I loved Bill Coffin. He died yesterday. It seems that he was the midwife to every important moral decision I ever made. He could never have known that, but I always consulted him in my heart when I had to risk something principled ---starting with turning my draft card over to him at an anti-Vietnam War rally at Yale in 1968. He inspired moral courage.
I had a long phone conversation with him the day before he died. A woman from Westport , CT had emailed me about having William Rivers Pitt & Stan Goff speak there on May 21st, and she wanted to know if I knew Paul Newman( ! ), who lives in Westport, to get him to introduce the speakers. I said I didn't, but I knew William Sloane Coffin who was currently coaching Newman for the movie role as the preacher for Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead. Maybe he could make the connection.
So I called Bill. The first thing he said was that he now had Hospice care at home. (The obvious subtext, the string was finally out). His voice was, as usual, buoyant, exuberant, but even more slurred than the slur caused by his stroke of several years ago. Medications, I thought. I could hear children playing in the background. His daughter Amy was there with her kids. His wife Randy, too. I thought of T. S. Eliot's Quartets --- childrenís voices among the leaves. The sweet sound that mixes mortality and hope. The quality in Bill's voice was not forced bravery in the face of death. He was exuberant. He knew he had lived nearly as good a life as he could have. He forgave himself his excesses & mistakes; he'd learned from them and lived long enough to redeem them through courageous action. If I had an aptitude for synaesthesia, I'd see his voice in a rush of deep, rich greens, blues and yellows. Or, to purposely mix metaphors, starting a conversation with Bill Coffin was like turning on a tap & having to jump back from the unexpected gush of water pressure --- an immense, sparkling surge.
He extolled Hospice, but, even better, he said, was having a catheter --- "You don't have to go to the bathroom, the bathroom comes to you!" (sounds Shakespearean ---- Macbeth isn't it?)
I asked for the Newman information & he called to Randy to bring him his address book. When he had it he said, "Half the people in here are dead, and half the pages are missing, & the parts don't coincide." He said he'd call me back tomorrow.
But before hanging up, he wanted to talk about my portraits. When he had first seen the one I'd done of him he'd had two problems, one of which he was tactful about, the other, not: He was not tactful about the fact that I had accentuated his jowls. I lamely tried the excuse that the photograph of the portrait that he had seen made it (them!) look worse than the real portrait. I was a bit surprised at his touch of vanity, but I also suspected that he was pulling my leg, that, in fact, he was pretending to be vain. I wanted to say adamantly, "Bill, this about telling the truth!!!" The next time I drove up from Maine to visit him in Vermont, I took the portrait with me. He conceded that the jowls were not so jowly. What could he say.
What he was tactful about, but what really bothered him, was the quote on his portrait which I had taken from his new book Credo --- "The war against Iraq is as disastrous as it is unnecessary; perhaps in terms of it's wisdom, purpose and motives, the worst war in American history. Our military men and women were not called to defend America but rather to attack Iraq. They were not called to die for, but rather to kill for, their country. What more unpatriotic thing could we have asked of our sons and daughters?" He seemed a bit unsure that he had really wanted to be that emphatic, and that my use of the quote exposed him in a way. But, he left it there. I was surprised because it would never have occurred to me that he regretted the moral certainty of any utterance. I, of course, had been using the mask and shield of his moral power to give weight and protection to my own convictions. At this moment I thought that, in a funny way, I had less doubt about the rightness of his words than he did. But, on the phone yesterday, he said, "You know, Rob, I had some concerns about that quote, but not any more!" When he said, "... but not any more," his voice had, in spite of the slur, the characteristic booming roll, propelled by sureness & good humor, giving one the sense that at the basis of every moral feeling, every right act, was a belly laugh boiling up like magma from the earth's core. I loved him for that. The seat of virtue, for him, was not set in stern righteousness, but in profound warmth, the smiling embrace of love.
When I go out to talk myself, I love to quote Bill Coffin. He said, "...If you lessen your anger at the structures of power, you lower your love for the victims of power." That says it all. It's what Terry Tempest Williams means by sacred rage. Whether it's a snail darter, a blackburnian warbler, or an Iraqi child being made collateral damage for someoneís unjust gain, the volatile mix of grief and anger and love fuels a holy flame.
Bill Coffin, after his son Alex had drowned, said, to others (and himself), "Improve the quality of your suffering." Reach out. Use your suffering to heal other suffering. Donít solicit condolence, use condolence to build the community of common experience, love and grief, hope and care. The beloved community. Bill spent his life trying to atone for having followed military orders in 1945, putting 3000 White Russians, who had fought against the Soviets, on a train from Germany to Moscow and sure execution at the hands of Stalin. He was 20 year old & had relegated his conscience to the subservience of following orders. He regretted that all his life. A little over a year ago, telling that story on the front porch of his house in Strafford, Vermont, he choked up. If there was such thing as sin in Bill Coffinís theology, it was surely to not have used whatever power, moral or physical, one has to protect another's life from injustice. That's what drove him. A good drink. A good joke. A good song. A moral act. A worthy laugh.
Robert Shetterly [send him mail] is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine. He is the author of Americans Who Tell the Truth. See his website.