“It’s expensive to fly. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old.”
–Brian Doyle, “Joyas Voladoras,” The American Scholar
Brian Doyle was an essayist, novelist and editor of Portland Magazine. Some dozen years ago while working as a software analyst and project manager, I submitted a piece to the Oregon Quarterly‘s annual essay contest. My essay was selected as one of ten finalists with Doyle as the final judge. Finalists were invited to an afternoon’s conversation at the University of Oregon campus followed by a public reading that evening.
I accepted the invitation. Doyle reviewed each essay during that afternoon. When he came to mine, he looked up over his glasses across the table. “What can I say. This is a mess. It’s beautiful, but it’s a mess. Maybe you’re a poet.” He moved on to the next essay in the stack. I didn’t attend the public reading.
Brian Doyle died of brain cancer in 2017. The Oregon Quarterly no longer holds an essay contest, reinventing itself as an arm of the university’s marketing department. I went back to writing project plans and business cases for ten years until I wrote them all.
“A hummingbird’s heart is a lot of the hummingbird. Joyas voladoras, flying jewels, the first white explorers in the Americas called them, and the white men had never seen such creatures, for hummingbirds came into the world only in the Americas.”
The moon is full tonight, again. The dog inside barking at the moon sinking in the west early this morning. Moon-keeping time signals spring Easter and Passover holidays when she waxes full after equinox, marking Ramadan and Asian New Year when she is dark and new. The first red dogwood bracts unfurl outside the window.
I rediscovered new black ballet slippers I bought on sale in October and tucked away for now, this spring moment. I forgot them in the snow. I washed the fleece sweats and folded them (I considered giving it all away as though I’d never need fleece again.) When I brought the neighbors their groceries, they showed me a tiny Calliope hummingbird at the feeder outside the kitchen, the smallest bird in North America. It weighs as much as a ping-pong ball.
Time curves upward and hangs a heartbeat before descending. There a comes a place, recognized only in retrospect, where the arc plays out to fall, when thoughts bend toward memory over hope, wistfulness over desire.
“You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you.“