human being. This 1200-word essay had languished at another magazine, for nine months. Brian responded, I am not kidding, within 3 1/2 hours. He's responded within hours, if not minutes, other times with a rejection. But any writer will tell you, to know one way or another, within a reasonable amount of time is a rare and precious and almost unbelievably welcome gift.

It says, I know you toil in silence and obscurity. I know this work we do is important. I know how much it means to you.

Once he accepts the piece, you hear no more or very little from him and then you get the issue with your piece in it and whatever he's done, or not, it looks great. This is so my personal preference to another, diametrically opposed style of editing whereby the people say we kind of like the piece but can you do this and this and this and this to it first? We're not accepting it, but we might accept it then.

So you do this and this and this and this and then they say Actually, we liked it better the first way, can you do that and that and that? We're not accepting it, but we might accept it then. Et cetera. Which I have to say is simply not kind, or respectful, or really very sporting, either, since not to put too fine a point on it, they are holding all the cards. If you like the damn piece, take it and I trust you to do what you want with it and that what you want to do is within reason and will make the piece better. For heaven's sake, already.

This approach no doubt explains why the pages of Portland, over the years, have been graced by the likes of Annie Dillard, Scott Russell Sanders, Kathleen Norris, Pico Iyer, and Sallie Tisdale.


Brian's also an incredibly fine writer. He has several books, among them Credo, Two Voices: A Father and Son Discuss Family and Faith, (both memoir/essay) Epiphanies and Elegies (short stories), and what appears to be an extremely well-reviewed novel, just out, Mink River. His work frequently appears in Best American Spiritual Writing, Best American Essays, and Harper's.

That his own work also regularly appears in Portland would alone be reason to subscribe. And his essay "Leap" may be the best thing ever written in the aftermath of 9/11:

reflection by brian doyle

photo courtesy of

A couple leaped from the south tower, hand in hand. They reached for each other and their hands met and they jumped.

Jennifer Brickhouse saw them falling, hand in hand.

Many people jumped. Perhaps hundreds. No one knows. They struck the pavement with such force that there was a pink mist in the air.

The mayor reported the mist.

A kindergarten boy who saw people falling in flames told his teacher that the birds were on fire. She ran with him on her shoulders out of the ashes.

Tiffany Keeling saw fireballs falling that she later realized were people. Jennifer Griffin saw people falling and wept as she told the story. Niko Winstral saw people free-falling backwards with their hands out, like they were parachuting. Joe Duncan on his roof on Duane Street looked up and saw people jumping. Henry Weintraub saw people "leaping as they flew out." John Carson saw six people fall, "falling over themselves, falling, they were somersaulting." Steve Miller saw people jumping from a thousand feet in the air. Kirk Kjeldsen saw people flailing on the way down, people lining up and jumping, "too many people falling." Jane Tedder saw people leaping and the sight haunts her at night. Steve Tamas counted fourteen people jumping and then he stopped counting. Stuart DeHann saw one woman's dress billowing as she fell, and he saw a shirtless man falling end over end, and he too saw the couple leaping hand in hand.

Several pedestrians were killed by people falling from the sky. A fireman was killed by a body falling from the sky.

But he reached for her hand and she reached for his hand and they leaped out the window holding hands.

I try to whisper prayers for the sudden dead and the harrowed families of the dead and the screaming souls of the murderers but I keep coming back to his hand and her hand nestled in each other with such extraordinary ordinary succinct ancient naked stunning perfect simple ferocious love.

Their hands reaching and joining are the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful. It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and death. It is what makes me believe that we are not craven fools and charlatans to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fires, to believe that some unimaginable essence of who we are persists past the dissolution of what we were, to believe against such evil hourly evidence that love is why we are here.

No one knows who they were: husband and wife, lovers, dear friends, colleagues, strangers thrown together at the window there at the lip of hell. Maybe they didn't even reach for each other consciously, maybe it was instinctive, a reflex, as they both decided at the same time to take two running steps and jump out the shattered window, but they did reach for each other, and they held on tight, and leaped, and fell endlessly into the smoking canyon, at two hundred miles an hour, falling so far and so fast that they would have blacked out before they hit the pavement near Liberty Street so hard that there was a pink mist in the air.

Jennifer Brickhouse saw them holding hands, and Stuart DeHann saw them holding hands, and I hold onto that.


  1. My favorite Brian Doyle book is The Wet Engine, which is about his son Liam's heart surgery. It speaks about the heart from every angle possible. It touched me deeply as my daughter, now grown and married, is a life long heart patient. I have given the book as a gift to several people. Thanks for posting this.

  2. Wow. What a piece. What a writer. Thank you for this. And congratulations on the publication of your essay! I would love to read it.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. Wow is a good word here.

  4. Hi Heather,
    Thanks for the link- a real treat as I notice the Archives are free too. I can't afford the subscriptions to all that I would like to read these days ! I notice that The Winter 2010 edition is not yet available online but look forward to reading your Mother Teresa essay soon.

  5. Brian is a wonderful (and prolific!) writer, no doubt. I'm thinking they probably don't put the online version up for awhile in deference to their subscribers. But I'm glad to spread the word about the Univ. of Portland magazine...

  6. Patrick of MontereyJanuary 20, 2011 at 9:21 PM

    There is a wonderful PBS Documentary FAITH & DOUBT AT GROUND ZERO. It ends with Msgr Albacere [C & L priest] commenting on a couple reaching for each others hands before they leap. He asks what this instinct is & from where it comes. As his rich voice continues to question, the camera lifts up from Ground Zero at night, up, up to the stars & then the galaxies. Silently the answer becomes present. I think you would enjoy this, Heather.

  7. Thanks, Fr. Pat, I have seen that incredible documentary and in fact even got to meet Helen Whitney, who produced and I believe wrote it...and of course I did an "event" last September with the sainted Monsignor himself...


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