For many years I lived in a very small town at the tip of Cape Cod, Mass. Cape Cod is shaped like a Turkish slipper or an elf’s shoe, and where the slipper finishes its curl, or where a bell might hang from an elf’s shoe, is a town called Provincetown. It’s a town of artists and writers, poets and actors, gay men and women, teachers and plumbers and bakers and builders, recovering alcoholics and Portuguese fishermen. It’s a town of kids and grandparents and of teenagers excited about the prom. It’s a regular town where freedom is an experiment and tolerance a rule.
I lived in Provincetown during the AIDS crisis, before there was any hope for anyone diagnosed with HIV; there was simply no medicine, except prayer and visualization which helped some of the very ill find peace before death. There was a year when I lost one friend or acquaintance a week. Think of it. Every seven days another man dear to me was gone. I was in my thirties and healthy, and around me death was dragging people away. Dragging away some of the most creative men of my generation. Painters and poets, playwrights and photographers. So many large ideas were lost that decade, so much energy buried right there at the tip of the Cape. At the Unitarian Church on Commercial Street, the bell rang often—every day—signaling the loss of yet another parishioner, and gay men sick and confused and homeless, having been shunned by their frightened families, arrived in town in droves, seeking comfort, information and the medical aid that did not yet exist.
The antidote to such chaos and sorrow was, for many of us, the sea. A dying patient would ask to be propped up in bed so he might glimpse the harbor and Race Point where the proper ocean began, and burn it into memory as his own life ebbed. Those of us who were not ill walked the beaches more than ever those years. The wild beach was the ocean beach, good for putting away the deepest losses. The beach that cupped Massachusetts Bay—the instep of the Turkish slipper—was quieter, tamer, and the place for walking out a general sorrow. Behind the dunes there was the beech forest and its invitation to be in wildness that gave back, that did not take from us, deplete us, anger or ambush us as the AIDS virus continued to do. In summer I often walked or rode my bicycle there among the tree trunks shaped like elephant legs, under the broad canopy of leaves like schools of sunfish.
All of us there at the tip of the Cape were fellow travelers on an eroding peninsula of glacial debris, on a vanishing spit of sand where T-shirts informed us: “Our evacuation plan: Swim east.” Well or dying, there was a moribund feeling to our lives that alerted us to a reality we might otherwise have missed, a reality that comes more often with age than with youth—and many of us were very young. That truth was: It wasn’t going to last forever. You could stand at the line where the sea met the shore and feel the sand sucked out from under your feet. This was the land disappearing. Those were our friends leaving us. Our days might be more numerous than theirs, but we were unmistakably headed in the same direction. It was this understanding, this belief in death, an acquaintanceship with mortality that led to the making of art.
And it was here, at that time, I met some extraordinary people whose artistic efforts shaped and changed our way not only of seeing the world around us but looking at it. Michael Cunningham, Carolyn Forché, Grace Paley, Mark Doty, Mary Oliver were some of the writers whose words, when I read them now, bring with them the unmistakable feeling of inhabiting a rhythmic place of tides, the sea rising and receding and lives lived by that metaphor.
There’s a story I tell, and it’s mostly true, about an unusual encounter at the tip of the Cape. It begins with a phone call from my friend Nancy, an avid birder. She called one morning to report a sighting at the Provincetown airport. In those days the airport was a narrow, lumpy strip of asphalt at the edge of the sea. Due to every kind of weather, flying in or out of there was an iffy prospect, though the views of the Cape and islands and Massachusetts Bay were spectacular and softened the terror of take-off and landing. There was abundant bird life in the surrounding wetlands, and I suspected correctly this was what Nancy’s phone call was about.
She picked me up early the next morning in her old blue Toyota truck. The truck was going through what she called a breezy phase—its windows wouldn’t stay up—and by the time we reached the airport we were wind-whipped and wide awake. She led me onto the runway and pointed to the far end of it where, as far as I could tell, there was…nothing. Some scrubby pitch pines and bayberry bushes and…what was that? A goat? It was roughly the size and shape of my favorite reading chair. It moved slowly across the runway and we lost sight of it for several minutes. Suddenly, it appeared again with a very un-goatlike flapping of what seemed to be wings. Wings. This was no goat; it was an off-course, migrating Sandhill crane. It must have been caught in a storm and lost its way, and now it was residing at the airport, among other winged things. It had landed here at the tip of the Cape, as had so many of us, in search of safety, commonality and a way home.
The postscript of this story is that Nancy drove me home and I immediately dialed Mary Oliver’s number, which I found in the local directory. Her partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, answered the phone with her Rottweiler voice. Yes, she said, Mary knew of the crane though she hadn’t yet laid eyes on it. And thank you, she said, for thinking of her. Goodbye.
I continue to await the Mary Oliver poem that addresses our off-course visitor, but she and her poetry have moved on to other things. Perhaps, after all, the poem is mine to write, the story is mine to tell and I’ve told it.