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Heaven's Coast: A Memoir

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The year is 1989 and Mark Doty's life has reached a state of enviable equilibrium. His reputation as a poet of formidable talent is growing, he enjoys his work as a college professor and, perhaps most importantly, he is deeply in love with his partner of many years, Wally Roberts. The harmonious existence these two men share is shattered, however, when they learn that Wall The year is 1989 and Mark Doty's life has reached a state of enviable equilibrium. His reputation as a poet of formidable talent is growing, he enjoys his work as a college professor and, perhaps most importantly, he is deeply in love with his partner of many years, Wally Roberts. The harmonious existence these two men share is shattered, however, when they learn that Wally has tested positive for the HIV virus. From diagnosis to the initial signs of deterioration to the heartbreaking hour when Wally is released from his body's ruined vessel, Heaven's Coastis an intimate chronicle of love, its hardships, and its innumerable gifts. We witness Doty's passage through the deepest phase of grief -- letting his lover go while keeping him firmly alive in memory and heart -- and, eventually beyond, to the slow reawakening of the possibilities of pleasure. Part memoir, part journal, part elegy for a life of rare communication and beauty, Heaven's Coast evinces the same stunning honesty, resplendent descriptive power and rapt attention to the physical landscape that has won Doty's poetry such attention and acclaim.


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The year is 1989 and Mark Doty's life has reached a state of enviable equilibrium. His reputation as a poet of formidable talent is growing, he enjoys his work as a college professor and, perhaps most importantly, he is deeply in love with his partner of many years, Wally Roberts. The harmonious existence these two men share is shattered, however, when they learn that Wall The year is 1989 and Mark Doty's life has reached a state of enviable equilibrium. His reputation as a poet of formidable talent is growing, he enjoys his work as a college professor and, perhaps most importantly, he is deeply in love with his partner of many years, Wally Roberts. The harmonious existence these two men share is shattered, however, when they learn that Wally has tested positive for the HIV virus. From diagnosis to the initial signs of deterioration to the heartbreaking hour when Wally is released from his body's ruined vessel, Heaven's Coastis an intimate chronicle of love, its hardships, and its innumerable gifts. We witness Doty's passage through the deepest phase of grief -- letting his lover go while keeping him firmly alive in memory and heart -- and, eventually beyond, to the slow reawakening of the possibilities of pleasure. Part memoir, part journal, part elegy for a life of rare communication and beauty, Heaven's Coast evinces the same stunning honesty, resplendent descriptive power and rapt attention to the physical landscape that has won Doty's poetry such attention and acclaim.

30 review for Heaven's Coast: A Memoir

  1. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    A thoughtful account of a partner’s descent into illness, full of exquisite descriptions of Cape Cod and moving reflections on grief, loss, and love. The work’s a great deal less political than many AIDS memoirs, but its portrait of a death in slow motion still serves as a powerful indictment of a callous society.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Julie Ehlers

    "And then I thought of us as standing on a kind of sandbar, the present a narrow strip of land which had seemed, previously, enormous, without any clear limits. Oh, there was a limit out there, somewhere, of course, but not anywhere in sight. But the virus was a kind of chill, violent current, one which was eroding, at who knew what speed, the ground upon which we stood. If you watched, you could see the edges crumbling." I lived this book. That's not a typo—I loved this book, of course, but I me "And then I thought of us as standing on a kind of sandbar, the present a narrow strip of land which had seemed, previously, enormous, without any clear limits. Oh, there was a limit out there, somewhere, of course, but not anywhere in sight. But the virus was a kind of chill, violent current, one which was eroding, at who knew what speed, the ground upon which we stood. If you watched, you could see the edges crumbling." I lived this book. That's not a typo—I loved this book, of course, but I mean to say I became invested in it in a way I can't remember ever being invested in a book before. Published in the mid-1990s, Heaven's Coast is a memoir of the poet Mark Doty and his partner Wally, and their lives in the wake of Wally's testing positive for HIV. There was a time in this book, after Wally was diagnosed but before they knew what form the virus would take for him, when I found myself unable to put the book down and go to bed, even though it was very late and I had to get up very early the next day. How could I leave Mark and Wally in this state? How could I close the book amid all this uncertainty? I eventually did attempt to go to sleep, but I tossed and turned all night because I was worried about Mark and Wally. My cat was very patient with me, but it wasn't a fun night for either of us. The next day there were a few answers; as the disease begins to manifest itself, it becomes clear that Wally will eventually die of a kind of paralysis—actually a "better" death from AIDS than many others. Knowing something definite was a relief, but of course things were just getting started. I lost track of how many times I cried while reading this. At a certain point I tried to make myself feel better by reminding myself that I was crying for someone who'd died nearly 25 years before, and that did help, but not simply because Wally was long dead—I felt better thinking about how his story was still being read, still having an impact, even decades after it officially ended. On the back of my copy of Heaven's Coast is a quote from the Washington Post: "If one book survives the AIDS epidemic, it will be this one." It's hard to believe this statement didn't seem impossibly stupid even at the time, and it certainly seems stupid now. Many books have survived the AIDS epidemic; some have even become classics. It's a good thing, too, because we need the reminder of how we behaved in the face of something so devastating. Heaven's Coast is a painful reminder of how AIDS patients, already facing an often horrifying death, were in many ways ostracized and shamed, unable to be open, even with their families, about being gay, much less about having an unspeakable terminal illness. Reading about it made me ashamed, no less so because I wonder if we'd react differently if something similar happened today. The discovery of an effective treatment for AIDS was a scientific miracle, but I worry it made the years of the AIDS epidemic easy to forget. For some of us, anyway. That's another way books like Heaven's Coast are valuable: If we pay attention to them, hopefully we can learn from them and do better next time. Make no mistake, though, Heaven's Coast is full of small mercies. Mark and Wally were fortunate enough to live in Provincetown, where they had an understanding community and the benefit of social services already in place. The setting also provides some of the book's most unforgettable imagery, the hazy division between land and sea standing in for the division between life and death. As in his other books, Mark Doty uses the specific details of his story to provide a kind of universal experience. The details, of the landscape, the people, the animals both domesticated and wild, and especially of Wally, dancing, tying his dotted pink bow tie, walking with his dogs, and later bedbound but still engaging with the world outside his window, are important and indelible. You can't help but relate to a story when you feel you've lived it yourself along with the author. Several times in this book Mark Doty says that during this experience he had never felt more inside of his own life. As a reader, you feel that too.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Justin

    I just bought Mark Doty's latest collection of poems today, Fire to Fire . So far it's pretty great, most notably for its shimmering depictions of natural phenomena ranging from a bat flying in rural Britain to the ocean shores of Provincetown. Doty's gift for lyrical description is so impressive he'll actually startle me with his language, stringing words together to create beautiful, naturalistic illusions, like some kind of linguistic magician. This talent is also found in his prose works, I just bought Mark Doty's latest collection of poems today, Fire to Fire . So far it's pretty great, most notably for its shimmering depictions of natural phenomena ranging from a bat flying in rural Britain to the ocean shores of Provincetown. Doty's gift for lyrical description is so impressive he'll actually startle me with his language, stringing words together to create beautiful, naturalistic illusions, like some kind of linguistic magician. This talent is also found in his prose works, as evidenced by this passage from his memoir Heaven's Coast: "...On one of the little ponds, this morning, I saw wind riffling the first of the waterlily leaves. They haven't all emerged yet, but new circles tattoo the water, here and there, a coppery red. When the wind lifted their edges, each would reveal a little shadowy spot, a dot of black which seemed to flash on the water, and so across the whole surface of the pond there was what could only be described as the inverse of sparkling; a scintillant blackness. Shining blackly, black but rippling, lyrical: the sheen and radiance of death-in-life." That's some great imagery right there, and yet Doty's memoirs (which also include Dog Years and Firebird ), unlike his poetry, consistently fail to back up such lyrical flights with anything really substantial. The result is that, in his prose works, Doty's descriptive gems often feel flowery—pretty and nice and colorful, but not much else. It doesn't help that Doty's style is far from concise. He chooses to write about himself by moving haltingly through his own consciousness, figuring things out as he goes along, and inviting the reader to go on the journey with him. He doesn't trim the fat, but leaves in all the self-doubting, the internal questioning, the dead ends and the trying again a different way. He seems to be trying to write about his life as he is living it, and like life there is no real end in sight, no answers found; the point of Doty's memoirs seems to be the process, and not the end product. This style didn't bother me much in Doty's other memoirs because their subjects were relatively innocuous: Doty's dogs and Doty's dysfunctional upbringing in the dirty south and his early explorations of sexual identity and awareness. I did kind of wonder who this guy was and why I should I care enough about him to read two completely self-centered books about his life, but hey, I thought, he IS a damn good writer and that on its own is usually enough to pull me through something, no matter how masturbatory. But Heaven's Coast is a slightly different story. Here, Doty revisits his late lover Wally's death from AIDS. Here, he write blatantly about his partner's slow, ugly demise at the hands of a vicious, terrifyingly mysterious virus, and then publishes it for profit. And it's okay to do that, but if you're going to hurl the darkest, sickest moments of the alleged love of your life onto a page for all to read and purchase, you better do your damndest to tell their story too, so we can at least TRY to know them like you did (of course we never can, but we want to try, I promise, we do!) I kept expecting there to be a moment in Heaven's Coast where Doty broke poor ol' Wally down, really telling us about him, about who he was, where he came from, and who he might have been. But this never happens. We get wonderfully rich verbal portraits of the peripheral characters in Mark and Wally's life: their late friend Lynda who died in a car accident; Wally's eccentric new-agey brother Jim; another man, Bob, who met a similar fate at the hands of AIDS. These characters pop off the page. Wally, however, does not. We get that he was handsome, that he designed display windows for retailers, that he loved animals. Somehow, though, Doty manages to avoid providing us with any sort of truly telling details about who this man was and why he loved him. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and think maybe Wally's death was so difficult to take, he just had trouble digging too deeply into his lover's life... but the cynical part of me wonders if Doty just got too wrapped up in writing about himself and how Wally's demise and the whole AIDS epidemic in general has affected him. On and on he goes, wandering the beaches of his hometown, walking his dogs, going to the chiropractor, and ruminating what feels like endlessly on all the aforementioned subjects. There are riveting passages in Heaven's Coast (most of them involving stories about other people; very few of them involving Doty's internalizations), but Doty constantly undermines them with tedious, overlong reflections on the meaning of life and worse, many, many rhetorical questions that come across as just plain sappy. After the very passage I just quoted, for example, Doty follows up the wonderful prose with this: "Is that my work, to point to the world and say, See how darkly it sparkles?" Ugh. And, huh? The book is peppered with such tenderly empty questions, some of them piled one on top of another, unceasing. I suspect Doty is aiming for a conversational vibe, but obviously we can't answer him, and the process begins to become an exercise in futility, as he poses question after question without answers, and no attempts to provide answers. I wouldn't be going on as long as I have been if the subject matter of Heaven's Coast weren't so touchy to me. The book should have been both a lyrical document of living with AIDS in a time when AIDS was new and at its worst, and an elegy to a beloved man in the author's life. In bombarding us with his fears and insecurities (and yes, lovely sadnesses) Doty does paint a powerful and memorable picture of AIDS in the '90s, but in failing to fully tell his lover's life story (or even really trying to), he both sells the person of Wally short and sells his readers short by failing to pin his (Doty's) own emotional struggles on a figure we get to know and thus relate to. In Doty's words Wally is just a cloud of vaguely drawn personality traits and gross sickness (Doty writes with particularly, almost darkly gleeful vividness about the poor man's relentless, uncontrollable diarrhea), not a man for whom we at least get an inkling of understanding of Doty's love for. The result is that Heaven's Coast, for all its 300+ pages of lovely, show-offy linguistic meandering, feels shallow, insubstantial, and sadly, kind of selfish. What Doty has done (I'm sure unintentionally but nonetheless) is aggrandized his own grief and subsequent recovery, then profited off it. I can't help but wonder if Doty, as writers tend to do, saw this book in his head from the moment Wally was diagnosed. If he did, he's sure not telling, and that too (his avoidance of addressing his own decision to write about and subsequently publish this tragedy) is somehow discomforting to me. Naturally, the nature of memoir writing is to be self-centered, but this book is one memoir that should have been the exception that proves the rule. Doty should have written about Wally first, himself second. In showing the effects of AIDS on one, fully realized character, he would have somehow made the story as a whole universal, maybe because we feel like we truly know someone and their plight when we can see something of ourselves in them. We can see ourselves in Doty and understand why he would grieve, but we can't see what has compelled him to share that grief with us.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Writer's Relief

    Mark Doty is an openly gay poet who has for many years used his work as powerful LGBTQ+ activism. He is best known for his poetry, but any lover of his poems should be just as excited to read this memoir. HEAVEN’S COAST is a lyrical, emotional account of the years surrounding the death of Doty’s partner, Wally. Doty recounts Wally’s heartbreaking battle with AIDS—from his initial diagnosis to his devolution as the disease progresses to his final moments. Doty also reminisces over the early years Mark Doty is an openly gay poet who has for many years used his work as powerful LGBTQ+ activism. He is best known for his poetry, but any lover of his poems should be just as excited to read this memoir. HEAVEN’S COAST is a lyrical, emotional account of the years surrounding the death of Doty’s partner, Wally. Doty recounts Wally’s heartbreaking battle with AIDS—from his initial diagnosis to his devolution as the disease progresses to his final moments. Doty also reminisces over the early years of their relationship, and exposes the details of his own struggle to grieve and continue living after Wally’s painful death. The concrete timeline of the memoir wanders, but spends most of its time describing what Doty experienced (anger, sadness, guilt, fear) through the process of Wally died before his eyes. Both in watching Wally’s life and his death, Doty crashes through the proverbial five stages of grief right before readers’ eyes. The book is written conversationally, expertly fleeting between the styles of a journal, an elegy, and a prose poem, as though the reader is Doty’s own best friend. Readers will be able to tell that this prose is definitely the work of a poet—and whether they are going through their own loss or simply want to know Doty’s work better, readers are sure to find themselves connecting with HEAVAN’S COAST on a deeply personal level.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Nina

    Doty's memoir shimmers with love, with joy, with pain, with grief. His prose is as rich and lyrical as his poetry. He invites us into his soul as he describes in unsparing detail his lover's journey through HIV. Doty honors his partner with every word; the love and respect is obvious, as well as the despair that results from knowing what is to come and being totally powerless to prevent it.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Christina

    This is one of my absolute favorite books of all time! I read it in a theological studies seminar back in my undergrad days, and if you need any indication that LMU is more of a liberal Catholic school, you can consider that I was reading this beautiful book, about a gay man whose lover is dying of AIDS, as part of the course curriculum.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Dana Sweeney

    The most attentive, enduring exploration of grief that I have ever read, bar none. I have always heard Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” described as the guidebook or tome to loss. While I love that memoir (and while it’s not a competition), I was absolutely floored by this account, and the vibrant emotional depths Doty plunges into will always make this my go-to memoir on love and grief. Basic summary: Mark Doty, a phenomenal poet, recounts what it was like losing his long-term partn The most attentive, enduring exploration of grief that I have ever read, bar none. I have always heard Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” described as the guidebook or tome to loss. While I love that memoir (and while it’s not a competition), I was absolutely floored by this account, and the vibrant emotional depths Doty plunges into will always make this my go-to memoir on love and grief. Basic summary: Mark Doty, a phenomenal poet, recounts what it was like losing his long-term partner & love of his life during the AIDS crisis. The memoir floats in between the story of their meeting, the shape of their years together, the gifts and agonies of Doty caring for Wally through illness and seeing him through to the end, and then the wide open expanse of what is left for a surviving spouse. This book is so vividly emotive that I am not sure how to even describe it. It read to me like a great tuning fork: a book that vibrates with force and at a frequency that resounds in my own core, somehow feeling self-evidently true, familiar, essential. It strikes me at my deepest, imprinting the immeasurable pain of losing someone who will never come again, whose brief presence in your life is a miracle within the miracle of their being at all. It also soars within the part of me most transcendent, understanding the magnitude of building and inhabiting some mighty love in a fragile world, believing that our time and lives matter beyond the end of either. It is clearly a memoir written by a poet, filled with new ways of seeing the world, with breathtaking moments, language, rhythms. In short, it is a masterpiece. I will read it again and again.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Samantha

    This book destroyed me. It made me weep loudly and openly in public, warmed my heart, and inundated me with achingly beautiful language.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl

    This was stunning, beautiful, speechlessly powerful, and the longest poem I have ever read. A poet writing a prose memoir is bound to be poetical, but this was more than that, it was a poem on every page, every chapter, within, and for every breath. There are many times I feel that the universe is tapped into my interior landscape and gives me what I need: rain in some cases, snow in others, a sunset, a moon rise, etc. And when I need it, I have always felt my spirit lift to meet it, and absorb This was stunning, beautiful, speechlessly powerful, and the longest poem I have ever read. A poet writing a prose memoir is bound to be poetical, but this was more than that, it was a poem on every page, every chapter, within, and for every breath. There are many times I feel that the universe is tapped into my interior landscape and gives me what I need: rain in some cases, snow in others, a sunset, a moon rise, etc. And when I need it, I have always felt my spirit lift to meet it, and absorb it, and if I can’t figure out the meaning, then I at least thrill to the fact that it happened, it was beautiful, and I am alive and know that I am alive. I wonder if I had read Heaven’s Coast before my mother died, if I would have been better prepared for it. I can’t say I have read too many memoirs, they aren’t my favorite genre, and not that many spiritual accounts of death like this; but I am already certain this is the best, hands down. The way it resonated with me, the close parallels to how I think and see and feel, makes it so. I think everyone can find what they need within the pages, but I have to warn you, this takes a lot to read; it is about the biggest love, the hardest sorrow, the deepest grief, and requires courage to read. I found such beauty and inspiration in the author’s love for his boyfriend, in his love of the natural world in walks with dogs, along the beach, in the way they create a garden and home of refuge, but also in his diverse and encompassing spirituality and imagination. You feel the salt spray in the air, the relaxed pace of beach life, the absolute beauty of soulmates together, the way light works as a supporting character. The main theme is that in death, and dying, we becomes more of what we already are; if we are loving, we glow with it, and if we are sad, scared, miserable, we die like that. I can’t say for certain that is always true, but I have seen the dying process in different ways, and like the author’s love, my mother became more of who she was: her glowing smile, her bright eyes glowing with love and peace, her sweetness and generosity now turned inward. So, so beautiful. All the rest of the review, the poet's words: I am filled entirely, with the image of my wounded lover leaping from his body, blossoming into some welcoming, other realm. Is it that I am in that porous state of grief, a heated psychic condition in which everything becomes metaphor? Or does the world consent, in some fashion, to offer me the particular image which imagination requires? In the museums we used to visit on family vacations when I was a kid, I used to love those rooms which displayed collections of minerals in a kind of closet or chamber which would, at the push of a button, darken. Then ultraviolet lights would begin to glow and the minerals would seem to come alive, new colors, new possibilities, and architectures revealed. Plain stones became fantastic, “futuristic…” Of course there wasn’t any black light in the center of the earth, in the caves where they were quarried; how strange that these stones should have to be brought here, bathed with this unnatural light in order for their transcendent characters to emerge. Irradiation revealed a secret aspect of the world. Imagine illness as this light; demanding, torturous, punitive, it nonetheless reveals more of what things are. A certain glow of being appears. I think this is what is meant when we speculate that death is what makes love possible. After he died, there was a deep calm to his face; he seemed a kind of unfathomable, still well which opened on and down beneath the suddenly smooth surface of his skin…The heat in him lasted a long time. I loved that heat. I don’t know how long I held his face and his shoulders and stroked him; as he began to cool I kept my hands on his belly, where the last of his warmth seemed to pool and concentrate. Here the fire of the body came to rest, smoldering longest, down to the last embers. The reason I put the green crab shell in my pocket was the color of the interior, a startling Giotto blue, a sky from heaven or Arizona rinsed and shining. At home I left the fragment on top of the refrigerator; by afternoon the blue had faded to a kind of milky lacquer, a faintly skyey mother-of-pearl. By the next day it was a pale iridescent opal. A lovely color, but far in power and register from that initial cerulean. Imagine living surrounded by that blue, bearing in one’s own body the most brilliant wash of the summer firmament. Being in grief, it turns out, is not unlike being in love. In both states, the imagination's entirely occupied with one person. The beloved dwells at the heart of the world, and becomes a Rome: the roads of feeling all lead to him, all proceed from him. Everything that touches us seems to relate back to that center: there is no other emotional life, no place outside the universe of feeling centered on its pivotal figure. The state of mind above which my distraction floats like fog is suddenly perfectly clear, though the right word for it is less immediately available. Grief is too sharp and immediate; maybe it’s the high pitch of the vowel sound, or the monosyllabic impact of the word, as quick a jab as knife or cut. Sadness is too ephemeral, somehow; it sounds like something that comes and goes, a response to an immediate cause which will pass in a little while as another cause arises to generate a different feeling. Mourning isn’t bad, but there’s something a little archaic about it. I think of widows keening, striking themselves- dark-swathed years, a closeting of self away from the world, turned inward toward an interior dark. Sorrow feels right , for now. Sorrow seems large and inhabitable, an interior season whose vaulted sky’s a suitable match for the gray and white tumult arched over these headlands. A sorrow is not to be gotten over or moved through in quite the way that sadness is, yet sorrow is also not as frozen and monochromatic as mourning. Sadness exists inside my sorrow, but it’s not as large as sorrow’s realm. This sorrow is capacious; there’s room inside it for the everyday, for going about the workaday stuff of life. And for loveliness, for whatever we’re to be given by the daily walk. I don’t know anything different about death than I ever have, but I feel differently. I inhabit this difference in feeling-or does it live in me?-at the same time as I’m sorrowing. The possibility of consolation, of joy even, does not dispel the sorrow. Sorrow is the cathedral, the immense architecture; in its interior there’s room for almost everything; for desire, for flashes of happiness, for making plans for the future… …There is some firm place in me which knows that what happened to Wally, whatever it was, whatever it is that death is as it transliterates us, moving us out of this life into what we can’t know, is kind. I shock myself, writing that. I know that many deaths are anything but gentle. I know people suffer terribly…I know many die abandoned, unseen, their stories unheard, their dignity violated, their human worth ignored. I suspect that the ease of Wally’s death, the rightness of it, the loving recognition which surrounded him, all made it possible for me to see clearly, to witness what other circumstances might obscure. I know, as surely as I know anything, that he’s all right now. And yet. And yet he’s gone, an absence so forceful it is itself a daily hourly presence. My experience of being with Wally… brought me to another sort of perception, but I can’t stay in that place, can’t sustain that way of seeing. The experience of knowing, somehow, that he’s all right, lifted in some kind process that turns at the heart of the world, gives way, as it must, to the plain aching fact that he’s gone. And doubt. And the fact that we can’t understand, that it’s our condition to not know. Is that our work in the world, to learn to dwell in such not-knowing? We need our doubt so as to not settle for easy answers. Not-knowing pushes us to struggle after meaning for ourselves…Doubt’s lesson seems to be that whatever we conclude must be provisional, open to revision, subject to correction by forces of change. Leave room, doubt says, for the unknowable, for what it will never quite be your share to see. Stanley Kunitz says somewhere that if poetry teaches us anything, it is that we can believe two completely contradictory things at once. And so I can believe that death is utter, unbearable rupture, just as I know that death is kind. Questions, inside the larger mystery of sorrow, which contains us and our daily transit, and is large enough indeed to contain the whole shifting tidal theater where I make small constructions, my metaphors, my defenses. Against which I play out theories, doubts, certainties bright as high tide in sunlight, which shift just as that brightness does, in fog or rain. One last mystery: on one of the little ponds, this morning, I saw wind riffling the first of the waterlily leaves. They haven’t all emerged yet, but new circles tattoo the water, here and there, a coppery red. When the wind lifted their edges, each would reveal a little shadowy spot, a dot of black which seemed to flash on the water, and so across the whole surface of the pond there was what could only be described as the inverse of sparkling; a scintillant blackness. Shining blackly, black but rippling, lyrical: the sheen and radiance of death-in-life. Is that my work, to point to the world and say, See how darkly it sparkles? And, I think, this greening does thaw at the edges, at least, of my own cold season. Joy sneaks in: listening to music, riding my bicycle, I catch myself feeling, in a way that’s as old as I am but suddenly seems unfamiliar, light. I have felt so heavy for so long. At first I felt odd- as if I shouldn’t be feeling this lightness, that familiar little catch of pleasure in the heart which is inexplicable, though a lovely passage of notes or the splendidly turned petal of a tulip has triggered it. It’s my buoyancy, part of what keeps me alive: happy, suddenly with the concomitant experience of a sonata and the motion of the shadows of leaves. I have the desire to be filled with sunlight, to soak my skin in as much of it as I can drink up, after the long interior darkness of this past season, the indoor vigil, in this harshest and darkest of winters, outside and in. I’ve been moving a little to the music while I worked …and then I realize I am actually dancing. It feels wonderful, though I can feel how stiff my muscles are, how rigidly I’ve been holding myself…Mostly I’ve been moving cautiously, numbly, steeled because I know, at any moment, I may be ambushed by overwhelming grief. You never know when it’s coming, the word or gesture or bit of memory that dissolved you entirely…It happens every day at first, then not for a day or two, then there’s a week when grief washes in every morning, every afternoon. “And me, I got what I wanted. I died with my life around me.” Isn’t that what any of us would ask for, to be fully in our lives as we leave them, to have been ourselves all the way first? This is the gift that Phil’s love is giving to Bill. I know what the price of this is for Phil- the exhaustion, the continuous focus on another, the postponement of one’s own needs, but he can’t see himself the depth and magnitude of the gift; he is so far inside it he has no means to measure. What I’m seeing is the kindest and sweetest mirror of the last of my life with Wally, and so rather than returning me to difficulty and pain, the visit is somehow restorative, bracingly genuine, consoling. Where could it be clearer, here in the heart of abandonment, what love achieves? But because being here is so much: because everything here apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which is some strange way keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all. Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too, just once. And never again. But to have been this once, completely, even if only once: to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing. Rainer Maria Rilke I am not, anymore, a Christian, but I am lifted and opened by any space with prayer inside it. I didn’t know why I was going, today, to stand in the long cool darkness of St. John of the Divine, but my body knew, as bodies do, what it wanted. I entered the oddly small door of the huge space, and walked without hesitating to the altar I hadn’t consciously remembered, a national memorial for those who died of AIDS, marked by banners and placards. My heart melted, all at once, and I understood why I was there. Because the black current the masseuse had touched wanted, needed, to keep flowing. I’d needed to know I could go on, but I’d also been needing to collapse. Which is what I did, some timeless tear span of minutes sitting on the naked gray stone. A woman gave me the kind of paper napkins you get with an ice cream cone. It seemed to me the most genuine of gifts, made to a stranger: the recognition of how grief moves in the body, leaving us unable to breathe, helpless, except for each other. I used to walk out, at night, to the breakwater which divides the end of the harbor form the broad moor of the salt marsh. There was nothing to block the wind that had picked up speed and vigor from its Atlantic crossing. I’d study the stars in their brilliant blazing, the diaphanous swath of the milk Way, the distant glow of Boston backlighting the clouds on the horizon as if they’d been drawn there in smudgy charcoal. I felt, perhaps for the first time, particularly American, embedded in American history, here at the nation’s slender tip. Here our westering impulse, having flooded the continent and turned back, finds itself face to face with the originating Atlantic, November’s chill, salt expanses, what Hart Crane called the “unfettered leewardings,” here at the end of the world. What can I do but stand with my mouth open, no sound emerging? My lips move and I wave my arms making gestures from the other side of the glass, which I can’t penetrate. …people can speak out of anything, though the struggle takes years. The problem is, whatever I say about the present feels false-nothing contains it all, or catches the depth of things, or their terrible one-dimensionality. What am I living on? Someone said the other day, “that old irrepressible-impossible- hope.” And I thought no, this doesn’t feel like hope. But maybe that’s what hope is, no shining thing but a kind of sustenance, plain as bread, the ordinary thing that feeds us. How could we confuse this optimism, when it has nothing to do with expecting things to get better? Hope has to do with continuing, that’s all…I can imagine now, where I couldn’t before, this long erosion of faith, this steady drawing from one’s strength, until what’s left is tenuous, transparent. I’d write and read and let myself, a little at a time, step down into myself- like a stairway down into a dark, intimate kiva- where the work of vigil is taking place, the necessary attending. I imagine there’s a little fire burning in there, a few steadily glowing embers, and a quiet chant going on, from me, from some singer in me, honoring and accompanying W’s soul, which is with him as he is making his passage. ..there’s a leavetaking in process, a movement towards increasing simplicity, away from complexity, activity, expectation. The bout of paranoia, with a childlike quality of being threatened, seems part of that-like a day or two when he couldn’t just let go and float on the energies of other people, who are bearing him up-but had to doubt them, struggle. So much better when he can trust and float. There’s enough love around him to carry him now… Dear Mark, I liked so much to see you in your home. January is sometimes a hard month for me, the month I was born in. Usually the complaint is that things don’t move. This winter I have just given up, and it’s much richer, more enjoyable that way. Sitting in the bedroom with you and Wally felt like the heart of my January. Nothing moving fast, but everything moving. Time and room for my heart to really open there on the bed. Wally’s looks, his grin. Your big lovingness towards him. All the animals. The garden. The sun pouring in. I felt sort of stunned after that for the rest of the day. Good stunned. The way they would put it in the zendo is: I bow to both of you. There feels like a lot of happiness in your house. Love, Margie There are times I feel I’m translating, in my head, from one language to another; I’ve become a citizen of grief’s country, and now I find I don’t always speak the same tongue I used to know so well. But we have, if not our understanding, our own experience, and it feels to me sealed, inviolable, ours. We have a last, deep week together, because Wally is not on morphine yet, because he has just enough awareness, just enough ability to communicate with me. I’m with him almost all day and night- little breaks, for swimming, for walking the dogs. Outside it snows and snows, deeper and deeper; we seem to live in a circle of lamplight. I rub his feet, make him hot cider. All week I feel like we’re taking one another in, looking and looking. I tell him I love him and he says I love you, babe, and then when it’s too hard for him to speak he smiles back at me with the little crooked smile can manage now, and I know what it means. I play music for him, the most encompassing and quiet I can find: Couperin, Vivaldi, the British soprano Lesley Garret singing arias he loved, especially the duet from Lakme: music of freedom, diving, floating. How can this be written? Shouldn’t these sentences simply be smithereened apart, broken in a hurricane? All that afternoon he looks out at us though a little space in his eyes, but 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 bring all the animals, and then I sit there myself, all afternoon, the lamps on. The afternoon’s so quiet and deep it seems almost to ring, like chimes, 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 which 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. All the love in the world goes with you. Each breath he draws in goes a little less further down into his body, so easily. He never struggles; there’s no sense of difficulty, no sense of holding on. You go easy, babe, go free. The world seems in absolute suspension, nothing moving anywhere, everything centered. Go easy, but you go.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Julene

    In "Heaven's Gate a memoir" Mark Doty writes eloquently about his life with his partner Wally, and the grief from his slow descent to death. He captures their experience, what it was like living with AIDS in the early years when there were no medications and the doctors had no answers. He sums up his grief, "I don’t know anything different about death than I ever have, but I feel differently. I inhabit this difference in feeling—or does it live in me?—at the same time as I’m sorrowing. The possi In "Heaven's Gate a memoir" Mark Doty writes eloquently about his life with his partner Wally, and the grief from his slow descent to death. He captures their experience, what it was like living with AIDS in the early years when there were no medications and the doctors had no answers. He sums up his grief, "I don’t know anything different about death than I ever have, but I feel differently. I inhabit this difference in feeling—or does it live in me?—at the same time as I’m sorrowing. The possibility of consolation, of joy even, does not dispel the sorrow. Sorrow is the cathedral, the immense architecture; in its interior there’s room for almost everything: for desire, for flashes of happiness, for making plans for the future. And for watching all those evidences of ongoing life crumble in the flash of remembering, in the reoccurring wave of fresh grief." They adapted to the news, "We stayed in Vermont a year after Wally tested positive, reeling with the news at first and then beginning our accommodations to what Wallace Stevens called “the pressure of reality.” The more reality pushes against us, Stevens said, the more the imagination is compelled to press back.” He was talking about making poems, but it’s also true that our imaginations went to work on a more pragmatic level. How was this to fit into our lives? That mortal sword that hands over all our heads hanging a little lower, how were we to live?" One of the ways they adapted was to sell and buy houses. They sold a house that needed more work then they were able to keep up. But then they bought a campground. And after buying it realized it was not a good match for Wally who was unsettled in the wilderness of a natural park with mice living in the walls of the house. Eventually they sold that house and moved to Provincetown on Cape Cod, to another house that needed a lot of work. There they stayed, when Wally started to lose his ability to walk the living room the center of Wally’s care. About the support that came into their home he wrote, "Even better were the home health aids. The lower one goes in the medical system, it seems, the more humanity, the more hands-on help, the more genuine care—perhaps particularly so when a disease is one of the doctors and specialists themselves really can’t decipher." He writes, "But the gleam of a loved house lasts only as long as he who loves it can keep polishing, keep occupying." They designed and loved their houses and gardens, and the final house they lived in kept that gleam as it changed, the bedroom moved downstairs. then the hospital bed moved in, one of the home care helpers, a gay male friend, moved in with them, they kept their home vital so Wally had a base of humanity and people he loved around him as he was exiting. They lost friends: the poet Lydia Hull died in a car crash on an icy night, and many other friends who died from AIDS. On a trip they make to visit a friend in a hospital he writes of his friend who is in the, "…process of being erased. This is the AIDS ward of the lone Shattuck Chronic Care Hospital….There’s a quality in the air that bus terminals have, and the waiting rooms of free clinics and welfare offices, a sense that there’s no place else to go. It’s the ultimate disconnection: our things, our family, our friends, our attachments to life are what expose and externalize identity. Without them, we become these narrowed and diminished faces. How small the body looks like this, with nothing to extend its limits, stripped of intimacy, bathed in the moon-wash of institutional light.” Near the beginning of the book he writes some learnings from living the the experience of such deep loss and grief, "… death is what makes love possible. Not that things need to be able to die in order for us to love them, but that things need to die in order for us to know what they are. Could we really know anything that wasn’t transient, not becoming more itself in the strange, unearthly light of dying?" “The virus seemed to me, first, like a kind of solvent which dissolved the future, a little at a time. It was like a dark stain, a floating, inky transparency hovering over Wally’s body, and its intention was to erase the time ahead of us, to make that time, each day, a little smaller.” We are all on this journey towards death. He has come through this with a new understanding, "I no longer think of AIDS as a solvent, but perhaps rather as a kind of intensifier, something which makes things more firmly, deeply themselves. Is this true of all terminal illness, that it intensifies the degree of what already is? Watching Wally, watching friends who were either sick themselves or giving care to those who were, I saw that they simply became more generous or terrified, more cranky or afraid, more doubtful or more trusting, more contemplative or more in flight. As individual and unpredictable as this illness seems to be, the one thing I found I could say with certainty was this: AIDS makes things more intensely what they already are. Eventually I understood that this truism then must apply to me, as well, and, of course, it applied to my anxiety about the future.” It's one of the best books available, along with Paul Monette's books, about the early years of the AIDS epidemic. And it is a book that shows a positive death, a loving and caring exit.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Patricia Murphy

    I'm glad Doty wrote this but I'm sorry he lived it. Harder even than Wally’s death, my life’s watershed, toward which all the time before it moved, and all the time after hurries away. There are times I feel I’m translating, in my head, from one language to another; I’ve become a citizen of grief’s country, and now I find I don’t always easily speak the old tongue I used to know so well. “Does a snowflake in an avalanche feel responsible?” "And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luc I'm glad Doty wrote this but I'm sorry he lived it. Harder even than Wally’s death, my life’s watershed, toward which all the time before it moved, and all the time after hurries away. There are times I feel I’m translating, in my head, from one language to another; I’ve become a citizen of grief’s country, and now I find I don’t always easily speak the old tongue I used to know so well. “Does a snowflake in an avalanche feel responsible?” "And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier." Whitman

  12. 5 out of 5

    Robert Vaughan

    I read this when it was published. And then read it again in one sitting this past weekend. Broke my heart a second time.

  13. 4 out of 5

    SabirSultan

    ​Heaven’s Coast is not an easily categorized memoir. Yes, it is a memoir of grieving of loss, and it is elegiac, but it is not simply a grief memoir. In it Mark Doty chronicles his partner, Wally’s, decline from AIDS and the effect it has on their lives as they try to figure out how to live through Wally’s dying. That is the machinery of the book though – the source of its narrative thrust. Richer than that, it is the story of a questing mind trying to reckon with AIDS and death, both in the une ​Heaven’s Coast is not an easily categorized memoir. Yes, it is a memoir of grieving of loss, and it is elegiac, but it is not simply a grief memoir. In it Mark Doty chronicles his partner, Wally’s, decline from AIDS and the effect it has on their lives as they try to figure out how to live through Wally’s dying. That is the machinery of the book though – the source of its narrative thrust. Richer than that, it is the story of a questing mind trying to reckon with AIDS and death, both in the unendurably specific sense of watching a loved one waste away and in the impossibility of comprehending an apathetic epidemic that was repopulating his generation with ghosts. ​A poet by trade, practiced in trying to ground the ephemeral, Doty perpetually projects metaphor and allegory onto his experiences. Early on the onslaught of pontificating was tiresome (though the beauty and lyricism of Doty’s prose elevates even the most distended musings). However, as the memoir progressed, Doty’s continuous attempts to make meaning are clarified as attempts to understand the slow loss that is transforming his life. How does one reconcile having to thread together the roles of lover and caretaker? How does Doty hold onto a sense of home when home becomes his partner’s cage as paralysis takes over Wally? Or worse yet, what is home, when home’s walls turn porous, filling with home health aides, nurses, and for a short time, a querulous friend also losing the battle with AIDS? Doty’s profession is to find meaning and what else could he do but bear down to that task when faced with something as ineffable as death. The searching and questing ultimately become a spiritual act, though not a religious one. Doty becomes enmeshed in matters of the soul. ​As heartbreaking as the book is, it is also filled with love. As Wally’s illness progresses and he and Doty’s relationship reconfigures, what remains steadfast is their devout love for each other. The life they’ve built together is filled with family and friends who return repeatedly to affirm their deep affection for the couple. Wally and Doty delight in their home, their animals, and the wonders of nature. Doty treats the profundity of that love with a naked sincerity. ​Heaven’s Coast is a moving and beautifully written book. Covering the early to mid-nineties it depicts that horrific era where the idea of living with AIDS was fantasy as opposed to possibility. There are images and sentences in it that I hope come to mind frequently. There is much in the book I would like to hold onto.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Will Chin

    Marriage changes things. Beyond the obvious, subtler things reveal themselves to you over time. You slowly get used to the weight of the person next to you in bed, the sound of his/her deep breathing at night, or that hacking cough that doesn't sound right — you know, the little things. Another thing that you start to think about (usually right before sleep) is what happens when you grow old and one of you passes away first. You start to imagine both scenarios — if I was to die first and if she Marriage changes things. Beyond the obvious, subtler things reveal themselves to you over time. You slowly get used to the weight of the person next to you in bed, the sound of his/her deep breathing at night, or that hacking cough that doesn't sound right — you know, the little things. Another thing that you start to think about (usually right before sleep) is what happens when you grow old and one of you passes away first. You start to imagine both scenarios — if I was to die first and if she was to die first — and it keeps you up at night. Aside from the death of parents, the death of your partner is probably the next hardest thing to endure. Heaven's Coast is author Mark Doty's record of what it was like to take care of his partner, who was stricken by AIDS in the early 1990s, from diagnosis to death. It is also a book about how he came to terms with his partner's death and lived with grief and sorrow. Doty is a poet — an award-winning one at that. His prose is beautiful and delicate in ways that only a poet can manage. I especially enjoy his descriptions of nature, old houses and the dogs that the couple had at home. The descriptions of his partner finally passing away will be remembered by this reader for a long time. And even though I have said before that prose by poets tend to be quite difficult to get into, I find Doty's writing to be quite accessible — for the most part. With that said, I don't think this book is for me when viewed as a whole. Most of the book reads like a series of essays, each touching on the same topics but from different points of view or told through different analogies. For example, one chapter might be the couple's decision to adopt a dog even after the AIDS diagnosis, and Doty somehow relates that experience to the illness and the grief. The next chapter might be about winter transiting into spring, and Doty thinking about living with sorrow once again. This means that a reader can essentially pick up the book, flip to any chapter and understand what the writer is going through. While that might sound like a good thing, it also means that the narrative lacks structure. Every chapter is the author making an observation around him, then relating it back to his partner. It gets a bit cumbersome really quickly. I think this book isn't for me, but I don't think it is bad at all. I think there are passages here that will resonate with those who have been through similar situations before. For these folks, I do recommend this memoir highly.

  15. 5 out of 5

    April Guilmet

    I read this book last winter, having a fondness for Doty's lyrical poetry and prose, and having thoroughly enjoyed "Dog Years." I can say this is truly one of the most devastatingly sad stories I've ever read, one too close to home for anyone who has ever cared for a terminally ill loved one and watch them slowly fade away. Doty's longtime partner died of AIDS in the 1990s: his story is based on the couple's final years together and is, at times, difficult to read. Nothing is sugar-coated here, a I read this book last winter, having a fondness for Doty's lyrical poetry and prose, and having thoroughly enjoyed "Dog Years." I can say this is truly one of the most devastatingly sad stories I've ever read, one too close to home for anyone who has ever cared for a terminally ill loved one and watch them slowly fade away. Doty's longtime partner died of AIDS in the 1990s: his story is based on the couple's final years together and is, at times, difficult to read. Nothing is sugar-coated here, and in this memoir, the deceased isn't canonized, but portrayed in a realistic manner. Still, the love is apparent within Doty's gorgeous writing, what a fantastic tribute to a loved one lost. But I would not recommend reading this if you're feeling depressed.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Joey Woolfardis

    There is nothing wrong with the book, or memoir, but it is all me. I went in to it not knowing what it was or who it was written by, and there is no fault there but my own. I can say nothing more.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Claudia Davidson

    I wish I could personally thank Mark Doty for this book. He always claims to be verging on the unsayable, on the unknowable, on Heaven’s Coast; but his words are some of the most beautifully, humanely accurate that I have ever read. Every line of this is a poem, a spiritual dance, and I am in awe. Every line, no matter how heartbreaking, made me feel entirely more human, entirely more inspired, and entirely more connected to this physical and emotional world of memory, desire, space, grief, and I wish I could personally thank Mark Doty for this book. He always claims to be verging on the unsayable, on the unknowable, on Heaven’s Coast; but his words are some of the most beautifully, humanely accurate that I have ever read. Every line of this is a poem, a spiritual dance, and I am in awe. Every line, no matter how heartbreaking, made me feel entirely more human, entirely more inspired, and entirely more connected to this physical and emotional world of memory, desire, space, grief, and love. I never thought that reading a passage about getting a massage (or one about encountering a coyote, or a description of a marsh), would prompt me to uncontrollably cry in public. Reading this memoir, my heart simultaneously expanded and broke— which, Mark Doty would agree, is the essence of losing someone so integral to your life: “Our apocalypse is daily, but so is our persistence.” It is a gift to be able to convey such abstract yet universal feeling with words. It is a gift to read those words. Not only is it a gift— it is a necessary one. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Mary

    When I put down this book I said aloud, "That is the best book I've ever read." Not exactly in the way that after you read a book you know you're mentally filing it away on a list of top ten or top five books you've ever read. This is a book that I got halfway through, then had to put down, so I could take a night off from it to bawl uncontrollably. This is a book that will take whatever grief you've been running from, that you haven't fully processed yet, and yank it out of its dark hiding place a When I put down this book I said aloud, "That is the best book I've ever read." Not exactly in the way that after you read a book you know you're mentally filing it away on a list of top ten or top five books you've ever read. This is a book that I got halfway through, then had to put down, so I could take a night off from it to bawl uncontrollably. This is a book that will take whatever grief you've been running from, that you haven't fully processed yet, and yank it out of its dark hiding place and make you start the work of dealing with it, while also letting you know that this is necessary if you're going to be totally present in your life and live it fully. So it's not just a book, but a gut-punch of a book, and I'm sure that after you read it you'll agree, even if you don't already believe, as I do, that Mark Doty is a genius and a guru and absolutely everything he writes is awesome. So, definitely read it... if you dare.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Scott Pomfret

    Doty’s is a distinctively Provincetown story about the death of his partner Wally from AIDS (and the self-destruction of a fellow female poet at about the same time). As would be expected from a poet, the prose is lush and beautiful, and the second-by-second account of Wally’s dying minutes is arresting, and beautiful, and brutal. Still, I didn’t feel like I knew Wally at the end of this book. I only knew that Doty loved Wally. In fact, by the end, I felt I knew more about Doty’s back pain than Doty’s is a distinctively Provincetown story about the death of his partner Wally from AIDS (and the self-destruction of a fellow female poet at about the same time). As would be expected from a poet, the prose is lush and beautiful, and the second-by-second account of Wally’s dying minutes is arresting, and beautiful, and brutal. Still, I didn’t feel like I knew Wally at the end of this book. I only knew that Doty loved Wally. In fact, by the end, I felt I knew more about Doty’s back pain than about Wally. And the otherwise thoughtful tone of the memoir was marred on occasion by diatribes against the medical community which, if justified in reality, were not justified by what Doty set forth in the memoir. These diatribes struck a sour note in an otherwise graceful memoir.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Brigitte

    another magnificent memoir profound, moving, a glorious and truthful portrait of a life of close togetherness shattered by illness, but transcended by the love they share. a book I will read over and over again for the beauty of the language, the sensuality of every moment so filled with colors, smells, sensations, emotions, i learned a lot about life and death and am so grateful that from his deep grief Mark Doty could write such an illuminating book.

  21. 5 out of 5

    TJWphd

    An extremely moving depiction of caretaker grief in the heart of the AIDS crisis. Having been a child in this era, I simply wanted to move beyond this period of history. With age and wisdom, I was ready to hear about it, and I’m glad I did. What a truly terrible biological holocaust to have happened, and what a gift that a survivor documented it so well.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Kissiah

    Lyrical, warm, subtle intimate capture of personal loss. I think it could have ended a chapter sooner, however. The epilogue felt disjointed while trying to connect it to the whole. It could have been a separate work of lyrical prose, in my opinion. Still, Doty is brilliant!

  23. 5 out of 5

    Candace

    Absolutely stunning description of the devastation of AIDS on individual lives and the greater community. Doty is a gifted writer and poet, inspiring gorgeous vocabulary. Highly recommend this book.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Annie

    This is the most beautiful book I've ever read. There is something unique about a writer who has the ability to combine beauty and tragedy without sentimentality. Written in prose that reads like a long poem, this work of art is an important look at grief and loss.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Lara

    A beautiful elegy for his partner, a meditation on the complexities of grief, little fragments of biography around the edges. Not nearly as angry as Borrowed Time (although still angry), with more focus on what they had, right up to the end, rather than what was being lost.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

    Truly gorgeous writing, what I would expect from a poet, which was wonderful to read. A moving portrait of love and grief, and how we often grow up or out in unexpected ways through the loss of a vital relationship.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Angie

    Stunningly beautiful.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Briar Wyatt

    Yeah LOOK my heart hurts but I really needed to read this memoir about grief and losing (and leaving) gracefully. I've never actually read Doty's poems but I'll be seeking them out now.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Chris

    wow

  30. 5 out of 5

    Rodney Rauch

    Heartbreaking, breathtaking, absolutely beautiful. Words fall short. Read it.

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