Eyes on a City

It starts on a night with my Duluth inner circle. I am free, finally, after a frantic work marathon on a major grant application. We gather in a place where we can look out at the steely lake, waves churning outward, this first blast of a late autumn gale whose forbidding force I relish. Drinks turn to dinner, our schemes slowly forming, the trusted friends necessary to make life in a place like this. They share their plots and I spill out my own convoluted thoughts as clearly as I yet have, setting the stage for what may come next. They tell me to trust certain urges, to take command in ways I have not before. Rich and rewarded and renewed, we head on home.

Fresh eyes: a cousin and his wife on a trial run of a camper van life roll through for a few evening hours. They are new to the city, and it puts on its finest show. We traverse Skyline as the sun sinks toward the horizon, that orange glow cast back across the lake, and Duluth feels like it melts into its landscape, my guests glowing over houses clinging to hillsides and eclectic old grandees and the profusion of parks. A quick dinner and they are on their way, Duluth the last true city as they set out to the outposts of civilization of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Nature and culture, twinned and in harmony, or so we can make it if we believe.

Elegiac eyes: drinks on a patio with a friend headed south, one of several young talents this city has lost in the past few weeks. The draw it once had is still there, and there may yet be roads that lead back here. But pretty scenery is only worth so much: there are only so many seats, only so many options for a professional with any ambitions. Duluth can be a cruel home in one’s 20s for anyone who doesn’t have the clearest of paths, and particularly hard on those of us looking for creative outlets. It is a great city to come of age in and a great city to settle down in, but it struggles to fuel those of us who are still bridging that gap. I am only a degree removed from him, and there are more than a few days of doubt. After a year and a half of pandemic restrictions and some inspiring bursts outward this year, that urgency has never been stronger. My brain trust tells me to trust that urge. But where, exactly, does it lead?

Prodigal eyes: A high school friend and his wife wonder whether to turn a temporary sojourn into a permanent move. They’re as world-wise a couple as I know, but they find many reasons to be happy here. They try to weigh the value of career pursuit versus other things life, the virtues of Midwest humility against rarefied East Coast circles. We talk through some of the decisions I made, how much my hopes have come to match reality. I am not sure how much help I am, but these are not my choices to make. Not for them, anyway.

The eyes of a believer: On a free weekend day, I head up the North Shore, leaving before dawn. The sun looms behind a thick cloud on the lake as it crawls up over the horizon. Then, just north of Tettegouche, the moment of contact, the Creation of Adam: the sun explodes out above the cloud and its golden glint sears the lake and ignites the golden aspen and birch. I drive through a sea of brilliant luminescence, ridge and water and trees and the heavens above and me in a trance on the road I could drive into eternity. It is the most spectacular sunrise I have ever seen.

Later, further north, I tread a familiar path. Deep into a quiet gorge, up to a great rocky peak, punishing rises and falls, a fraction of the people of most great North Shore hikes. I write along the river and beneath a lonely tree protruding from the dome, and on the way back out, I pause to bask in the sunlight in a red pine grove with a view down the river valley to the still-resplendent waters. Back in a bustling Grand Marais I impulse-buy some North Shore sunrise art, if art can indeed capture the total immersion I felt this morning.

Spice-tinged eyes: My Dad and I watch Dune, our first in-person film since before the pandemic. He read the book to me as a kid (yes, this was the sort of book we consumed at bedtime when I was growing up), and we are pleased to see a faithful rendition, weighty and beautiful and perhaps more prescient than ever before. I’d forgotten how much my youthful self fantasized of being a Paul Atreides: entranced by vivid and lifelike dreams, trained into total control, one with his land and his people, hungering for some great destiny. Puberty safely freed me of any messianic aspirations, and adult eyes, better-versed in the Greek tragedies (among many other things) that inspired Frank Herbert, now see the moral ambiguity of this tale. But over these two weeks I’m delighted to feel that pull again.

Familiar eyes: UMD hockey, lively as ever; the MEA Weekend rush, that Minneostan holiday celebrating one last weekend of outdoor activity before the freeze. I do dry cleaning for the first time in eons and slide into a suit for the Duluth Chamber Dinner. There are fewer pre- and after-parties, no more sermons from the preacher of Duluth’s good word, the now-retired David Ross, and after so long without them the rituals of networking and sitting through strings of speakers, the rust comes off slowly. But friends old and new trail through and the bagpipers are still around and there is of course a chance to follow up afterward at Hoops and we are all content.

Watery eyes: On my way up the North Shore I listen to “This Is Water,” the 2005 David Foster Wallace commencement speech at Kenyon College. “We all worship something,” he tells us, and for me at age twenty-two that anchor in a liquid world was not a god nor money nor fame nor a person but a place. It is an unusual lover, austere and uncaring and sometimes exasperating but always here, and at least it is a version of it in motion, not some static memory of the past. A decade later I’m not sure if it was the right object of worship, but I have internalized it now, and though all the other possibilities have bubbled up from time to time, not one of them has yet broken the surface.

I may be ready for one to do so. But in the meantime, this particular bond will still fill my plate. There are elections this week, I have more travels ahead of me, and, after a necessary hiatus, it’s about time to start churning out some hockey content again. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going but I do have some idea of how to get there, these past few weeks offering up a roadmap for what that life looks like. And this place I have chosen as my home, well, may it continue to give me chances to make it real.

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