Thursday, February 3, 2011

Heaven's Coast

I have just finished reading - for the second time - Mark Doty's Heaven's Coast, the story of his life with his partner Wally through the time he was dying of AIDS. Mark is a well-known poet on  the USA's eastern seaboard, and his memoir of this period of his life is lyrically written. The New York Times called it "a terrifying and elegant book", and it was worth a re-read to me, when I remembered what an elegy it is, with its understanding of grief, conscious living and conscious dying.

I don't think I have read a better perspective on these topics, and I have done a lot of reading. I thought I'd blog some of the passages I found especially meaningful, for a friend who is going through a difficult passage right now, in the hopes of shedding some light and some hope, and the support of knowing these are passages we all, inevitably, go through in our lives. Here's Mark, beginning in the afternoon and evening hours when his lover is dying :

All that afternoon he looks out at us......I know he sees and registers; I know that he's loving us actively; if I know nothing else about this man, after nearly thirteen years, I know that......I sit there myself all afternoon, the lamps on, since the house is circled in snow and early winter darkness. The afternoon's so quiet and deep it seems almost to ring, like chimes, like a cold, struck bell. I sit into the evening, when he closes his eyes.

There is an inaudible roaring, a rush beneath the surface of things, beneath the surface of Wally, who has now almost no surface-- as if I could see into him, into the great, hurrying current, that energy, that forward motion that is life going on.

I was never this close to anyone in my life. His living's so deep and absolute that it pulls me close to that interior current, so far inside his life. And my own. I know I am going to be more afraid than I have ever been, but right now I am not afraid. I am face to face with the deepest movement in the world, the point of my love's deepest reality--where he is most himself, even if that self empties out into no one, swift river hurrying into the tumble of rivers, out of individuality, into the great rushing whirlwind of currents.

God moving on the face of the waters.

I say to Wally, while the breath comes more shallowly, All the love in the world goes with you.

.......I don't know what it might have been like for me had I not been present at the moment when Wally died, if I hadn't been there to know that enormous intimacy, that sense of brightness in the depths of the dark, an atmosphere so charged it seemed almost to sing. What if I hadn't felt the movement of energy , the leap of spirit lifting from him?

The price we pay for keeping death at such a distance from ourselves is a great one; holding it so far from us, we cannot see its shine.

{Speaking about the moments when his memories, or something he sees, reminds him of those he has lost, he writes:}

We couldn't keep the dead out of the present if we wanted to. They're nowhere to be found, and firmly here, now. While this is a source of pain, memory's double-edged sword at once wounds and offers us company, interior companionship which enriches and deepens the dimensions of every day.

.....When the world shatters, what does a writer do?.....Always, always, we were becoming a story. But I didn't understand that fusing myself to the narrative, giving myself to the story's life, would be what would allow me to live.

Ongoingness, vanishing: the world's twin poles.
Each thing disappears; everything goes on.
The parts pour into nowhere, the whole continues.
And to be nowhere is to be in heaven, isn't it,
in the boundless, loose from
the limits of time and space?
Isn't the whole world
heaven's coast?

....all along I've been this, have been part of this great intimacy and light, that immense kindness that was holding me, supporting me, but I hadn't been able to let myself know it. And I'm laughing and weeping at the much love there's been in my life, how much we didn't know who we were, through the pain, that even that was a part of God.

........A week and a few days after Wally's death, I took the dogs to walk at Hatch's Harbor, along the long dike that leads across the salt marsh out toward the lighthouse and the far point.

[He describes walking under storm clouds, where one spot, and only one spot, was radiant with golden sunlight, alluring, as he walks towards it.]

.....I'd been walking with my head down, crying, feeling my way through my shaky memory of [a Whitman] poem......I was putting one foot in front of the other, not looking up...and I came to the ....lines I had been traveling toward as surely as I had been walking here, to the end of the dike just below the high-washed dunes began.

"All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed,
and luckier."

And then I looked up, into the face of a coyote.

He was standing only a little ways from the dike, perfectly still, eyeing us with a calm and frank curiosity, and he was uterly beautiful--big, full-bodied, not the scrawny creature of the night supposed to haunt local garbage cans.......but thick-furred, gleaming, the tips of each gray and blonde hair dipped in sunlight. His eyes were golden, magnetic, inescapable. There was a moment when we all stopped - the dogs, the coyote, myself - and the world seemed in absolute suspension, nothing moving anywhere, everything centered around the fixity of our mutual gaze.

I thought, It's a wolf, a timber wolf, and then thought no .... it's one in the afternoon on Cape Cod and I'm staring at a coyote.

Then from nowhere I thought, He's been with Wally, he's come  from Wally. I knew it as surely as I knew the lines of the poem. This apparition, my - ghost, was it? spirit animal? real creature carrying the presence of my love?  Perhaps it doesn't matter. I've never seen one before or since, and never been so frankly studied from the other side of wildness, from a world I cannot enter....the coyote stared back at us, and I could imagine in that gaze Wally's look back toward home--his old home--from the other world: not sad, exactly, but neutral, loving, curious, accepting. The dead regard us, I think, as animals do, and perhaps that is part of their relationship: they want nothing from us; they are pure presence, they look back to us from a world we can't begin to comprehend. I am going on, the gaze said, in a life apart from yours, a good life, a wild life, unbounded.

The coyote was, for me a blessing: different from what anyone supposed, and luckier. That night my friend Mekeel would dream of a coyote wandering the rooms of her house, a powerful and sleek animal who had come to bring her a single word: safe. In the weeks and months after, in the stunned absence, in the hopeless hours, in the immobilized ache those are the words I'd reach for: lucky, safe. I think it was this visitation, this story, that most sustained me. The story itself, the image.....the potent presence and consolation of the animal body, the gaze across the gulf of otherness. To those eyes I would return, over and over: different, and luckier.

...I turned to look at the dogs--both of them poised, perfectly still--and turned back just in time to see the coyote loping away, though at a little distance he was suddenly gone......vanished.

......And I'm suddenly stumbling ahead, toward the stripe of sunlight that remains, gilding the dune between us and the sea......When the snow starts,will my coyote be out there someplace, leaping, nipping at the spinning flakes? Or is he not of this world at all, but a creature of the spirit's coast, passing back and forth between elements and worlds--messenger, emblem, reminder? Wherever he is, he's gone, and the dogs and I have turned up the slope of dune which will lead us to the sea.

We have walked into that golden band of light I've been watching. A wild and bracing wind is blowing off the Atlantic, and suddenly the biting air's alive with big white flakes swirling in a shock of sunlight, and I'm alive with a strange kind of joy, stumbling up the dune into the winter wind, my face full of salt-spray and snow.


  1. Beautiful words, Sherry. I thank you for them. I appreciated the words from Mark Doty's book you chose to share. So interesting about the coyote. A friend of mine lost her husband, and he appeared to her shortly after his death a a deer.

  2. mom?

    you wind up with the bestest books.


    instead of returning them to the library

    and telling me of their jewels

    am thinking of following you to the library

    so i can grab them out of the 'returns'

    and check them out myself


    rush you while you clutch your bag of books

    and run off (i'll wear a face mask)



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